Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some Thoughts on "Summerhill"

Note: Both of these essays were cited in "The Inverse of Empathy", but the links were to my now defunct blog "Random Notes". As it is unreachable, I have reprinted them here to make it possible to read them.

Back in my late teens, when I was on the cusp of changing from a devoted anarcho-communist to a devoted Objectivist (yes, I was fond of extremes), I read a book that appealed to both, and that was "Summerhill". For those not familiar with the book, it gives a rather cursory description of a boarding school, written by the founder and head. The school was founded upon some rather unusual principles, to wit, that students should be given their freedom, and not just what most schools mean, but all decisions, from what to eat, to read, to study, when to study, and when to not, and so on. Basically it was a school premised upon an absolute lack of rules (beyond a few required for physical safety, I would imagine), and according to the rather one sided book, it worked quite well.

Now, of course this was a rather biased source. And, even if ti was an accurate report, we are dealing here with children raised, for the most part, in England in the late 1950's and early 1960's, mostly from affluent homes, so they may have internalized enough social restraints to make this work better than it would in modern settings, but it was still a fascinating concept to me. The author even admitted that there were students who would run wild for a time, but would eventually settle down and begin working. So, overall, it provided what seemed a fair picture of the school, and it sounded quite fascinating.

Even today, I find it interesting, as it provides a good model, provided it is accurate, of how collective social restraint, that is peer pressure from other students, can work even without explicit "laws". As this is the basis for much of my writing on social conservative issues, and my preferred solution for problems some social conservatives would solve through legislation, this topic still holds my attention.

But I am not here to write about this book, at least not about the book itself, but instead to discuss the reaction to the book. You see, after reading it, and finding it so intriguing, I began to read critics of the Summerhill school. Some disputed the factual statements, but most argued instead that the students failed to learn significant information, failed to complete colleges, and so on. They basically argued that the school was less successful than had been presented. Even some of the supposed factual debates fell into this category, arguing over the implicit definitions of "successful" or "happy" in describing former students, rather than disputing any concrete facts.

Which brings me to my subject of the day, the fact that both the proponents and critics were right. Despite their seeming opposition, they both said nothing that was not true. And all their conclusions followed from their facts. The problem was, they differed in their basic assumptions, producing very different outcomes. And yet, even differing in their assumptions, they were both right, or both wrong.

This all comes back to a point I made in "Reforming Education".  Education is not a single process, with a single optimal outcome, as with "need" ("The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity"), education is only meaningful if we know what objective we have in mind. If you are educating to get a child into a good college, it is very different than if you are educating him to be a good Masai warrior. The desired end result is the sole criterion by which we  can judge education. And it is why both critics and supporters of Summerhill can be right at the same time. They both are right as they are both judging results based on their own perception of what the goal of education should be. And since those preconceptions differ, their evaluations differ.

Which brings me back to the point I made in "Reforming Education", education is not something that can be "evaluated", at least not in a vacuum. The state gives itself the power to allow or disallow education based upon whether or not it is adequate, but that power itself rests upon assumptions about what is or is not the role of schooling, and what end results should matter most. For example, suppose a parent is a devout Moslem, Jew or Hindu (or of any other faith for that matter*). That parent may feel all academic learning can be subordinated to religious education. If the parents believe education is important only to the degree it makes greater faith possible, why should they be denied the right to school their children in that manner, simply because the state decrees it does not properly prepare the children for college? Or a place in the workforce? 

And if one agrees with the religious parents in that example, then why not any belief, no matter how little we might agree? Survivalist parents who believe society is on the verge of collapse may stress survival skills over academic learning, and who is to say they cannot? What about parents who provide a traditional education, except for one specific field, where their nontraditional beliefs are stressed instead? Why should they be denied the right to teach their children in that way? Or, as in the case of Summerhill, what about those who feel freedom and self-expression matter more than rapid acquisition of academic knowledge, and so allow children more leeway in making their own decisions? Why is it impermissible to allow children to take 15 or 16 years rather than 12, if the parents think it best**?

