All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1995

Education vs. Democracy

Is Democracy Really Good for Education?

Part of the allure of public, or, more precisely, government-run, education is its supposed democratic nature. Most citizens see a virtue in having the schools set in the arena of majority rule, where “the people” are said to be the ultimate decisionmakers. It is taken as self-evident that the greatest accountability is to be found in that arena and to even suggest removing the schools from the democratic process would deal a mortal blow to education.

But is democracy really good for education? The implicit belief in its goodness has gone too long unexamined. Democracy is sacred in American culture, and so to suggest that it is detrimental to anything is a secular heresy. Nevertheless, I’ll argue that democracy is inimical to education, if by “education” we mean the family-based assisting of children to become moral, competent, and well-rounded human beings.

The Essence of Democracy

A critique of democracy in the context of education can’t help but begin with a look at democracy per se. The sacred mantle draped over the democratic process obscures something rather profane. What is thought to be the rule of the majority turns out in actuality to be the rule of well-organized minorities, or special-interest groups.[1] A chief reason for that fact is the phenomenon, discussed at length in the Public Choice literature, of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits. Most government programs entail a small cost to any individual (although the aggregate cost may be immense). Thus, most people will have little incentive to actively oppose a given program; it just isn’t worth the time and effort. In contrast, the benefits are great to a smaller, well-organized group of citizens. It will pay them, or the trade group they support, to lobby energetically for “their program.” That essentially is why the United States has programs to benefit farmers and steel manufacturers, for instance, though consumers of farm products and steel far outnumber producers of farm products and steel.

That unromantic fact about democracy—that well-organized minorities not unorganized majorities rule—is well established in the literature of political economy.[2] As important as it is, however, it’s not crucial to the present purpose. After all, it is a secondary issue whether majorities impose on minorities or minorities impose on majorities. Of primary importance is that someone imposes something on someone else. I find it peculiar indeed that freedom and democracy should so often be coupled when by its nature, democracy requires that some people be forced to abide by the will of others. What leads so many to embrace this dubious idea is the belief that democracy is the only peaceful alternative to autocracy, in which one person’s will is imposed on everyone. Let someone get wind of your aversion to democracy and sooner or later you’ll be accused of favoring authoritarianism. (America’s greatest antidemocrat, H. L. Mencken, was so accused repeatedly.)

It seems not to have occurred to the enthusiasts of democracy that there is a third alternative: individual liberty. Or if they thought of that alternative, they rejected it as a comprehensive solution on the ground that public-goods and free-rider problems make some form of collective decision-making necessary at least for some purposes. Some things, it is said, cannot be left to the voluntary sphere, in particular, things that when provided to some are simultaneously provided to all and that are consumed nonrivalrously.[3] These twin traits are said to rob entrepreneurs of the incentive to produce any such good or service or, at least, to grossly underproduce them. In either case, the will of the people is thwarted. Governmental production, that is, coercive, tax-financed provision, is proposed as a remedy for such “market failure.” That theory, for all its elegance, has taken a beating in the last few decades from a variety of economists, political scientists, and game theorists. It seems that there is less to the public-goods problem than meets the eye.[4]

The Free-Rider Argument

Theorists have made an equally important counterargument with respect to the purported solution to the alleged problem, namely, government. Several authors have exposed the free-rider objection to the market as a boomerang: when hurled at the advocates of the market, it circles back to hit the thrower square in the back of the neck. In other words, the same objections made to voluntarism are applicable to the state. Any generally beneficial government services are provided to all and are consumed nonrivalrously. Taxation is supposed to overcome that problem, but the problem runs deeper than that. Why should any individual citizen participate in a campaign for generally beneficial legislation or decent candidates when he can free-ride on the efforts of others? Why should anyone vote? One vote makes little difference. If the free-rider problem is insurmountable, legislation and candidates that would truly benefit all citizens will be “underproduced” by the political system. That leads to the preponderance of special-interest government action referred to earlier. Such action bestows great benefits on a relatively small group, while spreading the costs across the whole of society. Moreover, unlike in the market, when a “public good” is obtained through government, the beneficiary group pays only a small portion of the costs, since government shifts most of the expense to the taxpayers. “This makes it possible for organized groups to get the state to provide bogus public goods, goods and services which in fact cost much more than the beneficiaries would be willing to pay even if exclusion were possible and they could not free-ride. In this manner, the state generates externalities, and ones that are negative. Rather than overcoming the free-rider problem, the state benefits free-loaders. . . .”[5]

