Is It The Duty Of The Government To Educate Its Citizens?

Government has no business in education and should get out of it.

This is an essay based on a motion debate that I performed in recently. My friend Chuck Braman and I defended the con side of the debate and argued that it is NOT proper for the government to get involved in education. We won the debate by swaying more audience members to our side, based on votes taken before and after our speeches.

The division of labor was such that Chuck addressed the ethical issues concerned with government involvement in education while I was tasked with providing the economic arguments. His powerful opening statement can be found here; I encourage anyone interested in this topic to give it a read! Below is an essay based on my speech.

Larry Elder makes the point that government education is similar to an item on a restaurant menu that not even the waitress would order. Roughly 11% of Americans send their kids to private school, but nearly 30% of parents who work in public schools do so. In urban areas such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati it hovers closer to 40%. To reiterate, these are government education providers choosing to send their kids to the competing private schools.

What about the government officials themselves? 37% of Representatives send their kids to private school. For US senators, that number is a staggering 45%. President Obama, himself a product of private education, made a big show of vetting DC public schools when he was elected. After all of the hullabaloo, he sent his daughters to the most elite private school in the capital. If government education is so great, why do its biggest advocates avoid it like tap water in Mexico?

The reason is that empirically, government education has been a total failure.

Consider the money, first. Over a 30 year time frame from 1970 to 2010, spending on education increased by 375% while test scores have stagnated. We spent a total of $934 billion on public education in 2013 alone. Overall, the US government spends about 7% of its GDP on education. That works out to a little over $15,000 per head, all in.


You would think that such figures would mean that we had a fairly educated populace, right? Think again.

The US administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams every 4 years. The test scores out of 500, and is meant to determine how proficient US students are in a variety of subjects. What does the performance look like on these tests for high school seniors, who have been through the rigmarole of twelve years of government schooling?

In history, 50% of seniors place below “basic” and a mere 12% are deemed either “proficient” or “advanced.” In science, 79% of seniors failed to show “proficiency.” In reading, 26% of seniors scored below the minimum. You read that correctly: nearly a quarter of the students that graduate from government education are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate! These stats are all well-documented here and here and here.

Further evidence of the ignorance borne by government schools can be observed in various polls and surveys. For instance, 42% of Americans think that the slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” appears in one of America’s founding documents. That is, they do not know the difference between the Constitution and the Communist Manifesto. Another poll demonstrated that 18% of millennials were not familiar with Soviet mass-murderer Joseph Stalin. The same poll showed that 32% did not know who Marx was. A frightening 42% were probably under the impression that Mao Zedong was an item you might order from a Chinese restaurant, since they were not familiar with the communist dictator and his oppressive regime.

In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the US Department of Education found that 14% of adults scored below basic on the exam and qualified as “either illiterate or barely literate.” That’s nearly 30 million people, 45% of which graduated from high school!

Far from being “the bedrock of our democracy”, the US Department of Education came into existence in 1979, during the Carter years. Before that, in 1940, the US had a literacy rate exceeding 97% despite the fact that the population had no more than an 8th grade education. Now, nearly 60% of graduating seniors in the US that enter community colleges require remedial education.

Why is the education system producing such abysmal ignorance, in spite of such high spending? The answer is that government is not suited to educating anyone, let alone impressionable children.

Education is another aspect of raising children. Americans expect that parents will shelter, clothe and feed their children without complete government control; why not allow for the same thing in education? In principle, there is no difference between a child with an empty mind and a child with an empty stomach: both needs ought to be served by the parents, not the state.

On most days, liberals and conservatives alike oppose monopolies and will ask the government to interfere in order to prevent their formation. However, the government education system is a monopoly that exercises absolute control over the quality of teachers and the material that is presented. There are no truly “private” schools since each one exists with government permission. Instead of viewing the parent as a client with needs to fulfill in a market setting, the school bureaucrats see parents as obstacles in their way.

The alternative to coercive, government education is voluntary education on the free market. Advocates for free market education do not trivialize its importance by asking to get government out; we hold that education is too important to let the government in. Free markets allow individuals to patronize those establishments that provide the best value for the cheapest price. This is the way to establish rational, objective standards in education. Government standards, on the other hand, are based on the arbitrary whims of bureaucrats rather than what is actually demanded in the market. According to the prevailing view, an Ivy League scholar with multiple degrees has less ability to teach than someone with a bachelor’s in education “bulletin board” design.

Compare education to another, relatively freer industry: technology. Today we carry within our pockets micro-machines that are more powerful than mainframes that took up entire rooms just 30 years ago! 81% of households below the poverty level have access to these miraculous devices. This technology was created not by government bureaucrats, but by entrepreneurs who sought to make a profit by providing value to paying customers.

What would a free market education look like, you may ask? Coercive government education dominates the industry today and renders this question difficult to answer. As in many industries, it is nearly impossible to know exactly what innovative solutions would be implemented, but there are glimpses that occasionally break through here and there.

