Friday, September 22, 2006

Education in a Free Society

We live in one of the richest countries in all places and all times in the history of the world. It is normal for people in Australia to live in a free-standing house with hot and cold running water, three or more bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, surrounding yard and gardens, to have a car, to have television, video, stereo, radio, electric stove, kettle, microwave oven, telephones, mobile phones, x-box, bicycles, game-boys, to have as much meat, vegetables, bread, lollies, and chocolate biscuits as they would like (and more than is good for them), to eat from restaurants and take-aways. Cinemas, theatre, and all sorts of amusements and entertainments are common. Take a look as you drive around at the houses, renovations, factories, the cars, how new they are, the caravans, horse-floats, yachts, boats, surfboards, aromatherapy. All the toys. People who have travelled overseas are common. This wealth is not confined to some rich wicked class. It is normal.

Yet in the middle of all this plenty, the belief has somehow taken root among the population that paying for one's own child's education is something intrinsically unaffordable. It would be impossible, or improbable, or impracticable, for the people of society to be able to provide a decent education without the people of government threatening the whole population with imprisonment to confiscate the money.

'Free' compulsory state schooling began in the late nineteenth century, before the great rise in wealth that made all these goods and services commonplace. A justification based on a supposed general inability to pay for education services has long since expired, if indeed it was ever valid.

Putting aside for a moment the question of the disadvantaged and vulnerable, the effect of government education is simply to compel everyone in the population to subsidise everyone else's real estate, cars, gameboys, fast food, and chocolate biscuits.

As to the 'disadvantaged', the definition should surely exclude those who are spending the cost of their children's education on goods and services such as those mentioned above, which should rank lower in priority than education. A moment's reflection will show that this would exclude almost the whole population.

Why should someone who doesn't even own their own house or car be forced to subsidise someone else's house or car? And why should people whose position is approximately equal, have their common wealth degraded by having to subsidise each other's similar property-holdings by way of a vast government department? How can so-called public education, as it is now, avoid this perverse and unfair result?

But suppose we say that there remains a minority of truly poor people, defined as those who could not afford any of the goods and services less important than their children's education, and who still can't afford a decent education. I personally don't believe they exist because I have many times visited people who in our society are 'the poorest of the poor', and seen the televisions, videos, mobile phones, toys, carpets, computers, internet, take-away foods, lolly water, disposable nappies, biscuits, microwaves, and all the rest of it. But say for argument's sake…

Even if there is a truly poor class who cannot afford the education of their children, it still does not necessarily follow that the social provision of education services for that minority must be paid for by governmental confiscation. Libertarians are all in favour of education - we are just opposed to trying to achieve it by using coercion and producing a second-rate result at above the market cost. There is in fact widespread social agreement on the high value of education - that's where the policies of state education came from in the first place. It would be nonsense to suggest that all the people in society who are in favour of free education for the truly poor could not possibly find the value, the means, or the motivation to pay for it. It's a matter of taking responsibility for your own values. But if those who are in favour of providing free education for the truly poor are not willing to pay for it voluntarily, why should those against, have to pay for it under compulsion?

Even if the tiny proportion of society who are truly poor were to be worse off without state schooling, and charity not to make up the difference, which is unlikely, still, why should the far greater proportion of the rest of the population be so much worse off in their education as to be deprived of the benefit of private schooling tailored to their needs and forced into state schooling, just so the tiny minority can have free state schooling? Even on grounds of equity such an argument must fail.

Also the whole point of education is that it benefits the person who receives it. Some advantage no doubt accrues to others in society, so it is arguable that there should be a call on others to contribute. But still, why should all contributions be equal? Where is the equity in that? Why should other people be forced to pay for parents' decisions, and for their living expenses? Why should not the contribution of parents to their own child's education be greater than that of a complete stranger? The argument for state schooling is almost entirely built on grounds of equity, but on critical examination, even this core argument cannot be sustained.

And even if the government is to pay for education, that doesn't mean the government should provide and administer it - a recipe for waste and legal fraud. One possibility is to divide the education budget by the number of students, pay it in equal shares to parents in vouchers or cash, and abolish the state schools and their departments. Under a voucher system, different providers would compete to provide education services. Different providers would emphasise different values, according to the values in demand. Some might emphasise technical subjects like mechanics or computing, others might emphasise arts, or religion, or classics, or the outdoors, or law, or people skills, or investing. Some services might be in the form of schools as we know them, some might favour more practical form, or more theoretical form, or tutorial form, or peripatetic form. Still others might provide better forms unthought of yet because suffocated under the dead hand of government. The quality, diversity, and economy of schooling would all be much improved.

