All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1964

The Case for the Free Market in Education


To grasp the limited role that government should play in human affairs, one need only know what government is: organized police force.’ This is not said in a de­rogatory sense but only by way of explanation. Personify govern­ment and the point is clear: The distinction between you as a pri­vate citizen and you as govern­ment is that as government you are backed by the constabulary. You issue an edict and I obey or suffer the consequences. Remove the constabulary and you are re­stored to private citizenship. You issue an edict and it has the same force as a resolution of a chamber of commerce. I do as I please. Essentially, the uniqueness of in­dividuals organized as government is that they are organized as police force.

Omitting the complex details, organized police force — govern­ment — has only the limited role of keeping the peace, that is, clearing the social arena of violence, fraud, misrepresentation, injustice. This much the government must do, and this only, to be consistent with any good theory of individual liberty.

My thesis is that when govern­ment exceeds its limited compe­tence and directs its police force into the management of peaceful pursuits — when government in­tervenes as boss rather than as guard — imbalances in the market place such as surpluses and short­ages must inevitably result. Nor does it matter what the peaceful pursuit is: food, housing, educa­tion, or whatever. A government guaranteed price for wheat above what people will freely pay will produce more wheat than people will freely buy: surplus. A gov­ernment enforced ceiling price on rents below what people will freely offer will produce less rental space than people are willing to pay for: shortage! Imbalance results no matter which way the police force throws its weight as boss in the market place.

Education is a peaceful, crea­tive, productive pursuit. When police force is wielded in the edu­cational market—just as in the commodity market — imbalance is the consequence. Chief among the distortions to be found in govern­ment education is that of an im­balance in types of knowledge; there is an excess of know-how relative to wisdom or under­standing.2

Police force functions as boss of education in three ways:

1.      Compulsory attendance

2.      Government dictated curricula

3.      Forcible collection of the wherewithal to pay the bills

Remove the police force — govern­ment as boss — and education is restored to the free, competitive market. Let us imagine that this has been done, that the entire educational endeavor rests exclu­sively on self-determination — as does organized religion in America today.

What would happen?

No One Knows!

Strange as it may seem, no one can know! Some will say that this admission is a retreat from my argument that education would be improved if left to the free, com­petitive market. On the contrary, it is in support of the free market as the sole, effective means of im­proving education.

If you are compelled to do as someone else dictates, if obstacles are placed in your way, if you are relieved of responsibilities, I can at least predict that you will not function to your fullest in a crea­tive sense. But no one can even roughly predict what wondrous things you will create if released from restraints and dictation, that is, if freed from obstacles. Indeed, you cannot make such predictions about yourself. What new idea will you have tomorrow? What inven­tion? What will you do if a new necessity, an unexpected responsi­bility, presents itself? We know that creativity will be increased, nothing more.

Confining the discussion to edu­cation, assume that you are no longer compelled to send Johnnie to school; no government commit­tee will prescribe what Johnnie must study; no government tax collector will take a penny of yours or anyone else’s income for school­ing. This, it must be emphasized, is the free market assumption.

Is Johnnie in any less need of learning than before? Are other persons — teachers, for instance —any less wise or less available for counsel and employment? Is there less money for educational pur­poses? If no longer compelled to pay the money in taxes, would you spend it on parties or cigarettes or alcohol or vacations rather than voluntarily spending it for John­nie’s education? If so, you value Johnnie’s education less than you value indulging yourself. In any event you make a choice — a choice that you obviously think to be the better alternative; scarcely anyone would claim that he had decided to choose what he values least when he could choose what he values most. Shall we say someone else thinks your judgment is bad if you decide in favor of vaca­tions, for instance, as against Johnnie’s education? Do you wish the person who thinks your choice is wrong forcibly to impose his notion of right on you? If so, just where are you going to draw the line as to what choices others are to make for you? To authorize others to make your choices is to give yourself the role of autom­aton. You can’t believe that your choice is the best and accept, at the same time, someone else’s ver­dict that it is the worst. This is utter nonsense. To apply police force to you is to contradict your judgments. If applied to others, it can only contradict their judg­ments. Who is the appropriate ruler of your educational pro­gram? You? Or others? Or a political committee which cannot be better than the lowest common denominator of others?3 The free market way relies not on one judg­ment for the millions but on mil­lions of individual judgments.

