Parental Responsibilities for Children--Posner's Comment
If the nation as a whole benefits from children's education--that is, if the educated child does not capture the full benefit of his education in the enhanced earnings that the education enables--that is a ground for coercing or otherwise inducing the parents to make sure that their children do not play hooky more than occasionally. Or if parents are irresponsible in the sense of not being faithful fiduciaries of their children, so that they underinvest in the children's education from the children's own (mature) standpoint, as by failing to prevent them from playing hooky, there is again a ground for state intervention.
These concerns provide an economic rationale for compulsory school attendance laws (although the actual historical purpose of those laws was to prevent competition from child labor for adult workers) and hence for laws against truancy. And it has always been recognized that these laws cannot be enforced without parental cooperation, which has sometimes itself to be coerced. All U.S. states, as far as I know, require parents, under pain of fines and even prison sentences, to make their children attend school. I imagine, without having being able to discover, that France has similar laws, in which event the proposal that Becker discusses to dock parents of truants some of their welfare benefits is an alternative method of enforcement--or perhaps just a grandstand gesture.
America's inner cities have the same severe truancy problems as the Muslim slums in France, without having the same riots, so I am skeptical whether the French proposal, even if it is intended seriously, will do much if anything to calm those slums and head off future riots. In fact, the proposal if implemented might well increase tensions. Some, maybe most, of the poor parents in those slums cannot control their children, so they will lose welfare benefits for no purpose--and will simply be poorer, which may make them even less able to control their children. In the United States, and at a guess in France as well, much truancy consists of skipping classes at school rather than not showing up at school. The kids are hanging around at the school, but they are not attending classes. It may be that there is little that most parents can do to prevent that behavior, as distinct from forcing their children to go to the school premises--though even that may be impossible for many parents. And if parents are poor, the fact that their children's truancy is reported to them by the school's truant officers will not necessarily enable them to make the children behave by withholding allowances, toys, or other privileges from them--the children may have very few privileges to begin with, because of their parents' poverty.
The experience in both countries is that laws against truancy are severely underenforced despite parental responsibility, perhaps because parents simply are not effective truant officers. If this is correct, the French proposal even if implemented will not have significant effects.
Slightly more promising, perhaps, is the "carrot" approach that Becker also discusses. This would be a way of getting more money to poor families with an incidental if perhaps slight increase in school attendance as a side effect. But again I am skeptical. I am not familiar with the Progresa program that Becker describes, but it strikes me as potentially very wasteful, depending on the ratio of "good" kids to truants. Suppose that 90 percent of kids of poor parents are good and 10 percent are truants, and that the effect of the program is that 10 percent of the truants become good kids. Then 91 percent of the parents would qualify for the benefits, but only 1 percent would have earned them by changing their children's behavior. To exaggerate, suppose that the government gave everybody who doesn't steal a bicycle $10 a year. Since most people don't want to steal bicycles, the program would be very costly relative to its behavioral effect.