G.T. asks a great question on the Christian Libertarian FAQ:

It’s one thing for adults to be left to make their own choices and live with the consequences, but when it comes to children, does society not have certain responsibilities for their proper care (if parents are unable/unwilling)? For libertarians who believe that education should be privatized, how does this practically work for these “forgotten” children?

Candidly, if I knew how a market in X works in practice, an accurate and comprehensive answer would be the most valuable proof that statism would work. Knowing how things work in practice ahead of time is impossible. We can guess and offer possibilities, but if education were privatized, it would probably look very different from what we now expect. At the same time, we don’t have just theories or principles of economics to look to for answers on how education could work without the state. We have a history of markets with millions of examples of how goods and services “work in practice.” We also have a history of markets that show us how the poor are provided goods and services that in prior decades on the wealthy could afford or have access to. While it will always be true that the wealthy will have access to the best, since the advent of freed markets the poorest have had access to reliable and quality substitutes for those products or services. In the early 1990s, “car phones” seemed to be the envy of the wealthy, completely out of reach to the poorest. Cellular phones are now ubiquitous and nearly universally affordable. A computer used to cost thousands of dollars in 1980s money, but now are merely a few hundred dollars in today’s money. These are but a few examples.

Education is one of the most complex social phenomena throughout history because of its rather fundamental nature of life. The bare minimum of learning is for mere survival, and so broadly speaking, education has always existed where survival was necessary! Just as there have always been many ways to learn, there are many ways to acquire education—apprenticeships, schools, labor market, reading, to name just a few. The first thing to keep in mind with education is that what we usually think of as “education” today is relatively new. Schools as we think of them are a recent historical practice.

The most difficult endeavor in proposing a society that operates completely on the foundations of peaceful interactions is to imagine a world nearly upside down from today’s experience. Examples throughout history are full of those who objected to social change. Certain industries may thrive in new conditions and leave old industries obsolete, yet life continued and humanity adjusted. It moves on. And most of us are the better for it. But social change is not without its hurdles. The biggest one is opening the imagination of others who cannot see what ought to be done. This takes courage and perseverance. It doesn’t happen overnight.

For most who question the privatization model of education, the children who will presumably be “left behind” (i.e. they fail to get adequate education) are the focus of concern. Add to this the Christian responsibility to concern themselves with the wellbeing of what Jesus calls “the least of these,” and the question becomes a bit more important. If Christians advocate something that leaves the poor behind, it might need to be reconsidered.

A Honda Civic will get me to work just as well as an Aston Martin. An iPad will send emails, but so will the cheapest tablet on the market that costs a fraction of the price. You can buy expensive cabinets made of exquisite wood shipped from exotic locations around the world, or you can shop at IKEA. Both add functionality to your kitchen. Markets have a proven track record of providing reliable and socially acceptable goods and services for those who have very little. In many areas, even those who were very wealthy could not afford such things a decade prior.

Once we keep in mind that education is not just “schooling,” we can begin to imagine ways that educating the poorest in a free society is not just a prediction but is feasible.

The question isn’t really about who owns and operates the school system. The question is, “What kind of ‘system’ do we need in order to see access to education to as many people as possible?” Do we even need a formal system, or does an emergent order of educational providers make more sense (the Hayekians among us would have plenty to say here!)?

It is often stated that it is the job of “the church” to assist the poor and not the job of anyone else. But for the same reason I reject the idea that “schooling” equals “education,” I would also reject the idea that “Church” equals “institutionalized Christianity.” Those who follow Jesus should be pushing the way forward that helps those in need, by whatever peaceful means necessary. That could mean starting a school funded by donations from those who have extra to give. That could mean starting a business that provides apprenticeships to the poor in exchange for inexpensive labor. That could mean working in the political system to privatize schools as we now know it. It could also mean working toward dismantling the current system so that it reflects a less institutionalized approach to educating.

A remaining concern to address is the neglectful parenting that can happen, leaving children “behind” the rest of society. What I would caution against is considering “society” as an entity with a purpose as if it were an individual. If by society you mean “the people living in society,” consider this: when a society is ready and willing to “go private” with education (face it, that’s a long way off!), that society will be ready to take care of those who are being neglected without a need for a federal or state institution to do so.


(UPDATE: Mises.org Wiki has a great page called Private Alternatives to Public Goods.)

