Character and argument

Strictly speaking, an argument’s force ought to be independent of the person making it. If the evidence and reasoning is strong, what does it matter if the person making it is an expert or an amateur, a crook or a saint? Yet it seems natural and normal to use an assessement of the person making an argument as a proxy for an assessment of their actual arguments.

Over at Catallaxy, Jason Soon discusses an interesting example of this, what he calls ‘statist quoism’, the claim that because a person arguing against some form of government funding received it themselves in the past (family benefits, free education, etc) they should not argue against future generations receiving it.

As Jason points out, this could lead to bad policies never being corrected. But it’s hard to purge this way of thinking because it requires us to put aside norms that are usually worth enforcing, such as against hypocrisy and for reciprocity. Should I retrospectively pay more than I did for my university education, because I am saying that others should pay more than I did? Since my argument is primarily about the microeconomics of higher education and not distributional issues, the answer is no. We cannot undo the decisions or change the incentives of the past. But I suspect some people would find my position more convincing if had paid my own way through university, and not received years of the free education I dismiss as an intellectually disreputable policy.

39 thoughts on “Character and argument

  1. Andrew,

    It would be easier to take a longer view. I assume you may not have come to the conclusion that free education was intellectually disreputable without the gift of education that was bequeathed to you. It surely is evidence that automatically disadvantaging students from attending university based on their accidents of birth is poor policy in itself. Who are we missing out on in terms of contribution to the intellectual stratosphere when we decide to limit our universities to those lucky enough to have access to capital or credit? You might think it’s nobody important, but the mix of bootstrappers and socialists is just as evenly distributed amongst the impoverished as the corpulent.

    Why exactly do you have this view? Is it a waste issue? Australia is not exactly impoverished, and surely education is something we should strive to make available to everybody who seeks it. Do you think the market in Australia is large enough to support a university on every corner? Technology will help, but it will have a tendency to breed stale, cloistered academic thought instead of the heady mix of social interaction that acts as an effective eye opener to new ideas.

    Universities are sacred places where the wisdom of thousands of years of intellectual thought can be spread like seeds, not markets where the fruits are available only to the highest bidder.


  2. The original argument that Jason Soon referred to is one that I put on an earlier thread on this blog.

    The argument I put is not about the character of people putting arguments. It is about how you define equity. The comment I was responding to argued that it was inequitable and regressive for people without children to have pay higher taxes to provide support for people with children. One of the points I made is that this is a definition of equity that ignores the time dimension. It assumes that equity is defined solely in the here and now and ignores all past and future contributions made to and by families.


  3. ‘Universities are sacred places where the wisdom of thousands of years of intellectual thought can be spread like seeds’

    If only that were true. It’s a great quote, and with your permission, would love to use it the next the librarian asks me to cull our journal lists, or try to throw away all journals older than 10 years. I’ll even use it when dealing with the (usually post-modern) educationalists (who also don’t teach) when they ask me why I make the students read articles from (say) 1937, or 1958 and so on. “Why isn’t your course ‘cutting edge’ Sinclair? Can’t you find modern readings, hasn’t the world moved on?”


  4. I think its a great quote too. SD — I have also learnt something from your response. That students at RMIT might read something that they haven’t written themselves, which I’m sure is better than where I work.

    I don’t know if you use it, but if you have a discussion board like “Blackboard” you should allow anonymous posts, and see how many students a) complain about going to the library; and b) complain about having to read anything. Its great for a laugh in an ironic sort of a way.

    Back to the point — I think universities are just a tiny example. Bigger examples are all the huge social security systems like you have in France. A lot of the things they have are clearly aweful in the long term (even if you happen to be a socialist) but the problem is a) that you can’t change them over night, since everyone who doesn’t benefit feels cheated because they have to pay huge amounts and not receive the benefits; and b) any government that tries to change them slowly gets the boot.

    It would be interesting to know what politically possible ways there are to change these sorts of the things, rather than just observing it, because this idea is completely entrenched within the population. I wouldn’t have the faintest.


  5. Peter – I deliberately did not mention you by name, as I had seen your disagreement with Jason’s use of your comments. But I thought Jason’s post was interesting as a discussion of a general phenomenon, whether his particular example was fair or not. When I was at Catallaxy I had written several posts on how people saw politics as a matter of character. For example, left-of-centre people often describe their politics primarily in terms of themselves (‘my social conscience’) rather than primarily in terms of social outcomes.

    David – I don’t have time to rehearse all the arguments on this, but I have added a link at the end of the post that gives a short summary of the reasons why free higher education is a bad idea.


