Government-Funded Textbooks: Let's Not And Say We Did

from the bad-ideas dept

One of the retorts I sometimes hear when I criticize our current system of overly broad copyright protection is that the only alternative is government funding of copyrighted works. This is not, of course, what most of us are advocating, and there's every reason to think that a properly balanced and limited system of copyright protection (along with some clever business models) can create plenty of incentives to produce creative works without asking the taxpayer to pay for them. However, every once in a while you come across someone who really does want the government to fund creative works. Dean Baker, for example. is pushing his plan to have the government pay for college textbooks that would then be placed in the public domain for public consumption.

This is a bad idea for a bunch of reasons. For starters, there's no reason to think that government-funded textbooks would be any good. Financing textbooks by selling them to students ensures that textbook publishers have an incentive to produce books that meet the needs of students, or at least their professors, and to improve textbook quality over time. In contrast, if textbooks are financed by taxpayers, the textbooks that get produced are likely to be determined more by politics and bureaucracy than by the needs of the customers. The result is likely to be a lot of mediocre textbooks focused on topics that federal officials think are needed, rather than what will actually get used. Second, there's a basic issue of equity here. College students tend to come from families that are wealthier, on average, than the general public. Less than half of young people attend four-year colleges. So it seems a little perverse to tax everybody in order to subsidize the textbook purchases of relatively privileged college students. Means-tested financial aid programs are much better at reaching students who really need the help. Finally, it's worth asking whether we want to take the risk of politicizing the content of college curricula. We already have enough politics involved in deciding what goes into textbooks used in public high schools, which are publicly-funded. Do we really want the federal government put in charge of deciding what kind of textbooks the country's college students need?

What's really needed, I think, is to find ways to leverage the web for lower-cost distribution of instructional materials. There's no reason to think that college students 20 years from now will still be getting course information from giant paper books. Whether textbooks are replaced by Wikipedia-style collaborative textbook projects, by companies selling site licenses to websites full of instructional materials, by ad-supported instructional websites, or by some business model nobody's thought of yet, there's every reason to think competition from the web will revolutionize the textbook market in the coming years and give both instructors and students more choices about how information is disseminated. We ought to let that process play itself out, and not get the government involved in deciding what should be in our textbooks.


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  1. identicon
    Dean Baker, 28 Apr 2008 @ 12:50pm

    Tim,

    Glad to see you pick up on my proposal. Let me make a couple of quick points.

    First, we already subsidize college through loans, direct aid, and direct funding (state universities). So, if you object to college aid because it benefits the well-off, you have a lot to yell about already. Furthermore, since the aid is generally based on total costs (including textbooks), the prospect of getting cheap or low-cost textbooks might actually be a money saver. The money involved, by my calculation, would be very small, about 0.01 percent of the federal budget.

    Second, I propose having the money funneled through private contractors (read the proposal). That would allow competitive bidding and an evaluation after the fact of what was produced. If no one ever used the textbooks developed by a particular publisher, presumably they would never get another cent of public funding.

    Finally, since there is nothing in my scheme to preclude private textbook book publishers from continuing to produce textbooks, we would be allowing the market to decide which textbooks to use. People would still have the option to spend $150-$200 to buy a book by some highly promoted honcho, or they could get a book produced through the publicly funded system that can be downloaded for free. Let the market decide.

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