There could be no objection to such a reform on grounds of equity - what could be fairer? And not even the proponents of state schooling make the argument that it is defensible on the ground of the superior quality of its outcome.

The idea that governmental intervention is necessary to safeguard quality standards is nothing short of laughable. The biggest factor in the degradation of quality standards in education is caused by governmental intervention. For a recent example, one state primary school recently had 217 suspensions in one day. The Director-General and other senior officials of the NSW Education Department send their children to private schools - that just says it all, doesn't it? The two main forms of discipline in government schools seem to have become suspensions (ie ostracism) and psychiatric medication, a quite disgraceful state of affairs, while illiteracy and innumeracy among new entrants into high school are common.

The objection to such a reform of the state school system has got nothing to do with equity or quality, and everything to do with the system's functionaries preserving their accustomed position at the expense of the rest of society.

The state school system in the western world was built on the Prussian model of the late nineteenth century. The Prussian state education system was designed for the mass production of soldiers and employees - obedient and submissive to authority. States all over the world have adopted it because states love it. Each rising generation of human beings is drilled for years with the ideas of uniformity, conformity, 'one-size-fits-all' education, enforced mediocrity. Young adults are taught about the bio-chemistry of the cell, the physics of quasars, and the literature of the Victorian novelists, but nothing about happiness, sexual relationships, making money, investing or insurance - in fact, the real kinds of problems that will occupy most of their adult lives. They are filled to overflowing with a doctrine of 'entitlements' with no other moral basis than self-interested and forced confiscations by the state.

When you think about it, why should human beings be treated as property of the state, to recruit, and compel, and muster, and uniformise, and roll-call, regiment, discipline and punish them, and indoctrinate them with the creeds that their lives, liberty and property are what is left over after the state has done whatever it feels like? The most committed and reflexive totalitarians I have met are recent graduates of the state school system.

There are several fatal objections to the state school system.

First, as shown, the basic premises for its existence are false. It is not justified on equity grounds. The whole population of parents in Australia is already spending far more than the costs of state education on lower order priorities. The idea of a relevant population of 'disadvantaged' and 'vulnerable' is, quite simply, nonsense: a myth of the welfare state. The state education system represents an inane machination for the compulsory cross-subsidisation of lower-order priorities by everyone of everyone else.

Secondly, this circular re-distribution is done by pouring billions of dollars every year down the black hole of vast bureaucracies of government employees in league with a left-wing trade union specifically intended to further the interests of its own members at the expense of everyone else.

Government departments are notorious for their inefficiency. The idea that, on a dollar for dollar basis, they can compare with private organizations either in morale, efficiency, or academic achievements is nonsense. (And if they can, there can be no objection to their abolition.) In general, state education represents a depression in the moral and academic landscape.

Third, government runs a zero-sum game. In the market, those who want a religious school, and those who want a non-religious school, for example, can all get what they want. With government, it is always a case of one person being forced to do what another person wants. A government department can no more imitate the quality and variety of services that the market would and does produce, than the Soviet Union was able to imitate the quality and variety of goods in a free society - for exactly the same reasons. Government requires the restriction of individual liberty and still can't produce comparable results!

Fourth, the state's involvement creates a nest of parasites - vested interests whose first concern is to use the state's power of compulsion to further their own interests. A classic example is the way the Teacher's Federation has used its influence to promote laws to make it illegal for young people to leave school until 14 and 9 months. Many students after seven or eight years in state school still can't read and write and are tortured by boredom. But they are prevented from getting on with their lives, leaving and starting work, by laws which exploit them as 'assets' of the teacher's union. Their lives and freedoms are suspended in frustration to protect the members of the teacher's guild from having to provide any value in the market place that someone would actually willingly pay for.

Another example is the use of the state to outlaw teaching without the license of the state, thus effectively criminalising services which consumers would willingly pay for, but which might threaten the vested interests in the state.

If parents are too stupid or incompetent to be legally permitted the freedom for themselves to choose, through the market, their children's education providers, how can the same people have the competence to choose, through the ballot box, to put officials above them to restrict their choice in the same matters? How can a person appoint a person to 'represent' 'on his behalf' that he does not have the competence of a principal? The argument for state schooling involves a fatal self-contradiction.

