Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Public Education and Liberty Don't Mix

Compulsory Education Violates Freedom | Libertas Institute Cartoon
Political Cartoon by Libertas Institute.

As some of you may know, I am a teacher.  Here in Arizona we have a high-stakes test that is required for all high school students in order to graduate.  It's called the AIMS test (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards).  Since this test is happening this week I figured it would be a good time to address education in the context of liberty.

Education is a service that the vast majority of people value.  Because it is such a highly valued service, many people feel that only government can be trusted to deliver it to all the children.  Not only is government basically a monopoly provider in many places, but it requires all children to be enrolled in school.  All this necessitates multiple violations of the non-aggression principle.  First, government education is funded by taxation, which is a form of theft.  Second, the government can put competitors out of business, which violates the rights of alternative education providers.  Third, the government mandates that all children be in school, which violates either the rights of the children, the rights of the parents, or both.  This terrible situation must be addressed.


The principles of liberty demand the abolition of taxes.  It's a very simple concept.  I don't have the right to threaten you to obtain your money.  You don't have the right to threaten me to obtain my money.  The mafia doesn't have the right to threaten anyone to obtain money.  The government doesn't have the right to threaten anyone to obtain money.  The government doesn't magically have the rights to do something that individuals don't have the right to do.  Taxes, even taxes for education, are theft.  It doesn't matter how you dress it up.  It doesn't matter how many times you say, "It's for the children".  Taxes are a form of robbery and nobody has a duty to pay them.  Education must be paid for by alternative, non-coercive means.  What means?  I'll leave that up to you to decide.

In a free society any individual or business should be free to provide any service to any individual.  This is fundamental to voluntary association.  Education services are no different.  Nobody should have the right to shut down a business because it is not aligned with the status quo.  If you look closely there are non-government schools for pretty much anything:  Karate, music, gymnastics, etc.  But for some reason when a school decides to teach academics, depending on where it is, it must go through a tedious, bureaucratic nightmare in order to abide by state standards.  Schools are businesses.  They deliver knowledge in return for payment.  Any business should be free to do whatever they wish, provided that nobody is forcing someone to do something.

Most states, if not all, have compulsory education laws.  Anyone who believes we live in a free country should make sure they read that right.  It is compulsory.  You could even call it an "individual mandate" for kids (it's never too early to learn that the government has complete authority over you, right?) .  Yes, in the United States of America every child is required by law to attend school.  These laws, by the way, started long before any Obamacare mandates.  The public school apologists claim that education is compulsory for the good of society.  But if you accept the notions of national, collective, and societal goals, you might just be a communist.  Or a fascist.  Take your pick.  You know what else is for the good of society?  Food!  I would argue that food is more important than education since, you know, you can't really survive without food.  Should we nationalize food production?  Should we make laws mandating food consumption?  Should we put people in jail for not eating?  Should we cut off national funding to states that aren't eating according to national standards?  No!  We don't do those things because they would be silly and they would violate the rights of individuals.  I propose that we abolish compulsory education for the exact same reasons.

Many people simply cannot admit that another system of education could work.  I shall attempt to describe how a world without public education would function.  In a free society, education would simply be one service among all the other services in the world.  The same people who value it right now would value it in a free society.  That would not change.  A market of competing schools would emerge and every school would be a business.  Every school would want to enroll as many students as possible in order to maximize profit.  We have competitive markets today that provide countless goods and services so it is not hard to imagine a competitive education system if you try.  Just as the prices of car insurance, dry cleaning, and pizza delivery are always fair and affordable, so would be the price of education.  There is nothing magical about education that would make it prohibitively expensive in a free market.  Schools that attempt to charge too much for their services would lose customers to lower-cost alternatives.  Some argue that this tendency towards low prices would lower the quality of the education being provided.  Today people go into the market and purchase many items whose cost is constantly going down and they are, for the most part, satisfied with the cost and quality of those items.  Education would be the same.  High quality, not just low cost, is the constant endeavor of the market.  People also argue that only the rich would be able to afford high-quality education.  Well the rich can already afford high-quality education.  That's just part of life.  If you are jealous of the rich in today's world, that will never change, no matter what system of government we use and no matter what kind of market we have.  

A very attractive thing about free-market education is the innovation we would see.  Different schools, in order to attract customers, would try different educational methods and theories.  Each method would be judged on its results, namely, the performance of the students.  Parents who were dissatisfied with their children's progress would fire the school and go to another education provider.  Free-market education would basically enable the best ideas to rise to the surface and eventually permeate the entire education world.  Innovation would be constant, just as it is in other markets.  Today's education market punishes innovation because government money is needed to operate and government money can only be awarded by adhering to old and worn-out ideas.

Many parents have differing views on what education actually looks like.  A free society would enable parents to act on those views.  To some parents, education looks like sitting quietly in a classroom for hours on end each day.  To other parents, education looks like a child using self-directed learning to pursue what he is interested in.  To others it looks like field trips every day.  To others it looks like a child being an apprentice to their parents.  As a teacher I am already taught to differentiate instruction according to each student's needs but I can only differentiate to a certain extent.  A free society would simply allow for maximum differentiated instruction and I believe that the children who are being neglected today would be able to get the help they need.