  6. A socio-linguistic analysis of the above post:

    Most Chinese Malays pay up front fees as overseas students in Australia. Some (not all) get easier access and passed regardless of their academic output.
    Many former private school students could afford to pay more in fees in order to get in to the courses they want when their brains fail them.

    Jason and Andrew are part of the above communities, although Jason is a local, and Norton was probably scholarship quality. You/They are seeking to increase the stake of their communities in higher education at the expense of the other sections of the demographic. Further fees and privatisation would only help this. It is a globalised financial capitalist argument which is against intellectual capital and an anathema to the speakers of Germanic languages like English and the German / EU way of free higher education.

    If the German way is so bad, why are you arguing your case for fees in a Germanic language?


  7. Where would this approach end? If you disagree with a law, are you then obliged to disobey it in order to justifiably argue for its repeal? If not – that is, if it’s okay to obey a law that you wish to see removed – then I see nothing wrong, with acting in accordance with the law (eg taking advantage of ‘free’ tertiary education) whilst arguing for its removal. Or taking advantage of tax loopholes while arguing for tax reform.


  8. Andrew,

    Thanks for the link (although I try to avoid Catallaxy as the comments are less than helpful in any discussion – I’ve learned more from

    I don’t think we’ll ever get away from the problem of the entanglement of individual character and strength of argument. However, there is little point arguing against people that feel that character and background have more weight than the argument itself. The entanglement is too useful as you suggested in highlighting hypocrisy.

    I can see that there are some arguments (although not overwhelming ones) why free education might be noble but counterproductive. I struggle to see the difference between handing a student a scholarship and not charging them other than removing the dead hand of federal meddling (which may be compelling in itself). However, you then get us back to the pre-1973 days where scholarships really presented a barrier to entry for the underprivileged and education loans were scarce. The past genuinely is a different country, and the makeup of the Labor party at the time ensured that the politics of envy and retribution held an inordinate amount of sway. I think we can forgive them in the same way we forgave Fraser for flouting constitutional convention – they both meant well. I’m not sure we can say that about todays politicians who seem to seek power for it’s own sake.

    You’ve convinced me that HECS is a reasonable compromise where before I thought it might have been a waste of time. I suspect it may have taken longer to to arrive at the HECS policy without the free education experiment though, so I’m glad that the Whitlam government tried it out.


  9. Crumbs David, you’re easily convinced. I remain unconvinced by Andrew’s arguments and I don’t think he can measure the difference that free universities made to the way people viewed tertiary education – the effects have been long term and subtle.

    Interesting time to think about the character of politicians – a topic on which Andrew is strangely generous. Here in the West where the ministers are falling, the public’s contempt for politicians is being confirmed, yet again. It might appear that an argument being put forward by a crook looks kosher, but you’d be a fool not to be suspicious and more cautious for knowing that.


  10. David Rubie Said:

    I think we can forgive them in the same way we forgave Fraser for flouting constitutional convention – they both meant well.

    You can leave me out of that group !


  11. ‘The tricky bit is getting the places in the right disciplines according to demand. Andrew argues that market forces should control that mechanism through fees and I disagree strenuously, as it will introduce barriers to entry by stealth.’

    Just say we had a system that allowed anyone to study any subject that they wanted to study at any university, with all market-determined fees to be paid via an income-contingent HECS scheme, and a generous system of scholarships for those who are judged to be deserving according to any number of criteria the govenment or other scholarship providers thought relevant.

    Where would the barriers to entry be?


  12. Maybe I’m too sensitive (or else I’m getting soft)

    My point (both here and over at Catallaxy) is that when you illustrate an argument by a specific example, then that illustration should genuinely be an example of the argument.

    On your point, I hope that any argument should be judged on its own merits, not on arguments about the character of the person making it. Having said this, if someone received family benefits for 18 years, and then argued as soon as they were no longer eligible that it was unfair for other people to receive family benefits, I think it would probably be reasonable to question their motivations. (But I can’t think of a specific example of anyone ever doing this.) If someone argued all along that family benefits or free tertiary education were not justified then that would be a different matter.


  13. Jeremy,

    The reason I don’t want to see a return to scholarships is the nature of the selection of candidates. In the old days, it was a back-slapping system biased to reward those who were socially connected (private high schools still run such schemes, and they still work exactly the same way). I don’t think anybody should be judged as deserving or not with the exception of academic merit (which can be appropriately adjusted downwards to account for socio-economic background effects). Up-front fees undermine the whole idea of freely available education, as it introduces competition for places not based on merit, but background. I’m sure our current government would love to reintroduce such a system. They seem to be trying to do it by artificially starving universities for funding, then insisting that full fee places are necessary to cover the shortfall. It’s dishonest policy.


