Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) was a leading theorist and popularizer of the Austrian school of economics, as well as a founding father of the modern libertarian movement. Yet as he demonstrates in this splendid monograph — originally published in 1971, in the April and July–August issues of the Individualist — Rothbard was also a phenomenal workhorse who would absorb an astonishing amount of detail before writing on a historical subject.
In Education: Free & Compulsory, Rothbard showcases his prodigious scholarship and proves his critics wrong. Far from being the anti-empirical ideologue of which his opponents might accuse him, in this tract Rothbard is very light on theory, devoting only a few pages to the nature of education and its ideal form for a free person.
After this brief theoretical discussion, Rothbard focuses the bulk of the work on the history of the state’s gradual encroachment on the traditional prerogatives of parents in the education of children. Although the tale is woven from the perspective of Rothbard’s obvious concern for liberty, even so he dispassionately lays out the facts, explaining the gradual introduction of coercion into education, first in Europe and then the United States. Rothbard packs the pages with such a density of detail and pertinent quotations that a proponent of state intervention in education might find the monograph very handy as a reference.
Nowadays, with government power in the United States reaching (in some dimensions) unprecedented heights, it becomes difficult to find a compelling analogy that will resonate with the public.
For example, I personally used to say, “Imagine the absurdity of the federal government running car companies!” for a humorous reductio ad absurdum, but now I can no longer do that with particular crowds because our federal government has become just that absurd. It also used to be commonplace for libertarians to debate health and safety mandates by warning, “What next? Will the government put a tax on soda and ban Happy Meals?!” Alas, these measures too are coming to pass before our very eyes.
In this context, it is refreshing to see that — as usual — Rothbard has come up with a brilliant analogy, and one that the general public will still find perfectly intuitive:
What would we think of a proposal for the government, federal or state, to use the taxpayers’ money to set up a nationwide chain of public newspapers, and compel all people, or all children, to read them? What would we think furthermore of the government’s outlawing all other newspapers, or indeed outlawing all newspapers that do not come up to the “standards” of what a government commission thinks children ought to read? Such a proposal would be generally regarded with horror in America, and yet this is exactly the sort of regime that the government has established in the sphere of scholastic instruction.
Compulsory public presses would be considered an invasion of the basic freedom of the press; yet is not scholastic freedom at least as important as press freedom? Aren’t both vital media for public information and education, for free inquiry and the search for truth? It is clear that the suppression of free instruction should be regarded with even greater horror than suppression of free press, since here the unformed minds of children are involved.
Yet, brilliant as the analogy is, we sadly know that it will not be enough. Even though virtually every American would immediately reject a proposal for the government to regulate and compel readership of newspapers, for some reason they have bought the notion that the government’s control of education is benign.
Rothbard brings other arguments and facts to bear. For example, he points out that even ostensibly private schools are still subject to the government’s approval, and in that respect are merely extensions of the government (or “public”) school system.
Further, Rothbard shows that this feature is necessary in a coercive system of mandatory attendance. For if the state announces that all children of certain ages must attend “school,” then it is obviously necessary for the state to determine which operations pass muster. It will hardly do to have a factory put up a sign saying, “The Acme School for the Nimble Child,” and then employ children eight hours a day on an assembly line. Once coercion is introduced, it is a quick path to full-blown state control of all curricula, and indeed second-guessing of all parental decisions.
It is in this area, the role of parents in education, where Rothbard really shines. One might have expected an economist to laud formal, institutionalized schooling because of its economies of scale and participation in the division of labor. After all, it would be crazy for a child’s parents to try to be dentist, doctor, farmer, and tailor. By the same token, then, one might have thought Rothbard would favor specialization in education, with the best individuals becoming teachers and dispersing doses of their services to masses of children.
On the contrary, Rothbard doesn’t go down this route at all. Instead, he holds up one-on-one education as the ideal, and names the parent as the best teacher for a young child. Even in a free market, the problem with formalized institutional instruction is that it forces the teacher to impose a single pace and curriculum on each student, regardless of his aptitude or interests. Rothbard explains:
It is obvious, therefore, that the best type of instruction is individual instruction. A course where one teacher instructs one pupil is clearly by far the best type of course. It is only under such conditions that human potentialities can develop to their greatest degree. It is clear that the formal school, characterized by classes in which one teacher instructs many children, is an immensely inferior system. Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.
Rothbard concedes that, in practice, parents may hire a tutor to provide this individualized instruction, and he further acknowledges that many families may find this too expensive. Yet it is interesting to see Rothbard effectively championing the homeschooling movement, at a time (1971) when it was hardly the force that it is today.
Besides these principled arguments, the critic of compulsory education can build a strong case from the material Rothbard assembles in his historical discussion. For example, just as Social Security had its roots in autocratic Prussia, so too does compulsory education. The modern “progressive” reading Rothbard would squirm even more when he learned that the American tradition of compulsory education was an offshoot of dogmatic Protestantism, which sought not merely to spread literacy but also to stamp out heresy.
Educational freedom is of critical importance. It is no coincidence that the general power of the state grew pari passu with its specific role in education, nor is it even correct to view the latter as a merely specific instantiation of the former trend. On the contrary, the only way for the state to continually solidify and expand its gains is to indoctrinate children, gradually changing the curricula taught to each succeeding generation.
It is true that the Internet has made it possible, as never before, to circumvent the state’s stranglehold on formal education. Yet it is still crucial to understand the theory and history behind the state’s actions in this sphere. For this task, Laissez Faire Books’ new edition of Rothbard’s classic monograph is essential reading.