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.