To our libertarian friends

Liam Julian

Neal McCluskey's new book, Feds in the Classroom, is the latest "strict-libertarian" contribution to the world of education reform. Which is to say, sadly, not much of a contribution.

The word "strict" is important, because McCluskey's book refuses to compromise any of its overarching libertarian values for reality's sake. Thus, the reader repeatedly finds himself in the uncomfortable position of wondering: "Does the author actually believe this?"

McCluskey writes, "In the colonial and early national eras," when government did not control the schools, "American education worked, more or less, optimally." Does the author actually believe this? For colonial-era blacks and women, American education was an unqualified disaster.  

Such illogic is not unusual when libertarian writers seek to apply a strict form of their philosophy to education reform. Readers must repeatedly endure odd passages that trumpet the glory of 17th Century schools and abolition of government and suchlike.

But strict libertarianism fails in education reform not merely because of its political infeasibility, but because it prizes individual liberty so greatly that it must allow parents to make dreadful educational choices that could set up their children for failure. Thus, the strict libertarian's k-12 paradox: Allowing parents the liberty to make such decisions on their children's behalf stymies liberty (the child's rights, really) more than encourages it.

If we returned to an education system modeled on, say, the colonial one--in which government did not compel children to attend class and in which parents could send their children (or not) to any privately run institution that claimed to be a school--what would be the results? Just to being, a lot of disadvantaged children wouldn't learn to read or write, which was perhaps permissible in 1707 but in 2007 is a recipe for squalor. 

The United States in many cases allows adults to make unwise decisions for themselves. But when possible and morally permissible, it should stop adults from making similarly devastating choices for their children.

A less-doctrinaire libertarian approach, on the other hand, can add much to education-reform discussions by pointing out government's inefficiencies and ineptitudes (see here and here). Libertarians who compare private sector successes to bureaucratic incompetence, for example, often illuminate useful ways to improve our k-12 system.

The best libertarian writing about education makes sophisticated arguments for incremental change. It is able to merge libertarian principles with the understanding that society has an obligation to educate its future members-and with the realization that the U.S. is simply not going to immediately close all its public schools.

Feds in the Classroom makes no such compromises. Of its 199 pages, just seven are devoted to the future of education reform, and they contain such nonstarters as this: "All federal intervention in education ... must be eliminated."

Umm, no. That language may be fine in the halls of academe, where one can still encounter the harrumphing Marxist professor or the uncompromising Ayn Rand devotee-both, usually, aging fast and gracelessly.

Maybe undergraduates take them seriously. Policymakers ought not.

Libertarians have much to offer to education-policy discussions, as do paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, and even some stripes of liberals. But in the k-12 arena, ideology should inform perspective, not define it. 

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