  14. Jeremy,

    Couldn’t look at blogs this arvo, busy at work and also trying to follow the marathon debate on daylight saving in the Western Australian Legislative Council. Debate of such quality ! – here’s the killer argument against DLS from one Liberal MLC:

    “I have a feeling our major takeaway chains will love daylight saving
    because mum will say to dad, “We’ve had a great time in the park but
    I didn’t put the chops or the potatoes on. Let’s get takeaway
    instead.” See, DLS = bad for health.

    It seems we will be dragged into daylight saving – apparently Perth will pulsate with excitement when we re-align our clocks with Sydney’s – should cheer Yobbo up: liquor laws just relaxed and daylight saving on the way. Sunday trading and pokies will be next down the slippery slope.

    Education: Andrew’s arguments and mine don’t seem to co-incide. It’s my value judgement that education is extremely important, for individuals and society, and that we can afford to make it freely available. My personal experience is that I know younger family members who are put off university by the fees/debt who otherwise would become fine teachers etc.

    In Andrew’s original post he asserts that “the benefits of free education went overwhelmingly to families that were already relatively well-off” – but those benefits may well have gone to individuals that otherwise would have been prevented from getting to uni. My family wasn’t poor, but my parents felt that their obligations ceased at the end of high school. I won a scholarship to uni but didn’t take it up because it wouldn’t have covered living expenses. I think that’s probably why Whitlam says the most letters he receives on a single topic are from women thanking him for the tertiary education they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. Fees are a barrier, I don’t want barriers.
    Re ‘efficient’ funding systems – I don’t have one – I’d like Andrew to come up with one: some sort of vouchers ? a two-tier system like private and public schools ? whatever, it has to free to the student.

    I think Andrew will never understand how free universities completely opened up the possibility of a tertiary education to many people for whom it had never been considered because they weren’t ‘that class of person’ – they might not have taken it up because it was a big step out of their expectations, but they brought their kids up to feel that they could just continue their education if they wanted to. An obvious barrier had been removed. It certainly contributed to making Australia a more egalitarian society – even if you didn’t go to university at least you didn’t feel that you didn’t belong there.


  15. Russell,

    OK, thanks for the reply. I can’t argue with a value judgment! Yours is an interesting angle: the Whitlam reform was important for psychological reasons, I hadn’t considered it before. I think there might have been other, less costly ways to convince people that they indeed belonged at university – you may want to read Clive James’ ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ if you haven’t already – but I haven’t really thought about it.


    ‘I don


  16. Well, I’ve sort of found myself in this situation recently: arguing against a policy that I’ve benefited from in the past. But I’m still benefiting from it, for another year or so, probably. So in this situation would I have credibility or not? Does it make a difference that when I benefited from it, no-one would ever have bothered asking my opinion about it? In reality, I think most people would make a distinction between passively receiving a benefit that was completely legal, and actively changing course to benefit from a policy that was a bit dodgy. Also if the argument is just fairness/unfairness, they’d be less likely to get a hearing from me. Not much black and white here.

    Point about women and higher education is interesting, Russell. Is there any study on this? (I do have somewhat of a distrust of anecdotes, but there are reasons to think this sort of thing might happen or have happened, so would be interested in some harder numbers.) But if free education only covered tuition, and the scholarships only covered tuition, and HECS covers tuition, what’s the difference between the three systems for someone in your former position? Which I agree is bad.

    My anecdote: my father’s family was not wealthy (though at a connected private/Catholic school), his father dead before he finished high school, four younger brothers/sisters, one of whom had Downs’ syndrome. He won a scholarship for the course he wanted to do, but got a cadetship to do another, and went with that so he could support the family. Under the free education model, those cadetships disappeared. He probably couldn’t have afforded to go to university then. Sadly, the job he ended up in after the cadetship probably contributed to his early death. There are lots of stories of lives not working out right for various reasons, and all are horrible. We can’t necessarily fix every one, though.

    One of my biggest worries with free education is that it ends up restricting the supply of places, and that tends to disadvantage kids who are on the margins and who tend to be disadvantaged themselves. In that case, an obvious barrier might have been removed by making education free, but another less obvious one has replaced it. And the smart rich kids who go regardless get most of the benefits.