Fifth, in the state system the syllabus cannot be something that parents and students choose for themselves. It becomes the prize of education 'experts' who have no accountability to any individual student or parent. It becomes the plaything of political movements who would like to impose their views on everyone else and can think of no better object than to have their creed entrenched in the state syllabus, in hopes of indoctrinating it in the rising generations as orthodoxy. (Such ideas almost always involve the expansion of state power at the expense of human freedom.) If you are a parent or student and don't like the syllabus, what are you going to do? In the market you simply don't buy the service. Under government, the line of authority would logically go from your local MP, to his party leader, to Parliament, to the Minister, to the Board of Studies. Your local principal and teachers are irrelevant. Good luck. Your power is effectively nothing.

Still, all these arguments only show technical reasons why the claims of the state education system cannot withstand critical scrutiny, and why a free market in education services would be better. However there is also an argument based on ethics, which I have not seen anyone refute. I challenge anyone to try.

All law and policy relies on force, that is, violence or the threat of violence: ultimately, if you don't submit to and obey the laws or policies, a group of men armed with weapons will come around and physically seize you. If you resist they will shoot you and if you don't, they will lock you up where you have a further risk of being violated and brutalised. That's how the government gets the money it uses to fund the state education system.

It's not like a threat of violence - it is a threat of violence.

Too often the arguments for state education proceed as if the only question were the desirability of this object or that, without regard to the prior ethical question. Yet there is a fundamental moral difference between violent and non-violent behaviour. Consensual exchanges and the libertarian approach are on the right side, and state education, with its forced payment, forced curriculum and forced attendance, is on the wrong side of the ethical divide. The ethical deficit is not, and cannot, be made up by a mere majority decision. The 'Darwinist' taunt proffered to libertarians is back-to-front. “I spit it bleeding in your high disgrace” (Shakespeare said that: pretty good eh?). We are not the ones advocating violence: our opponents are!

The ethical question cannot be made to go away - it can only be overridden, as power can be used to override principle. But the original ethical deficit contaminates everything it touches, and is ultimately responsible for all the technical problems which cause the second-rate character of state education.

Perhaps the most repulsive aspect of state education is the implicit notion that the value of other people is how far they can be forced under threat to serve your purposes. This ethical aspect is sometimes the most neglected, and leads to the defects in practice. We libertarians believe that the right place of the value of both the ethics, and of human freedom, is foremost.


At September 23, 2006 1:09 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Interesting. And thorough.

Probably too thorough -i never even considered reading the whole thing,and rarely read such extended piecdes online. Especially when they have such long paragraphs :-)

And so I don't know for sure if you addressed the nature of education.

Paulo Freire is one of my favourite authors on education stuff... his classic text is called 'pedagogy of the oppressed' and focuses on education in the 'south', where there truly are huge slabs of 'poor people.' Too often i think we treat issues like this as nationally bounded.

Anyway, my point is that, if tomorrow education was voucherised, we would probably wind up with an even more intense 'dog- eat-dog, league-tables form of education which would be aimed primarily at gaining admission to university. I don't think this does justice to the importance of education.

It's true the state can't guarantee a better situation and its also true that any policy supported by coercion, needs a powerful justification. But i'm not convinced by your alternative - which doesn't mean i wouldn't support some kind of voucher system.

Are you really gonna say "the market or the state" and then hand me only one bullet?

At September 24, 2006 4:41 pm, Anonymous Hiren said...

You have a point about poor people being able to afford their own education. However the point is whether they get their money's worth. The literal meaning of the word education is to draw out what is already in and not blindly stuff in - Make your passion your profession You are also right about money education, happiness and psychology being taught in schools

At September 24, 2006 6:04 pm, Blogger Justin Jefferson said...


Why do you think voucherisation would probably wind up with an even more intense 'dog-eat-dog, league-tables form of education which would be aimed primarily at gaining admission to university?

Bear in mind that one of the main reasons for the certificate-mania that drives the demand for university places is that government has made so many livelihoods illegal without the government's permission. This favours professional vested interests who are able to use the occupational licensing laws to restrict numbers and supply. The result is to reduce the quality, quantity and diversity of services, and increase the cost - all in the name of consumer protection. The classic examples are medicine and law. If the libertarian policy (or dream) of freeing people from the government's dead hand were realised, many people would choose just to get on with life and enter the calling of their choice when they want, not waste years of their life on ridiculous non-degrees like 'human resources, 'recreation' and 'community service', many of which are a mere meal-ticket to employment in a government department - a perversion of university education.