Religious Freedom

Why should not education be just as self-determined as reli­gion? Is education more important than religion? Americans condemn Russians, for instance, more for being ungodly than for knowing how to make little else than vodka and caviar that can compete in in­ternational trade. But do we not emulate the communists by favor­ing the employment of force in education? Applying police force to education is but man trying to act as a god, that is, trying to cast others in his own fallible image.

In the United States, we have rejected the police force as the proper way to determine one’s re­ligion. Are high moral standards and improving attitudes toward one’s life and the life of others —prime objects of religion — of less value than knowing how to read or to write or to add two and two? Indeed, are not both education and religion intimately personal mat­ters, one as much as the other? Is the education of another any more of my or your business than the religion of another?

In many countries — certainly in the U.S.A. — the idea of (1) be­ing compelled by government to attend churches, or (2) having the government dictate clergymen’s subject matter, or (3) having the expenses of religious institutions forcibly collected by the tax man, would be an affront to the citizens’ intelligence. Why do people believe in applying police force to educa­tion and letting religion rest on self-determination? Logically, there appears to be no basis for the distinction. Tradition, custom — living with a mistake so long that reason is rarely brought to bear — may be the explanation.

The Other Fellow!

Being a disbeliever in the man­agement by the police force of any creative activity, I have on count­less occasions asked individuals in various occupational levels if they would let their children go unedu­cated were all governmental com­pulsions removed. The answers given me have always been in the same vein. If you will try this yourself, you will be impressed with how alike the answers are: “Do you think I am a fool? I would no more let my children go without an education than I would let them go without shoes and stockings. BUT some forms of compulsion are necessary, for there are many persons who do not have the same concern for their children as I have.” And there you have it! Police force is never needed to manage me, only neces­sary for the other fellow! The other fellow’s weakness — the pos­sibility of his having no interest in himself or in his offspring — is far more imaginary than real. It is, for the most part, a fiction of the compulsory, collectivistic myth. Should you doubt this, try to find that rare exception, “the other fellow.” If every parent in this country were to consider au­thoritarianism in education as ap­plying only to himself and could divorce from his thinking the “in­competency of others,” there would be no police force applied to Amer­ican education. Let any reader of this essay, regardless of wealth status, honestly try this exercise and arrive at any other conclusion!

A child, from the time of birth until adulthood, is but the exten­sion of the parent’s responsibility. The child can no more be “turned out to pasture” for his education than for his morals or his manners or his sustenance. The primary parental responsibility for the child’s education cannot properly be shifted to anyone else; respon­sible parenthood requires that some things remain for one’s own attentions, no matter how entic­ingly and powerfully specializa­tion and division of labor may beckon one. And, the education of one’s children is a cardinal case in point.

This does not mean parents should not have help — a lot of specialized assistance — with their educational responsibility. It does mean that the parent cannot be re­lieved of the educational responsi­bility without injury to himself —that is, without injury to his own person and thus to the child who is but the extension of his per­sonal responsibility.

Importance of the Premise

According to the premise on which all of my own positions are based, man’s highest purpose in life is the unfolding of his own personality, the realization, as nearly as possible, of his creative potential, that is, his emergence, his hatching, his becoming.4 Such achievement presupposes that the educational process will go on through all of adulthood, as well as during childhood. Indeed, school for the child, if it is to have mean­ing, is but the preparation for a dynamic, continuing process of education. The test of whether or not any primary and secondary educational system is meeting the requirements of true education is: Does it set the stage for adult learning?

