Sunday, July 24, 2016

Piketty on Free Higher Education and the Value of Meritocracy

Blair Hall - Princeton University

I have worked hard to get where I am. I come from a modest middle class background. Neither of my parents attended university. They grew up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the economy was only slowly emerging from its agricultural roots. I and my siblings were born and raised in the 1970s and 1980s, in an era of high unemployment and emigration. Things started to get better in the 1990s as the Irish economy underwent its infamous ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. I did well in school and received a (relatively) free higher education, eventually pursuing a masters and PhD in the mid-to-late 2000s. I worked hard during this period of time, combining my educational opportunities with my talents and abilities. But by the time I finished my PhD the country was one again in recession. I was forced to emigrate to get a job and I only returned to Ireland in 2014 to a low-rank position in a regional Irish University. I am not poor, and I am unlikely to want for anything in my life. Although it is not much, I certainly feel like I deserve to be where I am.

Or do I? My life story seems to epitomise the valuable role of education in determining social position (or, at least, the highly selective version of my lifestory that I just told does). Without my education, I would not be where I am. But isn’t that as it should be? Shouldn’t education (the husbandry of natural talent and ability), rather than one’s cultural background and inheritance, decide social position? And isn’t this a good argument for free higher education? If we make higher education free, we facilitate more people being able to take advantage of their natural talents and abilities. This should in turn help to neutralise the negative effects of social inequality. If we make it fee-paying, then personal and familial wealth will determine access to the benefits of higher education, which will in turn compound the negative effects of social inequality. The rich will just keep getting richer.

This is a simplistic argument, but it is one I want to explore over the remainder of this blogpost. It is an important one too. Thanks to the release of a recent report, it looks like Ireland, like many other countries, is set to undergo a debate about whether or not to introduce a system of student loans to pay for higher education. I find myself dispositionally opposed to such a regime — having witnessed some of its shortcomings while working in the UK. But I am relatively ignorant about the topic. I need to educate myself once again.

As a first step in that direction, I want to consider a recent article from Steiner Boyum about Thomas Piketty’s views on education and inheritance. Piketty is famous for his exhaustive empirical work on wealth and income inequality in the world today, much of it collated in his best-selling book Capital in the 21st Century. Throughout the book, Piketty sprinkles his empirical insights with some normative views about the undesirability of excessive inequality, and the preference for education, rather than inheritance, in determining one’s social position. Boyum, though acknowledging that Piketty is not a moral philosopher, takes issue with these normative views. I want to share Boyum’s analysis because I think doing so helps to highlight some important philosophical questions about the value of equality, and the role of free university education in ensuring equality.

1. Rastignac’s Dilemma: Piketty’s Meritocratic Luck Egalitarianism
Piketty loves Balzac and uses a incident from the novel Pere Goriot to illustrate the education/inheritance problem. One of the main characters in that novel is Eugene de Rastignac, a naive and poor young law student trying to make his way in Paris. Rastignac is attracted to the upper crust of Parisian society. He wants to enter their world. He lives in the same boarding house as Vautrin, a mysterious and criminally-inclined figure. Vautrin tries to convince Rastignac to give up studying the law and seduce a rich heiress instead. The latter, he suggests, is a more plausible route to the upper echelons of society than years of hard graft as a lawyer. Indeed, even if Rastignac turned out to be a successful lawyer, he wouldn’t be able to earn as much money as he would acquire from the heiress.

Piketty introduces this example because he thinks there is something morally suspicious about it. Piketty isn’t completely opposed to inequality in his work. He thinks some differences in wealth and social position are permissible. But he thinks the distribution mechanism for these differences is important. Living in a world in which being a wealthy heiress (or being married to one) is a surer route to wealth and success than being a hard-working professional is a morally inferior world. In other words, inheritance is a morally inferior distribution mechanism to education. The fact that Rastignac lives in a society where Vautrin’s suggestion makes sense speaks volumes about the justice of that society.

