Why has the President’s own top economic officials written to him to veto the granting of universal free clean air? In a similar vein, why have economists been against the granting of free tertiary education as they were adamantly so (and still are) in a previous epoch? Are economists such an insensitive lot who care more about saving taxpayer money than helping others to breathe?

Subsidies can make sense under certain situations. Society loses if perfectly healthy individuals with no trace of genetic malformations and disease cannot avail of clean air because they can’t afford it. But after the drastic reduction of breathable air due to the accumulation of decades-worth of polluting emissions, rendering it as assuredly scarce, what economists argue is that universal free clean air is neither efficient nor effective.

There are at least four arguments for this. One, giving clean air to all, rather than target deserving individuals, benefits rich and poor alike, and with current patterns of air consumption, those who can actually afford to pay will actually benefit more. It would thus be a waste of government funds otherwise usable for other forms of assistance to those truly in need.

Two, all taxpayers will ultimately pay for the clean-air subsidy, whether or not they are the maximal users of this resource, or have relatives who are. This defies the sound “user pays” principle that promotes efficiency inasmuch as user fees push people to make best use of limited resources and avoid waste. Persons who pay will take their breathing more seriously and diligently than those getting a “free ride”, and free air could attract people without the motivation or ability to live a healthy life.

Three, sound economics prescribe that clean air subsidies be handed not to communities at large but to target individuals who can then “shop” for the best enclave-air provider enterprise in which to live. In turn, competition for such exemplary individuals will push enclave-air providers to strive for quality and efficiency. Giving the subsidy to clean-air deprived communities does nothing to improve the quality of the population we have striven so hard to cultivate and improve, and could only lengthen below-par quality lives that will perpetuate population mediocrity.

Four, clean air is only part of the total requirement for a quality life. Living expenses, food, shelter, medicines, relaxation and recreation are just as important components. Providing just clean air will only promote the good life to those who already have these, and where others cannot afford these, providing just clean air will only help better-off individuals, but still keep the poor ones from living a quality life. It could, in short, inadvertently give them false hopes.


Some may say that substituting tertiary education for breathing clean air is somewhat absurd. Can we really do that? It depends upon what we think the nature of education is and what it is for. For neoliberals like Habito, education (and indeed other social services) is clearly a commodity, which should be subjected to the rules of the market for it to be efficiently used. Advocates of free education see it as a right that must not be subjected to buy-and-sell logic, much less withheld from anyone in the same way that clean air also must not.

That education is a commodity and not a right is also the logic behind socialized tuition schemes such as that suggested by Habito. It has its attractions in the same way that progressive taxation does: get more from those who have more. But the crucial point is something that any economist should know: earning lots of money is not a right – you are free to do it through whatever lawful way, but it is not a right that everybody can demand is due them. So in order to lessen economic inequality you can subject this to progressive taxation. But if you look at education as a right, that scheme no longer applies. It must be given to all regardless of economic status, and certainly more so when they demand it, as they rightly should.

People who see education as a commodity are also those who see it merely as a means to an end – specifically, you get educated so you can graduate and get a job. This is the logic behind the proliferation of technical-vocational schools due in no small part to the avid pushing of the Commission on Higher Education itself. This perspective aligns neatly with the pragmatism of both classical and neoliberal economists.

On the other hand, free education advocates also acknowledge the need to find good jobs after schooling. Indeed, good jobs that have better potentials for upward mobility and other essential contributions to society at large (aside from bringing in OFW dollars) actually require higher education: becoming doctors, engineers, teachers, agriculturists, and so on.

But more importantly, beyond the mere pragmatism, advocates of free education see it as more than just providing employability, but in cultivating a critical, progressive, and active citizenry who, in the lofty words of the UP General Education program, have a love for lifelong learning. Formal higher education provides the higher-order foundation for the analytic capability, the enthusiasm for principled engagement, and the creation and appreciation of beauty that we expect from full, and fulfilled, persons. You might say that it really is akin to breathable air.

