All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1995

School Choice, 1886 Style

Who Should Teach Our Children?

Zach Montgomery, nominated in 1886 for Assistant Attorney General, was falsely accused of having advocated the teaching of Roman Catholicism in the public schools. To be confirmed, he had to defend his position in the U.S. Senate. He was critical, he said, not of the public schools’ teachings but of their anti-parental control by the political State.

[T]he chief vice of the [public school] system lies in its usurpation of parental authority, and in its attempting to do for each child, through political agencies, that which can be properly done by nobody else in the world, except by its own father and mother. . . . The question which we are discussing . . . is not whether the Bible ought or ought not to be read in school; nor whether “Johnson’s Cyclopedia” is a proper book for school libraries; nor whether a particular class of teachers are or are not the best adapted to school work; . . . nor whether the teaching of religion and the physical sciences ought or ought not to go hand in hand, nor whether good children, who have been carefully and morally trained at home, ought or ought not to be sent to the same school with the vicious and depraved, with the view of reforming the latter. That there is a wide and an honest difference of opinion amongst the American people as to these questions no candid and intelligent citizen will deny. And accepting this honest difference of opinion as an existing fact, the question which we now propose to discuss is this: Does it rightfully belong to the political state to determine these questions for parents and children, and to compel them to submit to its decision? . . .

If the political State has the legitimate power and the rightful jurisdiction to make a binding decision the question—whether it be in favor of or against the use of the Bible in the school—its decision must be equally binding . . . [I]f the State may rightfully, and without trenching upon the doctrine of religious liberty, forbid the teaching of the Bible in the schools, to the children of parents whose judgments and consciences demand such teaching, or may enforce the teaching of the Bible to the children of those whose judgments and consciences are opposed thereto, it then follows as a matter of course, that the State must have jurisdiction to decide as to which one of all the various versions and translations of the Bible is the correct one. . . . Not only that, but if the State can . . . enforce the teaching of such Bible in the schools, against the judgments and consciences of the parents of the children who are so taught, it must also have jurisdiction to decide, as between conflicting interpretations, which is the meaning of the various texts of the Bible. . . .

[W]e are not discussing the question as to what kind or whether any religion ought or ought not to be taught to children; but we are only considering the question as to whether or not it rightfully belongs to the “political State” to determine that question, and in doing so, to override the judgments and consciences of the fathers and mothers of children. . . .

[I]n our humble opinion, the true and proper course to be pursued by the friends of educational reform is to keep prominently before the people as the fundamental, the vital issue, this question, namely: Shall the parent or the political State determine for a child who shall be its teacher, its companions, and what books it shall or shall not study?


—Zach Montgomery
The School Question

When Is Price Too High?

On the first day of my college Principles of Economics class I often ask students to bring a list of at least five things which they think cost too much. Since I allow them to do this anonymously a few wise guys will start off with such things as cigarettes and beer. But most students approach the assignment seriously.

I quickly dispense with the more frivolous items by suggesting they learn to roll their own cigarettes—something many of them have never heard of—and brew their own beer. After thinking it over they usually decide it is worth the price to have their cigarettes rolled and their beer brewed commercially.

This lays the groundwork for a more serious discussion of how much they estimate it would actually cost for them to produce the “overpriced” items themselves. In most cases they would have to obtain raw materials, arrange for their transport, hire workers, build factories, and so on. The students soon come to realize that they couldn’t produce the things they want at any price. They begin to understand the specialization of labor, the complementary function of capital investment, and the role of entrepreneurs in bringing together the factors of production, capital, as well as skilled and specialized workers. Then they begin to look at prices in a different light.

—Roger Clites
Professor Clites teaches at Tusculum College in Tennessee.

How to Get from Here to There

It is not difficult to criticize current government programs. With some understanding of basic free market principles, it is also possible to describe the ideal free market society of private enterprise and open competition. But it is not so easy to outline steps to take us from here to there, from our present hampered market economy, to, or at least toward, a free market.

Granted, it wouldn’t be easy for everyone to adjust if their subsidies and protective regulations were removed. Producers and consumers of many goods and services, who have become accustomed to government subsidies and/or government-guaranteed “protection,” would have to learn to be self-reliant. They would have to rely for support, not on the taxpayers, but on those who actually used their goods or services. But such adjustments are possible.

At times when government interventions become intolerable, people begin to ignore them even while the subsidies and regulations are still in place. Innovative and ingenious individuals conceive of new solutions to old problems that fall outside the purview of government controls and regulations. For instance, government postal systems throughout the world are already being superseded by private express delivery services, telephones, fax machines, and e-mail. The public schools are being increasingly bypassed by parents who homeschool or send their children to private schools. And when government money systems have been inflated until commercial transactions become impossible, people turn to barter and alternate moneys. Under present conditions, only the gold standard can rescue us from the ever-present threat of inflation. Yet few economists have given much thought to “privatizing” money and reviving gold as money. In this issue, several articles discuss this problem and review the proposals that have been made for restoring the gold standard.

—Bettina Bien Greaves
November Guest Editor