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January 17, 2006

David Friedman on education

David Friedman has contributed some thoughtful comments on my post about political socialization and libertarianism. I had written that libertarians need most people to prize freedom; otherwise, liberty itself will weaken. However, parents want their children to gain marketable skills above all else. They therefore do not demand that schools impart public goods, of which the love of liberty is an important example. If parents do not put pressure on schools to teach freedom, then libertarians must consider other ways to educate all children for liberty. The vehicle that comes first to my mind is universal, taxpayer funded k-12 schooling with a "civics" mandate; but there may be alternatives. In arguing for civic education that emphasizes liberty, libertarians should invoke their own philosophical ideals, but they should be willing to swallow the restriction on individual freedom that will come from universal education.

Friedman replies:

I think parents are mostly interested in educating their children to have successful lives. One way of doing that is by learning what the world is like. If libertarians are correct in believing that more freedom results in a more attractive society, a more accurate picture of the world will tend to result in more support for liberty. So shifting control over schooling in the direction of parents rather than school officials and politicians is likely to result in some shift in favor of liberty.

I'm struck by the idealism of this paragraph--or, to put it another way, by the avoidance of a rational-choice framework. If individual parents want their own children to "lead successful lives" in our society, then they should hope that their kids are not too eccentric or unruly. They should try to give their children skills that are valued in the economy, along with a healthy respect for authority. That's what pays. One representative "New Jersey mother" in a focus group told Public Agenda: "There are key points--hard work, discipline, respect. If those are taught in the home, that's more than 50 percent of what you need to succeed. Even a below average kid will do well if his parents teach him that."

Libertarians believe that a better society would be more free than ours is. Even granting that libertarians are right, parents who want their own kids to be successful in today's society will hope that other parents' children fight for liberty. That fight is likely to be lonely, under-paid, frustrating, and only enjoyable if one truly prizes intellectual debate.

In an essay that's online, Friedman summarizes the position that I have adopted:

In a private system [of education], children will be taught what their parents want them to know. In a government system, children will be taught what the state wants them to know. So the government system provides an opportunity for the state to indoctrinate children in beliefs that it is not in their interest, or their parents' interest, for them to hold. Insofar as some virtues require one to act against one's own interest--for instance, by not stealing something even when nobody is watching--that is an opportunity to indoctrinate children in virtue.

I would also say that schools can "indoctrinate" children in the love for liberty. However, Friedman continues ...

One good reply to this argument was made by William Godwin, who, in 1796, expressed his hope "that mankind will never have to learn so important a lesson through so corrupt a channel." To put the argument in more modern language, government schooling does indeed provide the state with an opportunity to indoctrinate children--but there is no good reason to believe that it will be in the interest of the state to indoctrinate them in beliefs that it is in the interest of the rest of us for them to hold. Many modern societies have strong legal rules designed to keep the state from controlling what people believe--the first amendment to the U.S. constitution being a notable example. It seems odd to combine them with a set of institutions justified as doing the precise opposite.

In an interesting recent article, John Lott explores the question of why schooling is controlled by the state in modern societies. His conclusion is that government schooling is a mechanism by which the state lowers the cost of controlling the population.

Obviously, there is a danger that state schools will indoctrinate in favor of the state, as Friedman fears. However, it is a simplistic theory of "the state" that understands it as a unitary, disciplined, and self-interested agent. On the contrary, public schools in the United States are highly subject to local political pressure, especially from taxpaying parents. I don't know how to prove this, but I strongly suspect that American schools teach a mix of libertarian, authoritarian, and majoritarian principles because those are the values that most parents demand. Libertarians are entitled to argue for a different list of values, one headed by individual liberty. If they can't win that argument, then I don't see how they can prevail at all.

Posted by peterlevine at January 17, 2006 06:04 PM

Comments

Peter:

Just a comment on public schools in this context. I did a lot of my graduate research and later professional work with school districts in the public/political arena and the truth is public schools in the U.S. are - as you state - highly subject to local pressure.

There are occasional challenges when local school boards get out of alingnment with their community politically. (Lawrence and Iannaccone's dissatisfaction theory remains a key framework for understanding this reality.) But, I would argue that they are easily the most responsive (to local values and priorities) government institution we have.

Of course the problem with that in the school world is that they tend to be by their nature "conservative" in the truest sense of the word. Those who seek to reform or change schools constantly face the connection of schools to their commmunity and the unwillingness of the system to respond. The proliferation of diverse local school boards also leads to fragmentation and diffusion of control that makes creating change at the policy level even harder because the levers to create change are weak and have to cut across diverse communities. This is why policy makers need to understand the need to bring communities into the school reform equation.

Nice post, like usual. I enjoy the blog a lot.

David Moore

Posted by: mooredp [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2006 01:32 PM

(Peter's response to a comment by me)

"I'm struck by the idealism of this paragraph--or, to put it another way, by the avoidance of a rational-choice framework. ...


Libertarians believe that a better society would be more free than ours is. Even granting that libertarians are right, parents who want their own kids to be successful in today's society will hope that other parents' children fight for liberty. That fight is likely to be lonely, under-paid, frustrating, and only enjoyable if one truly prizes intellectual debate."