The internet allows for low cost teleconferencing, recording and podcasting. People can get lessons on the go, or retake courses that they have trouble understanding. Students can view worked examples on YouTube as effortlessly as their parents can view movies on Netflix or Amazon. Indeed, there is a burgeoning industry for private tutoring which features companies such as Hooked on Phonics, Varsity Tutors, Coursera, Rosetta Stone, Khan Academy,, and many others. The trend is that technology is rendering government education largely obsolete and unable to compete.

Meanwhile, companies like Boeing, Apple, IBM and Google already teach summer workshops and seminars for students free of charge. If government were out of the picture, many tech companies would be able to invest in computer science academies that specialize in teaching the students how to use their best-selling products of today and program the  revolutionary products of tomorrow. It would be a win-win for the companies and the students, just as one would expect in a situation with no coercion. Tech would not only be the only industry that would benefit from such an occurrence, though it would certainly be among the first.

All of this, despite the fact that government continues to tax away our earnings in order to subsidize the compulsive government schools. One can only imagine what things would look like if the sacred cow were put to pasture and people were left free to innovate.

Many concerned people may ask: what about the poor? Would they not be able to receive an education if there were no government schools? The critics that take this line seem to forget the fact that most parents, even the poor, love their children and want to see them succeed. In fact, one could argue that the reason some parents may not be as involved in their kids’ education in the first place is because they have been taught by “education theorists” and government policy-wonks that they should stay out of the way and let the state handle it. But I digress.

We can derive solace that education in a free market would be cheaper, since government involvement creates artificial scarcity both by limiting the number of schools that come into existence as well as the limiting the number of educators via certification. Parents would also have less of their income taxed away and would therefore be able to direct more funds into education if they have kids, and this would include the poor. James Tooley and Pauline Dixon have found that even in third world countries, private educators are finding effective means of educating children at a lower cost than the government schools, and with better results.

If there remains a need for education among the poorest, there is always charity. Even with huge amounts of taxation, charities have given millions of dollars to families of low income. For instance, in NYC alone one charity (the Children’s Scholarship Fund) donated $525 million over the past 13 years alone. One can only imagine what that figure would look like if the government were not sapping over $900 billion a year from American taxpayers!

To the extent that a market is free is the extent to which individuals are free to offer value for value, without coercion or physical force. When man has the ability to invest and build without confiscatory taxation or hyper-regulation, he is free to unleash the power of his mind. Imagine what the education industry would like if we allowed the genius of a Steve Jobs, a Henry Ford, or a Thomas Edison to tackle the problem at hand: how to deliver high quality education at the lowest cost.

Education is not a privilege nor is it a right; it is a service, made possible by the effort of those with the ability and the will to provide it.


Author: Roberto Guzman Jr

Programmer by trade, writer by passion.

2 thoughts on “Is It The Duty Of The Government To Educate Its Citizens?”

  1. To be honest this did make me question some assumptions, but I still came out on the other side of the reading this as fundamentally believing the government has a role in providing an education to its’ citizens. I could address a lot of things in this post, but I will focus on this first question and explain my point of view to start. I read Chuck’s piece and he opposes the view “it’s the duty of every individual to pay for the education of his neighbor’s children. I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement and here is why: education is a public good. I participate in society, just like my (unborn) child, and just like my neighbors’ children. If we are all expected of us to participate in society, we should be given the functional skills to thrive and interact with others. I benefit from you being educated and providing value to society just as much as I benefit from my own education. It’s in my best interest to make sure all children have the opportunity to be educated. Everyone wins.

    I don’t disagree that the US Education system needs a lot of work. I wouldn’t work for the Department of Education if I didn’t think there were things that needed fixing. Some public schools are great! Other public schools are terrible. The same could be said of private schools. I was fortunate in that I had the choice of going to a great public school. Every child should have the option of going to a great public school and I think it is the duty of the government to provide that as an option. Many families want the best for their children, but not everyone has the financial means to provide that. Even if taxes were cut, we can’t ensure that families would still have enough to provide appropriate education for their child. There is no guarantee that the market would allow for a price point that all families could afford. We would just continue to perpetuate inequality. Another issue, I want to raise, is that while children may be fortunate to be brought into families that love and care for them, there are children whose parents may be incarcerated, addicted to substances, or incarcerated. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen, but it does. How do we make sure that these students don’t get fucked by the poor choices of their parents? Would you want to be in that situation? One could easily say that it’s not my problem, but that kid could easily one day be providing me a value or service in society. A nonprofit could plausibly step in and fix it, but there is not guarantee that would happen, or that these services would be targeted to everyone.

    I think there is a point of diminishing returns to government involvement. I’d be curious to see the study you cited that the US had a 97% literacy rate in 1940. I have a suspicion that those rates are biased towards certain demographics and it’s likely a limitation of the study, but I won’t know for certain until I see it. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you that less could be more, in fact we actually might agree there. I think secondary education is where students could benefit the most from opportunities outside of the government, so possibly 8th grade is the point of diminishing returns in terms of what could actually be learned. It could also be possible that this point is after college. It is unclear where the diminishing returns begin.

