NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools?

May 9, 2011

Teachers unions and their political allies argue that market forces cannot supply quality education.  Yet Americans would find the current politicized and monopolistic approach ludicrous if applied to other vital goods or services, says Donald J. Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education.

  • Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties.
  • Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets.
  • Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address.
  • And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries -- "for free" -- from its neighborhood public supermarket.

Of course, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in families' choices about where to live.  Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones.  In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal.  Poor people -- entitled in principle to excellent supermarkets -- would in fact suffer unusually poor supermarket quality.

Responding to these failures, thoughtful souls would call for "supermarket choice" fueled by vouchers or tax credits.  Those calls would be vigorously opposed by public supermarket administrators and workers, says Boudreaux.

In reality, of course, groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice.  The same could be true of education.

Source: Donald J. Boudreaux, "If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools," Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2011.


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