Nothing about carrots

Nothing about carrots

The New York Times recently published an op-ed proposing the United States government do something about "noxious speech".  A handful of ideas were proposed; social engineering experiments aiming somewhere between improving education and promoting goodthink.  Given this focus on education, it's ironic that apparently none of the thousands of people who attacked this op-ed on Twitter noticed it's wrong about the Constitution.  Not wrong about a detail – it's wrong about the Bill of Rights.  And not slightly wrong – it's utterly, obviously wrong about the premise of our government.

Here are the most interesting parts of the op-ed:

Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?
The Constitution prevents the government from using sticks, but it says nothing about carrots. Congress could fund, for example, a national campaign to promote news literacy, or it could invest heavily in library programming. It could build a robust public media in the mold of the BBC. ... If Congress wanted to get really ambitious, it could fund a rival to compete with Facebook or Google, the way the Postal Service competes with FedEx and U.P.S.

Well he's right, the Constitution "says nothing about carrots."  But that doesn't mean what he thinks.  By saying nothing, the Constitution is saying no.  The 10th Amendment, the capstone of the Bill of Rights, is very clear on this:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

That means the government is not allowed to do anything unless the Constitution says, "the government has the power to do this specific thing."  This amendment isn't an isolated idea.  It is actually considered "a reaffirmation of the nature of federalism" and "a truism" of the American system of government.

So, does the Constitution delegate the power to "fund, for example, a national campaign to promote news literacy"?  No.  What about the power to fund "library programming"?  No.  Perhaps the power to build "a robust public media in the mold of the BBC"?  Alas, dear reader, no it does not.  The Constitution does not delegate those specific powers.

Does the Constitution delegate the power to "fund a rival to compete with Facebook or Google, the way the Postal Service competes with FedEx and U.P.S."  Gosh, turns out the Constitution doesn't mention a single thing about tech companies or social networks.  But the irony thickens here because of the analogy to the Postal Service.

The Constitution delegates the power "To establish post offices and post roads".  But it probably shouldn't.  It turns out the Post Office was a boondoggle at least 175 years ago, and it continues to be a boondoggle today.  Its frequent losses are subsidized from the general fund.  Yet it remains a government-enforced monopoly.  According to the USPS itself: "The group of federal laws known collectively as the Private Express Statutes gives the United States Postal Service a monopoly over the carriage of letter-mail."  It's illegal to compete with the Postal Service in almost any way.  The laws that have been passed to enforce and expand the monopoly are pretty obviously authoritarian.  For example, it's illegal to carry mail on "any road adjacent or parallel to an established post road" (which includes "all public highways").  The "post offices" clause of the Constitution was a mistake, and we have been unable to fix it after 230 years.  Why would we deliberately make another mistake like that?

Basically, this op-ed uses bad analogies to promote crazy social engineering experiments on the basis of a total misunderstanding of the Constitution.  It amounts to a proposal to abandon our form of government.  Yet the New York Times published it.  Why would a prestigious newspaper publish something so obviously misinformed?  Unless these journalists are pursuing some agenda together, the only conclusion is that they have not been properly educated.  It seems even those who should be best-educated among us are Constitutionally illiterate.  It seems, in short, the American public education system is failing us.  But how can that be?

This op-ed, incidentally, may have the answer.  It focuses on the importance of carrots, meaning incentives.  And the American public education system suffers from a terrible shortage of carrots.  Specifically, teachers have few incentives to strive toward excellence.  Teachers' unions like to have fixed pay scales and promotion schedules set by committee and fiat.  Teachers largely get paid whatever their union lawyers have negotiated for everyone, no matter how good or bad their teaching is individually.  And great teaching is hard work.  It costs more time, effort, focus and emotion than ordinary teaching.  But most humans need to be incentivized to pay a cost.

Public school administrators are no different.  Why fret when it's almost impossible to go out of business or even suffer a pay cut?  Must public schools are funded by tax dollars, meaning the real "customers" – taxpayers – don't have a choice.

And for these taxpayers, no carrot either.  Why would they invest time and attention in making schools better when they are forced to pay the same amount of money either way?

Americans would be better served by an education system with more carrots for teachers, administrators and taxpayers.  Yet it was government meddling that stripped those carrots away, in an effort to incentivize more Americans to go to school.  Now we have unhappy teachers and ignorant graduates.  Rather than abandon our form of government for the sake of even more social meddling, why not put it back in order by restoring the carrots we removed?