The advocates of democracy believe that the free-rider problem can be overcome; after all, many people vote. But if that’s so, why then can’t it also be overcome in the marketplace? Could it be the case that the free-rider phenomenon is not necessarily insurmountable?[6]

Those problems aside, it is far from clear that the public-goods problem even applies to education. Nonpayers can be excluded from the schoolhouse. Moreover the resources used in education are scarce and thus are consumed rivalrously.[7] The only sense in which there is a free-rider phenomenon—everyone benefits from a well-educated society even if we don’t pay for others’ education—applies equally well to myriad features of society. Indeed, the very notion of society includes spillover benefits from people’s self-interested activities. Spontaneous orders, such as custom, the market, money, and language, by definition include what economists call positive externalities. But that is no reason for government to take over those institutions. As a matter of fact, most of the benefits would disappear if government did so.


The essence of democracy, as I’ve said, is that one group imposes its will on another. Let’s see how that’s so. In a representative democracy, such as the United States, citizens typically vote not on particular issues but for members of legislatures and school boards. The “representatives” then vote on legislation and policies to govern their particular jurisdictions. Obviously, all those votes entail losers. Citizens who voted for the losing candidates are bound nonetheless by the winners’ decisions, and citizens whose representatives are on the losing side of legislative votes are likewise bound by the decisions of the representatives who prevail. (We’ll skip the added complication that representatives often break campaign promises.)

A classic defense of the system was made in an essay by Anthony Downs, who wrote:

The basic arguments in favor of simple majority rule rest upon the premise that every voter should have equal weight with every other voter. Hence, if disagreement occurs but action cannot be postponed until unanimity is reached, it is better for more voters to tell fewer what to do than vice versa. The only practical arrangement to accomplish this is simple majority rule. Any rule requiring more than a simple majority for a passage of an act allows a minority to prevent action by the majority thus giving the vote of each member of the minority more weight than the vote of each member of the majority.[8]

The late liberal Italian jurist and political scientist Bruno Leoni, however, demolished Downs’ argument that majority rule assumes that “every voter should have equal weight with every other voter.” He pointed out that in fact “we give much more `weight’ to each voter ranking on the [winning] side . . . than to each ranking on the [losing] side. . . . The fact that we cannot possibly foresee who will belong to the majority does not change the picture much.”[9] In other words, Leoni argued, when a bare majority prevails in an electorate of 100, 51 have the weight of 100 and 49 the weight of zero.[10]

The problem, of course, is that the legislative process is a winner-take-all matter. That fact refutes the various attempts of political scientists to liken the process to the marketplace. As Leoni noted:

Only voters ranking in winning majorities (if for instance the voting rule is by majority) are comparable to people who operate on the market. Those people ranking in losing minorities are not comparable with even the weakest operators on the market, who at least under the divisibility of goods (which is the most frequent case) can always find something to choose and to get, provided they pay the price.[11]

In the legislative process, Leoni argued, you either get what you asked for or you get nothing. “Even worse, you get something that you do not want and you have to pay for it just as if you had wanted it.”[12] That makes the legislative process, he added, more like the battlefield than the marketplace. In an imaginative application of the Ludwig von Mises’ criticism of socialism, Leoni also compared the legislative representative to the central economic planner; by the very nature of their systems, both are cut off from information that is critical to the jobs they are theoretically doing because the spontaneous processes that produce that information are squelched. As he put it:

