David Friedman has contributed some thoughtful comments on my post about political socialization and libertarianism. I had written that libertarians need most people to prize freedom; otherwise, liberty itself will weaken. However, parents want their children to gain marketable skills above all else. They therefore do not demand that schools impart public goods, of which the love of liberty is an important example. If parents do not put pressure on schools to teach freedom, then libertarians must consider other ways to educate all children for liberty. The vehicle that comes first to my mind is universal, taxpayer funded k-12 schooling with a “civics” mandate; but there may be alternatives. In arguing for civic education that emphasizes liberty, libertarians should invoke their own philosophical ideals, but they should be willing to swallow the restriction on individual freedom that will come from universal education.
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.
I’m struck by the idealism of this paragraph–or, to put it another way, by the avoidance of a rational-choice framework. If individual parents want their own children to “lead successful lives” in our society, then they should hope that their kids are not too eccentric or unruly. They should try to give their children skills that are valued in the economy, along with a healthy respect for authority. That’s what pays. One representative “New Jersey mother” in a focus group told Public Agenda: “There are key points–hard work, discipline, respect. If those are taught in the home, that’s more than 50 percent of what you need to succeed. Even a below average kid will do well if his parents teach him that.”
Libertarians believe that a better society would be more free than ours is. Even granting that libertarians are right, parents who want their own kids to be successful in today’s society will hope that other parents’ children fight for liberty. That fight is likely to be lonely, under-paid, frustrating, and only enjoyable if one truly prizes intellectual debate.
In an essay that’s online, Friedman summarizes the position that I have adopted:
In a private system [of education], children will be taught what their parents want them to know. In a government system, children will be taught what the state wants them to know. So the government system provides an opportunity for the state to indoctrinate children in beliefs that it is not in their interest, or their parents’ interest, for them to hold. Insofar as some virtues require one to act against one’s own interest–for instance, by not stealing something even when nobody is watching–that is an opportunity to indoctrinate children in virtue.
I would also say that schools can “indoctrinate” children in the love for liberty. However, Friedman continues …
One good reply to this argument was made by William Godwin, who, in 1796, expressed his hope “that mankind will never have to learn so important a lesson through so corrupt a channel.” To put the argument in more modern language, government schooling does indeed provide the state with an opportunity to indoctrinate children–but there is no good reason to believe that it will be in the interest of the state to indoctrinate them in beliefs that it is in the interest of the rest of us for them to hold. Many modern societies have strong legal rules designed to keep the state from controlling what people believe–the first amendment to the U.S. constitution being a notable example. It seems odd to combine them with a set of institutions justified as doing the precise opposite.
In an interesting recent article, John Lott explores the question of why schooling is controlled by the state in modern societies. His conclusion is that government schooling is a mechanism by which the state lowers the cost of controlling the population.
Obviously, there is a danger that state schools will indoctrinate in favor of the state, as Friedman fears. However, it is a simplistic theory of “the state” that understands it as a unitary, disciplined, and self-interested agent. On the contrary, public schools in the United States are highly subject to local political pressure, especially from taxpaying parents. I don’t know how to prove this, but I strongly suspect that American schools teach a mix of libertarian, authoritarian, and majoritarian principles because those are the values that most parents demand. Libertarians are entitled to argue for a different list of values, one headed by individual liberty. If they can’t win that argument, then I don’t see how they can prevail at all.