Sunday, February 5, 2017

Are Parents Capable of Properly Educating Their Children in a Free Market?

An anonymous correspondent has left a comment on my post "DeVos Could Advance the ‘Civil Right’ of School Choice Across America that I think warrants a reply in a full blog post. Anonymous commented:

A free market in education:
As opposed to certified teachers with demonstrable knowledge of education practices, child development and psychology, etc, this would allow parents with no training, knowledge or even possible mental health, to decide what children learn and how. It's not unusual to hear of parents who abuse and even kill the children in their care. Assuming you feel this is undesirable, how would you prevent it?

Along the same lines, schools would be free to implement any curriculum they wish,. So, for example a Wahabi Madrassa might require only memorizing the Koran and inculcate violent jihad. Or closer to home Christian Dominionists, whose stated goal is to replace the US government with a theocracy, would be free to work towards that end. Again assuming these things are undesirable, what steps would you take to avoid them?

You deal with parents who abuse and/or kill their children, or who have mental health problems that preclude their capability to properly raise their children, or whose idea of “education” is to neglect their children’s education in favor of strict religious indoctrination or who actually incite their children to hatred and violence (religious or otherwise), by enacting laws that protect individual rights of children, such as child neglect/child abuse laws, and with laws that uphold individual rights generally, such as criminal laws against force and fraud—and, more broadly, by upholding the principle of separation of religion and state. Protecting individual rights, not running education, is the proper function of government. Our country operates on the principle innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. Absent evidence of actual harm-doing, the government has no right to interfere. Just as you are protected from unreasonable search and seizure—government agents cannot enter your home to search for stolen property without a warrant based on actual evidence that you are the thief—so should parents be protected regarding how they educate their children.

Anonymous's premise is that every parent should be denied their freedom because some may act badly or make poor choices because they didn’t make the effort to become properly informed. This premise is the essence of injustice. No freedom—intellectual, political, or economic—is possible under these premises. If you hold these premises in opposing freedom of education, you must logically hold them in regard to freedom in any field of human endeavor.

And if parents are incapable of assessing the qualifications of educators or educational philosophies and rationally choosing accordingly, then is any adult capable of assessing doctors, plumbers, auto mechanics, investment advisers, lawyers, and the services they provide etc., etc., etc., or of assessing the products that fill the shelves of America’s stores? Are they even capable of judging the politicians and public school board members who will administer public education, or should we do away with elections? Do you have to be an “expert” in any of these fields to make rational decisions? No, you just have to become informed enough to make a reasoned choice. Anonymous’s argument—that parents are incapable of exercising the freedom to direct the course of their children’s education—is in principle the same argument used by the Southern states to protect slavery; that blacks are not capable of exercising freedom. Anonymous has—unwittingly, I presume—repudiated the whole concept of a free society and upheld the validity of the totalitarian state ruled by an allegedly omniscient “philosopher king” elite.

Anonymous’s argument is self-refuting in another way. If individuals in their private lives are capable of the kinds of atrocious behavior that you describe—and some are—then what’s to stop the same people who gain control of the machinery of state from imposing irrational educational beliefs on everyone? Because they’re “experts?” We already see it now, with regard to Christians imposing “creationism” and Leftists imposing “climate change catastrophe” in public school curriculums—in each case without any proof. Government schools don’t automatically protect us from bad education. Neither will a free market. But at least in a free market, or even a semi-free system of universal parental choice, parents can remove their children from bad schools and get them into better schools.

Finally, Anonymous’s argument that there is some kind of either/or dichotomy between a free market in education and qualified educators—”A free market in education: As opposed to certified teachers with demonstrable knowledge of education practices, child development and psychology”—is just arbitrary and wrong. The government doesn’t run the plumbing industry, yet there are plenty of qualified plumbers (I am one). If private schools are incapable of finding and/or training “certified teachers with demonstrable knowledge of education practices, child development and psychology,” then on what basis are we to be assured that government schools are any more capable? How do you explain the many good private pre-schools, k-12 schools, and universities that now operate? Qualified teachers won’t just disappear into thin air if we moved to a free market. Neither will good people suddenly stop going into the education field. We will, however, have much more diversity and competition in education.

