Let’s Not Subsidize Liberal Arts

I am writing in response to Dr. Lawler’s post here.

First, to clear up one important point that Dr. Lawler addresses – libertarians (such as myself) have no desire to make liberal arts courses be more expensive than STEM course. Indeed, as he rightfully notes, because liberal arts degrees are associated with lower lifetime earnings, perhaps they should be priced lower than STEM courses. I wouldn’t disagree, other than to say that the cost should be nothing more (or less) than the market-clearing price. Were libertarians to have our way, we would likely dismantle the entire higher-education-government-industrial complex. Yet, this isn’t realistic – so we shoot for second-best.

Because one important measure of how well individuals are doing is their earnings, we can try to maximize people’s welfare by maximizing their earnings. On the higher-education front, we should be doing so by offering better deals (read: higher subsidies) to those who pursue degrees likely to result in higher-paying occupations. Technical occupations requiring a STEM education take the cake here.

Alternatively, we can simply try to maximize total employment. Here too, a quick review of the current employment projections reveals that the occupations projected to be most in demand by 2020 will be those requiring highly technical, specialized skills:

Occupation

Projected Growth (in number)

Healthcare support

1.4 million

Construction

1.4 million

Education, training, and library

1.4 million

Personal care & service (no degree)

1.3 million

Health care practitioners

1.27 million

Business & financial operations

1.17 million

Food preparation (no degree needed)

1.09 million

Retail (no degree needed)

1.04 million

Installation, maintenance, and repair

0.8 million

Computer & mathematical

0.78 million

Yet, Dr. Lawler makes a point that “making money is easy” but learning to “live with it” is difficult. Taxpayers, he writes, should be concerned about “preserving the whole truth about human nature.” There’s some truth to this. While we’re out there teaching our next generation how to use big data to find a cure for cancer, or training the next Nobel laureate in economics, we shouldn’t lose sight of some of the less corporeal parts of human existence – those taught in philosophy and literature courses. The courses that teach us about the deep dark parts of the human being that can’t be seen with a microscope.

For one, understanding these intricacies certainly isn’t exclusive to a liberal arts degree – who’s to say that someone with a degree in physics can’t understand Weber’s writings? But moreover, saying that “making money” is easy seems like a bit of a stretch. The ease with which you make money (and importantly, the amount of money you make with that effort) is relative. For the 7.6% of Americans unemployed, making money isn’t as easy as Dr. Lawler believes. The student coming out of a liberal arts college with a B.A. (or even an M.A. or Ph.D) in philosophy or literature with mountains of debt (courtesy of Uncle Sam, no less) may find it unpersuasive that he is well-versed in the intricacies of human nature when he needs to couch surf in his parents’ basement.

According to Census data, someone with a literature B.A. will earn, on average, $2.1 million over their work-life (about 40-years). Someone with a degree in engineering or computers and math will make $3.1 million. That amounts to an average wage premium of $25,000 annually over 40 years. I’m not convinced (and neither are my fellow libertarians) that the value of “the truth” of human nature is worth quite that much. 

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Yevgeniy Feyman

Yevgeniy Feyman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute

One thought on “Let’s Not Subsidize Liberal Arts”

  1. Cher Yevgeniy,
    A shot at the truth, at $2.1 M per truth seeker may well be worth it, sharing the costs among us and the truth seeker!
    But the seekers are after self-gratification, not truth.
    Society has tied itself up with laws that effectively prohibit alternative credentialling; it has allowed the cartel of accredited institutions reap the largesse expended upon so-called higher education; and it has denatured any winnowing processes that must occur in the search for quality.
    Big bucks for consumption and a piece of paper, which signifies nothing.

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