I often find it necessary to tell people that I adhere to deontological (natural-rights) libertarianism as opposed to consequentialist libertarianism.  That means that I advocate for policies, not necessarily because I believe they will lead to better outcomes, but because it's the right thing to do, since those policies would eliminate or reduce coercion.  However, I also believe that we would see better outcomes after doing the right thing.  So it is with education.  I propose these things because we must try to eliminate coercion and force in our educational institutions.  It just has the added bonus (some would say the natural result) of being a far better system of education.

12 comments:

  1. I loved the analogy to food; it makes a lot of sense. And the last paragraph is great. I also believe in liberty for the right reasons and what a bonus that it can lead to better outcomes as well!

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    1. Yes, I believe that true change can come when it is based on core principles and proper motivation. I'm unimpressed with consequentialist libertarians who only believe in liberty as a means to an end. But I will work with them if our goals coincide.

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  2. Would parents use this new system to blame the school when in reality it is the kids poor behavior? I guess this already happens though.

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    1. Good question, Sarah. I suspect that there will be more accountability all around. Each parent would be paying money to educate their child and also paying to make sure there are no needless distractions for their child. I can imagine each school having strict guidelines about behavior and good procedures on documenting any misbehavior. I haven't studied any empirical data, but anecdotal evidence suggests that private (and charter) schools manage behavior much better than traditional public schools. That would be the norm in a free-market education system.

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  3. Who would educate the orphans and children with less concerned parents? Where would the destitute children attend, and how would one account for non citizens education? And when shall we start?

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    1. Wonderful questions, and certainly worth exploring.

      "Who would educate the orphans and children with less concerned parents?" Anyone who took it upon themselves to do it, or fund it. It would basically be up to the charitable giving of others, whether the charity came from friends, family, strangers, or from the schools themselves. This is what took place before public schools came about. This view might, at first, seem less than compassionate but I submit that it is the only true way to show compassion. I say this because the "compassion" of public schooling robs the funds for education from unwilling victims. That is not only immoral, but it disconnects the givers of charity from the receivers of charity. This creates an impersonal relationship in which the giver feels violated and the receiver feels entitled. In a free market, givers and receivers are connected and accountability naturally follows. Both end up with an uplifting experience.

      Additionally, I have taught children of less-concerned parents and in my experience a lot of those children don't learn anyway. A lot of children would simply not go to school, and people need to understand that that's okay. This is a bit off-topic but a big advantage a free society would have would be a completely free labor market. If a child didn't want to go to school he or she could simply enter the workforce (or parents could choose employment as a form of education for their child). In such a situation I believe that a child that does not yet have developed mental faculties would require parental permission before getting a job. Any employer who hired a child and then harmed that child in some way due to negligence would, of course, be liable for damages. Child labor laws are unnecessary.

      "How would one account for non citizens education?" In a completely free society, there would be no reason for anyone to concern themselves with citizenship. A free society would not put people in authority over other people so there would be no reason to vote anyone into public office. People would be able to voluntarily associate however they pleased so there would be no restrictions on the ability of non-citizens to travel or live wherever they want. Basically, I can't think of how the idea of citizenship would fit into a free society so everything I said in the blog post would apply to everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

      "And when shall we start?" Luckily it has already begun! It seems that homeschooling becomes more and more popular all the time and that is a huge part of free-market education. Private schools are available most everywhere and some of them are even free from government intervention. Charter schools go a long way to reduce the damage government can inflict on children. We should be constantly advocating for laws that allow things like these to happen. Or rather, we should be advocating for the repeal of laws that interfere with our liberty and how people choose to educate their children.

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  4. In the 4th paragraph, you say, "Nobody should have the right to shut down a business because it is not aligned with the status quo." Two examples: 1. Discount Cab is mad at a carpooling app and Discount Cab is trying to maintain the status quo by maintaining or changing legislation. Lame. 2. Tesla is looking to put a battery plant here. Autodealers hate Tesla because Tesla sells direct to customers while autodealers are necessary by mandate (mandate being that car manufacturers are required to sell through dealerships). Lame. When businesses try to stifle Disruptive Innovation (Clayton Christensen), they stifle (in a small way) the advancement of the human race.
    I'm just typing all this with little regard to proper conveyance, so I hope it makes sense. lawl.

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    1. Yes, the neo-luddites are out in force these days. Innovation is sometimes seen as scary because some jobs will potentially be replaced by technology. For an individual, this can be quite disruptive. But one must adapt by either transferring his skills to a different job or learning a new trade. The only alternative, besides starving, is prohibiting the innovation from going into effect, which would definitely violate individual rights. Some people see innovation as potentially harmful, not just to the individual workers, but to the entire economy. The doomsday scenario is usually something like this: Extremely automated technology takes over entire industries and masses of workers become unemployed, thus leading to devastating economic depression. But this is a ridiculous scenario. The obvious question that the luddites never address is, “Who will the automated industries sell their goods to? The unemployed and starving masses?” History has taught us that every technology works its way into the market, only disrupting individuals and never negatively affecting the entire economy. Things have a way of working out. That is because every new technology simply increases the productivity of the individual which, in turn, increases the wealth of everyone.

      With that being said, a transition from public education to an entirely free-market education system is hardly disruptive in this manner. There is no new technology involved. It would just mean education being purchased and consumed in a slightly different manner.

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  5. Wow! Dave and I really enjoyed reading through this and agree in principle with most of what you wrote. Very well spoken. Our society is on it's way in several ways, including having more options in schools. We'll have to chat more about it all at the next halloween party! :) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading! I'm always down for discussions on stuff like this (civil discussions, of course). It's great fun and always enlightening for everyone.

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