The Free Market of Ideas
By Tibor Machan - March 16, 2010

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.

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