I think the voucherisation of state education, with or without the abolition of occupational licensing, would give rise to a great diversity of different educational services, for the simple reason that people have diverse interests and wants. Some people would want their or their child's learning concentrated on academia, others on technical trades, others on religion, others on music, others perhaps on creative thinking or personal happiness. Probably schools would develop aimed at young people who want to work as a professional musician, or sportsman. There is no reason to think that responding to the diverse demand in the community would result in a narrowing of the supply of services.

My wife visited mainland China in 1977. She told me the whole population had one model of footwear: plastic sandals in two colours: red or blue. Yet if one had suggested privatising the shoe industry there, no doubt some would have said “What! You want to sacrifice us to the selfishness of capitalists? Who would oversee quality control? And do you expect the poor to go barefoot?” Capitalists, lacking the wise concern of the state for the whole society, would probably reduce the choice and quality available, right? Wrong. The idea that governments have a superior wisdom and can know and achieve anything we want, by using coercion to mould their fellow human beings like plasticine, is simply wrong. State schooling is incapable of producing the quality, variety and economy of a market system.

To imagine that the government can do better is to argue a point which socialists have already lost both in theory and practice, over and over and over again. If the arguments for state schooling were true, there would be no need for human freedom. We could just vest all property and power in the state and have them design away - and voila - the perfect society! But that's wrong, isn't it?

Do not doubt that the genius, motivation and diversity of human freedom, constrained only to avoid force and fraud, can do better than the vast empire of fraud, coercion and vested interests in mediocrity that is state schooling.

But even if you doubt it, why should some people be forced to sacrifice their values and their freedom to give others the benefit of a doubt in favour of an economic superstition? If I believe in goblins and fairies, should I have a right to force others to attend places of worship for them?

You may not be interested in the disproofs, but of course if you don't read them, you won't know about them. If are interested in a complete and utter refutation of all arguments in favour of state schooling, see:
Then go to Marks, Benjamin 'Archipelagos of Educational Chaos'.

It is important to understand that no rational argument in favour of state schooling remains. It is a racket and a fraud.

“Are you really gonna say "the market or the state" and then hand me only one bullet? “

No, I'm gonna say “the market” and then hand everyone many freedoms.

At September 27, 2006 6:07 pm, Blogger Jono said...

Great post, I agree entirely with the points being raised.

Too often we hear of education "experts", "advisors" and "committees" that decide what tens of thousands of students will be taught.

In the debates about public education, very little mention is made of parents priorities, values and freedoms. The focus is entirely on "the system" and using some arbitrary (and often unreliable) benchmark or metric to gauge performance, and justify further funding increases.

In a truly free unregulated market, there would be terrific market incentives for schools to compete, cut costs and satisfy the demands of parents. Private education wouldn't be considered the domain of the wealthy, any more than private goods like mobile phones or televisions are considered common goods today.

At September 28, 2006 4:51 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Justin, I may have been hyperbolising a bit, as I am open to incorporating vouchers into any progressive policy.

But, and correct me if I'm wrong, voucherisation attempts to make education into more of a family and an indivdual concern. As opposed to a state concern.

I'd be inclined to support this if I felt that in 2006 Australia we had a robust understanding of family; that family acted as a kind of broad-minded and flexible mediator between the individual and society. I don't feel this way.

I think that over the last 50+ years, family has been devalued by processes of economic individualisation (and other outgrowths of classical liberalism). Also, I think there has been a strong backlash to this , which harks back to traditional, outdated and disempowering notions of family.

And I think John Howards government (somehow!) represents both these tendencies.

And so I believe that a likely voucherisation process would effectively empower the individual; that it would make education a more self-contained, competitive activity. This is something I disagree with (and Hiren too?)

But that's not the point. The point is more objective than that. The 2006 individual is an aspirational individual. He aspires to get ahead, and - more and more- doesn't mind who he or she steps on to get there. Directly playing to this type of thinking is only going to exacerbate this already exisiting phenomenon.

Coonans new (and rigid) A-E report card format is a perfect example. Education is devalued; it is trandformed into - in this case- a letter. In other cases, a number.
Full fee places are the logical end-point of this process (well if you want we can push forward to questions of job satisfaction and division of labour) and they too are experiencing an up-surge.

I simply dont accept the market as a mechanism for providing appropriate diversity and quality in schooling. Frankly, arguments of efficiency and economic growth rely on a direct comparison with state systems and are open to theoretical debate. Efficiency is also open to a debate about whether it is a worthy goal in this context.

So here's what I think, without having seen details of any voucherisations cheme: That schools would develop to directly serve market niches, very little more, very little less.

