why libertarians need a theory of political socialization

The interesting libertarian David Friedman argues that the First Amendment bans public schools. This is a portion of his argument, which deserves to be read in full:

The judge who recently held it unconstitutional for public schools to be required to teach the theory of intelligent design correctly argued that doing so would be to support a particular set of religious beliefs?those that reject evolution as an explanation for the apparent design of living creatures. His mistake was not carrying the argument far enough. A school that teaches that evolution is false is taking sides in a religious dispute?but so does a school that teaches that evolution is true.

The problem is broader than evolution. In the process of educating children, one must take positions on what is true or false. Over a wide range of issues, such a claim is either the affirmation of a religious position or the denial of a religious position. Any decent scientific account of geology, paleontology, what we know about the distant past, is also a denial of the beliefs of (among others) fundamentalist Christians. To compel children to go to schools, paid for by taxes, in which they are taught that their religious beliefs are false, is not neutrality.


My conclusion is that the existence of public schools is inconsistent with the First Amendment. Their purpose is, or ought to be, to educate?and one cannot, in practice, educate without either supporting or denying a wide variety of religious claims.

Friedman’s logic applies even more generally: almost all actions by a government (e.g., speeches by elected leaders, the design of public buildings, interventions in the Middle East) may make statements–implied or explicit–in favor or against religious beliefs. For instance, maintaining an army violates Quaker and other pacifist beliefs, yet citizens are required to pay for the military. Jefferson once wrote, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Taken very literally, this is an argument not only against public schools, but against government itself.

To me, that’s a reductio ad absurdum. As a deliberative democrat, I believe that the public ought to be able to build and control public institutions without many limitations. That means that it should be constitutional for a community to teach “intelligent design.” The First Amendment’s ban on the “establishment of religion” should mean what it says: No established religion. In public debates about our schools, I will argue against Intelligent Design, which strikes me as intellectually embarrassing as well as possibly blasphemous. But if my side loses, I don’t want the courts to bail us out by declaring ID unconstitutional. The public debate should simply continue.

Having staked out this contrary position, let me try to say something quasi-constructive about libertarianism. Libertarians are leery of political power, because it can be used to restrict freedom. However, political power exists wherever there are millions of people with opinions. Constitutional limitations on the public’s will are just pieces of paper unless the public wants to be limited.

Therefore, libertarians must change majority opinion so that individual liberty becomes a higher moral priority than it is today. I can think of three strategies to attain that end:

1. Libertarians can make arguments in favor of maximum liberty. Such arguments have been available for two centuries and may have enhanced popular support for civil liberties, yet most people have not been convinced that the economic role of the state should be minimized. Programs like Social Security and public education remain highly popular. A libertarian who believes (as I do not) that these programs violate liberty might consider the general limits of reasons and arguments. They must always butt up against interests, cultural norms, inherited values, experiences, and traditions–not to mention contrary arguments. Even in the long run, there is no guarantee that libertarian arguments will prevail (even if they are right).

2. Libertarians might assume that people are being influenced against liberty by the state itself, especially through the institution of public education. Then their strategy would be to dismantle state schools (perhaps using vouchers) and rely on families and independent schools to raise children who value liberty above all else.

I doubt that this approach would work. First of all, I’m not convinced that today’s public schools socialize young people to favor the state. True, schools are authoritarian institutions, but that just makes many teenagers rebel. Schools also try to teach civil liberties and tolerance, which may be one reason that each generation comes of age more civil libertarian that its predecessors.

Besides, I doubt that parents, left to their own devices, would pay to educate their own children to treasure liberty for all. First, developing such principles is not in kids’ individual self-interest. Second, most parents want to limit, not expand, their kids’ sense of individual freedom.

We know that when adults organize neighborhood associations (largely unregulated corporations that meet market demand), they choose to impose all kinds of rules against the display of signs, against congregating on the streets, even against the private possession of pornography. Through their free choices, they socialize their kids to believe that freedom is dangerous and bad for property values. There is no reason to believe that private, voucher-supported schools would be different.

3. The third option is to recognize that public schools are instruments for attaining public goods such as love of freedom. Today’s schools probably increase students’ support for civil liberties. They do not teach students to distrust the state and prefer the market. Therefore, libertarians would have to argue for some changes in curriculum and pedagogy. In doing so, they would address their fellow citizens with arguments about the public value of teaching respect for liberty. It’s my sense that Americans might be responsive to such arguments.

In making decisions about where and how to educate their own kids, most people seek to maximize their earning potential; however, in considering educational policies that will apply to everyone, they often favor more idealistic outcomes. For instance, in a 2004 poll, 71% of adults said that it was important to “prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society” (pdf). Thus it’s possible that Americans would support better education for liberty.

To be sure, most people (including me) do not think that “competent and responsible” citizens are those who value liberty above all else. I, for one, want to see young citizens develop a concern for equality as well as freedom. Nevertheless, it seems possible that libertarians could prevail in arguments about the curriculum. If they can’t persuade their fellow citizens that liberty should be taught in schools, then they certainly can’t convince the majority to cut Social Security–which is against their immediate economic self-interest.

2 thoughts on “why libertarians need a theory of political socialization

  1. David Friedman

    Some responses to your points:

    1. I think parents are mostly interested in educating their children to have successful lives. One way of doing that is by learning what the world is like. If libertarians are correct in believing that more freedom results in a more attractive society, a more accurate picture of the world will tend to result in more support for liberty. So shifting control over schooling in the direction of parents rather than school officials and politicians is likely to result in some shift in favor of liberty.

    2. I think you overstate the degree to which students react against what they are taught. It’s true that schools are not very good at teaching things–which in some cases is fortunate. But insofar as students come out with opinions on political issues, I think they tend towards what they have been taught, by schools and their parents.

    It is striking, for example, how widespread the belief is that teachers are terribly underpaid, even though teachers’ incomes are above the national average. It’s true that they tend towards the lower end of the range for college graduates. But it isn’t clear that teachers don’t also tend towards the lower end of that range–and the job has some major nonpecuniary attractions as well as some negative features.

    3. I agree that there is no guarantee that libertarian arguments will prevail, even if correct.

    4. I also agree that the argument I made has applications well beyond the school system. I intended to leave readers free to pick either horn of the dilemma–reject government, or reject, as you do, the popular view of the meaning of the establishment clause.

Comments are closed.