Doug Stuart

Doug Stuart holds a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Seminary and is a regular contributor to LibertarianChristians.com. He currently lives with his wife and three children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he enjoys home brewing, coffee roasting, reading, and aviation. He is a life group leader and deacon at an evangelical church, where he has also taught classes on film and culture, evangelism, faith and economics, and non-violence.
  • Geo

    I like the differentiation between education and schooling. The very best idea I’ve come across is the Trivium. I’ll not bother with a long explanation except to say that certain learning is best accomplished age appropriately. That is, a six year old’s brain is perfect for wrote learning, ABCs, times tables and such, while in the teens synthesis is the obvious struggle. In between those years, fundamental knowledge of the ages, e.g. great books, rhetoric, philosophy, science and mathematics make fine classmates. When one actually educates, the child has a basis for understanding life’s hows and whys and can proceed being able to discriminate rationally.

  • David

    The question asked in the FAQ is one area in which I deviate from “orthodox” libertarianism, and exactly for the reason that the questioner describes, children are not responsible for their parents choices. And if we do not adequetely answer the question about what to do with children, non-libertarians will never accept the principle axiom of libertarianism, that ADULTS ought to be treated like adults rather than having the state control everyone’s life. For this reason, I reject the Rothbardian position of having the state have nothing to do with education in exchange for a Friedman-type voucher program. Better yet, take the state out of the actual educating entirely, and give every American a voucher equal to at least enough for a basic education and allow parents to put it toward any school they want. If a rich person wants to send their kid to a really expensive school, let them take the voucher and pay the difference, if a poor person doesn’t have much money, let them use the vouchner to pay for at least a basic education, and if a parent wants to homeschool, let them cash in the voucher.
    The strict libertarians will probably not like this solution, but at least I am proposing the elimination of any possibility of state-financed indoctrination. But I think everyone needs at least a basic education. If this doesn’t happen, our libertarian utopia won’t survive anyway. In the words of Jefferson, when people are educated, they can be trusted with their own government.
    And of course, the wealthy are going to get the best education. Fine. But everyone deserves at least basic education. Then they can be held properly responsible for their choices as adults. I don’t see us getting any more “Free market” than that without throwing pragmatism out the window.
    At the end of the day, I sympathize with the attempt to answer this question, and maybe someday education will become so easy that government need not intervene at all. If the free-market and charities can handle the problem, fine. But until this is proven, I respectfully disagree.

  • Jamie

    I fail to see how vouchers would change anything. Under a voucher system , those with the means to pay the difference would send their children to private school. Those who were inclined to homeschool would do so. And the rest would default to public school. How does that differ from the property tax funded system we have today (other than the fact that homeschoolers have to pay twice under the current model)?

  • Vouchers are, to a large extent, a great idea in the direction of liberty. They extend a certain amount of freedom of choice, especially for those who are poor. But how does a voucher program help kids whose parents couldn’t care less about schooling?

    Vouchers can also be used as a trojan horse. Since the state is distributing education vouchers, it can also decide which schools are eligible to receive them. This is no small problem, and while it may remove “indoctrination by the state,” it doesn’t remove its control. What if a Christian, Muslim, or Mormon school would like to be paid (by the state via the vouchers)? Should the state have authority to decide what is and isn’t taught? What if the state conveniently “bowed out” of the curricula question? What about “my tax dollars” going to teaching kids humanism, or scientology, or Mormonism?

    Vouchers are often seen as the best step toward a more free-market education “system” (whatever that means). That might be true. But it could also be just another type of fascism, where private organizations “run themselves” but under the dictates of the state.

    A better direction might be to have education de-nationalized. Let Pennsylvania run a school system as it chooses. Let Florida do the same. Furthermore, let each district do different things, and let different tax jurisdictions choose other ways of distributing funds for education.

    I think your fundamental disagreement with my answer in the article is that there is no “answer” to the question about children. I’m okay with the absence of a definitive answer, because we are soooo far from a free market in education. And as I pointed out to begin with, having a solid answer would prove the central planners right. Order does is not simply created, it emerges, and liberty-loving folk ought to realize that education is no different.

    I’m not against proposals or ideas or theoretic models. But they are just that, models. There is no way to propose what will happen. At the same time, I think it’s safe to admit that we don’t have all the answers figured out, and that this isn’t an achilles heel of libertarianism. I don’t find it a “weakness” in the apologetics.

    So when it comes to “what of the children?” I will respond with what I use at work when we don’t have an answer: “I don’t know, let’s find out.”