I reject this as an outcome and i again assert that voucherisation will likely lead to a nakedly capitalist education system where quality of education will be one of the first casualties. In a side point, diversity is more than skin deep. And an education entails much more depth than a shoe.

OK, so assuming you go along with all of that (:-) You can still say, 'yeah, but the state is much worse and don't you believe in freedom?' Which is basically what you did in the second half of your comment.

Of course am sceptical of the state and am open to alternative solutions - that's why i hang around these parts sometimes. And of course i believe in freedom, universal freedom actually. But as a starting ideal. One that is incredibly diificult to achieve, and which is quite hollow on its lonesome.

And yes, I believe that the market inhibits freedom just as the state does.

I think you - and most libertarians - understand government in quite a narrow way, with your eyes trained too specifically on a certain period in time. Easy for me to say, I never lived through Stalin or Mao, and so formed my opinions largely without Cold War Baggage. The flipside of this is that I can be picked up for naivety from time to time.

Government is the representative of the people. There are many different forms. The only ones that are acceptable to me are democratic and thus relatively uncoercive. But there are massive debates over types of democracy. I believe in a democracy that effectively is the people, as close as practically possible. I believe in a government that is the people and represents their wishes, hopes and dreams in a much more representative and rounded way than the market ever can. I am not simply a consumer. Nor am i simply a citizen as currently understood.

Like you libertarians, my dream is far-fetched and barely exists in reality (where it does you guys are unlikely to see it, mistaking it for old school socialism or communism or, maybe, as anti-globalisation.) Also, as for you guys, every policy can work towards the dream, while acknowledging that it is occuring in a different context, and will therefore have different outcomes in practise to that in theory - particularly when the theory is formulated with the assumption of absolutely free markets.

And so believe me when I say that i

Do not doubt that the genius, motivation and diversity of human freedom, constrained only to avoid force and fraud,

I just understand it very differently

Cheers for the link: One day I might visit the Mises institute, but not before i've given myself a basic grounding in economics.

At October 10, 2006 9:34 pm, Blogger Justin Jefferson said...

Your post assumes that you know better than people do for themselves. Sounds dubious to me, but what about you? Do you accept other people, on the ground that they have superior wisdom, deciding on your behalf what you should be permitted to do with your life so as to fit into their opinions of how they would like to shape your actions, your thoughts, and your being? Why should other people accept it from you?

All governments use coercion - police, handcuffs, guns, mace, lock-ups etc. - to force people to obey them. The difference with a democracy is that a majority are supposed to be in favour of the law, and the government should itself obey the law. However neither the fact of a majority nor formal legal validity, of themselves, make the use of force either 'less coercive', or more ethical. If the majority vote for a minority to be abused or exploited, and the legislature validly enacts it in law, it doesn't mean that the threat of police, guns and prison to enforce it is 'less coercive'. By the same token, the government can make something that is legal, illegal; but it cannot somehow make an abuse that is unethical, ethical. Democracy's guarantee of freedoms is no better than the prevailing cultural beliefs in favour of, or against, liberty.

As for government 'representing' the people, the fact is, the representative system provides no way of knowing whether the people are in favour of, or against, any given law, because the voters have no opportunity to vote on any proposed law (except a referendum). People vote on a bundle of policies, which politicians routinely change and lie about. Does politicians' superannuation 'represent' the wishes of the people?

You talk of 'blind faith' in the market, as if the idea of the market being able to provide a service were an unevidenced and speculative hypothesis. Until the day that a government, any government, is able on a dollar-for-dollar basis to provide a service, any service, that is equal in quality, innovation, diversity, or quantity to what the free market provides, the suspicion of blind faith must be reversed.

Education is important, but food is moreso. We supply ourselves with food through a free market. Imagine that for the last one hundred years food, on account of its social importance, had been supplied by a government department with a uniform menu for the whole population.

Someone now suggests that we abolish the government's intervention and let the market provide the services. Some people who don't know better might worry that people will starve in the streets, and that standards will go to hell in a handbasket. But we know that the variety, quality and cost are incomparably better under a free market than they would ever be under a government department.

State schooling produces a consistently second-rate result and higher costs. Belief in state schooling displays an ideology-based evidence-resistant blind faith in government.

The idea of government protecting quality standards in education is positively laughable. State schooling is itself the biggest depression in the academic landscape.

If you read some basic economics you will find out why. (Hint: governments are intrinsically incapable of rationally economising resources so as to achieve customer satisfaction.)

At October 10, 2006 9:41 pm, Anonymous Sukrit said...




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