How does the application of po­lice force to education bear on this question? It tends to relieve par­ents of educational responsibili­ties, including the study that might have involved themselves. Compulsion — police-force-as-boss — says, in effect, to the parent: “Forget about the education of your child. We, acting as govern­ment, will compel the child to go to school regardless of how you think on the matter. Do not fret unduly about what the child will study. We, the agents of compul­sion, have that all arranged. And don’t worry about the financing of education. We, the instruments of authority, will take the fruits of the labor of parents and childless alike to pay the expenses. You, the parent, are to be relieved of any choice as to these matters; just leave it to the police force.”

These police-force-as-boss de­vices lead to two grave educational errors. First, the parent is robbed of the educational stimulus that would be his were he to be respon­sible for the education of his off­spring. Joe Doakes would be edu­cationally more fit if he had to understand what Johnnie is sup­posed to learn — if he were obliged to “keep his hand in.”

Second, these police force de­vices falsely earmark the educa­tional period. They say, ever so compellingly, that the period of education is the period to which the compulsion applies. The cere­monies of “graduation”— diplomas and licenses — if not derivatives of this system, are consistent with it. Government education is resulting in young folks coming out of school thinking of themselves as educated and concluding that the beginning of earning is the end of learning. If any devotee of govern­ment education will concede that learning ought to continue through all of life, he should, to be consis­tent, insist on compulsion for adults as well as for children — for the octogenarian as well as for the teen-ager. The system that is sup­posed to give all an equal start in life tends to put an end to learning just at the time when the spirit of inquiry should begin its most meaningful growth.5

Creative Energies Released

It was stated above that no one could have knowledge as to what would happen were there to be no more police-force-as-boss in educa­tion. That is correct concerning specifics and details, but there are generalizations which can be con­fidently predicted. For instance, one knows that creative energies would be released; that latent po­tential energies would turn to flowing, moving, power-giving, kinetic energies and activities. Creative thought on education would manifest itself in millions of individuals. Such genius as we potentially and compositely pos­sess would assert itself and take the place of deadening restraints. Any person who understands the free market knows, without any qualification whatsover, that there would be more education and bet­ter education. And a person with a faith in free men is confident that the costs per unit of learning accomplished would be far less. For one thing, there wouldn’t be any police boss to pay for. Nor would there be the financial irre­sponsibility that characterizes those who spend other people’s money. The free market is truly free: it is free of restraints against creative action; it presup­poses free exchange; its services are as free as the sun’s energy.”

Not only is this faith in unin­hibited, creative human energy rationally justified, but also there is evidence aplenty to confirm it. In other words, this faith is sup­ported both theoretically and pragmatically. Except in the minds of those who are tempera­mentally slaves — those who seek a shepherd and a sheep dog, those who are revolted by the thought of self-reliance, those who are ideologically attuned to authori­tarianism — there does not exist a single creative activity now being conducted by man in voluntary action that could be improved by subjecting it to the police-force-­as-boss. But put any one of these activities, now voluntarily con­ducted, under government control, leave it there for a short period, and general opinion would soon hold that the activity could not be conducted voluntarily!

Getting Used to It

A couple of decades from now, after the electric power industry has been nationalized for a few years — a likely event if present trends continue — there will be only a few people in America who will favor a return to private own­ership and operation. The vast majority will not understand how that activity could exist without police-force-as-boss and still serve the people. For confirmation of this point, note the many people today who believe that the rela­tively simple matter of mail de­livery could not be left to the free market without resulting in chaos.”

It is a detachment from reality, a blindness to the enormous evi­dence in support of freedom — like an unawareness of the air we breathe — that accounts for much of the lost faith in educational productiveness were the educa­tional system relieved of re­straints and compulsions. The re­straints, be it remembered, are in the form of taxes — the taking away of the wherewithal to fi­nance one’s own educational plan. The compulsions are in the form of forced attendance and dictated curricula.

For Restoring the Faith

Several aids to the restoration of a faith in free market educa­tion are:

1. Observe activities not yet socialized, that is, not conducted by police-force-as-boss, and how satisfied we are with free market operation. Also, note that people fare better in countries that are more free than in countries that are less free — without exception.

