To paraphrase Bastiat, “Every time we say that we’re against the state taking care of X, the socialists act as if we object to it being provided at all.” We’ve heard this straw man argument thrown in our faces countless times. Whether it be roads, defense, or medicinal licensing, statists of all degrees have at least one favorite pet program that they couldn’t imagine life without. More often than not, education is the first publicly provided program that is gone too, often as a trump card. How, as advocates against the state, are we supposed to be against this? For the statist, it hits two birds with one stone. It is supposedly an investment for a better society in the future, and it also is a way for statists to flaunt their favorite implied “what about the children?” talking-point.
This line of thinking runs into two main problems. One is the assumption by many that investment will absolutely equal intended results down the road. It’s a common tactic resorted to by proponents of big government that “spending” be reclassified as “investment” to make it seem like the public will eventually get something in return above and beyond the initial expenditure, rather than redirecting capital in one area and putting it to (mis)use somewhere else. Statists, especially socialists, like to point out that without the public school system, the poor children wouldn’t be served. However, in practice, the public school system seems to serve as a welfare program, not for the poorest children in society (as inner city districts across the nation can attest to), but for the racketeers of education themselves: namely teachers, administrators, athletics coaches, and textbook providers.
In fact, the fictional candle makers who Bastiat most gloriously petitioned for would all stand and applaud the way education providers have been able to take advantage and block out competition for themselves. Strict licensing laws and curriculum requirements force all but the most expensive private schools out of the market, as the cost to comply with local and federal education standards rises. The state is able, through its own accreditation requirements, to thumbs-up or thumbs-down schools that may or may not hold up to its arbitrarily created standards. By making education “free” (besides local property taxes and the Department of Education’s $77 billion dollar budget, more on that later), it crowds out the market for bargain deals on certain schools that would be more able to service the needs of middle to lower income families. It is able, through public schools, to purchase only certain textbooks that teach what the state wants them to teach. Through truancy laws, it is able to force the children to attend some type of schooling, and even homeschool curriculums must pass certain state requirements in order to receive accreditation.
Protesting the state’s racket on education almost seems to be up against a brick wall. There is a myriad of special interests posing as the “good of the children.” The United States spends more money on education per student than any other in the world, though math and science scores still lag behind. The particularly unimaginative response given is the aforementioned “without public education, how would the poor be served?” While the cost of a public education is seemingly free on the surface, the unseen costs are staggering. Even the family who lives in an apartment complex pays property tax- it is a cost transferred onto the family in their rent payment by the landlord. Sales taxes, tariffs, and income taxes all worm their way into every sale, every generator of economic growth, in order to fund public expenditures. Were public schools to be privatized tomorrow, that is, no longer funded through taxation, local costs of living would drop dramatically. Who would be hurt? Certainly not the poor students, but sub-par tenured teachers. Of course, if the poor in rural India can get a private education for $2 a day (prior to the country’s 2010 Right to Education Act), why can’t our students receive a similar cost-effective education in a more wealthy, per capita, country?
Also, the claim that “if the market were to take hold of such a service, then only the rich could afford it” is false on economically historical grounds. Whenever the market is allowed to embrace more competition, either through fewer barriers to entry or allowance of foreign participants, it’s the consumers who benefit. Why should the market provide society with education? For the same reason, the market is best at providing society with smart technology and cars. A used iPhone 3GS, once the cutting edge of smart-phone technology, can be found used on Amazon for $22. Besides, if the theory that only the rich could afford completely privatized school was true, then Toyota would focus exclusively on making only the most high-end Lexus vehicles, and stop altogether manufacturing the Camry. The economic fact remains that there are a wealth of earnings to be had from providing goods and services satisfactorily to the masses, not just the rich.
