When parents discuss their choices about their children’s education and extracurricular activities they often mention that they want the best for their children:
I want my daughter to have all possible advantages.
I want my son to have a head start.
This attitude is usually taken to be unproblematic and perhaps even praiseworthy. Government programs for poor children often echo these types of sentiments in their titles: for example, Head Start. So what could possibly be wrong with this view?
Well, things like “advantages,” “head starts,” and things that are “the best” are positional goods. This means that in order to have them, others need to be kept from having them. We cannot all be “the best” or have “the best,” otherwise it would stop being the best and would be average. We cannot all have “an advantage,” otherwise it would cease to be “an advantage” and become the average. You can only have a “head start” relative to some baseline that is somewhere behind. So whenever a parent says something like the quotes above, there is an implicit statement about other children:
I want your son to have disadvantages (relative to my daughter).
I want your daughter to start behind my son.
I want what is average for your kids.
I seriously doubt that when parents make statements about wanting “the best” “advantages” or “head starts” for their own children that they are also considering the flip-side of these statements. In fact, I think that if many parents were asked about the implicit statements about other children, they would probably deny them. Nevertheless, the first set of statements does correlate to the implicit second set of statements.
To the extent that we believe in meritocracy (that people should get what they deserve through their hard work and talent) and to the extent that we think people should have equal opportunities (or a level-playing field) then there is something troubling about these often-lauded parental sentiments.
1. What is a Positional Good?
are scarece only because they require time, energy and effort in order to produce… if we invest more time, energy or effort, we are able to produce more of them. Other goods, however, are intrinsically scarce–we could not produce more of them even if we wanted to. Because the quantity is fixed, access to these positional goods will always be determined by one’s realtaive ability to pay (pg. 120).
Education is not exactly a material good, since it is intangible, but it has much in common with material goods because if we invest more time, effort, energy, and human resources in education we can often produce better outcomes. In contrast, “the best” education, or an education that gives one a “head start,” or provides “all the advantages” describes an education that is a positional good. Positional goods are intrinsically scarce and we could not manufacture more of them if we wanted to because their value depends on the distinction they provide (it depends on their scarcity), and it is not inherent in the good itself.
When the problems with the achievement gap in American education are discussed, the discussion often centres on solutions that will invest more time, effort, energy or human resources into public schools or the creation of charter schools that will essentially do the same. These efforts will never, in my opinion, be sufficient to close the achievement gap because the vast income inequality in America means that parents who can afford it will always be ahead of this curve. They will find means to retain the education of their children as a positional good no matter what public schools or charter schools attempt to do. One of the problems with positional goods is that they don’t lead to better over-all products instead they often lead to stagnation.
2. What is Wrong With Positional Goods?
Why wouldn’t the competition for positional goods drive quality upwards? Essentially the reason that positional goods don’t improve the inherent quality of the product is because the value of a positional good does not inhere in the product, but instead at least part of the value inheres in its scarcity. As people strive to access the good (and especially if they are successful at accessing the good) the value of that good goes down because it is no longer scarce. As Heath and Potter write,
The quest for distinction is therefore collectively self-defeating—everyone strives to get what not everyone can have (pg. 126).
When we strive after positional goods we actually end up worse off than we were. We become more unhappy and less satisfied with our lives. Currently it is really fashionable to blame “bad teachers” or “the public school system” for failures in education. But we need also to focus on how “the best” education functions as a positional good if we are interested in closing achievement gaps.
3. Positional Goods and Collective Action Problems
Positional goods represent one example of a collective action problem. Collective action problems occur when what is in the interest of persons considered as a collective is not in the interest of any single person considered as an individual. The only effective way to address collective action problems is by appointing some kind of outside standard that limits what individuals can choose in order to benefit the collective. In many cases morality, the church, or the government plays this role.
In my opinion, the achievement gap in American education will never close unless we stop thinking that it is natural and unproblematic for parents to want what is best for their kids. We need to change that individual-centred sentiment into a more collective one:
I want a better education for our kids.
Just as the arms race between the USA and the USSR could only be ended by collective agreements, so too, the education-race between the poor and the wealthy won’t end unless some limits are put on what individuals can choose. Private education and charter schools can only be “the best” if they are positional goods. As long as they exist, education gaps will remain.
A further benefit of ending private education or charter schools is that if wealthy parents wanted better education for their children (note that there is a distinction between “better” which is not necessarily a positional good, and “the best” which denotes a positional good) then they would have to work to improve education in such a way that it benefits all children, and not just their own.