2. What is there which we know how to do, and for which there is an effective demand, which remains undone in Amer­ica? Not a thing except that which police force restricts! There are many thousands of in­dividuals — expert in educational techniques — who have know-how.

Effective demand? Can anyone argue with reason that there can be education of those who do not want it? The answer is the same as to the question, “What can any­one force another to learn?” You can push a pupil into the class­room, but you can’t make him think. For those who want educa­tion — and they can never have it if they do not want it — will have education. Authoritarianism is an­tagonistic to the extremely sensi­tive spirit of inquiry, the will to learn. Remove all police-force-as­-boss, and we remove education’s chief obstacle.

3. While one cannot know of the brilliant steps that would be taken by millions of education-conscious parents were they and not the government to have the educa­tional responsibility, one can im­agine the great variety of coop­erative and private enterprises that would emerge. There would be thousands of private schools, large and small, not necessarily unlike some of the ones we now have. There would be tutoring ar­rangements of a variety and in­genuity impossible to foresee. No doubt there would be corporate and charitably financed institu­tions of chain store dimensions, dispensing reading, writing, and arithmetic at bargain prices. There would be competition, which is cooperation’s most useful tool!8 There would be a parental alertness as to what the market would have to offer. There would be a keen, active, parental respon­sibility for their children’s and their own educational growth.

Socialism would be explained but seldom advocated in the class­room. The free market, by its na­ture, would rule out such waste and extravagance. Competition for the educational dollar would at­tend to that.

4. Let your imagination take you back to 1900. Suppose some­one had been able to conjure up a picture of a 1964 automobile with all of its wonderful performances. And suppose you had been asked how it could have been made. You could not even have grasped such a miracle, let alone have described how to make it. Yet, it has been produced, and without police-force-­as-boss. Indeed, what would the 1964 car be like if the government had compelled attendance at re­search laboratories, dictated the subjects to be explored and the wonders to be invented, and forc­ibly collected the funds for the undertaking?° Bear in mind that millions of unobstructed man-hours of ever-increasing skills and thinking, in a constant and complex free exchange process and with a strict attention to millions of individual judgments, have made the 1964 car so useful to so many people. And so it would be with free market education. We cannot foretell what would happen were free men given the respon­sibility for this activity; that is, were as much creative, uninhib­ited thought — in response to con­sumer wants — put to education as has been put to motor cars. As it is, a vast majority of the peo­ple have given little more than cursory thought as to how to edu­cate without employing police­-force-as-boss. No wonder! We have the tendency not to think about problems not our own, about activities pre-empted by govern­ment. Remove the obstacles of coercion and the potential energy of man will approach realization. Police-force-as-boss as an effec­tive means to the educational end is but a superstition. It has no foundation in fact.

5. The children of the poor? They obtained food and clothing prior to our practice of govern­mental alms — more than ever available before. But education isn’t as important as shoes and stockings. Education is only as important as life itself. Johnnie couldn’t get a job as truck driver unless able to read street signs or bills of lading. Furthermore, re­move the taxes we are now pay­ing for present governmental in­terventions — including education — and poor parents will not be as poor. And literally millions of Americans would like nothing bet­ter than voluntarily to finance the education of children of those who might be in unfortunate circum­stances. Some, of course, will counter with the notion that such charity is degrading, an unfor­givable socialistic cliché.¹º No one argues that voluntary giving is degrading; all consider giving as a brotherly act. Does not giving presuppose a recipient? Can giv­ing be brotherly and receiving degrading? True, perhaps charity isn’t as agreeable to a recipient as self-financing, but is it not more agreeable than police grants-in-aid?

If government were out of ed­ucation as its boss — 100 per cent —and if we had only free market education, no child in America would be denied an education any more than any child is presently denied religious instruction or shoes and stockings.