    I don’t disagree that there are some plausible market solutions. Many already exist and help supplement government education. Again, some market solutions are great and some are terrible. I think the examples of tech companies stepping in are great examples of how the two can co-exist. And I’m not against that, however, tech companies have the most incentive to specialize in what benefits them most. What incentive do they have to provide a well-rounded education? What incentive do they have to teach basic literacy, numeracy and civics? Maybe they will decide to value this, but we can’t bank on the whims of the market. Companies fall in and out of favor with the market. What happens when droves of students lose their pathway to education when a company goes under? Will their coursework translate to another company? Hopefully that system would develop, but maybe not. At least tax revenue is a (relatively) consistent source of income. Even if a school closes due to under-enrollment, there is some consistency with the type of education one would receive.

    In essence, everyone has the right to the opportunity to an education. It is a service that could be provided through a combination of the government and the market. The government will pick up the slack where the market fails, and the market will pick up the slack where the government fails. However, the government has a greater power to ensure everyone has an opportunity and therefore the government has a duty to provide an education to its constituency.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jes!

    I will address four issues that underlie most of your remarks. These are not chronological, they are just in the order that I thought of them.

    First, there is your statement that: “Some public schools are great! Other public schools are terrible. The same could be said of private schools.” I think this misses the point made by both Chuck and myself that government education is not a voluntary transaction like private education is, so the two are not commensurable. I will briefly reiterate here.

    Government education is funded by tax dollars, so there is force used against the taxpayers to bring it about. Children are compelled to attend, so there is force used against the children. Parents are required to send their kids and cannot choose the textbooks, the teachers or the material that is presented, so there is force used against the parents . Government education, in short, is fraught with force at all levels. Private education, on the other hand, recognizes that education is a good that is provided by a person’s effort. The teachers sell their services to whomever desires them. The parents can choose the school that suits their needs. Nobody is harmed in the transaction.

    To see how invalid a comparison between government education and private education is, consider an analogy. The comparison between government education and voluntary education is similar to the comparison between rape and love-making. If I were to say: “Some rape is great! Other rape is terrible. The same could be said of love-making,” you would probably recoil in horror. In education, the force is less obvious and the scene is less grisly but the same principle operates: one act is voluntary and the other is forced.

    This dovetails into the second thing I want to address, which is the concept “public good” that you mention. What exactly is a “public good”? No definition is offered, but the implication seems to be something approximate to: “something that is good for everyone in society or some select sub-set of society.” But society does not exist as a separate entity from the individuals that comprise it. Society is a metaphor for a group of individuals, and to treat it as a beneficiary in transactions that involve one’s effort and property is to muddy the issue.

    To be clear, “good” is a statement of value. Value can only apply to living things. Living things exist as individuals. Thus, the beneficiaries of the good must ultimately be individuals. Because a “public good” does not name the exact beneficiaries involved, it evades the central questions: who gets what and at whose expense? When transactions do not refer to the exact debtors and creditors involved, some men get something at the expense of others. This gets us back to the objection to point one that I made earlier.

    Thirdly, I want to mention rights. You claim that education is a right, and I disagree. The theory of rights is a child of John Locke, the English philosopher of the Enlightenment. It was picked up by the American founding fathers and later developed explicitly by Ayn Rand. The theory of individual rights is the distinctly American contribution to political philosophy.

    A right is a freedom to act in a given social context. It is both an ethical and a political concept; it bridges the two fields. The only fundamental right you have is the right to life, the right to self-sustained action. All other rights that exist, such as the right to free speech or the right to private property, emanate and derive from that original, fundamental right. Most importantly, a right allows you to take specific action and cannot guarantee you access to specific objects or products. A right is not a guarantee to any particular service provided by others, because to recognize such a thing as a right would be to relegate those who provide the service to a serf-like existence.

    This is recognized in the American Declaration of Independence, which is the philosophical manifesto of the USA. It states that man has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Note the precision involved in the use of the word “pursuit”: you do not have a right to happiness, but rather a right to pursue said happiness. Pursuit is self-generated action, free from coercion. Since groups exist only as an agglomeration of individuals, groups do not have any rights, only individuals do.

    Finally, I want to end with a long statement that reveals some of your implicit philosophical premises. You said: “Another issue, I want to raise, is that while children may be fortunate to be brought into families that love and care for them, there are children whose parents may be incarcerated, addicted to substances, or incarcerated. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen, but it does. How do we make sure that these students don’t get fucked by the poor choices of their parents? Would you want to be in that situation? One could easily say that it’s not my problem, but that kid could easily one day be providing me a value or service in society.”

    There is a lot here, perhaps more than you imagine. In just three sentences, your statement embodies three different philosophical premises!

    Your statement about an “ideal world” is interesting, as it’s actually a Platonic way of looking at things. On this view, the way things ought to be should conform to an ideal scenario where everyone has enough and nobody goes without. Your statement about helping kids that have been affected by the poor decisions of their parents is a statement of altruism. It says that one ought to place the needs of others above one’s own; in this case, one ought to sacrifice for the children of others. Your statement about a kid “one day providing me a value” is a statement of utilitarianism. It says that we ought to perform some sort of moral calculation to determine whether the person is a net positive or not, and act from there.

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