Saturday, April 02, 2005

Education: A Libertarians's Concern about Compulsion

A key factor that affects the libertarian outlook is compulsion. Compulsion in a philosophic sense is similar to determinism. In legal terms, compulsion is when you break the law because someone was holding a gun to the head of your child. Dr. John Marks, a psychologist writing for the Libertarian Alliance wrote of achieving a so-called good by compulsion:

“Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. To be "cured" against one's will of conditions we may not regard as diseases is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason and never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” [1]

Perhaps the most obvious illustration of compulsion today is public education [2]. Most any Introduction to Teaching textbook will cite Massachusetts as the “cradle of education.” This is as much propaganda as anything, since education had been formalized throughout Europe in schools (universities or grammar) since around 800 A.D, and before that (albeit somewhat less formally) throughout ancient Greece and Rome. What Massachusetts, and more particularly the Calvinist-inclined Massachusetts Bay Colony (MBC) did in 1642 was to make public education compulsory. It is true that during this period under John Winthrop the MBC was a theocracy, being in nature neither democratic nor republican, and not necessarily akin to Massachusetts or America today. However, it was their philosophy of public education that quickly disseminated throughout America as the South and West were opened to settlement; and it was in this way that Massachusetts earned its reputation as the cradle of education. By 1850 every state was supporting a network of public schools, and by 1900 nearly every state in the union was imposing compulsion.

It is not my intent to launch into the deeply divided debate over public education today. However, it should be noted that the original proponents of public education were very often socialist activists who, like Plato, saw socialism and public education as bedfellows. For example, socialist Robert Dale Owens, the infamous 19th socialist agitator, comments:

In republican schools, there must be no temptation to the growth of aristocratic prejudices. The pupils must learn to consider themselves as fellow citizens, as equals. Respect ought not to paid to riches, or withheld from poverty. Yet, if the children from these state Schools are to go every evening, the one to his wealthy parent’s soft carpeted drawing room, and the other to its poor father’s or widowed mother’s comfortless cabin, will they return the next day as friends and equals?

Thankfully, the idea of children becoming full-time state wards never materialized in this country. But it is clear that many of the early figures who championed public schools also advocated compulsory attendance at those same schools; and that they viewed the public school more as a tool of social engineering and control than of education per say. The libertarian, on the other hand, does not oppose the principle of public schools in and of themselves; indeed, free schools for those unable to afford a private education has long been part of communities in both Europe and America. The objection arises when the state attempts to use its monopoly of coercion to force attendance at their schools (i.e. compulsion), and/or when the state attempts to extend its monopoly over education itself (as with restricting homeschooling or regulating the curriculum of private schools). And of course, especially onerous to most libertarians is being forced to support financially the vast network of public schools through burdensome property taxes, and to pay evermore oppressive levels of local income tax to offset persistent public school-induced bond levy debt. And let us not forget the various “school taxes” that subtly appear in utility bills, county and city assessments, and an ever rising federal tax burden.

Many Libertarians would probably be satisfied to “transfer control of education from bureaucrats to parents and teachers and encourage alternatives to the public school monopoly.” In fact, the Libertarian Party platform calls for a “true market in education – one in which parents and students would not be stuck with a bad local school, because they could choose another; measures such as tax credits so that parents will have the financial ability to choose among schools; financial incentives for businesses to help fund schools and for individuals to support students other than their own children; and the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, which spends billions on education and educates no one [3]. As usual, the prevailing theme is the government’s problematic use of its monopolistic power of legislation and coercion.

As Rothbard has rightly pointed out, the state has become in the public mind so synonymous with the services it provides “that an attack on State financing appears to many people as an attack on the service itself. Thus if one maintains that the State should not supply court services, and that private enterprise on the market could supply such service more efficiently as well as more morally, people tend to think of this as denying the importance of the courts themselves [4].” I think we clearly see this today with regards to our public schools. If libertarians are ever to gain ground in the struggle for minds and worldviews, as important as it is for we libertarians to focus on political and economic issues, education is perhaps fundamentally even more important to our future.


[1] Marks, John, “Political Notes No. 82” The Drug Laws: A Case of Collective Psychosis (London: Libertarian Alliance, 1993)

[2] Discussion and quotes from: Rothbard, Murray N., Education: Free & Compulsory (Auburn: Mises, 1999) 37-55

[3] Libertarian Party homepage

[4] Rothbard, Manifesto 194

1 comment:

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