Protector Turned Predator

While the above theoretical case for free market education is good enough for me, I confess to a practical dilemma. Regardless of the attempts throughout his­tory to limit police force to its role of keeping the peace — a societal guard, so to speak — it has always gotten out of hand. Sooner or later, in every instance, the role has shifted from guard to boss of the citizenry, that is, from people service to people control; protector turned predator, one might say! So sad is the record of limitation that some persons throw up their hands in despair, incorrectly concluding that if lim­itation has never been maintained, it, therefore, is forever impos­sible. They begin to disbelieve even in limited government, in­sisting on no government at all; they become what might be called philosophical anarchists.

The reason for unsuccessful limitation is that too few individ­uals have ever understood the price that must be paid for lim­itation. The price is far more than writing a Constitution and a Bill of Rights with their proscrip­tions against governmental ex­cesses, and designing a govern­ment of checks and balances. The price is the resurrection of what has become a bromide into a liv­ing, dynamic performance: eter­nal vigilance.

This performance is in the form of an achievement in under­standing (1) the nature of gov­ernment, (2) its uniqueness as police force, and (3) the limited competence of, as well as the ab­solute necessity for, police forcean understanding to be learned, mastered, and remembered by at least enough persons to form an effective leadership in each new generation. This performance is a personal, day-in-and-day-out re­quirement, meaning that it can­not be delegated to others, much less to our forefathers; it can never be relegated to the past tense; it is a continuing impera­tive of each new moment, with­out end.

The dilemma is this: The un­derstanding of police-force-as­-guard will, obviously, never be advanced but only retarded by police-force-as-boss, the latter be­ing in the educational driver’s seat. Thus, unless a breakthrough is achieved by an individual here and there, capable of independent analysis and unafraid of parting company with the mores, the most important aspect of education for responsible citizenship will go un­attended.

The myth of government educa­tion, in our country today, is an article of general faith. To ques­tion the myth is to tamper with the faith, a business that few will read about or listen to or, if they do, calmly tolerate. In short, for those who would make the case for educational freedom as they would for freedom in religion, let them be warned that this is a first-rate obstacle course. But heart can be taken in the fact that the art of becoming is composed of acts of overcoming. And becoming is life’s prime purpose; becoming is, in fact, enlightenment — self-education, its own reward.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1 “Government, in its last analysis, is organized force.” Woodrow Wilson, The State (Boston: H. C. Heath & Co., 1898), p. 572.

2 See “Nuclear Giants and Ethical In­fants” to which this essay is a sequel. THE FREEMAN, August, 1964.

³ For a discussion of committees, men acting in council, see “On That Day Began Lies,” THE FREEMAN, April, 1956.

4 See “Importance of the Premise,” THE FREEMAN, January, 1962

5 “The normal human brain always contains a greater store of neuroblasts than can possibly develop into neurons during the span of life, and the poten­tialities of the human cortex are never fully realized. There is a surplus and, depending upon physical factors, edu­cation, environment, and conscious effort, more or less of the initial store of neuroblasts will develop into mature, functioning neurons. The development of the more plastic and newer tissue of the brain depends to a large extent upon the conscious efforts made by the indi­vidual. There is every reason to assume that development of cortical functions is promoted by mental activity and that continued mental activity is an impor­tant factor in the retention of cortical plasticity into late life. Goethe… [and others] are among the numerous ex­amples of men whose creative mental activities extended into the years asso­ciated with physical decline…. There also seem sufficient grounds for the as­sumption that habitual disuse of these highest centers results in atrophy or at least brings about a certain mental decline.” Renee von Eulenburg Wiener, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (New York, N. Y.: The Macmillan Company, 1939), p. 310.

6 See “The Market Is a Computer,” THE FREEMAN, March, 1964.

7See “Let Anyone Deliver Mail,” THE FREEMAN, July, 1957.        

8 Without competition among bakers, for instance, I have no basis for decid­ing on the baker with whom I will ex­change, that is, cooperate.

9 I suspect it would be about as re­mote from consumer requirements as the vehicle now being built to put men on the moon.

¹0 Scholarships—how do they differ?—are sought and granted on an enormous scale by the very persons who repeat this cliché.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”