No solemn titles, no pompous ceremonies, no enthusiasm on the part of applauding masses can conceal the crude fact that both the legislators and directors of a centralized economy are only particular individuals like you and me, ignorant of 99 percent of what is going on around them as far as the real transactions, agreements, attitudes, feelings, and convictions of people are concerned.[13]

Democracy and the Schools

We see the truth of those insights in the controversies over education. In school districts throughout the nation, communities are torn over such issues as whether condoms should be distributed, whether young children should be exposed to the issue of homosexuality, whether books offensive to parents should be required reading, whether reading should be taught by the “whole language” method instead of phonics, whether and what values shall be taught, and so on. Since a majority vote of school-board members decides those controversies, parents represented by members voting in the minority are effectively disfranchised. They must abide by the majority decision. Even if they take their children out of the schools, they must go on paying for a system they abhor.

An additional problem with democratic rule over schools is that nonparents have the same voting rights as parents, despite the greater stake of the latter. The public-goods theory of education (see above) is invoked to tax everyone in a community, including nonparents and people with grown children, to support the government schools. But if those people are taxed, they must also be permitted to vote or else they become victims of taxation without representation. Thus the votes of parents are diluted by people who, at best, have only a small stake in the schools. As John Chubb and Terry Moe have written:

The fundamental point to be made about parents and students is not that they are politically weak, but that, even in a perfectly functioning democratic system, the public schools are not meant to be theirs to control and are literally not supposed to provide them with the kind of education they might want. The schools are agencies of society as a whole, and everyone has a right to participate in their governance. Parents and students have a right to participate too. But they have no right to win. In the end, they have to take what society gives them.[14]

Government schools, in other words, are not the agents of parents and their children. Others besides them pay and therefore help call the tune. That inevitably turns the schools into laboratories for social engineering. No parent would want children’s shoe stores run that way. It is hard to believe that’s the education system parents would choose, given a free choice.

Democratic control of schools, then, necessarily usurps parents’ child-raising authority. The big decisions—such as the selection of schools and curricula—are made by others. Whatever the intentions, government schools rob families of essential freedom and responsibility.[15] From any standpoint, it cannot be good for parents to bring children into the world expecting someone else to educate them. Considering that the most critical factor in the success or failure of children’s education is the family, a school system that devitalizes families would seem a particularly self-defeating institution.

Democracy also bureaucratizes schools. Since government schools procure their revenue and students by compulsion, and do not face a profit-and-loss test, the normal accountability of a firm to its customers is absent. Simply put, parents cannot take their business elsewhere. If they wish to change school policy, they must undertake a costly campaign to elect a new school board. But that strategy is plagued by the free-rider problem discussed above. The contrast, in this regard, between a democratic institution and a market institution could not be more stark. Lord Beveridge put the problem in general terms:

In a totalitarian State or in a field already made into a State monopoly, those dissatisfied with the institutions that they find can seek a remedy only by seeking to change the Government of the country. In a free society and a free field they have a different remedy; discontented individuals with new ideas can make a new institution to meet their needs. The field is open to experiment and success or failure; secession is the midwife of invention.[16]

Bureaucratic schools display all the features of classic bureaucracies: poor service, inefficiency, bloated budgets, empire-building, turf-protection, capture by special interests such as teachers unions, and more. In his great work Bureaucracy, Mises showed that a bureaucracy’s “main concern is to comply with the rules and regulations, no matter whether they are reasonable or contrary to what was intended.”[17] As Chubb and Moe wrote:

Institutions of democratic control are inherently destructive of school autonomy and inherently conducive to bureaucracy. This happens because of the way all the major participants—politicians, interest groups, bureaucrats—are motivated and empowered by their institutional setting to play the game of structural politics. . . . Schools, we believe, are the products of their institutional settings. . . . Our reasoning is that much of [the bureaucratization of the schools] is an inevitable and logical consequence of the direct democratic control of schools.[18]

In sum, then democratic rule produces schools that are unaccountable, detrimental to families, bureaucratic, and incompatible with individual freedom. What does anyone see in them?[19]

Bruno Leoni may not have had schools in mind when he lamented the “large area occupied” by democratic rule, but his insight is fully applicable to them.

