Good Question

In response to a post by Andy Duncan, a commenter writes:

With all this talk of statism, the suppression of rights by the state, and the need to get rid of it, several mentions of public education as a legitimate role of government have me puzzled.

Why is state controlled or state funded (funded IS controlled) education seen as a fundamental function of government? The US Constitution certainly makes no mention of it. Of all of the things that Libertarians get worked up over, many of them I find trivial, state funding of education is as legitimate of a concern to me as anything else modern governments control. Public education is the strongest method available for government indoctrination from an early age (the Hitler youth example is the easiest extreme example).

I can't even begin to list the number of things I learned in school that had to be overcome just to begin thinking like a Libertarian, a process that has taken me over a decade. Regardless of the details, in public school in America we were taught that government is a good thing that can make everybody's life better, and lack of government action is almost criminal, inviting "bad people" to do "bad things" without being brought to justice. I'm still amazed after 12 years of public education and 4 more of college (thankfully for me at a relatively conservative University) that I could stumble into becoming a Libertarian at all.

When people talk of writing a new, better Constitution why is public funding of education a proper government function? Was the lack of public education in much of America during the first 100 years of the US a key ingredient for keeping the government small and relatively unintrusive? Poeple of that time weren't as uneducated as most people think, so it's not the same argument that most couldn't read, write and do math.

This pretty much matches my own experience as a victim of government education, which is arguably the biggest obstacle to a free society. Fortunately, parents and children are escaping the system at rising rates, and the growing virtual nature of society only portends an even brighter future.

As far as education levels before public education, this article by Barry Simpson is very informative and paints a much different picture than is commonly presented in popular culture.

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I'm currently wrestling with

I'm currently wrestling with a proposal to impose a statewide income tax in Texas in order to fund public education. We're one of the last remaining states without such a tax and public opposition to one has been historically fierce...but the way this plan is being promoted is dangerous because it's proponents say nearly all people would save money compared to the current system. And we all know how "investing in our future" is so important.

Public education, right up there with the War on Vice, is probably the single greatest statist problem we face.

My wife grew up in the

My wife grew up in the Netherlands and complains about how boring and irrelevant the government school was. She ignored as much of it as she could and as soon as she got the chance, she left the tiny land for a life of adventure in Africa. The lack of official papers never stopped her from doing whatever she wanted--running businesses, building, farming, and emergency medicine.

She went back to Holland for a visit after 15 years and met with her old school friends. Nearly every one was in their mid-thirties and still not sure what they wanted to do with their lives--hadn't found a career or a mate they could commit to. On the last day of her trip, she tracked down the class clown who had always barely squeaked by and had eventually dropped out of school. He was the only one who considered himself a success; he was married with children and running an international software consultancy.

The experience brought home that the biggest lesson being taught in school was that you should stay in your seat and do what you are told. Those who learned it well were crippled for life.

I consider my own schooling as an example of the quote by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, "Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously." I never really felt restricted, probably because I came from a family of teachers and the school blessed me as one of the elite. Still, it was only after a lot of travel and experience that I felt like I really figured out the world at the age of 32. It wasn't so much a matter of learning something new as it was knowing what to ignore.

Government run schools have an enormous economic benefit for the parent--it is a free baby-sitting service (including transportation) that allows parents to take a full-time job.

In addition, government school promises relief from the biggest responsibility a human can have: the full-time, 18-year responsibility of teaching their children the knowledge, social skills, and ethics to make their own way in life. Those parents who have abdicated the responsibility for raising their own children do not want to acknowledge that this was a choice they made. Government schools must be mandated to absolve them of all responsibility.

Given both the economic advantage and the psychological advantage, it is still amazing to me that government school is about a break-even proposition for us--our two sons can choose each year if they want to go to the county schools or school themselves at home. It might be that there is an equilibrium point that lets the schools deteriorate to just the level where they are barely acceptable and oscillate around that point.

Public education parallels

Public education parallels public health care. There's an ethic out there that I call "the need ethic", that basically says that if I have a certain amount of wealth above and beyond what I "need", and someone else has less than what he "needs", then I have a moral obligation to give him that money - and the strength of that obligation is proportional to the difference in need. And that at some point, that moral obligation exceeds the obligation not to forcibly take property from others.

For example, Bill Gates has $10 million dollars, and spends it on a yacht. 200 inner city kids could take $50,000 apiece of that and entirely finance their college educations. 2000 indian orphans could be fed for a year with that money. Should those 2000 kids starve so that Bill Gates can have a yacht, regardless of who owns the money and why? Isn't it worth the minor evil of taxation, to fund the major good of feeding the hungry?

One can debate this philosophically until blue in the face, and it won't change the fact that all but the most arch-libertarian espouse it or some variation of it, if unknowingly and to varying degrees. And it is why the privatization of education, like health care, is so difficult to get support for.

People "need" education, and education is expensive. No education proposal is electorally viable unless it continues to provide education to the poor, and it's hard to imagine a fully privatized education system without some people choosing not to go (or due to poor credit, not being able to go) deeply into debt to send their children to elementary school.