Bastiat Reminds Us That Education Can Exist—and Prosper—Without Government Schools


This article was originally published by Karl Streitel at The Foundation for Economic Education. 

In his famous essay The Law, Frédéric Bastiat explains how many who object to the free market and liberty create a false dichotomy between having the government provide some service and the service’s abolition altogether:

Socialism, like the old policy from which it emanates, confounds Government and society. And so, every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of education by the State—then we are against education altogether. We object to a State religion—then we would have no religion at all. We object to an equality which is brought about by the State—then we are against equality, etc., etc. They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to the cultivation of corn by the State.

Indeed, I recently had an exchange with someone who accused me of not caring whether people become educated because I favor ending coercive funding for government schools. This person, like the socialists of Bastiat’s time, mistook my wish to extirpate government involvement in schools for my desire to offer no education at all—as if such a thing is even possible when learning and education happen every moment of every day.

Unfortunately, people with such mistaken views fail to see the true argument: Government involvement is unnecessary and counterproductive in these areas because private alternatives can perform the same or similar functions more efficiently, effectively, and ethically. Moreover, government involvement crowds out pioneering alternatives, in some cases via legislation and in all cases via its coercive funding mechanisms and associated subsidies for its services.

A private learning option may cost $6,000 per year, but if someone’s school taxes are “only” $3,000 annually, then that person is likely to view government school as a better deal because he or she likely ignores the fact that the balance of the $13,000 or so in per-pupil costs is extracted by force from everyone else in the district, whether those people use the schools or not.

In fact, contrary to the charge this person made against me, I care so deeply about helping people learn and better themselves and others through education that I support removing all restrictions on education currently propping up a sclerotic system and limiting people’s options, including ending school taxes and compulsory school laws. In the same way that I support as many choices as possible for all of us at the grocery store, I support true choice in learning—and that begins where government ends.

To this point, Bastiat noted that law can either enable plunder or militate against it.

In their current form, our government school systems clearly have operated under and perpetuated laws that allow small groups of people—school board members and state representatives—to plunder everyone else. These small groups of people distort the law to their advantage to do what otherwise would be not just illegal but also immoral.

If I send you a bill in the mail requesting payment for my child’s shoes (because all children need shoes, after all) and then forcibly appropriate your home and property if you fail to pay me, I have clearly committed theft, among other violations, in nearly every society imaginable. However, if I have the title of “school board member” or “representative,” then I am free to perpetrate such violations without fear of reprisal because a slightly larger group of people tacitly agreed to this system. About this illogical and immoral situation, Bastiat offered a prescient warning:

See whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen, and, to the injury of others, an act that this citizen cannot perform without committing a crime. Abolish this law without delay; it is not merely an iniquity—it is a fertile source of iniquities, for it invites reprisals; and if you do not take care, the exceptional case will extend, multiply, and become systematic. No doubt the party benefited will exclaim loudly; he will assert his acquired rights. He will say that the State is bound to protect and encourage his industry; he will plead that it is a good thing for the State to be enriched, that it may spend the more, and thus shower down salaries upon the poor workmen. Take care not to listen to this sophistry, for it is just by the systematizing of these arguments that legal plunder becomes systematized. (Emphasis added.)

Truly, the idea of legal plunder has become so ingrained that many people see no other viable options than government schools for a large portion of the population, especially “the poor.” Such people will virtue signal their concern for the poorest among us by essentially condemning them to the failing schools in most urban areas that have already been devastated by wage controls, drug laws, poverty programs, occupational licensing, and other government “aid.” Instead of enabling people to choose freely for themselves and their children, such do-gooders know best and instead want to pour ever greater sums into these failing systems, which use other people’s money like a defibrillator on a cadaver from 1993.

The sad irony of this situation, though, is that the legal plunder that keeps such schools afloat does not even profit the supposed recipients (the students) in most cases; rather, it enriches the adults in the system while the students remain generally disenfranchised and ignorant by the system’s own test-based standards.

Such supposed concern for the poor also ignores the plethora of evidence from around the world that private alternatives not only outperform government options in most areas but also are vastly preferred by the actual parents and students choosing them. And an ancillary, but not insignificant, benefit of private alternatives is that they clearly represent the antithesis of the current legalized plunder: No one plunders anyone else to fund such options.

However, I can understand some people’s reluctance to accept Bastiat’s and my arguments because they do truly care about what might befall the poorest children without government schools, and envisioning a state of affairs beyond the current status quo is no easy task. Nonetheless, to those concerned readers, I first ask: How well are government schools improving such children’s learning right now? By any measure, they are failing children academically, emotionally, and often physically. I then encourage them to read the work of James Tooley and investigate Sugata Mitra’s “hole-in-the-wall” experiments conducted in some of the poorest areas of the world.

Their research shows that innumerable educational entrepreneurs (you know, those people who make our lives better every day without using force) have found and continue to find ways to serve students from all backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. Such entrepreneurship inevitably also helps to undo the “systematized” legal plunder that enables the current system to provide inferior service without consequence.

Truly, education not only exists outside of government schools but also flourishes there. Thus, when I and others point out the flaws of the current system and encourage alternatives to it, we are not opposed to education; on the contrary, we are supporting the ever-growing cracks in the system that allow some rays of hope and freedom to fertilize alternative learning options wherein true education without force can occur.

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