Some will argue that parents might go to extremes, might not teach their children at all, or might instill "bad" ideas, but that ignores the basic question. As I said of health care in "Who Will Decide", someone will always decide what a child is taught. The question here is only who will do so. Will it be the state, giving a single answer for all children? Or the parents, each deciding for their own children? (Cf "Every Kid Likes Hot Dogs".) Some would prefer the state, as it will avoid the potential harm a few parents might do, but I would argue the other way. As I wrote in "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Adaptability and Government", "Why Freedom Is Essential" and "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", and even as far back as "The Benefits of Federalism" and "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", when the state errs***, it harms everyone, and even when it chooses an answer not "Wrong", but which is a poor fit for some parents, it impairs their lives. So, in allowing the state to make everyone's choice, we end up making many parents unhappy, and introduce the possibility of an answer right for almost no one being imposed universally.By allowing each family to decide, at worst, a few children will be put into situations the vast majority find bad, but we also give every parent the freedom to choose. And as a result, every parent is more satisfied, even if some may not agree with the decisions others make. But isn't that the cost of freedom? ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"", "In Defense of Discrimination", "A Statute of Limitations for Race", "How to Handle Idiots", "Back Again", "Best of the Web gets It Very, Very Wrong", "A Misleading "Right to Know"")


* I mention these three faiths because of my personal experience. I have heard or seen at one time or another schools operated by each of these three faiths which emphasized religious education above all else. Certainly there are Christians, and probably Buddhists and Druze and Yezidi and Ba'hai, for all I know, who have schools which do the same, but I am only aware of schools from these three faiths. And, to be completely accurate, the Hindu school I knew was run by ISKCON, aka the Hare Krishnas, and so represents only one segment of the entire faith. Then again, the Jewish schools of which I knew were run by extremely orthodox or Chassidic groups, so there too it is only one segment of the faith. But none of this is relevant for my argument, I just wanted to make clear that I was not singling out these groups for criticism or praise, they just happened to be the three I knew best in terms of education centered entirely on religious matters.

** I would like to make it clear here that, while I was fascinated with Summerhill in my youth, and still find the way behavior was restrained pretty effectively by implicit social controls a good case study for my own theories, I do not want to sound like an advocate. I believe for parents who find the emphasis of freedom over everything it may be the right course, but I do not agree with the founder that children are capable of learning academic subjects equally well by selecting their own course of study. When one is wholly ignorant of a topic, or even only half educated, he is unable to tell what is and is not important. That is why self-education is inevitably longer than guided education. Speaking as one who is self-taught in a number of areas (eg Hebrew, Classical Greek, computer programming in general [which became my career], a number of computer languages [C, perl, Informix 4GL, ADA, x86 assembly, java --though I hate it, Cold Fusion, forth, lisp], cryptography, computer security [which was also my job for a time], database administration, and a number of areas of higher mathematics [as I gave up at Calculus II in my formal education]), I can assert that some guidance inevitably speeds learning, despite the claims to the contrary in Summerhill. (Of course, that does not stop me form preferring self-teaching to formal education, so perhaps there is something in me that is still anarchic enough to prefer Summerhill's approach... Or perhaps I just prefer to spend time rather than money, as a text and a year of study is cheaper to me than a text and the tuition for a three month college course, no matter how valuable my time might be.)

*** Since there is no single "right" answer, by "err" I mean choosing something which pleases no one, or which is displeasing for a large majority. Obviously, with the decision being right or wrong based only upon the goals of each individual, there is no way to be "right" or "wrong" in absolute terms, but only for each child, or each parent. Still, some decisions are clearly worse than others when viewing parents in the aggregate, so we can say, some choices, if imposed universally, are less satisfying than others, when taking the total satisfaction of all parents. And, if we view that satisfaction as our goal, then choosing the less satisfying rather than more is clearly an error. (See also "With Good Intentions ", ""...Then Who Would Do it?"" and "In The Most Favorable Light " for similar arguments.)



