All Commentary
Friday, August 1, 1975

Educational Freedom

Mr. Bixler, a recent graduate of Grove City College, has entered a management training program at Union Bank and Trust Company in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Those who champion the case for freedom are often confronted with criticisms of the ethics of the free market system — charges such as “free enterprise encourages selfish materialism,” and “the average consumer doesn’t know what is good for him,” or even “the free market ignores the poor.” The economist must often step outside the boundaries of pure economic theory in an attempt to show that the free market does not lead to these consequences.

One accusation frequently heard is that the free market inadequately provides certain important services. The reasoning usually is as follows:

1)  The free market leads to consequence A,

2)  This consequence is undesirable,

3)  Therefore, the free market should not be permitted.

As with any syllogism, a valid refutation must simply prove conclusively that the major premise is false. Economists have for many years been doing exactly that in their analyses of criticisms of the free market. For example, it was often contended that the free market caused business cycles and unemployment. This charge was thoroughly refuted by Ludwig von Mises who demonstrated that business cycles are caused by government intervention in the area of bank credit expansion. He explained that unemployment is caused by union or government action to keep wage rates above the free market level. He also showed that only coercive intervention, not private spending, can bring about inflation.

The science of economics provides no ultimate ethical judgments. It can only provide the data necessary in order to make such judgments. Pure economic theory involves the relationship between ends and means: how man uses scarce resources for satisfying his most urgent needs. It provides man with certain laws which are true regardless of whether man’s ends are altruistic, egoistic, vulgar, or refined. Today, however, with the preponderance of “welfare economics” and the corresponding interventions in the economy, the economist must not only explain the workings of the market, so that people may indeed frame their value judgments, but must also comment on the consequences of various political policies.

Therefore, when those who make government policy maintain that a certain coercive intervention will bring about a corresponding result, it is up to the economist to explain the consequences of that policy. By doing this he cannot advise as to the best possible route to pursue to achieve certain ends without committing himself to those ends. Thus an economist who is hired by a businessman commits himself to the ethical valuation that increasing the businessman’s profits is good. Similarly, an economist hired by the government to advise bureaucrats on the most efficient means of “stimulating the economy” is committing himself to the value judgment that intervention is desirable. Mises reflects on the relationship of the economist and government:

“… economics as such is a challenge to the conceit of those in power. An economist can never be a favorite of autocrats and demagogues. With them he is always the mischief-maker, and the more they are inwardly convinced that his objections are well founded, the more they hate him.¹”

We need not attempt here to determine whether the motives of those who make political policies are good or evil. Let us assume that their motives are good; that they are truly concerned with the well-being of each individual. On that basis, let us try to demonstrate how the policies conducted in one area, that of education, cannot possibly bring about the ends sought by those in power. It will be assumed that those who favor the present state-run compulsory system honestly believe that this is the best possible system for education. We cannot assume evil intent, but must rather hope that through logical reasoning it can be shown that the present system is indeed unworkable, immoral, and thus totally inconsistent with a truly free society.

Self-responsibility the Key

Let us first look at one major argument that not only is used as a defense for compulsory education, but is also applied to many other areas of government intervention. This is the charge that individuals do not always know their own self-interests best; and since this is supposedly the foundation upon which the case for laissez-faire rests, the state must intervene and any argument for the free market is invalidated. But the argument for the free market rests on a much more complex doctrine.

While it is impossible to elucidate here all the many arguments for freedom, what can be asserted is that everyone should have the right to be free to pursue his own interests as he deems best. It is folly to contend that consumers are never mistaken as to their best interests. But on the free market they are able to hire and consult with experts to give them advice. Those experts (doctors and lawyers, for example) whose advice proves most successful will reap the rewards, while poor ones will fail.

The government expert, on the other hand, acquires his fees through compulsion. There is no market test of his success in advising people of their own best interests, but only the test of his ability to curry political favor. Also, the government expert has no incentive to really care about his “clients,” as he is paid regardless, whereas the private expert has every conceivable incentive to look out for his client’s interests.

