Graham Brady complains about the lack of grammar schools:
Thousands of young people are being deprived of the start in life that they deserve. Politicians owe it to the public to get angry about this appalling state of affairs.
But why is it appalling that talented people don’t get opportunities?
Two separate lines of thinking suggest it isn’t.
Line one is the utilitarian objection. This says that most people adapt to their circumstances, with the result that differences in well-being are small.
This paper (pdf) explains. It shows that people with high education and high income are happier than others. But the difference is small. It’s only around one point on the 36-point Likert scale. To put that in perspective, three-quarters of the population fall between a score of 20 and 30.
The loss of happiness caused by depriving people of opportunities is therefore small – as is the gain from giving them opportunities.
My biography corroborates this. I’m exactly the sort of person Graham thinks benefited from a grammar school; mine took me from a poor single-parent family to Oxford and thence to a highish income. But this came at the price of social isolation. Grammar school certainly raised my income, but I’m not sure it raised my well-being; the happiness literature suggests that marriage and friends (pdf) matter more for well-being than quite large incomes.
You might object here that adaptation is an argument against many policy reforms; if people adapt to their circumstances, these will have low pay-offs. True – but this is an argument Conservatives have used for centuries. It’s ironic that they’ve begun to abandon it just when empirical social science has produced evidence for it.
The second line is the libertarian one. Why should tax-payers be coerced to pay for what a talented youngster deserves? We could add the Rawlsian argument – that as people don’t deserve their natural talents, they don’t deserve what flows from them, such as a grammar school education.
Put it this way. Say my innate talent at age 11 entitles me to a chance of good education and the great wealth that possibly flows from it. Why, then, shouldn’t my talents entitle me to the full fruits of my labour thereafter. Why should I have a right to an opportunity – paid for by coercing others –but not a right to an income paid by voluntarily by my employer? There’s an inconsistent attitude towards self-ownership here.
So, to support Graham’s position you must be neither a Rawlsian, nor a libertarian, nor a utilitarian. So what must you be?