Public (State) Education: Abolish It – The Moral and Consequentialist Arguments

State education should be abolished completely and replaced with a free market system. By the way, I sometimes use the proper label “state” education, instead of the commonly used term “public” education. By state education, I mean the system where the state (which is any government over us, not just “state” as in the 50 “states”) taxes its citizens and runs and controls an educational operation. This can apply to all levels of state funded education, but here we will focus on K-12. No doubt my nonlibertarian readers will be quite offended by this proposition that at first seems to be heartless, and that you might think would destroy the country and leave everyone in squalor. But, I will address every one of your concerns and demonstrate handily that we should indeed abolish the state education system.The replacement would be a free market system where parents spend their own money directly on whatever schooling they want for their kids. Even though I am ultimately in favor of abolishing all state education, I will present a compromise for the poor in this post, and argue for complete abolition elsewhere.

Well-intentioned statists usually give the following reason for state education: ‘we need state funded education that’s free for poor people because they can’t afford it otherwise, so that they can have a way to learn and better themselves, get a job, and climb out of poverty.’  Before I fully argue against state education, I will now offer the compromise. Why subject everyone to government schooling? Let’s privatize almost all education (no public funding) so that most people have to pay directly for it instead of indirectly through taxes, and then have public funding or public schooling for those who are poor. This way, we can greatly decrease stealing through taxation and take advantage of the cost savings, efficiency, and innovation of a free market for the bulk of the population, but still provide an education safety net for the poor. This would be a dramatic improvement over our current system. The compromise is to still provide state education (or state financial assistance for education) for the poor.

The above system actually conforms well to our usual notion of welfare, income, and fairness. Most people agree that nonpoor people should make their income in the private sector in a free market, buy and sell what they choose, and only the poor should receive government welfare assistance. Most people agree that if a person is not poor, then they shouldn’t get welfare. That is really all the above system proposes. Only the poor should get publicly funded education. Let nonpoor people buy it themselves with their own money. Is this unfair? Do you advocate welfare equally for all people, regardless of income, which would allow welfare payments to the middle income and rich people? I don’t. I say, “let the middle and upper classes fend for themselves.” Welfare, if it should exist at all, should only exist for the poor. State education is not directly the same thing as welfare, but it is the same principle as welfare, according to the reasons that most people give for supporting it. According to most people, they want to give poor people a free service (paid for by tax payer) in order for them to support their livelihoods because these poor people can’t afford it themselves, so it’s basically welfare in a different form.

Now for the more solid arguments. I will first argue against state education from a moral point of view, then I will consider consequentialist arguments. Before continuing, please read the earlier post here about the different ethical theories of deontology and consequentialism.

Here is the moral argument:  State education, by definition, must use stealing and aggressive force against innocent people. It violates freedom and property rights. So, it is immoral and should not exist. That’s the moral argument. Stealing is wrong. Besides stealing, there are other coercive actions such as forcing parents by law to send their kids to government schools.There is also the problem that governments sometime teach children things that their parents don’t agree with, and the parents are still forced to pay for it. For example, I would be very upset if I was forced to pay for government programs that taught my children that weed is dangerous, because I know that that’s a government lie. Public schools often push certain government approved “morals” on the children, regardless of the will of the parent.

Someone who disagrees (we’ll call them “opponent”) and favors state education might claim: “But, education is a civil right that should be available to all, regardless of economic status.” This opponent is incorrect. A legal right is something that can be enforced, i.e. can be ensured through physical, aggressive force. The opponent is essentially claiming that if someone is not being taught geometry, than they (through the government) should have the ability to use physical force against other innocent people in order to ensure that they are being taught geometry. A common claim that we libertarians make is that it is wrong to initiate force against innocent people who themselves are not using force. By saying that education is a right, the opponent is saying that he should be able to legally force a person to teach him something (forced labor), or force someone else to pay (stealing) someone to teach him something. If a person does not have an education, can they hold me at gunpoint and say, “you better teach me geometry”? (Remember that government ultimately enforces all laws through the use of violence, usually guns).These are basic freedom principles, that’s all. And, what if a parent thinks that the public education system is really pitiful (as it is) and they want no part of it? Are you going to force them to purchase a lousy service that they don’t want for their child? Sadly, even if a parent chooses private school, they still have to pay the taxes that go toward state schools, forcing them to double pay: they have to pay for their own kids to get the education they choose, but then they are still forced to pay for a lousy state service that they don’t want and aren’t using.