  17. Christine,

    Sorry only more anecdotes eg here’s Jane Caro writing in New Matilda:

    “for the first and only time in our history, university education was free. As a result, every last one of us sitting around that table on Sunday had attended university. Being a very middle class group, this perhaps was not so surprising for the boys, but it was a huge change of opportunity for the girls. We must have been the first Australian generation where so many young women found they could attend a university. When a university education was expensive, most parents found the money for their sons, but not their daughters. Indeed, we found ourselves at university with a huge number of mature age students. Most of them were middle-aged women who had not been able to go to university when young” (1.)

    Until there’s a study I guess we’ve only got these anecdotes.

    Re living expenses – how about paying students the New Start allowance or whatever it’s called ?

    Re – HECS, noting the discussion about death duties at Catallaxy, how about a HECS scheme where the debt is repaid out of your estate ?

    Re cadetships – yes that’s how I got to university: that’s how my brother became a teacher and I became a librarian; I think I would have liked law, but I wasn’t aware of any cadetships for law, just for a B.A., and, had I said to my parents “Hey I got the marks to get into law”. I think they might have replied “Who do you think you are ?”. Law, medicine etc were for the sons, and occasionally daughters, of doctors and lawyers. Sounds like something from a victorian novel, doesn’t it. Free universities were one of the things that helped change that.

    1. Caro, Jane “Boomers luck” in New Matilda, 2 November 2005


  18. But measuring changes doesn’t necessarily tell why they happened.

    Changing expectations is a gradual process – many of us think that free universities was one of the things that kicked the changes along. It was a powerful symbolic act – why do you think Whitlam did it ?

    “University was already free for most students *before* the Whitlam reforms.” How many were paying fees, how many who weren’t paying fees were supported by their parents ? Are you counting cadetships as “free” ? But more importantly, how many didn’t go because of the fees ? How many couldn’t take up scholarships because they had to support themselves ?


  19. Russell – In 1970, only half of the people who applied to go to university in Victoria gained a place. The historic problem in Australia has been supply of places, not demand. What’s the point in psychological changes in people’s attitudes towards higher education if there are no places for them?


  20. As with most things that consume resources, it’s typically not a bad thing for people to face some kind of price signal so that they do not consume more of the good or service than is socially optimal. In other words, it may not be a bad thing for some people (those who attach least value to university) to be deterred from going to university. As Andrew has previously argued, there are already plenty of graduates out there with jobs that don’t require degrees.

    Speaking of travel, funnily enough I wrote an article for Farrago (Melb Uni student rag) comparing travel and university education back in about 1995. I rhetorically asked whether because travel ‘broadens the mind’, governments should fund an overseas trip for every young person in the country. It now occurs to me that following 10 years of economic growth, such a question may no longer get the response I then confidently expected.


  21. Rajat – I like to hear economists using the phrase socially optimal … social in any sense at all seems good. But isn’t some part of socially optimal constituted by fulfilled, more educated people. They may not need the degree for the job, but they may be better informed citizens and more fulfilled individuals ?

    I still haven’t figured out what I feel about the topic of this thread – yes, an argument has to be judged on its merits, but if it’s not already vulgar enough squabbling about who should get what, it seems even more ungracious to be recommending benefits you enjoyed be withdrawn from others.


  22. Jeremy – a thoughtful point. We all put in, and our governments distribute the money. Some of mine aids “families”, supports the racing industry and such like. We all have different priorities – I think education is very important, and a good thing, so I put my bid in for it.

    As to paying for it – presumably the more educated earn more ? so let’s just tax income and wealth and recoup the money that way.


  23. Russell,

    The wealthy, however they have been educated, are more likely to move overseas, or at least move their wealth overseas, and away from the tax man.

    And anyway: if we want educated people to pay for their education, why resort to general taxation – which is unspecific and therefore quite unjust when recouping specific costs – when we can do it directly through the HECS system?

    You’re almost there, Russell … !


  24. Jeremy

    But my tax recommendation was specific – it’s aimed at the wealthy.

    HECS is a tax on education, and, I reckon, a barrier to some.

    Jeremy, what do you think about public libraries ? Should they be free ?


  25. Russell,

    I meant ‘specific’ in the sense that the people paying for the education are the ones who received the direct benefit from it. There are grades of ‘specific’. I don’t think Gerry Harvey went to uni, so why should he pay for my education? And there are many university graduates earning truckloads of money overseas, out of reach of the ATO.

    HECS, in itself, is not a barrier, I don’t think. What creates a barrier is charging people more money for their education than they think they can reasonably pay off out of their future income. Under a market system, that wouldn’t happen: universities that charged high fees would find themselves with few students.