  • David

    The voucher could only go toward school, the parent could only cash it in for him/herself if he/she were homeschooling. I get all of the criticisms of the voucher system that you mention above. I guess the question is, is it worse that we have to pay for a school that might teach Mormonism or humanism, that some kids will never get an opportunity to be educated, or that the state controls the schools? The way to escape the trap is to say that the free market will provide education for everyone, but I see no good reason why it would in this case. First of all, some parents just don’t care, and secondly, some parents do care, but are too poor to do anything about that. I realize that this argument could be used to support a whole repotoire of government programs but the difference is that most government programs coercively take money to help you fix your own mistakes. Education coercively takes money to help someone get through their parents mistakes. I don’t really like this either, but I see no alternative to it. Its not that we can’t immediately think of an answer, but that I don’t think that there is one. If such an answer existed, the market would have produced it already, and everyone could go to private school or be homeschooled.
    I agree with what you say about decentralization. Just because I say “The government” (vague) should do something (And I don’t say that very often, although a bit more often than the hardcore Rothbardians) doesn’t mean I want the centralied Federal government to do it. In spite of a few disagreements (Mostly on the side of it giving the Feds TOO MUCH power) I am a fan of the Constitution and I do not propose giving the Federal government any new powers not contained there. Generally the more local the solutions, the better.

  • I never said that a free market in education would provide education for everyone. But neither does the state’s education. Many children are going away uneducated from “schools” they are forced to be in. So if you don’t believe a free market will educate everyone, I’d tend to agree with you. But is that the goal? And if so, how confident are you in any sort of “education guarantee”? As Thomas Sowell says, “Freedom and guarantees are inherently incompatible.”

    I also don’t think “the market would have produced it already” is a viable argument, for two reasons. First, you can’t make the claim that something would have been produced already had it been possible because social, political, and technological variables are always changing. Second, the crowd-out effect is well-researched in economics; the state has the monopoly, so no “market” would provide an alternative simply because none are able to exist. Examples of free market education have cropped up around the world, but not on a large scale (at this point). I think the book The Beautiful Tree is about the poor in India educating themselves.

    As a purist, I’d reject vouchers. As a pragmatist, I would welcome them. Economically, the vouchers do what progressives would want: equalize access to education based on free choice. Likewise it does expand competition, which satisfies many conservatives and will most likely reduce costs.

    I also think the spirit of my article was that we ought to look at the success of other markets that have definitely worked (even by the standard or perspective of progressives), and examine the how and why. Again, many poor people (but not ALL) have access to things only the wealthy would have had.

    (Norman, avert your eyes) And I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to a “safety net” that the state uses to pick up the tab on those “left behind” children. If it means they are cared for and not neglected, and if that’s really all the state is doing on behalf of society, that’s a very low cost, even if it’s a bit wasteful due to bureaucracy.

  • David

    The state doesn’t enforce an educational monopoly, however. private schools and homeschooling are allowed to compete. Granted, government has a lot more resources to start and so doesn’t really need to make a profit, but I see a bit of a problem with “Education for profit” anyway. Mainly because the market works to provide what the buyer wants, not necessarily what will “Work” the best. Normally this is fine, “Best” is relative anyway, but not as much when it comes to education.

    I don’t see how fighting against transfer of wealth for education, and then saying the state should help those who are left behind by the failure to provide education, really helps the problem. Its still redistribution, AND some people aren’t being educated, its the worst of both worlds.
    How are people “Not being educated” now? Education probably costs a heck of a lot more money than it should, but most if not all Americans are getting an education.

  • The state requires an education to a certain age, and requires taxpayers to fund it. Of course, the wealthy are able to choose where they send their children to school.

    What is your problem with education for profit? If the “buyer” is the student/family paying for the services of educating themselves or their children, how is competition for education in a market a bad thing? What outcomes are necessary for schools to ascertain their effectiveness? Who, other than the “customer” (student/family) decides what those outcomes are?

    Students are not being educated now because we have plenty of “graduates” who are unable to read. Many students are in schools but not getting an education that prepares them for real life.

    We can debate the details all you want, but the crux of the matter is do you believe in freedom, or do you believe in coercion? If markets work in other areas, why would they not work in education? “It’s a special case” is not sufficient because one could make an argument for many other things that we definitely leave to the market (food comes to mind). “It’s too important” is just pandering to emotions. I’m not saying those are your arguments, but for me, something like education is too important to NOT be left to the market!

  • David

    Food is fairly easy to produce as well. In fact, I know government is artificially lowering the supply of food by paying farmers not to plant. Even so, there’s plenty of food in this country, and nobody is really starving.
    of course, we know from the Soviet Union that if people WERE starving than the free market is the quickest way to fix it and intervention by government makes it worse.
    I am, by and large, in favor of letting the free market determine exactly how education works. All I am saying is that the government (And I cringe as I write this as well, as I really hate this solution) should make sure that everyone gets an education. Why? Because education is essential for opportunity in the real world, and children are not responsible for the stupid choices of their parents. If we had to, although I don’t see why it would be necessary in most cases as well, I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with the state making sure children have food. If an adult makes stupid choices they are responsible for them, but children aren’t really responsible for their parent’s choices.
    Its the same reason that children are not (At least not for most libertarians, and certainly not for me) “allowed” to use drugs, have sex, or own guns, but adults should be allowed to do all of those things. Of course, we could probably have a healthy debate as to what the proper age of adulthood should be. I usually assume 18 since that’s what I know (If the state tells you that you can legally go overseas and risk your life, I call bull on their claim that you aren’t responsible enough to choose whether you want to drink or smoke or exc.) but I’m not dogmatically committed to it. Obviously, however, there is a minimum age, wherever that may be, below which you do not have full responsibility for your choices, and you NEVER have responsibility for someone else’s choices.