On the topic of education, especially state regulation, I have written a considerable number of posts. If you are interested, I would recommend "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education" and "Reforming Education". I have also written about universities, where many similar topics arise, as described in my posts "The State Versus Universities", "Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "Publish Or Perish" and "Funding and the Corruption of Science".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/03/03.

"...Then Who Would Do It?"

Note: Both of these essays were cited in "The Inverse of Empathy", but the links were to my now defunct blog "Random Notes". As it is unreachable, I have reprinted them here to make it possible to read them.

Inevitably, when the proposal is made to privatize an area currently exclusive to government, from road building to public education to the space program to mail delivery, the question will arise "then who would do it?" The unspoken assumption being that the task in question can only be done by the government. However, if experience has taught us anything, it is that those areas of endeavor which can "only" be performed by the government, or maybe by a government sponsored cartel, all too often prove perfectly open to private enterprise. Just think of the arguments about why we "must" have government mail delivery, and then ask yourself how FedEx and UPS manage to survive in a field supposedly impossible to open to private competition1. Or look at all the competing phone companies and try to recall how we were once taught the phone company "must" be controlled by a monopoly for our own good2.  Or the argument once made to support a trans-continental railroad, that only government subsidies could make it possible, at least until the Great Northern did it with private money, proving all government money did was increase corruption and waste, while driving the route in politicized, inefficient directions.

Yet, still, despite all the examples, some even relatively recent, whenever I suggest privatization, I am greeted with looks of horror, as if the state were the sole possible provider of services. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty bizarre idea, as anything the state provides it provides by appropriating funds from private individuals and then using those funds to pay others as employees, so if those taxes were no longer collected, clearly the same funds would be available to finance the same services, except without the inefficiency and increased overhead of government bureaucracy. ("The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power"). That being the case, why would it be any more difficult for private industry to provide the service than government? In fact, given the motive of profit, and the lack of bureaucracy, would it not be much easier for a private firm to provide the very same thing3

Let us look at this question in two ways, first historical and then theoretical. In both cases I think the evidence will show that, despite the fears of those familiar only with government provided versions of certain services, almost everything now done by the government can be done more efficiently and certainly more appropriately, by private enterprise.

I am always amused to hear people's shock when I suggest privatizing roadways, and yet one of the favorite historical arguments of conservatives concerns that very topic. The government was in the process of debating extending public funding to what had otherwise been a private roadway and was intent on applying the general welfare clause as justification, to which Madison responded by pointing out such a reading of the clause would extend government power indefinitely. And yet, oddly, when I now suggest that road building is not part of the powers to protect individual rights, conservatives in general adopt the "pragmatic"4 argument that "modern times" demand different actions, and the government must build roads. 

Actually, that is one of two favorite arguments against the historical precedent. The first is simply that while we once did some things privately, it is "better" to allow the government to do them. The other, and the more common, is that things once done privately are now, because of "changing times" the proper province of government. For example, roadways, once built privately, are, because of the invention of automobiles, now a proper governmental function. 

I believe both are absurd arguments. In the first case for the simple reason that any function which can be performed for profit will inevitably be more efficiently carried out privately than through the government. ("In The Most Favorable Light ", "The Difference Between Public and Private, Or, The Real Monopolies and Cartels ", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "How Much Does Government Cost? ", "Government Efficiency", "Of Wheat and Doctors ", "Government Quackery ") Time does not change that principle, and if anything, technology makes that more noticeable, as greater scale and higher profits make it ever less efficient for the state to carry out such tasks. If anything, it would be true to say things the government once carried out, as the loss was small enough to accept, now entail a loss large enough that they should be made private, certainly not the other way around.

The second argument is equally absurd, though maybe not as obviously so. It is a bit more theoretical an argument, but the basic fact is, anything which is not the proper function of the state remains so despite technological change. Technology is nothing but the application of scientific principle, it does not change the basic principles of science, physical or social. If the state should not engage in private enterprise, changing technology does not alter that fact, just as it does not abrogate the validity of the right to life or property. Principles are principles, regardless of our technological condition.

But perhaps examples may help here. So allow me to return to my original plan and demonstrate historically, and then theoretically, why these arguments make so little sense, and why no one should fear shifting tasks from the state to private enterprise.

