Tuesday, February 12, 2008

CSOs and State 3: Poverty and Public Education

In the 70s to the 80s, there was a famous British rock band called “Supertramp” and one of their cool and hit songs was “The Logical Song”. A part of it goes like this:

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re
Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

The Philippines is in a continuing grip of political instability as more cases of corruption charges are being investigated involving a number of top government officials who contracted big amount of taxpayers’ money for projects to “fight poverty” and “improve governance”. These are two seemingly “holy” goals that can justify high and multiple taxes and fees. After all, who doesn’t want to see an “end to poverty”?

But there are many shades of poverty and reasons for poverty. Among the quick ones that I can think of are:

1. Acts of nature – whole villages and farmlands wiped out by strong typhoon and landslides, or strong earthquakes and tsunami, or volcanic eruption and lava/lahar flows, etc. These are understandable causes of poverty and the victims really need some government support, assuming that they will seek it.

2. Acts of men – high and multiple taxation and corruption, thick bureaucracies that slow down if not kill entrepreneurship and job creation, robbery, killings, wars. These are often government-created inefficiencies that can lead to mass poverty..

3. Acts of personal irresponsibility – people who don't want to work; or work little and consume plenty or expensively; or work hard but also drink/gamble/spend hard; or those that get involved in frequent troubles; etc. Some of government’s welfare programs help encourage a culture of complacency and irresponsibility.

Any or all of these striking you will ensure that you will become a “logical poor” or you “logically become poor”. But if poverty is caused by personal irresponsibility, then we
should not “fight poverty” and instead, allow misery. Because it is not fair when governments, including foreign aid bureaucrats, will confiscate (or justify the confiscation of) a big portion of our income and savings to subsidize people who don't even bother look for a job or do not know how to save for the rainy days.

A friend once asked me why I could be so “cold and heartless” in saying these things. Well, it’s borne out of some personal observations. For instance, in a rice farming village that I frequently visit, I have heard and seen some farmers who died poor and miserable. These are industrious guys who work 6-7 days a week, but they also drink 6-7 nights a week. When their intestine or kidney or lung or other internal organ gave way, they have little or no savings to tide them over. If projected medical expenses are big, any support by relatives and friends will not be enough.

And I don’t know if the “poverty fighters” in governments and foreign aid institutions take into account poverty due to personal irresponsibility. If they cannot realize the tax burden of the bureaucracies that they work with and the economic distortions created by their intervention, then I doubt that said poverty fighters will really be successful in their avowed mission.

A related note I wrote late last year,

Why Education Should be Parental Responsibility, Not Government Responsibility

November 19, 2007

When my wife was still pregnant, she and her 2 friends who were also pregnant (they all gave birth on different days of October 2006) were already discussing the kind of early training or schooling they will give their kids when their child is 2 years old, 3 years old, and so on. And in these 3 mothers’ minds, they sometimes have different preferences or plans for their respective children at a young age, much more when the kids reach college level.

Which brings us to the fact that when given the choice and resources, parents will have varying plans for their children. For instance, aside from the basic skills of reading-writing-math, some parents would want their elementary-level kids focus more on arts, music and dancing; others would want their kids to be good in European or Asian (Mandarin or Japanese or Korean) language; others would want their kids to be good in science and math; others would want their kids to be good in Catholic (or born-again, or Islamic or Protestant or Buddhist) virtues and religion; others would want their kids to be good in household care like cooking and home care; others would want their kids to be good in soccer or basketball, ballet or swimming, and so on.

Can government-sponsored public education respond to dozen-plus different needs by parents, say on a single municipality alone? I really doubt it.Government only gives uniform and general education. And when things are made uniform, what usually follows is mediocrity. Because uniformity discourages excellence, explicitly or implicitly; it just make things and people go "uniform, equalized and generalized".

The only way to cater to these varying needs and priorities by parents is to have very diverse educational system, and only private schools that cater to the needs and whims of parents can respond to this. Those schools that fail to respond to parental needs will close shop, while those schools who do will become big.

Privatization of education (ie, abolition of public education system at all levels) is a long-term vision. And this “devolution” of responsibility from the state to the parents, the individuals, should be complemented with the abolition of certain taxes and government fees, those forced confiscation of income and savings of parents, so that the latter will have more disposable income to spend for their children’s education and other household needs.

For the meantime, we can start with the privatization of all state universities and colleges including the University of the Philippines (UP), and allow the state to run public elementary and secondary education.

What about the poor? Parents who are responsible will never run out of opportunities to improve their lives and the future of their children. Parents who are irresponsible and would rather spend their time drinking and gambling, and discussing how much subsidies they expect from government, will go poor, even starve. They deserve this because they chose this. But what about their children?

Humanity is filled with endless examples of charity. Pure, voluntary charity that requires zero taxation and zero political grandstanding. Their support to fellowmen, especially poor children and the aged, the physically and mentally handicapped, the victims of natural disasters, is endless. There are hundreds of civic and service organizations, church organizations, private enterprises and foundations, even sports associations, who are more than willing to provide charitable work to their fellowmen who have the dignity of showing ambition and aspiration to improve their lives in the future.


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