The Free Market of Ideas
As my career in academia winds down, hopefully not too rapidly, I reflect on just how odd it is that in the United States of America, the leaders of which often boast of being the freest country in human political history, most of education is the province of government. It is like it is in too many other countries across the globe which, however, do not claim to be leaders of the free world. And certainly it is a shame that in the U.S.A. such a vital element of culture as education is mostly directed, ultimately, by politicians and their appointees. Thus we have the scandalous spectacle of the textbook fights in Texas, the various battles about creationism or ID versus the theory or theories of natural selection, prayers versus secularism in the public schools, etc., and so forth.
Consider, in contrast, a sphere of culture in the country that is mostly free of government interference, magazine (or book and newspaper) publishing. (There are some others, such as religion and the production of various, though by no means all, consumer goods.) When one walks by a magazine rack in a book or drug store or a kiosk, one witnesses genuine freedom on display. Hundreds of different, often competing, publications in innumerable areas such as science, art, politics, culture and the rest are available to us. One can select from these what one finds most appealing, most instructive, most sound, most entertaining and no one from the government is authorized to force one to pay for or subscribe to any of them. Nor, and this is most important, are there any government bodies debating what should be the content in these publications, what editorial policies they ought to have, what writers they must feature or exclude. It is all – or mostly all, except when it concerns public libraries – a matter of how it comes out from the free market process. Unlike it was in the Soviet Union and its colonies, in the United States and many other countries when it comes to ideas, the free market is where decisions are made, independent of what the government might prefer.
A few weeks ago, as an example of how this works, I decided not to renew my subscription to a magazine I have been reading regularly for several decades. It is concerned with reporting the latest developments in the hard sciences and written accessibly to lay readers like me. However, over time I have noticed that the editors have included more and more political commentary, pushing a certain agenda for the government to pursue in science-funding and even in which theory is the best one in some fields of science. I found this unwelcome, so I stopped getting the magazine and subscribed, instead, to a different one that has a similar mission, namely, of informing readers about developments in the natural sciences. There are several such publications on the market and others are free to select ones for themselves different from what I have.
This is also what is possible in the realm of religious worship – one may join a church or leave one with no one from government telling one what one must do. But not so with education, not at the primary, secondary or higher education levels, although with somewhat different types of interference in place. But in all cases, citizens are legally required to support the government run institutions, be they elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities administered by the various governments across the land. Even the federal government is involved, what with various military schools it runs and the huge sums of monies it hands out in research grants and scholarships, all paid for by citizens who have no choice but to fund what the government decides should be funded.
It may be pretty early in America's experiment with a reasonably free country, given that throughout human history in most regions of the globe governments have run nearly everything, extorting the funds needed for this from citizens (subjects!) who have only very limited powers to give them direction. It would seem, however, that part of that experiment should by now extend to education, just as it is so clearly manifest in the publishing sphere. Here is a part of culture that addresses the human mind and if there is anywhere that government ought to have zero influence it is precisely here. Coercion and thought to do mix at all. A free mind is essential to a flourishing, humane society and government run and administered education is anathema to this, just as would be government run and administered magazine, newspaper or book publishing, or religious worship.
Posted by Lyn on 03/20/10 03:45 AM
I agree with Dr. Machan. I've quit many a subscription for the same reasons. Unfortunately not everyone who reads his article will have researched the history of education and how it has operated to benefit the statists more than the public as appears to be the case with one thus far. To wit, I agree wholeheartedly with Ryan's comments to Steve Sexton on both points and would only add that Mr. Sexton make haste in doing so.
Posted by Windy on 03/18/10 01:39 PM
For more on how Texas influences text books for all schools:
Click to view link
Posted by Windy on 03/18/10 12:58 PM
Unfortunately (because textbook publishers prefer to make just one version of a texbook for sale to every school across the country), as goes textbooks for TX, so goes the textbooks for the whole country (public and private and even homeschool). So that committee in TX that determines what will be in the textbooks for Texan schools is essentially determining what will be available in textbooks for all the students in all the country's schools.
Posted by Mpresley on 03/16/10 06:33 PM
"I decided not to renew my subscription to a magazine...in the hard sciences...that the editors have included more and more political commentary, pushing a certain agenda for the government..."I'm reminded of Scientific American.
The old man subscribed when I was a kid, and it always was maintained at a high standard. Years ago, however, they featured an article on "food stamps" that was simply an advertisement for more welfare disguised as scientific reporting. From that day on, I never looked back, or looked at another issue.
Reply from The Daily Bell
More and more science magazines these days seem to purvey memes of the power elite without either apologia or justification. National Geographic would seem to be another example (science of a sort). And Discover Magazine, in our estimation. Too bad.