Anonymous worries that Christian Dominionists might indoctrinate their children into working to replace the US government with a theocracy. It’s a legitimate fear, which is the reason for the religious Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any  “law respecting an establishment of religion.” But we should also fear, with much more fervor, government control of education precisely because we don’t have the protection of an Establishment Clause relating to education. What’s to stop government from indoctrinating children in its schools with an ideology directed to the purpose of establishing some other form of tyranny, such as collectivism for the purpose of establishing socialism—a process that is already well underway? Private education won’t prevent all bad education or guarantee all schools are good, but it will prevent bad education from being imposed by force of law. C. Bradley Thompson, writing for The Objective Standard, begins making his case for “The Need for Separation of School and State” by citing principles espoused by James Madison:

In 1784, in response to Patrick Henry’s call for a compulsory tax to support Christian (particularly Episcopalian) ministers, Madison penned his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a stirring defense of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The heart of his argument can be reduced to three principles: first, individuals have an inalienable right to practice their religion as they see fit; second, religion must not be directed by the state; and third, religion is corrupted by government interference or control. Few Americans today would disagree with Madison’s reasoning.

One virtue of Madison’s response to Henry’s bill is that its principles and logic extend beyond church-and-state relations. In fact, the principles and logic of his argument apply seamlessly to the relationship of education and state. If we substitute the word “education” for “religion” throughout Madison’s text, we find a perfect parallel: first, parents have an inalienable right to educate their children according to their values; second, education must not be directed by the state; and third, education is corrupted by government interference or control. The parallel is stark, and the logic applies equally in both cases.

Just as Americans have a right to engage in whatever non-rights-violating religious practices they choose, so Americans have a right to engage in whatever educational practices they choose. And just as Americans would not grant government the authority to run their Sunday schools, so they should not grant government the authority to run their schools Monday through Friday.
Parents (and guardians) have a right to direct the education of their children.1

Parents’ children are their children—not their neighbors’ children or the community’s children or the state’s children.

Reflecting on the issues and questions raised by Anonymous advances the case for the separation of education and state.

Related Reading:

Education in a Free Society—C. Bradley Thompson for The Objective Standard


Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing my comment so thoroughly. One further point: part of the government’s job includes protecting the rights of children, and thus we have laws against abuse / neglect, including the right to a decent education, the lack of which is demonstrably harmful. Parents should be denied freedom to harm children, whether their motivations are religious or non-religious. No dichotomy exists between such laws and a free market, as informed parents capable of assessing educators and educational methods and making rational choices do not harm children so are neither forced to do anything against their will nor denied any freedoms.

The problem is that many--if not most parents--fall in neither of these two groups but are apathetic, ill-informed, or even mis-informed [likely due to their own parent’s poor educational choices] and so they may and do make poor choices that harm children. A free market in education allows this middle group to freely harm their own children, possibly others’, and possibly gain control of the machinery of state to impose their own irrational choices on all of us.
Should we, alongside the informed parents with good schools, allow this continuing violation of childrens’ rights, or should we set legal standards to prohibit such neglect/misuse of childhood education? If we should set and enforce such standards, who would do so if not the government?

Michael A. LaFerrara said...


“A free market in education allows this middle group to freely harm their own children, possibly others’, and possibly gain control of the machinery of state to impose their own irrational choices on all of us.”

A free market does neither.

Neither a free society nor its economic expression, a free market, means “anything goes.” The Enlightened, American concept of freedom is that the principle of individual rights, properly understood, protects and guarantees freedom equally. Individual rights protects freedom in two ways: It defines both the scope of one’s freedom to act and the limits of one’s freedom to act in a way that eliminates conflicts of rights. In this regard, I recommend Tara Smith, “Moral Rights and Political Freedom” ( Likewise, the scope and limits of government’s power to carry out its vital mission to protect and secure individual rights must also be defined by principles. In this regard, I recommend Timothy Sandefur, “The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty” (

A free market also protects against a system in which people can “gain control of the machinery of state to impose their own irrational choices on all of us,” which is exactly what we have now under government financing and administration of the schools. When government controls, it can be no other way: Government control of education is political control of education. How to avoid leaving education subject to the machinery of state? I touched on this issue above, but it’s worth reiterating here. A free market in education operates in the same way as freedom of religion: Just as in America the state has no legal power to impose any religious dogma on the citizens, making it impossible for any political faction to gain control of the machinery of state to impose their own version of “God’s Law” on all of us, so in a fully free education market no political faction can gain control of the machinery of state to impose their own education ideas on all of us. Think of free market education as “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

Let’s be clear. The government should not be setting and enforcing general education standards, other than the minimum needed to enforce child neglect laws, lest we end up precisely with a machinery of state in which politically powerful pressure groups can impose their own choices on all of us. By what right does anyone impose their standards on those who disagree? Admittedly, where the line should be drawn between general education standards and the minimum needed to enforce child neglect laws can be problematic. But we can again look to religion/state principles for guidance. Just as the “free exercise of religion” ends where the exercise violates the rights of others—such as the sexual mutilation of girls—so the free exercise of education must stop short of rights violations, such as when an otherwise healthy 10 year old cannot read.

Thank you.