But what justifies this view? Boyum argues that the answer lies in meritocratic luck egalitarianism, which appears to sum-up Piketty’s approach to social justice. This approach can be encapsulated in the following principle:

Meritocratic Luck Egalitarianism: Differences in social position are just if they are the result of merit and not if they are the result of factors beyond your control.

This principle can be used as the basis for an argument in favour of education and against inheritance. As follows:

  • (1) Differences in social position are just if they are the result of merit and not if they are the result of factors beyond your control.
  • (2) Educational attainment is based on merit, not on factors beyond your control.
  • (3) Inheritance is based on factors beyond your control, not on merit.
  • (4) Therefore, a world in which differences in social position are determined by education is just; a world in which they are determined by inheritance is not.

Thus meritocratic luck egalitarianism gives us the moral grounding we need to support the negative reaction to Rastignac’s dilemma.

2. Problems with the Meritocratic Argument
But we cannot leave things at that. We need to know whether the argument is any good. While it has some superficial appeal — and while many philosophers embrace something akin to the meritocratic/luck view on social justice — there are certain problems. Boyum identifies three in particular.

The first two relate the meaning of the word ‘merit’. People use this to mean different things. In particular, Boyum notes that in the justice debate people sometimes use merit to refer to the combination of talent and effort and sometimes as a term that is interchangeable with ‘education’. If it is used in the first sense, then we run into the following problem:

Problem 1: The relationship between education and the combination of effort+talent is contingent and narrow.

That is to say: people can exercise effort and talent outside of the traditional education system; and the traditional education system may not be particularly good at cultivating and rewarding talent and effort. Higher education, in particular, might be a stifling and ineffective way for some people to cultivate their talents. This is because higher education institutions are often focused on a very narrow band of talents and abilities. They are primarily interested in people with the analytical and communicative skills that are needed to write academic essays, dissertations and theses, i.e. the people who can perform in a way that pleases academics. There are other abilities and talents and others ways to express and develop them.

If merit is understood in the second sense — i.e. as being equivalent to education — then we run into another problem:

Problem 2: The education system often compounds, rather than neutralises, the inequalities resulting from inheritance.

That is to say: on this understanding of merit, education may be no different from inheritance as a mechanism for distributing social positions. Educational systems the world over are bastions of the privileged elite. Better schooling and better ability to exploit schooling are often directly linked to one’s ability to pay. Inequality is baked into the system. The ideal educational system might avoid these problems, but none of us lives in an ideal system. To be fair, Piketty is aware of this problem and it is one of the reasons why he argues in favour of free higher education.But even then he is sceptical, noting that free higher education often functions as a subsidy to the already wealthy. Why? Because elite institutions often depend on subtle and prejudicial mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion that favour the wealthy over the working class.

These two problems are significant and they highlight the flaws with the second premise of the earlier argument. There is a deeper problem, however. This one goes to the heart of the meritocratic luck egalitarian view:

Problem 3: Why should we favour cognitive inheritance over wealth/income inheritance? Both are attributable to factors beyond our control.

That is to say: education is effectively a tool for privileging and rewarding cognitive ability. But one’s cognitive ability is ultimately determined by factors beyond one’s control. It is determined by your genetic inheritance and the contingencies of your educational environment. Even if we do have something called free will — and so even if we can control the development of our cognitive abilities — we usually only acquire this control when we reach maturity. During our early years — when education and environment make all the difference — we don’t yet have it. This means our educational attainment is often ultimately caused by factors beyond our control. There is, consequently, nothing much to distinguish between education and inheritance when it comes to the principles of meritocratic luck egalitarianism. They are both problematic. Recognition of this fact leads some people to embrace a radical view of social justice in which the goal should be to neutralise the effects of both wealth and cognitive inheritance.

