Monday, December 5, 2011

The Tension Between Competition and Community

I have unfortunately not had enough time for a detailed post.  However, I found a recent NY Times article on some of the problems with school choice interesting.  It describes how the introduction of charter schools and school choice has undermined what were before community schools.  Now, these community schools weren't necessarily great but the evidence that the new schools are better is mixed.  This has come at the cost of having kids go to school with other kids from their own neighborhood.

This ultimately, illustrates my central disagreement with American Conservative thought.  I find myself increasingly sympathetic as I grow older to the Conservative philosophy's emphasis on community.  What I find myself questioning (aside from how community is defined, who the community should work for, and some other questions) is the Conservative belief that the best way to foster community is to withdraw government and let the market work.  I'm aware of the Libertarian, and particularly Hayekian, assertion that spontaneous coordination will emerge from market interaction.

While I agree that this provides a strong theory, what I am sceptical of is whether the evidence actually supports the theoretical argument.  This is ultimately an empirical question, as the state weakens do spontaneous community organizations grow more able to deliver needed social goods.

While the groups that do exist certainly grow more influential and powerful, supporting the growth and influence of local elites, my reading of the evidence I'm acquainted with is that this notion is basically wrong.  Studies of private social services show that they exist as a complement to stay spending, they tend to increase as the role of the state does (the one big exception being private transfers, studies of poor countries show that those achieving higher market incomes give a great deal to their poorer relations, I am sceptical that this is beneficial, it should have similar work discouraging effects as government giving and it should also serve to reduce the assets of the givers making them less likely to be entrepreneurial, resulting in non-merit selection of those without poor relatives over those with poor relatives in the marketplace, leading to inefficiency and loss, government action distributes the burden more equally, and can do more to eliminate work disincentives of social programs, resulting in not only a more competitive but also a more equitable society).  The state can be thought of as providing a baseline service that private non-profits build on top of.  Where they would be overwhelmed without the state, discouraging many, with the state those with the talents and energy see themselves making a real difference (it needs to be noted that the role of the church before the state showed that this type of organization was insufficient, while the church deserves credit for what it supplied its efforts were grossly inadequate to the needs and lacking the powers of the state it often delivered its services inefficiently as well as inadequately, still they were for a long time the only game in town).

We can also look at the decay of membership organizations, like the Elk club (to name one), relative to our past.  As workforce participation has risen and people have become more mobile such groups have declined in importance.  We have become more strongly connected with markets and this has made us far more atomized than we were in the past.  Government efforts to reverse this have been grossly inadequate (and efforts by both parties have been opposed by the other) but have at least served to slow this decay.

I could give more evidence, but to some up my point this is the critical part where I differ from the Conservative movement.  I don't really buy Hayek's spontaneous coordination argument, I believe the state reinforces these efforts not competes with them and that it is the market that erodes them.  All these forms of organization decayed rapidly with modernization and marketization, while the state was expanding at the same time there is a much clearer causal explanation involving labor markets and mobility for this decay than there is for the state (exempting totalitarian states such as Germany or the Soviet Union, in a democratic society however spontaneously organized groups provide large advantages and complement rather than compete with the state).

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