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On Education, Adam Smith, and James Buchanan

The great University of Arizona political philosopher David Schmidtz lectured today at George Mason University on “Markets in Education.”  As with all that Dave does, his talk was deep, thoughtful, and informative.  It was also entertaining.

Dave began by noting that an essential feature of markets – indeed, of human freedom and of human dignity – is the right to say “no.”  “No, I don’t want to sell to you my labor at that wage.”  “No, I don’t want to buy from you that apple at that price.”  “No, I don’t want to worship your god.”  “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.”  “No, I will not fight in your war.”  “No, I refuse to salute your flag.”  And yes: “No, I don’t want to have my children schooled by you.”*

Dave made a strong argument for rejecting the case for monopoly government schooling – the kind of schooling that dominates today at the K-12 level in the United States.

Coincidentally, just after Dave’s lecture, my students and I in my Wealth of Nations seminar discussed that part of Adam Smith’s 1776 work in which Smith wrote about the role of the state in education.  Smith advocated a larger role for government in education than I believe is necessary or wise.  But to read Smith is nevertheless to learn that he would have been profoundly opposed to the system of “free” government K-12 schooling now so common throughout the U.S. (and in many other countries).  Smith understood that teachers and school administrators who receive little or none of their pay directly from student’s parents – parents with the power to say ‘no’ – have little incentive to teach well or to run their schools as effectively as they can for the benefit of their students.  Here’s just one passage from the Wealth of Nations on this point:

The public can facilitate this acquisition [of the “most essential parts of education”] by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business.  {Book V, chapter 1, page 785}

I think it very likely that Smith would have supported a system of vouchers of the sort endorsed by Milton Friedman.

At the end of Dave’s talk I thought briefly of the scandalous Nancy MacLean who used my late colleague Jim Buchanan’s support for school choice and school vouchers as a pretext for accusing Jim of being a racist and a segregationist.  (To anyone who knew Jim or to anyone who is truly familiar with Jim’s work, this accusation is beyond ludicrous.)   And yet MacLean and, I’m told, now others fabricate not only out of nothing, but out of work the full body of which powerfully contradicts the fabrication, an argument that Jim was a racist and segregationist.  (So I wonder: would Maclean and these others accuse Adam Smith of being a racist and a segregationist.)  Such work by MacLean and these others is not scholarship.  It’s ideologically driven character assassination masquerading as research.  It’s mindlessness pretending to be truth.  It’s a gaudy parade of foregone conclusions of the most shallow, ignorant, and uninformed sort presented to the world as objective analysis.

MacLean and others who produce this idiotic drivel should be ashamed of themselves.  Indeed, were these people to have but a small fraction of the liberal spirit, civility, and commitment to truth that were hallmarks of Jim Buchanan’s scholarly life, they would be ashamed of themselves, painfully so.  But these people, so inferior in every way to Jim Buchanan, are simply too hopelessly ignorant and closed-minded to grasp just how ignorant and closed-minded they really are.  So they persist, shamefully without shame.


* The quotations are all mine, not Dave’s.


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