    Regarding public libraries: given that they are paid for out of the rates of the community, I can’t see why members of the community can’t have unlimited free access to the books etc inside.

    The difference between libraries and the current higher education system is that libraries are, in economese, almost entirely ‘non rival’. My enjoyment of a book doesn’t prevent you from also enjoying it. That’s not the case under the current funding system for higher education: because places are limited and rationed, the system is highly rivalrous. Your enrolling in medicine means that I or someone else has to study something else.


  26. Jeremy – Economics is an amazing language, able to be twisted to any purpose! I pay rates and use my local library for free. My next door neighbour pays rates, doesn’t use the library but uses the council owned gym, in the same building as the library, but has to pay $500 a year for ‘membership’. My neighbour on the other side has to pay rates and uses neither. You’d be happy with this situation ?

    BTW the library lends out popular novels and popular DVDs – across the street is a second-hand bookshop and a video rental shop. I’ll bet they see the library as a rival.

    I can’t see that the market will provide universities to suit all pockets – a university is an incredibly expensive thing to run – fees would have to be high. I’m glad that we agree that there is barrier to university for some, and that the barrier is to do with money or the perception of the debt.


  27. Russell,

    I can assure you, however malleable the language might be, I am not twisting it in any way.

    The inconsistencies in the council’s charging for its services is a matter for ratepayers. If the bloke on the ‘other side’ is unhappy, he should do something about it. Form a resident’s action group, get out on the streets. It’s no good grumbling.

    You’re right: public libraries are rivals to private book selling and book loaning businesses. Personally I can’t see why we can’t privatise libraries. While I lived in Canberra I joined a private music-lending library. Unlimited classical music, for two bucks a year – one fifth of the cost of a new Naxos disc. Not only unlimited, but a broad selection as well – I was able to borrow a disc of Rubbra’s Tenebrae motets, for God’s sake!

    It could work for books as well. But I don’t hear anyone – not even among the libertarians – agitating for privatised libraries.

    Yes, under this system the barrier would be to do with money or the perception of debt. People could think of education either as an investment – to be recouped at a later date – or a consumption good – that is, knowledge to be enjoyed for itself.

    But people wouldn’t be able to use other people’s hard earned money to indulge their own tastes. If it were otherwise, I might be able to ask the government to subsidise my piano lessons, yes?

    Regarding fees, I think Andrew has some information which shows that the cost of educating people in some courses is actually LESS than the money taken from them under the current HECS system. If you are worried, you could search out some hard facts – the US system produces reams of data each year on the costs of and returns from education.


  28. I can see it now: Jeremy leading his children into the local library, where they are members, to borrow books, while children who aren’t members, can only look in through the window and wish ….. (getting near to the time of the year when I like to re-read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). Not only excluded from universities, but even as little tots knowing that some places weren’t for the likes of them !

    Jeremy, music should be taught in schools, and if you’re good enough you could go on to do music at one of my free universities. But you can’t have everything so I’m not prepared to pay for you to wander down the street for piano lessons.


  29. That might bring us neatly back to the topic and the end of the thread – with Jeremy slamming the library door in the faces of those tots, thereby denying them a service he had (well, quite likely) enjoyed for free as a child himself.


  30. Of course, if you wanted those on lower incomes (including tots) to have membership of privatised libraries, the government could subsidise their membership, so that no-one would be excluded.

    Just the same as David Rubie and I would agree that scholarships should be offered to those who wanted to go to university, but whose circumstances worked against them.

    But you’re right, Russell, it’s the end of the thread. When I get accused of slamming doors in kids’ faces, I walk away.


  31. Thanks for the reference, Russell. I agree that living expenses while studying are an important part of the (up front, not opportunity) costs of going to university, and may be an important barrier to attending uni. I still don’t see how getting rid of tuition fees helps this. I think we do have Austudy still, right? So for kids considered to be from low income families, there is help on that front.

    Doesn’t help those whose parents don’t want to help out, which is perhaps an argument for a government program to loan those kids some money that they can pay back later on when they’re earning money. Hmmmm sounds familiar for some reason …..


  32. Jeremy,

    Sorry – my language was a bit over the top: I don’t think for a minute that you would slam a door in anyone’s face (let alone those poor little kiddies outside the library). I blame it on the bad influence of listening to too much Parliament last week – ad hominem attacks, exaggeration, overblown metaphors, teasing …. all tools of those of us too lazy for logic or evidence.


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