The Weak Case for Public Schooling


by David Friedman

There are arguments in favor of having government pay for and produce schooling, as there are arguments in favor of having government pay for and produce practically any good or service. I have tried to show that the arguments in the case of schooling are not very strong. There are also arguments against having government produce and pay for any good -- the arguments for political failure combined with the general economic argument that private markets tend, at least in some approximation, to produce the optimal output at the minimal cost. In the case of schooling, there are additional and very powerful arguments against government control. One of the most important is its potential use to indoctrinate the population in views that the government, or the schooling bureaucracy, or powerful lobbying groups, wish people to hold.

In this regard, one of the great disadvantages of government schooling is its uniformity. Any education can be viewed as indoctrination from the standpoint of those who do not believe what is being taught. Under a private system, however, there is no single orthodoxy. Different children are taught different things, reflecting the differing preferences of their parents and, to a lesser degree, the beliefs of teachers, textbook authors, and other contributersto the educational process. As adults, the graduates of such schools have the opportunity to correct the deficiencies in their education by interacting with the graduates of other schools who have been taught very different things. Under a government system, there is a serious risk that one official orthodoxy will be taught to all.

A further disadvantage to state education, especially in a diverse society, is that it inevitably involves a state religion. One cannot educate children without talking about issues on which religions differ. The pretence of a religiously neutral education, at least in the U.S., is maintained mainly by the tendency of teachers, like other people, to regard what they believe in as fact and only what other people believe in as religion. A government school system in a diverse society is thus deeply divisive, since it means that some people's children are being indoctrinated with other people's religion.

Many of the disadvantages of government schooling could be eliminated, or at least reduced, by a voucher system. While such a system would be a great improvement over government schooling, there seems little reason to believe that it would be superior to an entirely private system. The great argument against it is that a voucher system must include some definition of what is or is not schooling, in order to determine what can be paid for with the voucher. Imposing such a definition on private schools implies the same sorts of problems of government control that would arise with a government school system, although possibly to a much reduced degree.

I conclude that Adam Smith was correct in his suggestion. Whether or not it is proper to have a government system of schooling, it is prudent not to.

David Friedman
July 7, 1993