According to the Department of Education, the average cost of sending a child to public school doubled from 1975 to 2008, rising from $6,402 to $12,922. The same Wall Street Journal article also cites that the cost of public school in the five largest Metropolitan areas and DC are on par with the most prestigious private schools! This is a predictable outcome, as federal spending falls victim to the calculation error. Since publicly directed funds face no profit-loss test, they have no way to determine what is the most cost-effective and efficient way to provide quality educations to students. While math and science scores lag behind, the cost is steadily rising. Thanks to licensing and accreditation laws, students are forced to attend these “free” (but costly) schools or attend the otherwise too pricy schools (who are able to cope with the costs of providing an accredited education). Without having to compete with other private schools that offer more cost efficient plans (the middle- or low-income families being artificially incentivized into public schools), the small amount of private schools left are able to raise their prices higher than wealthier families would otherwise have to provide. But who cares about the rich, right? It’s not like they’re people, too. Simply throwing more money, especially forcibly confiscated, tax-payer dollars, does not even correlate to higher levels of success. Even the Department of Education’s efforts to make college more affordable has backfired, pumping up a gigantic tuition bubble (See my video I did on this for class).
A common theme that also continuously rages on in the public education debate is that of the role of the public schools in teaching religion, keeping prayer in schools, or only teaching abstinence with regards to sex. To this, the solution of privatization is a no-brainer. If you don’t want the religious curriculum, don’t pay for it. If you want a comprehensive sex education course, find one that’s suitable for your child, or god(s) forbid, teach them yourselves like good parents. It always baffles me that leftists would want to entrust education to the state yet are shocked and offended when theology is pushed in a region full of religious right-wingers. What did you think you were going to get- Introduction to Multi-culturalism 101 or AP Feminist Studies as part of the program?
What Bastiat’s satirical candle-makers would be most proud of, however, is the effective blocking out of the “sun” by the Public Education Industry. In the famous article, the candle makers ridiculously lobbied for the closing of all windows during the daytime, in order to increase the demand for their particular services. The immense connective ability of the internet is the proverbial sun today, while public schoolteachers, administrators, and school-board bureaucrats are, in effect, the candle makers. What would complete privatization look like? Well, the removal of barriers to entry (licensing, and the monopoly of accreditation), would open a market relatively untapped to entrepreneurs. The education a student consumes in five years in public schools could already be had simply browsing YouTube for five months (or less. I still don’t think I give these tech-savvy youngsters enough credit). Why not market-certified curriculum subscriptions being sold to the public for (possibly less than) the monthly cost of Netflix? What if such packages could be had for free, with profits for the provider coming from advertising?
The possibilities for the “sun” of education are endless. Instead of being forced to attend the public school in their area (which is basically a lottery of poor customer service and satisfaction), the student, the consumer, could have any number of educations, from any provider in the world that they sought. No longer would students have to be forced into the arms of rising-cost schools, in order to pay instructors non-market salaries (only to be off a quarter of the year and on weekends). The business models are endless, and it’s up to prospective entrepreneurs to come up with the best model they can to satisfy the most consumers possible. Not only would the unseen cost of a public education disappear, but the prices and tuitions of private schools would also have to fall in accordance with the floodgates being opened to new providers. That’s what the market does: deliver a higher quantity of goods that rise in quality.
It is champions of the market that are looking out for the nation’s youth, the consumer in this situation. Those that defend public education as a “necessity that should be protected and provided by the state” are making the same claims as Bastiat’s candle makers, though many times the rank and file leftists (and even many right-wingers) don’t realize it. One only has to look at the budget misfire in Oklahoma (a government that can’t manage money, imagine that) with regards to the lack of funding for education to realize that if would-be entrepreneurs could be allowed to exploit the internet to its fullest capability, such a crisis would be a non-issue. Give online businesses the chance to provide for such a vast market, and these teachers could be working other jobs that were not dependent on the government. Exceptional teachers would profit from exceptional programs, and not be dependent on a fixed and meager state-provided welfare income. Society would be given the gift of light without having to pay for and use candles in the daytime, thus creating more room for economic growth and achieving what was once not possible with all the new human capital. The sun is out there waiting to give our communities light, all we need to do is open the curtains. Free the market, and privatize all education, now!