Market Education

Arnold Kling quotes Sugata Mitra and asks about libertarian schooling. In a comment, I bring up something which I haven’t figured out yet: how would private, non-compulsory education teach subjects which aren’t always popular, and their positive attributes not always recognized by parents? When I originally posted my comment I think I framed it the wrong way, because it’s a bit absurd to assume that a free society wouldn’t have schools that more-or-less imitate current public (and private) schooling. What I mean is that there would be schools that teach a set of subjects, independent of what the students want to be taught. But, the point stands that I’m not sure this type of schooling can ever be replaced — although, surely, the way these topics are taught and the environment they are taught in will change —, and society is better off when as many children as possible are subjected to it.

In the same vein, I don’t see a lot of merit in the idea that kids can pick and choose what they want to study. While I agree as much as anybody else that alternative forms of education, like Wikipedia and the internet more generally, are great, and absolutely constructive — it’s a different form of independent reading —, the problem is that most children aren’t completely aware of the costs and benefits of different subjects. For example, to many, mathematics has high costs and low benefits. I was surely one of these kids, which is why I am so far behind in my mathematical training. The same is true for different languages. Yet, these can be subjects that people grow into (as they often are), and it will turn out that their “forced” teaching is beneficial. This is also one reason why university programs aren’t built entirely on the basis of electives, but more often constrain choice to required core classes. The fact is, sometimes we don’t know “what’s good for us,” which is why we pay people to give us hints as to the direction we should go (and why parents pay for the schooling of their children).

Libertarians who concoct ideas of completely voluntary schooling fall into the same trap as radicals who want to completely deconstruct social hierarchies. Sometimes these hierarchies make sense, which is why they form in the first place. Parts of schooling are subject to the same principle: sometimes it makes sense that we’re forced to do something, because otherwise we wouldn’t do it on our own. Another analogy with more-or-less the same meaning: this is why we pay personal trainers to push us to exercise to an extent we wouldn’t have otherwise (I once got one free lesson and it was more tiring, but more enjoyable, than a day at infantry school). While independent study is great, there’s no reason to reject the conventional model as something which only holds with the state.

As I had originally framed my point, I used it as a mark against private schooling. As I suggested in the first paragraph, I obviously erred there. But, there’s a grain of truth. Children who are subject to a certain intellectual stimulus early on are probably going to be more productive than children without that stimulus. The logic behind public schooling, at least for younger people (let’s say elementary school), is that education provides this productivity boost that may not otherwise occur, partially because the benefits of schooling are externalized. Public schooling comes at a cost, and the question is whether the opportunity cost is low enough to justify the program. We should admit the benefits exist. The real argument against public schooling is that the costs aren’t justified, on average, and that the elimination of public school would allow the reallocation of capital to better ends, increasing productivity, and over the long-run making schooling increasingly affordable (not just because of a hypothetical fall in the price of education over time, but also as a result of an increase in real income by other means).

The two points I’m making are as follows: (1) conventional, “compulsory” schooling makes sense (it makes less sense as the individual ages) because there are real benefits attached to it; (2) with this in mind, sometimes the libertarian criticism of public education goes too far. Wikipedia and conventional education aren’t substitutes, they’re compliments.

P.S. In the comments thread to Arnold Kling’s post, someone mentioned that people can simply choose to learn a subject later, once they realize its benefits. It’s to say, rather than try to teach a partially unwilling kid basic mathematical operations when they’re young, let older people decide to learn it when they want to. I think there’s a good point to this idea, but it misses the true value of an early education. Kids who learn how to read early, or they learn second and/or third languages, et cetera, are developing their brains during an incredibly important part of their lives. Children who are less stimulated when they are really young are probably going to preform worse as they age. Likewise, someone whose brain develops early on will have an easier time voluntarily learning much more complicated subjects when they’re older.


9 thoughts on “Market Education

  1. Pingback: The Society We Live In | Economic Thought

  2. John S

    I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into this. However, I do think there are several points that can be made for a somewhat different libertarian view.

    1. One key issue is parental choice. If a couple decides that a completely non-coercive, voluntary education is what they want for a child, surely you support their right to make this decision? Even today, parents in the US have this option (via homeschooling or democratic schools such as the Sudbury Valley School, henceforth SVS); in a hypothetical anarcho-capitalist/minarchist society, I would think such parental freedom and choice would be expanded and embraced (not to mention, some parents might even opt for a stricter educational environment, which also might be defensible!**)

    (**more on this in a bit)

    But in terms of actual results, even if the state completely withdrew from education tomorrow, I think the probability that all parents (or even a substantial fraction, e.g. 10% or more) would choose such an option is somewhere between zero and zilch. 🙂 So I think you’re worrying about an outcome (“children will run amok!”) that is something of an imaginary bogeyman (similar to “who will put out fires in an anarcho-capitalist world?”)

    2. “Libertarians who concoct ideas of completely voluntary schooling”

    I think this is a somewhat unfair characterization, particularly the word “concoct” (as if it’s just purely an idea). As I mentioned before, completely non-coercive schools already have existed for several decades now (SVS: since 1968; the UK’s Summerhill: 1921).

    don’t see a lot of merit in the idea that kids can pick and choose
    what they want to study.”

