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I would like to point out that Posner has taken care to limn two possible justifications for state intervention in this case, which provides a baseline against which we can measure success or failure. One of those justifications I find troublesome.

It makes sense under at least one coherent formulation of the doctrine of public reasons for state intervention to be justified if the beneficiaries of the intervention approve after the fact and some harm directed against those beneficiaries is averted, i.e., the "benefit" is the non-existence of the harm that would exist in the absence of the state intervention. But there is a problem with mature adults evaluating in retrospect whether they are grateful that the state prevented their negligent parents from ruining their lives. Such persons cannot compare what their life would be like if the state had not intervened with what their life is like because it did, because those two realities are mutually exclusive: either the state intervenes or it does not. It is true that such persons could say they are happy with their present situation; but they cannot, of necessity, causally attribute their present happiness to the state intervention, because they might have been equally happy had the state not intervened. If, however, the maturation is caused by the state intervention, then such attribution would be valid, i.e., negligent parenting produces children with arrested maturation; the state plucking children from the ravages of negligent parenting permits full intellectual maturation to occur. But we would need some hard proof of that proposition for it to justify snatching kids out of their parents' homes.

The other justification, one of collective benefit, seems more solid, but is traditionally shakier. It seems to accord with Lord Devlin's reading of John Stuart Mill's (no)harm-principle; it appears perfectly sensible to say we should force parents to educate children because it results in a lower crime rate or a more educated citizenry leads to better public deliberation and thus more effective legislation, except then the state is not intervening on the basis of preventing any individualized, concrete harm. It is a given that any legislation is a restriction of liberties (at least in the American context that is the original understanding of the Framers' generation, which is part of why vesting the President with the veto power was so important to them) and so on this generalized, amorphous justification, liberties are being restricted (namely here the right of parents to control the entry of their children to public school, which is a constitutional right post- and Pierce v. Society of Sisters) without any specific or concrete harm being avoided. That seems a shakier ground than Lord Devlin's banning of homosexual sodomy in private because it offends the common man's tolerance, and as potentially intolerable as mandating the abortion of 1/3 of all babies to reduce the overall crime rate.

POSNER: 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.

Though this is an exaggeration, I will respond to it. It is true that such legislation would not be cost-effective if the baseline is how much behavior it changes. But if we look at the cost of maintaining a legal regime to lock up bicycle thieves (say, $4) and compare it to the total cost of giving out law-abiding checks (say, $3), we would have less bicycle-stealing (i.e., some change in behavior) and the cost to the government would be lower.

POSNER: 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.

Assuming this is true, there is still a glaring exception. In the case of homeless children, whose addresses constantly change, the cost to school districts of ensuring that they arrive at school (by school bus) is outweighed by the benefit of having them in school (e.g., because they are malnutritioned), and the risk of the school district being punished under, e.g., the McKinney-Vento Act is exceedingly low. We cannot, perhaps, accurately determine what percentage of truancy is due to bad parent policing because there are many unreported cases of parents who want their children in schools that refuse to take the necessary steps to ensure the attendance of those children.


I meant:

"post-Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters


I'm curious about where the information that truancy is caused by children hanging around school but skipping classes comes from. As a former high school teacher in the Bronx, I can say that our poor attendance was from kids not showing up period. There was also a huge problem with people coming to school an hour and a half late and cutting out an hour and a half early.

However, there were not kids hanging around in the hallways or wherever else they might hang out. For all the problems in my school, that was not one of them. I'd guess, given the architecture of most New York City schools, as well as the presence of security, that this is true of most of the other schools in the city.

On the other hand, the architecture of the high school I attended in California made it very easy to cut class without leaving the school. Thus I'd guess that the "type" of truancy at city schools throughout the country really varies from region to region, perhaps even from school to school within those regions.

Unless there's an actual citation to data for this assertion, in which case my guesses are just uninformed speculation.

Arun Khanna

I would conjecture that a 6-month stay in the country of origin of their parents will change the mind-set of problematic Muslim students towards French society. Without a change in mindset, any top-down reform efforts imposed by French government are unlikely to work.

Michael Wade

It sounds as though you are being unnnecessarily skeptical of the Progesa program Becker mentioned. While he didn't quote any specifics, the impression his comment gave me was one of significant increase in attendance, which makes sense; these children would otherwise be preoccupied doing farm labor.

As for the comment about skipping classes without leaving the campus, Texas schools are similar in those in California. Security is relatively low simply because it hasn't become a problem to police that sort of thing. Not that students don't skip, but that they don't cause trouble at the school if they do stick around. I would imagine that the reason for the police in the New York schools was because they had had problems with fights or other violence occurring at schools if students did hang around. However, it would seem to me that it's less of a problem to keep the violence at the school, where some means of order can be quickly brought to the issue, rather than simply pushing the students off-campus with their conflicts. I suppose there is a valid argument that by keeping the violence off campus you make school a "safe haven" of sorts for the students who do attend, but at the cost of those that are pushed off? I don't know if that is the most beneficial solution.