Obviously I was unclear.


My point was not that parents would want to educate their children to make sacrifices in favor of liberty. My point was that parents would want to educate their children to have an accurate view of the world.


An accurate view of the world is useful for all sorts of self-interested reasons. Once you have an accurate view of the world, however, you will conclude (for example) that tariffs make you worse off, that government run schools are likely to do a poor job of educating people, and lots of other things along similar lines--because those things are true (assuming libertarianism to be correct, as libertarians believe). The more people hold such beliefs, the less popular non-libertarian programs will be, hence the freer the society will be, ceteris paribus.


Indeed, you have just provided an example. The rational choice framework you used in your argument is part of what I would regard as a correct view of the world. One of its implications, via public choice theory, rational ignorance, and the like, is that governments cannot be expected to consistently act in the interest of those they rule--not even democratic governments.Your realization of that makes you less likely to support various of the policies that libertarians oppose--not, perhaps, as much less likely as I would wish, but less likely.

Posted by: David Friedman [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2006 01:08 AM

I agree that parents would want their children to have an accurate view of the world, but does anyone really have an accurate view of the world? Isn't all politics about conflicting so-called accurate views of the world?

Certainly you must admit that your view of the world, however accurate it may be, is not widely held. If it were then the world would be far more tilted towards liberty than it is now and this discussion wouldn't be necessary.

So your average parent's conception of an "accurate view of the world" would depend on whether that parent is a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Socialist or any combination thereof. So empowering parents to make more educational choices doesn't solve your problems until you libertarianize them.

Putting all that aside though, I'd like to bring up a third dimension which neither of you have so far addressed. Peter argues in favor of the government deciding, and David argues in favor of the parents deciding, well I argue in favor of the students deciding.

I contend that civic engagement and liberty are virtues that cannot be foisted upon someone by brute will alone. The message is even more likely to be lost if its words are empty and not a reflection of one's real life as they know it. How can you teach civics to someone who cannot vote and cannot make any decisions about their own life? How can you teach liberty to someone who is not free?

The debate both here and in society at large is just a dispute over who delivers the message and what package it is put in. No one seems to question whether the message by itself is woefully insufficient in light of other factors.

Students are the ones that need to be empowered to make decisions regarding their school and curriculim. Parents and the government will surely play a significant role, but students should at all times be in the driving seat with the ultimate authority.

While I haven't seen any studies to this effect (and would be delighted to see one done), it has been my experience that students who attend truly democratic schools such as Sudbury Valley Schools have a far greater concern for liberty and democracy than students in a typical public or private school. Its because they live those principles, they don't just read about them.

Posted by: KPalicz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2006 12:24 AM

K. Palicz writes:

"Students are the ones that need to be empowered to make decisions regarding their school and curriculim. Parents and the government will surely play a significant role, but students should at all times be in the driving seat with the ultimate authority.

... it has been my experience that students who attend truly democratic schools such as Sudbury Valley Schools have a far greater concern for liberty and democracy than students in a typical public or private school. Its because they live those principles, they don't just read about them."

It's important to distinguish between freedom and Democracy--they are different things, and sometimes in conflict. I am in favor of empowering a student to make decisions with regard to his education--that's freedom. Empowering a student to make decisions with regard to other students is democracy, and a much more iffy proposition.

The Sudbury model includes both. Individual students control their own time. The school meeting, in which each student and each staff member has one vote, mostly runs the school. One possible result is that a student or staff member who is sufficiently successful at assembling a ruling coalition has a great deal of power over everyone else in the school--especially if he gets control of the school's internal judicial system.

We were associated with a school run on the Sudbury model for about eight years. We had no problem with the freedom part of the model--but left the school after a striking demonstration of one of the failure modes of democracy.

Currently our children are home unschooled.

Posted by: David Friedman [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2006 09:36 PM

Well I applaud you for unschooling. I also applaud you for trying Sudbury, but sorry that it didn't work out.

I included both Democracy and Freedom not to confuse the two, but to address what I see are the main concerns of both you and Peter.

Personally I think both are important, and as you said, Sudbury includes both. Someone seeking one, and not the other naturally would be disappointed as your family was it seems.

Democracy of course is about successfully balancing compeating demands for freedom, an exercise that is important for our understanding of democracy, of freedom, and indeed of each other. So when the time comes that I have children I would be thrilled to see them in a Sudbury school.

Or better yet a public school that practices a somehow uncorrupted Sudbury model.

Posted by: KPalicz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2006 02:25 AM

KPalicz writes:

"Peter argues in favor of the government deciding, and David argues in favor of the parents deciding, well I argue in favor of the students deciding."

I'm very much in favor of student voice in schools, not necessarily on the radical Sudbury model (although I think such experimentation is helpful), but in a more mainstream way. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, whose steering committee I chair, advocates student voice in the governance of schools.

However, whether or not students are given voice in their schools is not a decision that students can make. That's up to the school administration, which is highly influenced by adult citizens. Therefore, we must ask what incentives exist for adults to demand civic education for their kids. ("Civic education" here means learning about democracy, freedom, or both.) My claim, versus David Friedman, is that adults don't have much reason to care whether their kids learn freedom.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2006 01:05 PM

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