Voltaire (1794-1778) had observed that the perfect is the enemy of the good. In response to my requiem on the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), my friend Dr Aniruddha Banerjee from Boston, concluded his comments with that question in his email to me which I quote below.
As usual, you’re right on the money on this one. Up until your post, I didn’t see any that would fit an economist’s modus operandi, namely, one based on a full-blown cost benefit analysis (another way of stating your “opportuntiy cost” analysis). I’m surprised that such an evaluation is not already underway, quite independently of Negroponte’s initiative or proposal. Such an evaluation should be based, in my opinion, on some kind of pilot study (based, in turn, on a scientifically drawn stratified sample that accounts properly for demographic variation). I think it is just a matter of time before computers have to be introduced on a mass scale, particularly for the education and use of those that will make up the next generation (I don’t hold any particular brief for laptops over desktops, or individual versus community or small-group use of computer resources).
The issues you have raised with respect to, let’s call it euphemistically, “implementation,” and your concern about moral hazard are indeed all valid. These, in some sense, fall into the domain of moral imperatives — whose existence or importance I do acknowledge, but whose cost implications I do not know of any easy way to quantify. But, if we can agree that, even in pluralistic, humanistic, secular, and democratic societies, meritocracies do get created and to good purpose, then the larger issue of just who should be the (initial) beneficiaries of any OLPC-like initiative can be addressed. The IITs and IIMs are evidence enough that meritocracies exist on which progressive societies depend. However, I would hasten to add that meritocracies should, to the extent possible, be based on true proficiency and ability, rather than the selective denial of opportunity. Unfortunately, innate ability and talent tend to be discovered endogenously, i.e., they are more likely to be found in particular demographic and income groups precisely because they have had the opportunity and support to showcase them. Too bad, there isn’t an easy way to extend that discovery process to all segments of society in a resource-constrained and populous country like India. But, when it comes to advancing the computer-literacy of India’s citizens (and reaping the substantial follow-on benefits of that), should even patently selective and seemingly unfair educational programmes be eschewed until it could somehow be assured that literally not one child in that vast country — to borrow a hackneyed phrase — will be left behind? Should the “perfect” become the enemy of the “good”?
An admission is apt here. Among economists I admire unconditionally, Aniruddha ranks way up on the list. His keen insights are matched by his facility with the written word. I wish I had that sort of brain power.
For now, I will leave you to ponder the issues he raises. I will post my thoughts in a bit.