This leads us to the one fatal contradiction into which all proponents of government intervention are trapped: they assume that individuals do not know how to run their own affairs, or to hire experts to advise them, but yet are competent enough to elect officials who do know what is best for them. Presumably, all voters are eminently qualified to elect their rulers!

Perhaps the most trenchant argument used by those favoring public education is the belief that “everyone has a right to an education.” A close examination of this doctrine exposes its totalitarian implications. This “right” to an education entails the forced redistribution of income from some members of society to others: the robbing of Peter to pay Paul. Goods and services are not free. To say that one has a right to an education is to believe that some individuals are entitled to at least a portion, if not all, of the fruits of another man’s labor. It requires the existence of a group of exploited people who are to be coerced into providing the enumerated “right.”

Taking this argument to its logical conclusion provides a powerful indictment against public education. Since a person’s education is not strictly limited to his formal schooling, if one has a right to an education then logically he should have a right to virtually all educational media, including newspapers and magazines. An individual’s education is an ongoing process that continues throughout most, if not all, of his lifetime.

There is little doubt that most people would react with horror if the government were to set up a national newspaper chain and compel all people to read them. In addition, what would be the reaction if the government outlawed all other newspapers, or else gave authority only to those that adhered to certain standards set by a government commission? Clearly this would be a gross violation of the freedoms of speech and press. Nevertheless, this is exactly what has been established in the area of education. It is evident that scholastic freedom is not regarded as important as freedom of the press. But are such value judgments reasonable on the part of policy makers? Surely one could make a case for educational freedom being the more important, as it is in this area that the uninformed minds of children are involved.

A similar refutation of the argument for redistribution of income for compulsory education is provided by E. G. West, who draws an analogy between education and food:

Protection of a child against starvation or malnutrition is presumably just as important as protection against ignorance. It is difficult to envisage, however, that any government, in its anxiety to see that children have minimum standards of food and clothing, would pass laws for compulsory and universal eating, or that it should entertain measures which lead to increased taxes or rates in order to provide children’s food, “free” at local authority kitchens or shops. It is still more difficult to imagine that most people would unquestionably accept this system, especially where it had developed to the stage that “for administrative reasons” parents were allocated those shops which happened to be nearest their homes.²

In addition, if one believes that it is right to take a certain percentage of the fruits of a man’s labor through property taxes, why not take all of it for use in education? Undoubtedly there would be great achievements in education if this were done: modern schools, highly paid teachers and administrators, and thus “better educated” students. Similarly, why force an individual to attend school for only eleven years? Wouldn’t it be far better if the government would force all persons to go to school all of their lives? Americans would truly be the most educated people in the world!

The Parent or the State?

Unquestionably the central issue is quite simply whether the parent or the state should exercise ultimate control and responsibility for the upbringing of the child. There is no middle ground on this question, as no third party has ever been proposed or found with the authority to seize and rear the child. I would contend that the parents are the natural overseers of the child. They are the literal producers of the child and are thus bound to him with ties of love as well as responsibility. Who else but the parents know best the individual interests and needs of their children?

The alternative to parental responsibility is state control. What are the results of this alternative? Again it is helpful to analyze the nature of private versus government management of certain undertakings. As we have pointed out, it is inherent in the nature of a bureaucracy to be inefficient and unresponsive to consumer demand. Government must seek to impose a uniform set of rules throughout its jurisdiction. If it did not, surely the people would charge discrimination and special privilege. All taxpayers must be treated alike. Such is the predicament of the public school bureaucrat. In deciding the exact pattern of formal schooling in his area, he must choose between different, and often controversial, alternatives. Should the schools stress liberal arts or vocational training? socialism or free enterprise? religion or secularism? Should they be integrated or segregated? Certainly there will always be at least some parents and students who will not receive the type of education they desire. Hence, the inevitable conflict which is inherent in any system based on force. The more that government decisions replace private decision-making, the more the various groups of parents will be at each other’s throats in order to supplant standards with their ideas of proper methods.