Now, you might respond to this and say ‘Yes, I agree that both cognitive ability and inherited wealth are ultimately outside one’s control, but surely one’s cognitive ability is slightly more within one’s control than inherited wealth?’ You still have to exercise your agency to reap the benefits of cognitive inheritance; you don’t have to do the same for inherited wealth. The problem with this response is that it is not strictly speaking true. There are many people who squander away the benefits of their inherited wealth, filling their lives with addictive pleasures like drugs and gambling, or risking it all on ill-advised investments. You have to exercise agency in order to avoid these outcomes.

So, in the end, the proponent of meritocratic luck egalitarianism is in something of a bind. The relationship between education and the conditions for a just distribution of social opportunities is much looser than they might originally suppose. Education is itself susceptible to the same criticisms as inheritance; and, under some interpretations, may not be distinguishable from inheritance at all.

3. A Consequentialist Argument for Free Education
Where does this leave us? Boyum argues that it leaves us either embracing the radical view of social justice, or looking for a new argument in favour of education. He favours the latter option and thinks that a better argument would adopt a consequentialist approach to the value of education. This consequentialist view is ground in the social value of equality. In other words, it views greater equality as one of the metrics against which you can fairly assess the justness of a society. This can be a controversial view, so let’s first ask why equality is valuable.

Equality might be valuable for a number of reasons. It might be valuable for intrinsic reasons, i.e. because large differences in wealth, income or opportunity are just wrong in and of themselves; and/or it might be valuable for instrumental reasons, i.e. because small differences in wealth, income or opportunity are better drivers of economic progress, ensure optimum democratic governance, and allow us to take maximum advantage of the diverse talents within society. All of which, in turn, helps to improve our psychological well-being and happiness.

There are several philosophers who doubt the intrinsic value of equality. And I share some of their scepticism, at least when it comes to equality of outcomes. I think differences in wealth and income are tolerable if everybody is getting enough for a flourishing life (a position sometimes referred to as sufficientarianism). I also think some differences might be good for driving competitive innovation, which has benefits for society as a whole. That said, I think there is a limit to this value and that instrumental arguments in favour of greater equality are reasonably persuasive. A society in which the gap between poorest and richest is ever-expanding, and in which the richest consequently control access to political and economic opportunities, is less than ideal. The problem is that I’m not sure how big a gap is too much.

But set these problems to the side for now and assume that greater equality is valuable (for intrinsic or instrumental reasons). How does this support education over innovation? Here, Boyum turns to some of Piketty’s empirical work which finds that education is a driver of social equality. Indeed, Piketty singles out Scandinavian countries (particular during the 1970s) as being among the most egalitarian societies partly because of their free system of higher education. This suggests the following argument in favour of free higher education:

  • (5) Greater social equality is a good thing, i.e. it results in a better, more just society (for intrinsic or instrumental reasons).
  • (6) Free higher education is a driver of social equality.
  • (7) Therefore, free higher education is a good thing, it results in a better, more just society.

This is now an empirical argument, with the weight resting on the second premise (6 according to my numbering). Is the argument persuasive? I’m not sure. I would certainly like to think that it is true — I would like to believe that free education will open up important social opportunities to more people, and that this will in turn lead to a more progressive, better governed and more equal society — but I am under no illusions. I suspect free higher education might be a necessary condition for greater social equality, but not a sufficient one. Other policies would need to be in place to secure greater and wider participation in higher education; and there would always be people who will thrive more outside the system.

The argument is also clearly partial. It doesn’t address other potential benefits of a free system (i.e. beyond driving social equality), and it doesn’t clarify exactly what is meant by ‘free’. Higher education costs money. Somebody has to pay. So what does it really mean to say that it should be ‘free’? The only stipulation I have in relation to a definition of ‘free-ness’ in this context is that it should mean that the student doesn’t pay at the point of entry (via debt or otherwise). But who does, in fact, pay and at what point in time needs to be determined. Still, this argument — assuming the second premise pans out — could be part of cumulative case in favour of a free system.

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