Gilles Saint-Paul on ‘Endogenous Indoctrination’

Gilles Saint-Paul of the Toulouse School of Economics is a provocative, sharp thinker, and he gave a very interesting lecture [PDF] last spring on “Endogenous indoctrination: Occupational choice, the evolution of beliefs, and the political economy of reform.” Here is the gist:

In this lecture I propose a model where the intellectuals’ contribution build an ideological bias in society’s learning process about the way the economy works, which is detrimental to the view that the market economy works well. Intellectuals are teachers who are in a privileged situation to influence the prior beliefs of future generations, and they are perfectly sincere; they do not pursue a pre-determined political agenda, and they are not motivated to elect their career by any will to change the world. Nor are their views influenced by any self-serving bias that would rationalize their own economic interests under thebanner of the common good. Yet the characteristics of their profession — that it is protected and in the pulic sector — generate a selection bias in the prior beliefs of those who elect to become teachers. That is, one is more likely to choose such a profession, the more unfavorable one’s opinion about the market economy. This selection bias is different from the one pointed out by Hayek: People with negative priors against capitalism choose the intellectual profession not out of their own taste, but because they are more likely to rationally believe that the returns from the protected intellectual profession are higher than those from the exposed market activity. In fact, this logic applies to any civil service occupation — and casual evidence suggests that people in those occupations are indeed more likely to hold socialist opinions. But the key point is that the intellectual profession is itself protected and thus prone to that bias.

The model predicts that society will be more left-wing (and lower in learning that the market economy works well, if that is the case),

(i) the greater the weight of the schooling system vs. the family in theformation of beliefs, i.e. the lower the heritability of beliefs, and

(ii) the greater the correlation between one’s pessimism about the market economy and the likelihood of becoming a teacher, i.e. the lower the social entropy. In the context of this paper, social entropy refers to how predictable is one’s occupation on the basis of one’s beliefs.

Keep Saint-Paul’s words in mind as you read the following from a recent Rick Hess post:


Recently, I keynoted a state Teacher of the Year banquet and said what I tend to say at such affairs, which is that I don’t romanticize teaching because–while I believe that most teachers mean well–the reality, I think, is that many or most benefit more from their role than do their students. (By the way, it’s typically not advised to have me speak at those kinds of affairs; such addresses require a certain sweet, sentimental sensibility that I generally lack.) I told them that I was honored and delighted to be with them not because they were “teachers” but because I value excellence and great teaching–and I can’t think of anything worthier than being an excellent educator.

This notion, that there’s a difference between fawning over “teachers” and admiring terrific educators, always seems to rankle. That evening was no exception. The honorees went to great pains to make clear in their remarks that every single teacher is a precious, sacred “gem” and to insist that they were no better or more committed than any other teacher in their school, district, or state. And to say that they all needed to remember that every teacher is “saving lives” and deserves to be protected from any who would question their efforts or skill. Indeed, whenever I’m in the field and we get into the subject, I hear from teachers that measures to identify mediocre educators, reward excellent teachers, compensate teachers based on the scarcity of their skills, or remove lousy teachers constitute “attacks on the teaching profession.” I’m not talking particularly about “unions” here, I’m talking about classroom teachers.

That circle-the-wagons mindset does a grave disservice to good teachers and the profession. It enlists the most effective and impassioned in the service of the least worthy. It drowns out the voices of educators who are trying to contribute in serious ways to discussions about accountability, staffing, and pay, leaving policymakers skeptical of what educators have to say. This is a huge problem, because there are real, practical concerns with much of the simple-minded reform agenda. If they weren’t seen as reflexive opponents, educators could much more effectively help address real concerns.

What are our instincts about the market economy? Do we see it as a jungle, in which only the strong and the slick survive? Or do we see it as a decentralized discovery process that teaches us what works and what doesn’t in a never-ending process of trial and error? I like markets because I have low expectations as to what we can really accomplish in the absence of a trial-and-error process. I’m definitely a believer in throwing lots of stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks, and not in a one-best-way approach. This is tough in the public sector, as people are terrified of “risky schemes” when it comes to their kids or their healthcare, etc. But unfortunately risk-taking is the only way to get meaningfully better at the things we do. And in an affluent society, there isn’t a ton of low-hanging fruit. Despite the claims of Waiting for Superman, we really don’t know what works. But we do have a pretty good sense that we need more searchers than planners. 

Searching, alas, is not the mindset of people drawn to cosseted, stable professions. When I think about the evolving media landscape, I’m struck by the explosion of opportunity. I know a young woman who worked in video production for a food media site. Suffice it to say, these jobs didn’t exist when I graduated from college in 2001. Now they are quite common. Many journalists with an elite education rue the supposed decline of journalism as a profession, in part, I suspect, because they imagined being a journalist as something akin to being a tenured university professor. Even ten years ago, the modal aspiring journalist wasn’t keen on “exposed market activity”; rather, she wanted to steadily work her way up from a small-town paper to a mid-sized metropolitan daily and finally to an elite big-city broadsheet. Those hierarchies have crumbled, and entrepreneurial brand-building is our present and our future. The personalities that flourished in journalism’s past are far less likely to do so in journalism’s future, and that will doubtless have consequences for the ideological coloration of the profession, etc.

More broadly, endogenous indoctrination is, while not the whole story, a really big and important part of the deep ideological divergence we’ve seen in our society between the for-profit middle-class and the not-for-profit middle class, and the parallel divide between those living in sprawling areas vs. those in tightly-packed areas. Finer-grained categories might include those comfortable with aesthetic chaos — I kind of like it — and those who are offended by variety, and variety includes McMansions next to manufactured housing, etc. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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