In 2009, when President Barack Obama began his pitch to sell an overhaul of the nation’s health care system to the American public, conservatives of good conscience rallied together in opposition. We don’t need government to provide people with health care because it would raise costs, lower efficiency, and put unnecessary obstacles in between patients and their doctors, conservatives rightly said.
Conservatives understand the limitations of government, and that a proxy takeover of a private industry can only result in a disservice to the consumer. Conservatives know that government has no place in making demands of patients, their doctors, or their insurance providers. But why would government ever have a place in making demands of children? For decades, government has drastically increased its influence in the education of children in the K-12 setting, and for what? SAT scores are hitting all-time lows. The reality is that every single weekday in the United States, tens of millions of children sit in classrooms they don’t want to be in simply because the law demands it of them, and conservatives ought to begin the conversation of what is to be done about it.
The American model of education in modern times stands on the basis of an assortment of premises. Education is something all children deserve, so it should be free and accessible to everyone, the politicians say. It would be wrong to subject children to the risky ups and downs of the marketplace, they continue, so schools need to be protected and run by people who will run them in the interests of children and not for their own profit. Naturally, they go on, children aren’t sure of what they want to do when they grow up, so we should have them study a diverse array of topics and subjects to give them an idea of where they might want to direct their lives. Politicians want us to believe that an institution created on these premises is a model for success. There are few things further from the truth.
Problems are inherent in every single one of the premises listed above. However, before one can understand the problems that exist within the public school system, one must understand the nature of the market itself. In a free market there is a distinct relationship between two private parties, the consumer and the provider. The consumer enters the marketplace expecting to exit with something that he wants. Meanwhile, there are providers that have what he wants, and they engage in a peaceful war with one another for the honor of being deemed the superior provider of service by the consumer who pays whom he wills. The providers know that the consumer will only pay the provider whom he believes best serves his interests, so the providers increase quality, decrease prices, among other strategies to offer the consumer a better deal.
They do this not because they necessarily care about the consumer as a person, but because they want his business and know that if they don’t get it, someone else will. Soon, the consumer in need pays a provider in exchange for the service that he deems best serves his needs. The favored provider gets what he wants, and the consumer is equally satisfied. The only people harmed by the exchange are the providers who did not do a good enough job of helping the consumer. Voluntary cooperation between people looking to satisfy each other’s needs makes society better.
Sounds great, right? Sometimes government tells us things aren’t so great; it tells us it must intervene on behalf of the consumer, using euphemisms like “regulation” and “consumer protection” to make demands of providers. Without the government’s intrusion, providers will naturally seek to serve consumers in order to be patrons of their business, but when politicians tell them what to do the natural arrangement of the marketplace is no more. Providers can no longer use the fullness of their capacities in service of the consumer, they must now divert a part of those capacities in order to meet the arbitrary demands of statesmen. Providers now must serve two masters, the consumers, whom they would be serving anyway in order to receive payment, and the politicians, who pay them in nothing but demands. The end result is necessarily a loss for the consumer, who is now not as well off as he could have been.
Sometimes, government intrudes into the marketplace in an unprecedented way. Throughout history, government has completely taken over areas of service that would otherwise be private and turned them into a certain kind of public institution called a monopoly. A monopoly in this sense is an institution controlled by the government that is the sole provider, protected from competition, in a certain area of service.
The American K-12 public school system is a monopoly, since it is the primary forum by which children obtain an education.
Public schools are paid for by taxes and children attend them for free, not because school managers make them free but because government demands they be free. The price system is the mechanism by which providers keep each other in service to the consumer; providers lower prices in order to draw the attention of consumers to themselves and away from other providers. But when there are no prices, what empowers the consumer to choose what he thinks is best for himself, and thus employ providers that efficiently and easily supply it for him, is eradicated. When people no longer buy things on account of how much good it does them, but instead are simply handed something, they are made poorer, not richer. The public school monopoly is completely insulated from the needs of the consumers, them being the children and their parents. It has no reason to cater to anyone’s wants; it simply does what it does and whether or not people are satisfied is not even part of the equation. Whether they like it or not, they have to live with it. In this way, the monopoly will always, necessarily, be inferior to private enterprise.
It can be said that children should not be subjected to the “ups and downs” of the marketplace, and that schools should be protected from the turbulence that comes with free enterprise. However, this is an over-simplification and under-explanation of the issue. Children are served because of the turbulence associated with the free market. “Turbulence” simply means that some schools will do better than others at admitting students and taking in revenue, while other schools will struggle to stay financially afloat and sometimes even fail.
This phenomenon is an expression of the consumer exercising his power to determine which providers are giving him superior service and which are not. The idea that politicians and central planners will run schools “not so they themselves can profit but for the students” can only end in disaster when put into practice as public policy. (And it has.)
In a free market, the provider can only profit if he in turn is providing a legitimate service to a consumer. If the consumer does not believe the service is to his benefit, he chooses not to purchase it and moves on with his life. There is no force involved. On the other hand, when there is a government monopoly compelling people to use un-priced services, and the consumer believes the services are not to his benefit, he has no power over the monopoly; the monopoly has no competition. He has no choice and is forced to make use of bad service that he does not want, a phenomenon that cannot ever take place in a free market.
