In his critique of Posner’s economic analysis of law, the late Ed Baker offers some remarks that might help us to understand current developments in educational policy. Posner defends what we will now recognize as a number of the core commitments of neoliberal policy, in particular the fundamental efficiency of markets and the price mechanism for the optimal allocation of social goods. The more people want something, the more they are willing to pay, and so goods get bought and sold (as they move from those who value them less – sellers – to those who value them more – buyers) until everyone is as happy as they can be, given constraints on resources.
Briefly, Baker’s two overarching complaints are:
- The theory favors productive claimants over consumptive ones. This is because productive claimants will be looking for a return on investment. Most of the time, this will be greater than the price to consume the resource, and so productive users get favored over consumptive ones.
- The theory favors wealthier consumptive claimants over poorer ones. That’s because, other things being equal, the more wealth you have, the more you will be willing to pay for the same thing (so, for example, when your favorite restaurant increases their prices, that will bother you less than your poorer friends).
There are a number of corollaries and implications of these two fundamental points; the most important for my purposes here is that the wealthy are not favored for productive uses (assuming that the wealthy and the poor can afford them in the first place). The productive user is only concerned with return on investment, and so when the cost exceeds the expected ROI, both wealthy and poor users will lose interest. In this way, the structural biases in favor of the wealthy are occluded in the cases of productive use, or when use is characterized as productive.
Which brings us to education. Baker proposes that, given that education is at least in part valued as a consumptive good (you derive some sort of intrinsic satisfaction from it), wealth will have predictable effects: the rich will “value” education more than the poor, by being willing to pay more for it. The interesting point to me is that, at least since Becker’s Human Capital, we are heavily encouraged to think of education as a productive investment in our future. In other words, we are not supposed to view education as something of intrinsic consumptive value. Anybody who teaches in the humanities will immediately see the point, as we are constantly having to explain why our disciplines are going to get students into jobs.
Baker adds the following in a footnote:
“An additional hypothesis would be that (1) the poor generally choose more productive and less consumptive education than the rich and (2) that this disparity would be decreased if education were a matter of right or were freely available” (p. 21 n30).
Baker’s paper was published in 1975, right in the middle of the various semi-official start dates for neoliberalism’s ascendency. It’s also prophetic, as it precisely describes the situation now: the humanities are a “luxury” that most people cannot afford (but that rich people get to study at private universities). Foucault’s discussion here is significant, in part because he underscores a general redefinition of consumption as production. It’s not that neoliberalism says consumption is bad, it’s that it redefines consumption as production, such that any non-productive activity is bad. Here is Foucault:
“In neo-liberalism … there is also a theory of homo economicus, but he is not at all a partner of exchange [as in classic liberalism - GH]. Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself …. The man of consumption, insofar as he consumes, is a producer. What does he produce? Well, quite simply, he produces his own satisfaction. And we should think of consumption as an enterprise activity by which the individual, precisely on the basis of the capital he has at his disposal, will produce something that will be his own satisfaction” (Birth of Biopolitics, 226).
What all of this implies is that the devaluation of the humanities is a necessary part of the ideology of neoliberalism, insofar as that ideology requires us to behave as always investing in the future, and insofar as the ROI for the humanities are understood as consumptive, or insofar as they are hard to quantify. The situation is made considerably worse by the rising costs of education, which pushes more and more people into the need to view their education purely as an act of production. Once policy starts to view education as an investment, the funding of which “leads to jobs” in predictable, quantifiable ways, things go rapidly downhill, and the difficulties humanities departments face are as inexorable as the rise of testing culture in K-12.