Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Institutional Inertia

HBO’s The Wire is an absolutely fantastic show. Written by Ed Burns, a former policeman, the show is, on one level, about a Baltimore homicide detective’s monomaniacal pursuit of the leaders of a heroin cartel. On another level, the show is an exploration of how institutions impact the choices available to the individuals who make them up. Albert Jay Nock, in his essay Anarchist’s Progress, addressed this topic brilliantly. The message of both Burns and Nock is that people are often forced by circumstance (usually one contrived by the institutions they are a part of) to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (of course, Max Stirner would justifiably declare these people to be "possessed by spooks").

Unfortunately this phenomenon extends beyond the bureaucratic hell that a city government must be. It seems it exists even in what I would imagine would be the least likely of all places for it to be: libertarian think tanks. I personally know several Cato staffers, for example, who are staunch anarchists, and yet, apparently from a need for Cato to appear “inside the beltway,” they often put out some seriously milquetoast policy recommendations.

Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, also staffed by a few anarchistas, provides another example. In private conversations with Vicky Murray, she has told me that she thinks school and state should be entirely separate. Yet, in her capacity as Goldwater’s Director of Educational Opportunity, she writes articles like this and this. It is understandable that Goldwater would want to pander to their financial base, which consists mostly of traditional conservatives, but it’s disappointing, nonetheless. Does taking a half-assed approach really "defend liberty"? (I'm actually not sure what, if anything, defends liberty nowadays. I am more and more convinced that Stirner is right when he says that all freedom is self liberation and must be taken.)

All of these issues were really brought into stark relief for me by the article they published today, which complains about Arizona’s salary grid for teachers. The article’s author, John Wenders, points to a school in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they “began tying teacher bonuses to students’ Stanford Achievement Test results. In just one year, overall student achievement increased 17 percent, and teachers received bonuses up to $8,600.”

I can’t believe that the article’s author, an economics professor, cites this literally incredible statistic so unquestioningly. As someone versed in economic theory, Professor Wenders should know better than most that incentives matter. I submit that the amazing 17 percent increase was probably achieved via some combination of cheating (and I specifically mean teacher cheating, not student), “teaching to the test”, statistical anomaly, and perhaps a small amount of legitimately better teaching.

I think that, in publishing this article, Goldwater does a disservice to themselves and the cause of liberty. Unfortunately, the article that should have been written, and the article that I can only hope Vicky Murray probably wanted to write – that schools should be entirely private and then the salaries of the teachers would suddenly no longer be a political hot-button – is one that we’re likely never to see. I think that’s a shame.


Solan said...

In one way, it's understandable: If you stand forth as an anarchist, and then make your recommendation, your recommendation will by most people be labelled "anarchist" and be automatically discarded unless they happen to agree 99%+ with you.

So I guess it's a choice made in the belief that it will give them more "real power" and influence.

As for old Max, his project wasn't liberty, but ownness. The "general cause" of everyman was of interest to him only to the extent that it was a collaboration to further personal interest.

Einzige said...

You make a good point, of course.

The irony is that Cato is often seen by the "left" as a shill organization for the Republican party, and by the "right" as a bunch of drug-addled hippie faggot atheists.

I think the day we break free of the false dichotomy of the left-right spectrum will represent a quantum leap forward in the cause of the individual against the state.