    While I have not yet seen any statistic detailing any significant number of students graduating without being able to read, I’m in a state school and I know that they are incompetetent. The free market would provide far better education. They would also, however, ensure that some children do not get an education. I want to fix that last problem while maintaing the benefits of the free market. For government to do the thing it is least bad at, and that is to redistribute money (Not through new taxes, through massive spending cuts and marginally less massive tax cuts) for education through vouchers without actually trying to run schools.
    As to the question of freedom VS coercion, I don’t think a society completely free of coercion (ie, taxation) is a practical possibility, but I think our goal should be to reduce it as much as possible.

  • TexasMumsy

    Education should be a local matter, not a matter of federal or state governments. They are just too removed from the problem to do it well. What has worked well in the past was that many people home schooled their kids. Wealthy people hired tutors (now we have homeschooling cooperatives). Many businesses (especially farms and ranches in the old days) set up schools for the children of their employees – think of it as an extension of the daycare perk employees sometimes get now. Communities often got together and set up a school for their kids. People without kids would chip into the pot too, because it was to their advantage for the kids in their midst to be educated well. What about the poor? Well, there were religious private schools of course, who have always offered generous scholarships. And, at the turn of the previous century, wealthy philanthropists funded secular private schools as well. (Carnegie is famous for funding libraries as well). The difference between this and what we have now is that in every case, the parents decide where and how their children will be educated. This is a part of being a parent. If a parent is so negligent that they will not bother to send their kid to a good school on a full scholarship, chances are there are other problems in that household that are far greater than that of education.

  • David

    I do not expect that the state can do anything about people who would refuse to send their children to school if it was paid for. At the very least, to do anything about that would likely lead to a massive loss of freedom. Of course, if a parent flat out admits that they aren’t going to send their kid to school OR homeschool them, that should be illegal, unlikely as that may be. In a slightly less obvious case, if multiple witnesses confirmed this happening, it should be investigated. Most likely, however, some parents will “Get away with” their negligence. That’s life, much like the occasional mass murderer is a part of life, and much like abortion could not be completely stopped even if it were rightfully criminalized. Government is not God, it is, at absolute best, a dangerous but occasionally necessary tool (At worst, of course, the anarchist would deny ANY government being necessary. I respect this position, though I disagree with it.) I don’t really suspect that this group of parents would be particularly large anyway.

    If the free market ensured that every kid COULD get an education, provided they had the proper desire to learn (I don’t necessarily think a private school could do all that much better atteaching a kid who absolutely has no desire to learn than a public school teacher, nor do I think that this is a fair expectation anyways) and even if their parents were poor, that would be good enough for me. Full equality of opportunity is an impossibility. Its impractical, and not necessarily fair either, certainly if you do well with your opportunity you have a right to pass that down to your children. However, I do think everyone is entitled to at least SOME opportunity, and if a kid starts out poor through no fault of his own and can’t get an education, his opportunity in life is slim to none. If the government allowed education to be provided through far more efficient private schools, gave grants to poor families so they could send their children to at least some kind of school, and cut back on all the other nonsense that they do (Wars, corporate welfare, other kinds of welfare, entitlement programs, drug prohibition, exc.) I’m sure we could manage to provide everyone with a basic education while still managing a tax rate in the single digits.

    And yes, I absolutely agree that education should be decentralized. That I think some level of government should have an involvement in something doesn’t mean I think that the Federal government should be doing it. I imagine state-level involvement wouldn’t be necessary either, but Federal involvement is downright unconstitutional. Localizing it would probably work fine.

  • Donnie

    If the question is about education affordability why can’t this be handled like food stamps? Why does the entire thing have to be government run, funded and certified? We don’t need vouchers and certainly don’t need statist fear mongering. How would you like to go to Walmart and grab a cart and at the door they take your cart and hand you one fully loaded with all the stuff they wanted you to have? No choice, no customer/professional relationship. Nothing. We wouldn’t put up with it at the store why do we put up with it in schools?

    Get rid of child labor laws so kids can learn skills they can use. Get rid of minimum wage so they can earn references and build a resume. Get rid of mandatory professional licenses so license fees will go down and more professional license agencies will emerge and therefore more workers. Get rid of school subsidies and certifications. And THEN get rid of government run schools.