One problem we have is that we tend to think of collective action as government action. In our times we have lost sight of the fact that collective action can be private. Nor does it necessarily have to be commercial. For example, when proposing eliminating private schools, the argument is always raised that the poor will then end up uneducated. Yet, the very appeal of that argument suggests that enough individuals care about educating the poor that there would be a large pool willing to contribute to the education of others. And, since they would be less heavily taxed with the end of public schooling, they would have the means to do so. So what is preventing them from forming a local cooperative to fund a school, one which is run by a group of founders and provides free education to a certain number of students? Why must such activity be a state function?

And history shows that this very concept has worked in the past. 

Yes, public schools have a long history, but mostly only in the long established states of the east. In the less settled areas of the frontier, schools were mostly private ventures, funded by contributions from the community. Granted, at the time it was often hard to separate clearly government and private actions, as even government was largely informal, but the point is, schools were funded through contributions, not through coercively collected taxes. Those who failed to contribute were subject to shame, scorn and other social pressures, not fines and imprisonment. And it worked. The schools may not be as comprehensive and elaborate as those we have today, but then again, neither were the state funded schools of the east. Given the level of wealth, the schools funded privately were likely as good or better as the publicly funded alternatives5.

Actually, education is one of those areas where we can see the free market principle in action. I spoke before how products begin as the luxury of the wealthy, then gradually become luxuries of the richer members of the middle class, then middle class commonplaces, and eventually become universally accessible. The pattern held for cars, for radio, for television, for computers, for air travel, for mobile phones and so on. Every one started as a toy for the rich, then became something the middle class saved up to buy, then something they bought regularly, and finally became universally acceptable. And education is, in a way, the same. Think of Rome, where tutors were engaged by the rich. And then, as wealth grew, they became more accessible, until even the relatively modestly endowed merchants would either hire less reputable tutors, or else band together to hire a single teacher for the children of multiple merchants. Unfortunately, Rome began to fall apart under incompetent and unstable government, and repressive economic intervention, and never developed to the point where education would have been even more widely available. But, we can look at other nations and, before the state involved itself in the question, see the same general pattern, at least where economic freedom allowed the system to work6,7.

And education is also one of those areas where there is a spillover as well. Actually several types of spillover. The most obvious is that those retained as teachers tend to have free time to engage in other research and thus advance knowledge. For example, Aristotle was the tutor of Macedonian nobles (including one very famous one), using his position to support him while writing his many works. Or, in modern times, those retained to teach at universities are often researchers as well8

But there is other spillover. For instance, those educated by professionals tend to spread that knowledge to others. If I know mathematics and want to use it to solve some problem, for example, I often have to persuade those around me, and that involved imparting some of what I know. So the knowledge of a given teacher is not just limited to the student who hires him. Nor is that the only sort of unanticipated gain. Many tutors, when lecturing, have no objection to others listening as well, meaning that, while the person who hired him gets the full benefit of being able to question him and receive direct, personal attention, often many lesser individuals, friends, acquaintances, even servants or slaves, will benefit from the lectures of the teacher. It is hardly a reliable source of education, but it shows that even in the period when education was nominally the sole province of the rich there were more receiving some education than we think.

But let us move beyond the distant past where education was much more expensive and narrowly confined and ask about the more recent past. Or even the present. Today, private education is distributed in a way similar to education in centuries past. It is an expensive good, made more so by the money already extracted for public education, and is obtained only by some individuals, mostly among the upper and upper middle classes, though other save and sacrifice for it as well. It matches pretty well what many imagine education would be like if public schools were eliminated.

