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Free Markets For Free Minds

WARSAW: Recently Poland experienced a typical -- and typically unfinished -- political debate. It focused on whether a "free" education should be made a constitutional right. A free, or as its postcommunist advocates prefer to call it, a "not paid for" education, means education in schools and universities owned by the state (but not in private schools). Only by raising the issue to the level of a constitutional right, say the postcommunists, can the guarantee of free and equal access to education be maintained.

Due to their dominance in Parliament, the intransigence of the postcommunists on this point forced the other political parties participating in drafting Poland’s new constitution to kowtow to their position. I do not intend to discuss Poland’s internal politics, but I would like to show how a false understanding of Western practices, combined with a blind insistence on glib, populist solutions, creates unsustainable illusions and may destroy a chance to secure what de Tocqueville called "equality of opportunity." For not even education can be insulated against the free market without engendering negative results.

Why exclude education, especially university education, from the free market (and its competitive pressures)? First, the belief that such a policy produces more equality is mistaken. To the contrary, by excluding different types of financial incentives based on different abilities, it deepens the cleavage between rich and poor, between big cities and provincial towns and villages. "Free" education is not really free, because a university student from out of town must pay for accommodation, food, and other services -- in Poland these costs are equal to a sum larger than half of the average salary. No surprise, then, that the percent of students from small towns and villages recently dropped to an unprecedented 2%.

If equal opportunity for all is what is desired, a situation must be created whereby talented students from poor families receive, through stipends and tuition exemptions, a truly free education, including some funds for books and accommodation, while less talented students from well-to-do families pay the full cost of their studies. Otherwise, a "free" university education will remain patently discriminatory in favor of wealthy students from university towns.