    Fair enough, but studies that have been done on the alumni of the original SVS indicate that there is at least some concrete evidence that this type of education has produced competent, productive adults in every walk of life. Could they have had “better” outcomes if given a traditional public schooling? Possibly, but I think it’s fair to reserve judgement at least until one examines the actual data.

    3. Finally, what of the rights of children? I think we have to think about this on a continuum–surely, there’s not much difference between a 21 year old and a 20 year old in terms of their ability (and right) to decide what to learn and how to learn it. But what about a 15 year old? Isn’t it fair to say that they occupy some intermediary position between a 21 year old and an 8 year old? Perhaps they don’t have the full rights and independence of an adult, but it seems reasonable to say they have more than a small child does.

    1. John S

      The key thinker on the issues of voluntary education and child rights is,
      imo, John Holt. In a way, he’s the Rothbard of these issues–brutally
      honest and uncompromising (and thus repugnant to some). But the great
      thing about him is that his ideas did not spring forth fully formed; they grew out of his experience and observation of children learning, playing, and simply being.
      (Again, nice profile of John Holt for interested readers: )

      Chapter 24 of his book “Escape from Childhood,” entitled “The Right to Control One’s Learning” is a full-throated defense of voluntary education. (page 96)

      You may not agree, but I think the parallels he draws between the controlled world of schools and the paternalistic state (which, after all, is only doing “what’s best for our own good whether we like it or not”) is an apt one. School is where most people first experience a truly totalitarian environment (“Shh! Don’t talk!
      Don’t move!“).

      Does this not play some role in their subsequent docile acceptance of the
      authority of the state? I think it does. So I must disagree with your statement that “society is better off when as many children as possible are subjected to
      [forced education].” On the contrary, the presence of at least a few individuals who manage to live productive, happy lives despite having not experienced coercive education serves as a useful check on the state’s ability to say, “See how good coercion has been for you? Here, have some more!”

      (Ok, a bit snarky on that last one. But this issue really gets me riled up 🙂

      In short, I think voluntary education is one that deserves at least some consideration from libertarians rather than outright rejection.

    2. JCatalan

      Just to clarify, I don’t think the problem is that without schools we’ll have a bunch of kids running around committing crimes or congesting roads with street soccer matches. My opinion here is largely based on the notion that children who receive a certain stimulus at a very young age are more likely to excel than those who don’t, because that’s a crucial time during the development of the brain. But, the child herself might not know what to study or might not have the motivation to study — a product of her age –, and so her mind has to be branched out “coercively.” But, yes, I agree with you that in a free society parents can choose in what kind of schools to put their kids in (for better or for worse).

      Also, I have more in mind children under the age of ten. After that, I see “democratic” schooling as much more feasible (and much more cost effective, because even force feeding them 70+ percent of high school students probably don’t learn the material anyways). But, I’ll have to look at SVS and their results. I’ll also have to read John Holt’s research — I haven’t heard of him before. This being said, I’m not too keen on the connection between public schooling and docility — we’re put in authoritarian relationships all the time (where we work, our households, et cetera). Nevertheless, what you write makes sense — I’ll have to do my homework.

      1. John S

        I think our positions are ultimately not that far apart, we just differ a bit on the utilitarian value of having children study math and reading at a young age.

        An anecdote: I was a pretty good math student in high school (5 on the AP Calculus exam), and I started out with 2nd year calc as a freshman. In the first week, we started with 3-d vectors, and I immediately felt overwhelmed by the number of formulas I had to remember. I ended up dropping the course, and I never strayed back into math again in college.

        But from a learning perspective, there’s no real reason why I couldn’t have moved on to a different subject (discrete math, partial derivatives, statistics, math modeling, etc) and tackled 3-d stuff later at my own pace–except for the fact that the prof has to move through the syllabus, and there’s no flexibility to modify the pace to fit the learner’s schedule. I wonder how many young children have had similar experiences of being stuck on one thing, getting a bad grade on a test, and then saying, “The hell with math, this stinks!” even though a curriculum actually focused on teaching, rather than testing and ranking, might have maintained their interest. (According to Salman Khan of khanacademy, there answer is: most students).

        Fear of bad grades also kept me from taking advanced econ courses past intro. Interestingly, Eichengreen attended UC (Santa Barabara?) when it first opened and gave no letter grades.

        Anyway, if you ever delve into John Holt’s stuff, I recommend his best known book, “How Children Fail.” It’s available in PDF here:

        And he’s not all fire-and-brimstone deconstructionist; check out the charming story of “The Q” (page 38) for his lighter side, or the story of the mentally disabled boy learning math (page 94).

        1. John S

          **Well, not partial derivatives, but still, there were many other avenues I could have taken at that particular fork in the road.

  3. John S

    Related Friedman post

    I like this part a lot: “There is at least one more thing wrong with the conventional model. Judging sources of information on internal evidence is a very important intellectual skill. In the classroom, that skill is anti-taught. The pupil is told things by two authorities–the teacher and the textbook–and his job is to believe what they say.”

    I can’t count the number of comments I’ve seen re: vulgar Keysianism that go something like “You obviously weren’t paying attention in school when they taught about FDR and the New Deal.” Free schools would also do a lot to improve our political and economic debates, I think.


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