We see this conflict today, not only over questions of what is to be taught, but also over the issue of forced busing of students. Here is abundant evidence of government attempts to bring about uniformity and equality in the educational system. Protests and demonstrations over the busing question are commonplace. One wonders, however, if these same parents see the glaring inconsistency of their position. A substantial majority oppose busing, but forget that they also vote to force others to pay for their children’s education and to force all children to go to the schools. In this light the questions of forced busing, or the use of questionable textbooks, seem relatively minor. How can they conceivably favor the potential use of physical force against students who do not wish to attend school, while at the same time believing it is wrong to bus students for the purpose of achieving a racial balance? This is undoubtedly a double standard of the most flagrant order.

Can we be surprised that government education leads to conflicts and violence in society ? After all, since the schools are “public property” aren’t the people who have paid taxes the real owners? Shouldn’t they then be allowed to exercise their right of control over the running of the schools? Indeed, a defender of the concept of public property is hard-pressed to justify bureaucratic control over property for which the taxpayers have been forced to pay.

In reality, the idea of public property or common ownership is erroneous. It implies that every citizen owns an equal share of property which is publicly owned. But no individual owns any part of public property. If one doubts this fact then let him attempt to claim his share and try to sell it, and then have this upheld in any court. As F. A. Harper points out:

The corollary of the right of ownership is the right of disownership.

So if I cannot sell a thing, it is evident that I do not really own it.³

Thus all public property is simply the property of the rulers in power in the government at any one time. They alone have control over it and are the real owners of it.

How can we expect the public schools to teach the virtues of private property? Their very existence is based on aggression. The child is indoctrinated from an early age with the philosophy of collectivism, or the virtue of “majority rule.” Individuality is supressed in favor of equality. In the words of Murray Rothbard:

By imposing uniformity on the teaching of its charges, no matter how pure its intentions, the state begins the process of supplanting individual will with the will of the group, the collective conscience, the majority force. The majority, of course, is represented institutionally by the state and its leaders. Through this process the doctrine of obedience to the state comes to be stressed above all else. Tyranny is not the natural state for the free spirit of man. Tyranny must be learned, while diversity, spontaneity, and independence must be eradicated.4

Mrs. Isabel Paterson also comments on the tyranny of compulsory state education:

… every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings or the “will of the people” in “democracy.” Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost super-human task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey… A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.5

Still another powerful argument against compulsory education deals with the parent’s control over the child’s associates. Those who can’t afford to send their children to private schools or hire a tutor, must send their children to a public school. It is in the public school where most of the children are found who would not be there if it were not for the compulsory attendance law. Included are uneducable children, juvenile delinquents, and the like. Thus the state forces the parents to have their children associate with these types, regardless of the wishes of the parents or the children. In addition, those children who are unsuitable for, or uninterested in, the type of schooling presently available, and who would be much better off at home or working, are forced into school, making it worse both for them and the other students.

Incredible though it may seem, some people actually think that this is the outstanding virtue of public education. Exposure of all children to “all types of humanity” and the forcing of all children to learn about “life” is heralded as the great egalitarian goal of “progressive” educators and intellectuals. When confronted with this type of thinking it is indeed difficult not to deviate from the assumption that those making policy decisions are truly concerned about the welfare of the individual. This is especially true when one examines the writings of people such as Calvin Stowe, a mid-nineteenth century “educational reformer” who compared compulsory education to military duty:

If a regard to the public safety makes it right for a government to compel the citizens to do military duty when the country is invaded, the same reason authorizes the government to compel them to provide for the education of their children — for no foes are so much to be dreaded as ignorance and vice. A man has no more right to endanger the state by throwing upon it a family of ignorant and vicious children than he has to give admission to the spies of an invading army. If he is unable to educate his children the state should assist him — if unwilling, it should compel him. General education is a much more certain, and much less expensive, means of defense, than military array… as education… is provided by the parents, and paid for by those who do not profit by its results, it is a duty.6

As stated previously, the attempt here is to prove, through reason alone, that public education is wrong in principle and thus inconsistent with individual freedom. While forced to admit that state education is a major step toward tyranny, we must not divert from the central thesis of beneficial intent on the part of policy makers. For the moment we must hope that a clear and logical delineation of the arguments both for and against state control of education will provide a clear picture that allows the individual to make a rational choice. We must be optimistic that most people will turn away from the current ideology and be able to foresee the inevitable result before it is too late.

