By José Niño*
Among issues in American politics, public education remains a sacred cow for many voters.
Political elites incessantly remind us that public education is a fundamental pillar of civilization. Without public education, we would continue to be uneducated savages.
All the innovations we see before us like the Internet would not be possible if it weren’t for the state-provided education pipeline.
Or so we are told.
Academics and politicians assert that education is a “right,” thus compelling the state to step in and maintain a monopoly on the service.
Education, despite what conventional wisdom says, is an economic good, not a right. By definition, economic goods are scarce and satisfy the necessities and desires of consumers. Unfortunately, myopic elected officials often ignore this inconvenient truth.
This misconception emerges from a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes a right, specifically the overemphasis of positive rights over negative rights. Professor Aeon Skoble does an excellent job in breaking down the differences between positive and negative rights:
“Fundamentally, positive rights require others to provide you with either a good or service. A negative right, on the other hand, only requires others to abstain from interfering with your actions. If we are free and equal by nature, and if we believe in negative rights, any positive rights would have to be grounded in consensual arrangements.”
In sum, negative rights like life, liberty, and property prohibit others, especially government entities, from interfering with their persons or property.
Positive rights hold individual rights in contempt. Interventionists and politicians use abstractions such as “society” to justify the forceful confiscation of resources from one group of people to another group of people without any form of compensation or consent.
Since the emergence of the Bismarckian welfare state, positive rights have formed the pillar of public policymaking in the West and countless other countries. From education down to pensions, there exists a religious devotion to the idea the state must mandate individuals to either participate in a certain activity or be forced to give up their income to provide another individual with said good or service.
Free Education is Not so Free After All
Nearly two centuries of government involvement in education has conditioned citizens to believe that not only is education an entitlement, but it is somehow free. This outlook is myopic at best.
A substantial segment of the population doesn’t even use public education. Those who opt out of public education like homeschoolers and private schoolers are still forced to subsidize others who attend public schools. As Frederic Bastiat observed, the “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Bastiat’s astute observation, unfortunately, flies over the heads of the masses, who have been duped by politicians and the intelligentsia into believing these services are “free” and must be provided by the collective whole of society.
The real tragedy in this equation is the misallocation of resources that would otherwise have been used for more productive activities. People see the public schools, but they don’t look beyond stage one. They overlook the productive endeavors that could have been created had that money not been redistributed in the first place.
It’s no stretch to say that under a system where people can keep their money they still have the ability to build their own educational arrangements on the free market.
Therein lies the beauty of an economy free from government coercion. Entrepreneurial ventures would emerge spontaneously and tailor their services according to consumer preferences, not by bureaucratic design or the whims of political elites.
Education is another Market Service
There is nothing magical about education; it functions like any other good or service. For most professions there is an inherent demand for educated workers. So, it stands to reason that people will work in their own self-interest to educate themselves or build educational institutions to give others the necessary tools for joining the work force.
Not to mention alternative forms of schooling like Montessori education also give us a sneak preview to what education would look like on the free market.
The Never-Ending Cycle of Bureaucracy
But when we start declaring everything a right, thus requiring government involvement, a new set of problems emerge.
When the state appropriates a sector of the economy, it not only monopolizes it, the state destroys any semblance of economic calculation. Destroying the ability of property owners to compares costs and gains, or discern profits and losses, ensures incoherent economic decision-making and a sub-optimal experience for consumers of said products or services.
This observation has gone from the theoretical to the practical.
In the United States, the Department of Education’s budget started out at $14.5 billion in 1979 and currently stands close to $70 billion. When other spending initiatives like the school breakfast and lunch and Head Start programs are included, the total comes out to nearly $100 billion .
Completely disregarding indicators of American government schools underperforming against international competitors, the federal government continues its futile quest intervening in education.
In the land of government services, incompetence is rewarded with bigger budgets and larger bureaucratic privileges. On the other hand, free enterprise responds to consumers, who have the power to put organizations out of business if their services are not up to par.
The concept of education having to enjoy a government monopoly exemplifies the arrogance of political actors who think that free people are incapable of bringing educational services to the free market.
We have the potential of living in a Jetson’s world of education, but the political class insists on using Flintstones practices like state coercion to provide education.