Spoiler alert: We disagree.

I’m not a libertarian, but I love debating libertarians.

Case in point: Bryan Caplan. Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and the author of a new book, The Case Against Education. In that book he makes a bold argument: Public education is waste of time and money and we should stop investing in it. Caplan marshals a ton of evidence in support of this claim, most of which reinforces his view that what we’re doing now isn’t working that well.

I agree with him that our current system is broken, but I’m not convinced we should give up on public education. So I reached out to Caplan and asked him to lay out his argument.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You think public education is a massive waste of time and money. I think that’s an egregiously misguided thesis. Tell me why I’m wrong.

Bryan Caplan

I’ll admit that saying education is a waste of time and money makes me sound like a mean person. My thesis really does seem to go against good manners about what people are supposed to say and think about education.

But here’s my basic argument: Education is a waste of time and money because so much of the payoff for education isn’t really coming from learning useful job skills. Nor is it coming from students savoring the educational experience. Rather, most of what’s going on is that people are showing off — or, as economists call it, they are “signaling.” They are trying to impress future employers by showing how dedicated they are.

What we have now is a situation in which a ton of people go to college but many of them don’t get a great job when they’re done. Or they get a lot of education, fall into debt, and then get a mediocre job. Contrast this with the idea we have about college, which is that you receive valuable training, acquire useful skills, and then you’re rewarded with a good job afterward.

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