An opponent might claim:  “An educated public is inherently good for society”.  Sure, if everyone had a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, that would probably be a good thing. But, that’s not the question at hand. And, who is to decide what is taught and what is useful knowledge? The government? Let’s switch tables. I and many others may personally believe that the world would be a better place if everyone became a Christian and studied the lessons of Jesus. But, just because we have an idea that we think would benefit society doesn’t mean that we can force it on others. Correctly so, we can’t force others to learn the useful and beneficial teachings of the Bible.

Libertarianism is essentially advocating the idea that people should stop violating other people’s freedoms. Let’s live in peace without forcing our will on others. When someone advocates for education as a right, or free (tax paid) education, they are actually imposing their will on others by force. This is immoral. 

The Consequentialist Argument:

If you are not persuaded by the moral argument, maybe you will be persuaded on the grounds that abolishing the state education system (except for the poor, per the compromise) has better outcomes for people. (Remember that we are still considering the compromise proposal, not complete abolition. Also note that libertarians argue to abolish state education, not education in general.) This is also relevant to the modified moral rule that was introduced in an earlier post on ethics theory. An opponent might say:  “State education may involve some actions, such as stealing, that are widely held as immoral, but maybe stealing isn’t always wrong, and maybe there are some cases where it is better to do a little wrong thing in order to achieve a greater good.” As discussed in the ethics theory post, this concept may have some truth to it. In order to convince people that it’s ok to violate a long standing moral rule, one usually has to conjure up an imminent life and death scenario. A good example is where a child is about to starve to death unless you steal a little food (or a little money for food) from someone else who has plenty. This example includes doing an almost negligibly bad act to someone, and getting a very huge positive benefit of saving a life in return, thus a very high net positive, thus the justification for breaking the conventional moral rule. I’m ok with that. The modified secular moral rule is:  “stealing is wrong unless there is a very, very high net positive outcome in it.” I usually flatly write, “stealing is wrong” for brevity, but underlying that claim is the more elaborate rule above. State education may be deemed acceptable if it can pass this test. But it can’t, as is explained below.

In order to have a highly net positive outcome, first we might hope for a small bad act. But, no, the acts of stealing for state schooling are very large, not small. This isn’t stealing a little food, it’s stealing sizable portions of everyone’s property through taxes. Public education consumes over 25% of state and local budgets. The average K-12 public school cost per student per year is an astronomical $13,000, and that’s if you accept the school’s numbers. CATO did research that suggests that it’s actually about $18,000. You can go to college for that much!  Remember that this cost is not truly free. Everyone is taxed to pay for this. We already pay for it, just indirectly. Now, let’s compare that to the costs that one might expect in a privatized system. Currently, the average private school costs about $9,300/yr per student. The private school is about half the cost of the public school! And, the actual average cost in a fully privatized system would be much cheaper than even that. Currently, the state education system creates the condition where private schools are utilized mainly by high income parents, because most average income people choose to send their kids to public school because it’s directly “free” and they’ve already been forced to pay for it through taxes. So, the average private school cost of $9,300 is skewed toward the high income customer base. If we abolished state education, where people of all income levels are then purchasing education services, then many schools would be tailored to people of average income levels, not just the wealthy. The market would shift and the average private school cost would be much lower than $9,300. Education is much cheaper for nearly everyone in a private system than in a state system. See CATO’s full report and pdf here on the “real” costs of public schools:

The cost is increasing rapidly as public schools trick everyone into giving them even more money, as shown in the below CATO chart of average public school cost per student, inflation adjusted, from 1970. Other charts going back to the 1920s show the same thing:  inflation adjusted cost per student just keeps climbing. Your typical public school advocate will usually say that the solution to education problems is to give schools more funding. Well, we’ve been trying that for about a century now. The government solution is to throw money at problems, and that usually fails.

Cato public school spending trends

The cost is very high, surprisingly so in a modern age where the sign of the times in the private sector is cheaper and more efficient information transfer due to technology advances. Of course, teachers will tell you that you actually need more laborious teachers per student so that their jobs stay safe, at everyone’s expense. So, the bad stealing is not small, it’s huge.

