Mackinac Center Current Comment :: 8 July 2008


<>< Josh Rule : : 2008 MCPP Intern

Joseph G. Lehman wrote today’s Current Comment at the Mackinac Center, and it is a good one.  He writes to answer a teacher’s question about how someone who has never taught in the public school system could be fit to assess public school teachers and their effectiveness.  And, while the examples Lehman uses to discuss the particular problem at hand are insightful & interesting, the broader point he makes is even more valuable. 

Ultimately, Lehman’s response rests upon the value of specialization, or the division of labor, which in turn rests on the idea of comparative advantage.  Specialization is simply the handle we put on the idea that over time, people’s work and knowledge has become increasingly narrow.  No longer are men like many of the ancient Greek philosophers, masters of all of philosophy, mathematics and science, drama, and poetry, among other things.  Over time, more and more knowledge has become available, but the limits on the work and knowledge one individual is capable of have not disappeared.  Consequently, people have had to divide their labors.  Some have become farmers, some philosophers, some scientists, some economists and so on.  Further, there are even complex divisions of each of these fields, such as the artist becoming either a playwright, a painter, a sculptor, a guitarist, or any other of the hundreds of artistic careers available.  Again, because an individual human can do only a finite number of things, and because there are a great deal more things to do, that individual must specialize, must choose a specific field in which to work and study.

The way in which that decision is made rests largely on the economists’ idea of comparative advantage.  Given two people and two tasks in which they could be engaged, the most efficient distribution of labor will always have one concentrating entirely on the first task, and the other person laboring entirely on the second task.  Neither tries to do both.  If the first person wants or needs the fruit of the second person’s work, or the second person wants or needs some of the fruit of the first person’s work, they trade.  This setup generates the most wealth and both parties end up better off than without trading.  In short, comparative advantage places people in the fields where they can do the greatest good relative to everyone else.

It is the combination of these two ideas that give weight to Lehman’s response in today’s Current Comment.  It can make sense for an individual who has never taught in a public school to critically assess public educators precisely because it is that individual’s specialty.  It is often simply more efficient.  That person has trained specifically to become an assessor for public educators, and society is better for their focus in that field than if they were to scatter their efforts elsewhere.  Now, further arguments could be made about the need for experience before judgment, but they are flawed.  Trade in ideas is often exceedingly adequate to provide enough data to make a judgment.  Otherwise, one would need to murder before deciding it was a horrible idea.  Certainly, though, that is not the case.  Instead, please read Mr. Lehman’s Current Comment, and comment yourselves in the space below.

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