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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Government Failure: E.G. West on Education

Compulsory Government Schooling Is a Dismal Failure

This illuminating book was designed to commemorate the achievements and to spread the ideas of the late Edwin G. West. Professor West, who lived from 1922 to 2001, did pioneering work in the economics and history of education, and his studies have been critical in refuting the pretensions of government education. Those who wish to show that government fails to educate students well and to restore a free market in education will find that E.G. West was one of their greatest allies.

Gathered here are nine of West’s essays on education. Professor James Tooley, who has made great contributions to the debate over government-provided education himself, writes in his introduction that he initially approached West’s work with the intention of refuting it. As he read and thought about West’s arguments, however, he found himself being won over. “For me, the fact that governments rightfully intervened in education was a taken-for-granted norm—so taken for granted that it didn’t really come up in discussion,” he writes. “Any deviance from the status quo—such as moves towards markets in education—needed to be justified, not state intervention itself. E.G. West’s argument threatened to completely overturn this cosy presumption.”

West’s first discovery—still normally ignored in schools, departments, and institutes of education—was that, before the Forster Act of 1870 established the first tax-funded schools in England and Wales, school attendance and literacy rates were well above 90 percent. The educational situation in the United States at roughly the same time seems to have been sufficiently similar for Milton and Rose Friedman, while they were working on their book Free to Choose, to change their minds about government compulsion and funding by examining the works of West. Friedman would later recommend that the Hoover Institution give West the first Alexis de Tocqueville Award for the Advancement of Education Freedom. Friedman himself made the presentation.

West’s wider international influence appears to have been greater than his effective influence on either the United Kingdom or the United States. The movement toward educational choice in America has been minimal, owing to the vociferous opposition of the education establishment to any movement whatever away from the status quo. In Britain, under the government of John Major, a limited voucher system known as Assisted Places was established, but, as the editors appear to have overlooked, it was immediately abolished by the incoming Blair administration in 1999.

The prime evidence of West’s wider influence is provided by the fact that he was commissioned to produce, and duly produced, two papers for the International Finance Corporation (IFC, the private finance arm of the World Bank). Those papers were entitled “Education with and without the State” and “Education Vouchers in Practice and Principle: A World Survey.” They actually succeeded in persuading the IFC and World Bank to revise their education policy to favor a greater role for the private sector.

Much of West’s work was focused on the economics of politics (or Public Choice economics, as it is now called). As he said, “Benevolent government does not exist. The political machinery is . . . in fact, largely . . . operated by interest groups, vote-maximizing politicians and self-seeking bureaucracies.” As the writings of Myron Lieberman have taught us, the teachers unions are among the most powerful of such “self-seeking bureaucracies.” West led the way in demonstrating the utter folly of expecting good educational results from a system dominated by the producers rather than the consumers of education services.

A particularly fascinating contribution in the current volume is chapter 5, “The Economics of Compulsion,” in which West used his knowledge both of history and Public Choice economics to show that the compulsion to attend school has never been a major cause either of increased school attendance or any general improvement in human behavior.

The final essay in the book, “Education without the State,” speculates as to how much better off education consumers would have been if Britain had not taken the steps to establish universal tax-supported schooling. He concludes with these words of advice, “The choice of school movement, it is maintained, has been to a large extent misinformed. What is needed is choice in education.”

The work of E.G. West is being continued by the E.G. West Centre, based in the school of education at the University of Newcastle. Established in 2002, the Centre is the only university research center in the United Kingdom dedicated to developing market solutions in education.

Those who seek to move away from the government-schooling monopoly, whether in the Britain, America, or elsewhere in the world, will find this book to be of enormous value.

  • Antony Flew was an English philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, Flew was most notable for his work related to the philosophy of religion. During the course of his career he taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto.