state education

The Venerable Tradition of Opposing “Government Schools”

Writing in Monday’s New York Times, Katherine Stewart–author of 2012’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children–has purportedly uncovered what “what the ‘government schools’ critics really mean.” According to Stewart, those who criticize government schools “have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism.” She then catalogues a litany of unsavory characters who opposed “government schools” because they believed in the righteousness of slavery or because they saw the schools as insufficiently fundamentalist.

I’m not going to directly address Stewart’s claims about people like Robert Lewis Dabney or James W. Fifield Jr., both of whom, according to her, opposed government schools for unsavory purposes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Many policy proposals can attract unsavory people, but the mere existence of such adherents is not a sufficient reason to abandon the policy. If it was, then the fact that many early-20th century Progressive economists and social reformers championed the minimum wage because it would unemploy “racially undesirable” immigrants would be a sufficient reason to oppose the minimum wage.   

Instead, I’ll focus on two fundamental errors in Stewart’s article. First, she ignores the extensive historical provenance of critics of state education, i.e. “government schools.” To demonstrate this, I can’t do better than refer you to intellectual historian and contributor George H. Smith, who has done yeoman’s work on the history of critics of state education. Smith has paid particular attention to 19th century British Voluntaryists, such as Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert. In a series of essays on Cato’s, Smith tells the history of those critics. “Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values,” writes Smith, “they [British Voluntaryists] preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market.” Smith continues:

One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the Voluntaryist commitment to competition and disdain for government interference.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early seventeenth century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church-state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.

When fellow free-traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (a senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.” “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free-trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”

Before free-traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez-faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”

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