I am convinced that the more we manage to reduce the large area occupied at present by group decisions in politics and in the law, with all their paraphernalia of elections, legislation, and so on, the more we shall succeed in establishing a state of affairs similar to that which prevails in the domain of language, of common law, of the free market, of fashion, of customs, etc., where all individual choices adjust themselves to one another and no individual choice is ever overruled.[20]

The task of shrinking that large area now under occupation by the political authorities can begin at no better place than the government schoolhouse.

1. To sum it up in an aphorism: “Democracy: in theory, the tyranny of the majority; in practice, the tyranny of minorities.” Of course, I’m using minorities here in the purely numerical sense.

2. The classic work on this and related issues is Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971). I leave aside here the valid point that even democratic governments achieve an important degree of autonomy from those they purportedly represent. See Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 63.

3. The classic case was held to be a lighthouse. Nonpayers can use the light as well as payers, and no one’s use diminishes the beam. Thus, it was said that the market would not produce, or would underproduce, lighthouses. Broadcast television and radio seem to have the same characteristics—which should lead to some skepticism that they rule out profitable provision in the market.

4. For example, Nobel laureate Ronald Coase discovered that lighthouses were provided privately in England for more than a century before being taken over by the government. For Coase’s paper and for other critical analyses of the public-goods problem, see Tyler Cowen, ed., The Theory of Market Failure (Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press/Cato Institute, 1988). David Friedman points out that without a market, the government would not know if the value of, say, a dam, exceeds the cost. See also, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (1973; LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989), pp. 135-43, as well as David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government: An Essay on the Public Goods Argument (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991).

5. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Don Lavoie, “National Defense and the Public-Goods Problem” in Robert Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990), p. 44.

6. For a full discussion of these issues, see ibid. Also see Joseph P. Kalt, “Public Goods and the Theory of Government,” Cato Journal 1 (Fall 1981): 556-84. As I’ve heard Hummel put it, if the free-rider problem is soluble, state provision is unnecessary; if the problem is insoluble, state provision is impossible.

7. On whether the public-goods problem applies to education, see Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families, pp. 19-20, and E. G. West, Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy, 3rd edition, revised and expanded (1970; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1994).

8. Anthony Downs, In Defense of Majority Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), quoted in Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law, expanded 3d ed. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1991), p. 237.

9. Ibid.

10. Leoni agreed that simple majority rule is consistent with “strongly organized minorities” imposing their will. He finds proposals for supermajority rule no better. Ibid. p. 242ff. See James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1962).

11. Leoni, p. 235.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 23; see also pp. 20-23, 112-32.

14. John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990), p. 32. Emphasis added. Children, of course, get no vote at all.

15. Intentions have not always been praiseworthy. See Richman, pp. 37-52.

16. Lord Beveridge, Voluntary Action (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948), p. 58. Emphasis added.

17. Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy (1944; New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), p. 41. See also the classic by William A. Niskanen, Jr., Bureaucracy and Public Economics (Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar, 1994).

18. Chubb and Moe, pp. 47, 67, 183. Education bureaucracies suffer in microcosm from the same “knowledge problem” as socialist economies. See Sheldon Richman, “Knowledge, Ignorance, and Government Schools,” The Freeman 45 (June 1995): 340-43.

19. In Virginia, because of the number of students, some public-school children must eat lunch at 10:15 a.m. Do the schools serve the interests of children, or vice versa?

20. Leoni, p. 130.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.