I do not know if there is an equivalency in France but in the U.S. children can be removed from parents and placed in fostercare if their lack of school attendance is a product of a parent's abuse and/or neglect.
Contrarily, if the lack of attendance is a product of the child's actions, there are also
similar laws (in New York State, the PINS statute comes to mind) which place the child within a court's jurisdiction to aid the parent in protecting the child's welfare.
Anecdotally, I admit that these laws generally do a poor job in helping families that are usually riven with a host of problems. However, my sense is that the social welfare schema outlined by Posner and Becker aren't much better. The bottom line is that a French or American child who reaches young adulthood and decides that he/she doesn't want to go to school will probably end up having his/her way. If so, then the French scheme will end up being reductive. But, if it
is the grandtand ploy that Posner suggests, then it
appears to be a convenient evasion of the root cause of the problem, namely, an unsustainable demographic reality in the form of larger amounts of retiring French babyboomers expecting lifelong support by resentful, non-assimilatable Muslim immigrants who do not see themselves as French in the first place. Tackling this problem suggests a political will not apparent in the current French goverment or in French (and, sadly, European) culture.


First, it seems that only ìcarrotsî should be used, especially for older children, as otherwise a teenager could use the governmentís ìstickî as their own to influence their parents rather than vice-versa. While at first glance there should not be a difference as both are simply a financial change for the parent, the psychological impact would be greater if a teenager could withhold essential welfare payments versus withholding government subsidies.

Second, such programs seem to work better when the number of children skipping is greater, as in under-developed nations, especially with female students in most cultures. This is one reason why South American programs seem to be working but an equivalent program is less likely to work in the United States.

Third, related to the above, it is important to look at why the children are skipping. Such programs are likely to be more effective when the alternative to education is working to help pay the family bills rather than skipping to ìhang outî and have fun. The former is more likely to be true in poor nations; the later is more likely to be true in the ghettos of richer nations.

Thus Frog thinks that such programs are better than not in under-developed nations, both by the local governments and aid organizations, but will not be successful in nations like France and the United States


There seems to be a lack of insight into "parental responsibility" in the lower economic echelons. That is, most of these individuals have enough of a problem taking responsibility for themselves, let alone offspring. If one cannot boot-strap themselves, how can one expect them to help their own? (this is not a universal given and applies to all cases)

Under such conditions perhaps B.F. Skinner's behaivoral modification system through the use of positive and negative sanctions may be effective. There is something to be said for the old pedagogical tool, "reading, writing and rith'metic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick". The major issue comes down to enforcement, not a weepy eyed touchy-feely approach.


But in my country this much awereness is not present

I guess we should develop a lot


Incentive-based programs to decrease truancy will have minimal impact if such programs are made based on the assumption that attendance equates to better "schooling." Increased school attendance does not increase aptitude: good schools, a supportive home environment, and a stimulated child do (all of which in turn positively correlate to school attendance). Simply sticking disadvantaged kids in school encourages sleaze rather than noticeable improvement: an increase in corruption as parents attempt to bribe school teachers to "check" their kids as having attended. The proverbial policy balloon merely deflates in one end only to expand at the other.

A more effective incentive regime will incorporate a mix of goals (which Progresa does). But even this is doubtful, as Posner notes. It is far easier to track progress when one moves from nothing (rural agriculture) to something (some semblance of formal education). The initial marginal gains will be large, but will (due to all the reasons I've listed above) incur diminishing returns over a relatively short amount of time. Education is a holistic reflection of social policy choices: we cannot hope to even dent its weaknesses by adding one band aid after another without comprehensive reform.

j flanders

Why not pay the students directly for their attendance, get them used to the quid pro quo of a market economy? Food, free breakfast, lunch, would suffice for the lower grades. Advanced instruction, including music, as well as a small cash reward, or field trip, could provide the transition to a money reward for those approaching working age. If we all benefit from an educated work force, from a citizenry with the ability to focus its attention on the task at hand, why not pay for it?

Ignacio J. Couce

I agree with Mr. Becker's basic thesis: There must be parental accountability for the behavior of their minor children and, while the "carrot" must be balance by a "stick", social engineering works best when the incentives are positivist - that is, when the carrot and not the stick predominates. However, I believe that in the case of France, the French government has missed the point; they have avoided addressing the "holy cow" of French politics - labor controls. Regular school attendance, all the education in the world and law abiding behavior, do not translate into success in the French labor market. If the labor system is not changed so that merit becomes the measure by which the society rewards and punishes behavior, people have no hope and no incentive to do the things suggested by Mr. Becker.

I am amazed to see that neither Mr. Becker nor Judge Posner addresses the underlining labor-market problems in the French economy. The feelings of helplessness and anger on display on the streets of French cities are exacerbated not by a lack of educational opportunities, but with the lack of opportunities to apply their education productively. Notice that the 9/11 hijackers were all college educated. However, in Arab Muslim countries and in the ghettos of France, instead of education leading to productive careers, it only leads to the further humiliation of "economic emasculation".


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