Sadly, however, most people do not even stop to think that there is an alternative to the present compulsory system. They believe that without a “free” education system based on coercion, the result would be some kind of new Dark Age, with the nation sinking into ignorance, crime, and violence. The assumption is that many people would not continue to desire an education. This ties in with the aforementioned argument of knowledge of self-interest. It is not logical to assume that the educational system, if left to the free market, would degenerate or be of inferior quality. To hold this belief is to also hold that without public garbage disposal, most people would leave their garbage lying around in the streets!

What kind of educational environment would exist if tax dollars were not used to support schools and if students were not forced to attend? In considering this question it is interesting to note what relative freedom has done to provide Americans with the highest standards of living in the world. Today Americans choose from an assortment of automobiles, food, entertainment, and so forth that people one hundred years ago would have thought impossible. Television, cars, and modern communication networks came into existence, not because of, but in spite of government intervention in the market. It would be illogical to believe that freedom in education would have produced anything in any way similar to today’s poorly-run state monopoly system.

Letting the market function unhampered in education would most likely produce an explosive and enthusiastic growth in the number of private voluntary schools. Parents would be free to send their children to trade schools, right-wing schools, left-wing schools, church controlled schools, “progressive” schools, or whatever type for which there was a sufficient demand. Those which satisfied their customers would flourish. Those which did not would have to close.

We have analyzed most of the major criticisms of a voluntary educational system as well as the various arguments for a continuation of the present system. We have tried to show that the current public education system is inconsistent with a free society; that instead of hastening educational progress, it has actually led to stagnation and conflict. Implicit in this analysis has been the most important question of all. This is: which system provides the most efficient means of satisfying human wants — the free market, or statism?

Coercion or Voluntary Exchange?

There are two ways for man to satisfy his needs: through the use of coercion (the threat of violence or force), or through freedom (the process of voluntary exchange). The science of economics provides man with the knowledge necessary to make the choice between these two alternatives. It tells us that the free market maximizes efficiency and productivity. There is mutual benefit. Every man gains because his gain is precisely the consequence of his bringing about the gain of others. Everyone earns according to his ability to satisfy consumer desires. There are incentives for production and a general rise in the standards of living. Under statism, the individual earns in proportion to the amount he can plunder from the producers of goods and services. There is the ultimate destruction of incentives and the lowering of living standards. One gains only at the expense of others.

No attempt to disregard the inexorable laws of economics in any way invalidates them. This is why Mises is correct when he states that the economist will always be the “mischief maker” with demagogues, for they are always reluctant to admit that they are subject to economic laws.

What answer shall we give to this ultimate question of freedom or statism? Mises leaves us with a sobering thought as to our decision:

The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.7

In the final analysis then, we must make our choice between freedom and tyranny. We must choose between harmony, prosperity and order on the one hand, and conflict, poverty and chaos on the other. For this writer, the choice is clear.


1Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949), p. 67.

² E. G. West, Education and the State ( London, 1965), pp. 13-14.

³F. A. Harper, Liberty, a Path to Its Recovery (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1949), p. 106.

4Murray N. Rothbard, Education, Free and Compulsory (Wichita, Kansas: Center for Independent Education, 1972), p. 11.

5 Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (New York, 1943), p. 25

6Calvin E. Stowe, The Prussian System of Public Instruction and its Applicability to the United States ( Cincinnati, 1830).

7Mises, op. cit., p. 885.