Where does Habito’s pragmatism come from anyway? He frames education in the same way as neoliberal and neoconservative economists frame any “resource”: that they are automatically scarce, that there is not enough to go around, and as such they must be dispensed in the most practical way possible – preferably through competition, since this is the only way by which the best can come out.

There is something eerily Huxley-ish to Habito’s entire scenario: hold up the deserving but weed out the undeserving. But neither he nor others of the same persuasion present us with any method by which this is to be done. I have yet to see a method by which deserving students are identified that is not tainted by class bias or other conditions that are extraneous to measuring a student’s intellectual capacity. As Oliver James put it, analysis of standardized exams in the US “proved the large extent to which they measure middle-classness, rather than ability.”

Habito knows of the high attrition rates among students from poor families. He even bemoans that living expenses and study materials are beyond the reach of the poor, and so offering only free tuition is only a partial solution. Yet unbelievably, his conclusion is, because living expenses and study materials are not free, then we might as well not make tuition free as well.

He is either clueless of, or belittles, the entire campaign for free and quality education that has been waged by students, parents, and teachers for many, many years now: it is a campaign not just for free education at the college level, but for accessible and quality education at all levels, the raising of teachers’ wages, the channeling of more resources for better buildings, facilities, and books, for affordable housing and everyday expenses, or in the case of the lumad, to simply be able to have schools in the first place.

The argument for competition doesn’t hold up either. We know that this so-called “competition” doesn’t exist for the rich – they have wealth enough to pay to get anything. Say for the sake of argument that there actually existed a sure method by which student intelligence can be tested, and a son from an elite family fails it. Will that be the end of it for the boy? Of course not, for what family that still has means will allow that to happen? That boy will certainly go on to university, and from then on, well, let’s just say that many teacher-colleagues of mine from different schools have their personal carrot-or-stick stories with students who are up to par more in the wealth and influence department than in the intellectual one.

In this scenario we might as well hurl Habito’s words back at him: talk about perpetuating mediocrity. We can also cite Orwell’s words “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others,” meant to be a jab at a “socialist” society, but in actuality already exists and cannot be any truer in this capitalist one.

Most disturbing is the distasteful undercurrent of privilege and prejudice in Habito’s opinion veiled in scientific-economic fictions.

It is such a typically elite point of view to claim that the poor do not know how to use resources well, that they squander opportunities, that they will abuse “freebies” at every turn, that they do not act according to that phantasmagorical Homo economicus model conservative economists believe to be the only human species currently, and for all time, in existence.

On the contrary, when a poor family chooses which children to send to school and which not to, or when they craft shifting school year schedules so that this year this child attends school and next year it is the other one who does, does that not the show rational calculation that conservative economists are so tickled about?

Besides, I do not think it does well for Habito to lecture the poor about maximizing the use of limited resources. Whereas “waste” has been shown to be more prevalent in higher-income families (from food and utilities wastage to all forms of conspicuous consumption), his precious phrase “limited resources” actually defines the lives of poor people every day.

But that is not yet even the most supreme irony. I will laugh out loud if it is revealed that the same elites who complain about how the so-called “masses” keep electing entertainers and buffoons to public office are the same crowd that now confidently proclaim that not everyone need go on to higher education. Such an indescribably tragic quagmire of contradiction!

I know that while Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing as society and only individuals and families, what I would like to challenge now to Habito and his ilk are to impose on their own children the same policies that they would not hesitate to impose upon others:

1.) If your child fails to measure up in college, do not use your money and influence for them to stay there. Keep the playing field even.

2.) If you think that education is only for getting a job (so that, for example, tech-voc tracks should suffice for other people) then don’t waste your resources in cultivating holistic learning for your own child. Cancel those museum visits, cancel those piano lessons, cancel that European educational tour.

3.) Don’t give your child free anythings. He will just squander them. Besides, he can surely compete and whatever he gets, he deserves.

Sounds absurd, right? As absurd as commodifying education, as absurd as selling our breathing air.

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