Now that costs have been covered, what about the benefits? Is there a very good benefit as compared to privatizing the whole thing and letting parents choose how their children are educated? No. I went through public education my whole life and I’ve witnessed up close how much it sucks. As you can see in the earlier chart, dramatically more spending had no positive effect on student performance. Most teachers don’t know how to properly explain math and science. Most state schooling focuses on trivial memorization instead of critical thinking and problem solving (or getting a job for that matter). Think about math class. They just spoon feed you the equations and you memorize them. The week before the test, the teacher usually tells the students what the problems will be on the upcoming test, proceeds to show the students exactly how to solve those problems, and then gives the students the same problems on the test, but with different numbers. The students’ job is merely to regurgitate what the teachers want to see on the test. It’s mostly plug and chug in equations, no thinking. A good math class would focus on truly understanding the concepts and meaning of the equations. And, if the class is really good, it would focus on derivations and teach you how to originally create your own equations, because that’s what you can do when you truly understand math (it’s not as hard as it seems, even in high school). And, a good math teacher would not tell you what problems would be on the test. If the students actually understood the math, they would be able to solve the problems without knowing exactly what those problems were ahead of time. I’m not assuming that all students have to be geniuses; the level of understanding I’m describing is quite possible for most people if you have effective teaching methods (if you disagree, it’s probably because you were public schooled and have never been exposed to good teaching methods. It’s not that you’re inherently stupid if you don’t understand math, it’s that you weren’t taught properly). A privatized system is decentralized so that many different schools can try out different methods of teaching without being controlled and limited by the state. This decentralized process allows the good methods to gradually become prominent, just like in a market place.

Consider history classes, how they usually focus on memorizing trivial dates and events instead of focusing on deeper trends and debates on causes and effects of societal structures and decisions. And, don’t get me started on pathetic science classes that teach almost nothing useful at all. They teach mere end scientific conclusions without teaching the much more important logical principles of critical thinking and methodology that create scientific conclusions. A public school is basically a jailhouse that stifles creativity and pushes people along through the hoops. Look around you. Does anyone really think that the current education system is of good quality?

On the other hand, history shows us how innovative, creative, and efficient the free market can be. We can do much better when people have free choice in how their kids are taught, where parents can choose good schools based on what methods actually work well, where schools compete. In such a system, if a school actually does a good job at teaching, more parents (customers) would start sending their kids there. This provides real economic incentive for schools to perform better. If a school is not effective, parents would be able to take their kids out and try a different school that has a reputation for being better. In this way, the bad schools die out, and the bad teachers gradually get fired or laid off (which almost never happens in state schools). There are many ways to dramatically decrease education costs and improve knowledge transfer to students, but the teacher’s unions wouldn’t like it. The education documentary “Waiting for Superman” gives a nice description of how teachers usually block education reform and efficiency efforts.

However, what about good teachers? In a private system, they would be paid based on the judgment of their direct supervisor (maybe the principal, or whoever’s running the school) on whether or not they are effective. And their supervisor’s judgment is mainly dependent on whether or not the parents (the customers) are satisfied with the teacher’s effectiveness. Teachers then have great incentive to be effective. Some teachers are concerned about certain misleading performance parameters being used to derive their pay. In a private system, the distant government wouldn’t be in charge of evaluating teachers based on some misleading standardized tests. Instead, the evaluation would be local and directly related to the customer parents and principal. If a good teacher feels that their performance is being misjudged, they could quit and work for a better school with better pay, just like all the rest of us do in the normal workplace world. A good teacher would no longer be forced to teach to some national standardized test or a government curriculum. The good teacher would have much more freedom to do the right teaching that inspired them to become teachers in the first place.

Now, it’s true that in a completely private system, some poor people may not be able to afford the education. I have an argument that addresses this, but it’s too long. I don’t even need to say it because I’ve already stated my compromise of at least allowing public funding and schooling for the poor. So, that takes care of that complaint.

It’s doubtful that the public education system actually benefits us (unless you’re talking about poor people, but I’ve already compromised), compared to the alternative of a completely privatized system that can do much better. This state system actually produces bad outcomes, but I’ll be lenient and graceful and assume that it only produces small improvements over privatization, but certainly not huge amazing benefits. And, it’s not even the case that no education necessarily kills someone or ruins their life. In our thought experiments, we felt compelled to do the small bad thing because it necessarily saved someone’s life. We aren’t even close to that here. If someone doesn’t learn the equation for the area of a circle, they can still live on Earth well, but maybe they would have a manual labor job instead of being an engineer or doctor. Not everyone has to be a professional. It’s ok to be a carpenter, plumber, or a construction worker. Making a living working at a craft or trade is not the end of the world. What did humans in the world do before public education? Were they all dead? No. Education enables you to be more productive and competitive and to increase you standard of living, but its lack-there-of doesn’t NECESSARILY kill anyone. And, I’m not trying to ban education for some people in order to “keep them down”; anyone could get an education in a free market, so long as they or their parents don’t steal to get it.

Our modified morality test includes the acceptability to violate someone’s rights if the positive outcome highly, highly outweighs the immoral infringement. Public education does not even come close to passing this test. Considering the very small benefits, if any at all, and the very large costs and rights violations, the public system produces a very net negative outcome for people compared to a private system. Not only does this fail the modified morality test, but it also fails the simple and lenient utilitarian test of providing any net benefit at all.


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