The career most working adults have today is most likely not the one they planned on having while they were in middle or even high school. The public school system is designed to expose children to a diverse range of topics for them to study in part in order to help them get an idea of what they might want to do with their lives.
However, since the school system is a monopoly unaccountable to the needs of children, problems necessarily arise, and most unfortunately in this particular area. During the experience of high school, children, as they become young adults, may begin to consider certain careers based on their interests. In a free market in education, young adults would diversify their education and training based on what kind of work feels right for them. Students are not the only beneficiaries of a free market in education, teachers also benefit; no teacher would ever deny that their classroom experience would see an improvement if the only people that ever entered their classrooms were people that actually wanted to be there.
In a free market in education, students would only ever seek the services of people whom they feel do the best job of giving them an education. They would never sit in a classroom in which they feel the teacher is not helping them, do hours of work they don’t understand and are not interested in, nor any other such activity that burdens their educational experience and their social lives. The unfortunate truth is, under the public school monopoly, this is the reality for tens of millions of children every single day of the school year. Monday through Friday, students spend hours in the classrooms of teachers they might not like and may not feel serve their needs, then come home from school only to face assigned busy work that students might not believe helps them understand the material, all because politicians and bureaucrats pretend that they know what is right for students better than the students themselves do. Their measures amount to little more than an arbitrary punishment of students, and they would be impossible if all schools were private.
Under the public school monopoly, the mantra that the customer is not always right also translates into the very things students learn in school. Students take courses in “core subjects,” arbitrarily decided by politicians and bureaucrats, partly to provide them with an outlet to figure out what subjects interest them. However, young people already do that in the kinds of music they listen to, video games they play, TV shows they watch, people they associate with, and other areas of their lives in which they enjoy not being compelled. Students would still find things that interest them in the free market of education, the difference then being that they would never have to do anything that they feel wastes their time, as students in America do now. This article is written on the presumption that the majority of its readers are married persons with children. Imagine how miserable their children would be if their schools forced them to associate with people they don’t like for the purpose of “giving them an idea of what kind of friends they might want to have when they grow up.” No such burdens exist when people are free to choose.
No argument consistent with the principles of a free society can ever be used to justify the premise that it is imperative to force a person to know a certain thing. If this is true, then it is equally true on a larger scale. Thus, there is no reason that children must particularly be familiar with a higher understanding of the English language, algebraic expressions, scientific principles, and historical events, among other subjects that agents of government have arbitrarily deemed “core subjects.” (One might wonder whatever happened to “budgeting.”)
Hundreds of millions of Americans get by every day without profound proficiency in every one of these areas, to no fault of their own. What a working adult knows or ought to know is no business of his countrymen. Unfortunately, for as long as the public school monopoly has been in existence, what young adults working in the classroom know and ought to know has been just that. Every day of the school year, children learn things not because they feel it betters them or advances their position in life, but because politicians compel them to do so, a problem that can only be solved by the free market.
There is a case to be made that if one is unsatisfied with the results, or lack thereof, of the public school system, then private schools or homeschooling are viable alternatives. To homeschool may look attractive to parents who have the time to attend to their children’s needs, and those who feel they can live up to their state government’s regulations have every right to do so.
However, other parents may not have the time to educate their children at home every weekday, and those who can afford it look to private schools as an alternative. Private schools often attract in part due to their higher standards of conduct and religious identity. Though realistically speaking, today there is no such thing as a “private school” in the traditional sense. The term “private school” implies that the school operates based on the natural market setting of the voluntary and uninterrupted cooperation between the consumer and the provider. In truth, there is plenty of interruption. Catholic schools, their non-Catholic Christian counterparts, and other similar schools are still compelled to comply with the public school monopoly’s college credit system. These schools base their education model on the local school district’s, and with little exception will often mirror the district’s policies. With these realities in mind, Christian schools and other similar schools can be likened to the other side of the same coin, a side slightly less dirty than the other. Though, it is important to remember where the dirtiness comes from, and the answer is certainly nowhere to be found in the private sector.
To fight the problems inherent with the public school monopoly, conservatives have suggested ways in which to reform the school system. The famous economist Milton Friedman suggested the implementation of school vouchers. Others discuss the problems associated with the “immovable” teachers unions. However, if every single teachers union ceased to exist tomorrow, disservices to the students and their parents would still take place every day of the school year. A simple transfer of the management of education from the federal level to the state level by a measure such as the abolition of the Department of Education could not change the fact that the individual state governments would then simply manage 50 of their own slightly different monopolies. The problem with a government monopoly is not how it is managed but that it exists. There is only one solution that ensures that the needs of the consumer are always met, and nowhere does it involve compulsion on the whims of statesmen. Conservatives must come to understand that a reform of government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.
This article is dedicated to Professor Krzysztof Ostaszewski, whose insights provided the inspiration for the piece.
Image courtesy of shutterstock.