Posted by Ryan on 03/16/10 06:07 PM
Steven, it is you who does not understand how compulsory schooling came to be:
Click to view link
By the way, the "scandalous spectacle" is the disturbing fact that a single elite committee is allowed to determine the contents of textbooks for the entire state's schools.
Don't you think that might be a teensy, weensy bit too much power?
Posted by Steven E. Sexton on 03/16/10 05:21 PM
I am not defending. In fact, I really do not care about the subject of the public school system. What I do care about is truth. I do not accept articles that are built upon assumptions that are not clearly stated by the writer and statements of falsehood such as the accusation of "scandal" and the conclusions that are build upon these lies.
I otherwise respect the opinion of others even if I do not agree with them, again, as long as their opinion is based on their demonstrated basis for assumption, historical fact and fair analysis with a little argument on both sides of a topic.
Today, opinion is cheap, plentiful and typically a pack of lies because of the laziness of the writing. I think I would be refreshed by reading well developed articles that demonstrate a little blood, sweat and tears in telling a story and at the same time, seeking the truth. Something real. Something the writer really believes and believes in. Right or wrong.
Whether I agree or not. Something I can smile about. Something that makes me cry. Something inspiring to feed the soul. Not pap from over-educated morons that never fought a war, saved a soul, raised a child, got dirt under their fingernails, built a business or defended the righteous of God. Moreover, that pretty much sums up the writers contributing to most publications today. My opinion.
Reply from The Daily Bell
The opinions of the Daily Bell, and Tibor Machan's too, we would surmise, are built on 500 years of economic history and free-market discovery of Austrian principles such as Say's Law, Marginal Utility, even the Invisible Hand. Knowledge of this great cannon of economic history is not incidental to rendering informed opinions. Free-market economics shows us ineluctably that government conducted programs will fail because of lack of competition. That includes government schools. It is not opinion. It is logic based on the fundamental canon of humanity's progress (such as it is.)
Posted by Steven E. Sexton on 03/16/10 03:52 PM
Your assumptions on this topic are vague and you present no facts or truth; but I acknowledge that you really know how to pit one philosophy against another. So, I ask you, in the case of American public schools, have you any hard evidence of harm or do facts cloud your purpose?
I also disagree with you that the "text book" discussions in Texas are a "scandalous spectacle."
Do you have evidence of scandal or are you simply stating a falsehood? I believe what we are witness to in Texas are free Citizens discussing and deciding (hopefully) the truth and its conveyance in school. After reading your article, I am not sure you understand how freedom is exercised in America. Lastly, I prefer private schools to public schools because they have demonstrated the ability to deliver better education. However, the American public education system was created to deliver an education to anyone in need, rich or poor and it has served a great purpose. To be so critical of the system is to not understand why it was created and to avoid any understanding of its achievement for many Americans historically.
Reply from The Daily Bell
You seem to be defending the public school process in America. Yet what has it come to?
Posted by Ryan on 03/16/10 03:16 PM
Is the European elite cribbing from "The Onion" these days? This article is just too much:
Click to view link
Posted by Lance E. Schultz on 03/16/10 02:25 PM
"Now, tell me if you can, how do we get them out?"You get them out by never putting them in to begin with. You are free to homeschool your children which is the only method capable of not abrogating your responsbilities for their instruction to the state. If you desire the greatest freedom on earth possible (the freedom to mold the character of your own children), then take them under your wing and educate them in the way they should go and they will never depart from thee. This much I assure you.
Posted by Mark Y on 03/16/10 12:13 PM
While the points Dr. Machan is making are valid, I think he is leaving out the "other half" of the discussion. Namely, while control of schools can be either public or private, they can also be locally or nationally controlled.
Dr. Machan is associated with, and has been associated with public universities such as the Auburn University, Alabama and UC Santa Barbara. Aren't these all fine universities? Thomas Jefferson himself started the University of Virginia and also started an elementary public school program in Virginia. Switzerland has public schools that are locally controlled and they are generally well respected, aren't they?
The founders of the United States intended that the power of government be primarily focused in the state and local governments. The control of the US public schools has gradually been moved out of the hands of the states and local municipalities starting in the 1960's and then very rapidly with the "No Child Left Behind" act of W. Bush. Obama is now completing the nationalization of our K-12 public schools. Isn't this movement of power and control from the local level the national level at least as important as the private/public debate in regard to our schools?
Posted by Puzzled on 03/16/10 07:59 AM
Most Amricans don't want Big Bro in the educational system. Now, tell me if you can, how do we get them out? Just as with heathcare, Politiians do what they want!! It seems, like the Presidential campaign, only the 100 wealthiest have any control of this!!!!