But even with private education so expensive, it is hardly the exclusive province of the rich. Many religious groups either provide scholarships for poor students (Catholic schools are well known for this), or else found private schools expressly intended to be affordable for coreligionists (many protestant schools are founded to provide affordable private education, especially from the smaller denominations9). And there are even a few secular schools founded by coalitions of parents which actually match the description I gave above. However, in all these cases, there is also an unfortunate amount of bureaucracy injected, as schools face the choice of either accepting state bureaucratic oversight, or jumping through the hoops of private certifying groups, which most states accept as proof of an adequate education10

So, if we have in front of us examples of schools which provide education through private funding, which even provide for students who could not afford the tuition, why do we think stopping public funding would result in too little education? Yes, right now there are not many cheap private schools, but that is because the public schools are there to provide free education. If the state had free cafeterias providing no cost, but poor quality, meals, would not most cheap, low quality greasy spoons shut down, as why pay when you can get similar bad food for free? Similarly, when the state provides mediocre education free, why pay for a mediocre private school? If the state were no longer involved, without a doubt the number of schools would rise, especially at the lower end of the scale. And, as they would not have to pay for public schooling, many parents who cannot now afford private school would be able to afford these less costly schools. The combination of increased demand, and greater wealth would create a market that would be swiftly exploited by the schools11.

But enough about education, let us look at our second example, roads. Roads are one of those areas where even conservatives think the government needs to be involved. Which is quite odd, as this is, again, an area where both history and current experience show us that private action is quite possible.

The historical precedent is easy to see, with some notable exceptions (Roman roads, Inca roads, a few others) roadways were largely privately created and maintained. There were some toll roads, some roads maintained by the local notables, but most roads were simply maintained by localities without government involvement. (And toll roads were also private, though maintained by the toll takers.)

But let us ignore history, as it is so often dismissed, and instead look at the present.  Despite the claims that the government must maintain roads, we have countless examples of roads being privately maintained. For example, the community in which I live maintains its own roads (as well as its own water -- until the county finally bullied us into giving up on that, anyway). And there are numerous communities which do the same. Community associations, covenants on deeds and a number of other tools are used across the country to provide for the private, cooperative maintenance of roadways. The government is nowhere to be seen, and yet there are roads.

But, say the critics, what about poor communities? Or the interstate highways?

The answer there is that it would depend. First, if a community is so poor it cannot even manage to maintain roads, odds are good it lacks political clout to get road service either, and so it is doubtful it will do better with the state than without. (And if a community is populous, but so poor they cannot afford to collectively even maintain roads, how likely is it they have cars to use on those roads?) But, even assuming there is some problem there, I can think of several alternate solutions. For example, automakers are fond of gestures making them appear socially conscious, and an extensive road system creates a better market for their products. Would it not be likely they would help to fund less affluent communities in some sort of road building charity? And for interstate highways, even if we ignore the fact that private highways are maintained quite profitably in several places, it seems that highways, at least those which serve a purpose other than political patronage, could be funded by tourist sites which require them, interstate shipping interests and a host of others who might find contributing to specific highways beneficial. We forget it since we allowed the government to take over the roads, but there are those who find the road system profitable, and would likely contribute voluntarily if the state were not involved12.

Which is why I find it so laughable that conservatives are so easily duped by the arguments about the need for government involvement in road building. With so many examples in the real world, probably some even in the communities in which they reside, it seems foolish to think private action cannot be substituted for government action.

Which brings me to the theoretical portion. And what an easy argument that theoretical portion is.

Quite simply, the government pays for whatever it creates with money taken from citizens. It may take it explicitly through taxation, it may borrow it to be repaid from future takings, or it may subtly steal through the devaluation of currency by inflation13, but in one way or another the funds come from the citizens. Similarly, whatever the government does, ti does by organizing citizens or others into groups to carry out that task. It then uses the funds taken to pay those workers and to purchase supplies, which it uses to complete the task.

Not one step of this process exists which could not be carried out by private citizens, without the power of coercion, except for confiscating the money of others. Which means, if private citizens could gather together the money they needed, they could easily accomplish anything the state could. So there is no physical or theoretical obstacle to privately performing any state task.

So, the only question is whether or not private individuals would do so. That is the sole theoretical hurdle14.

The obvious response is that if private citizens would not do it voluntarily, then how do we justify a government forcing them to do so, at least in a free nation? But in a way that is an evasive answer, as some could easily point to a situation where the bulk of funding comes from a handful of wealthy individuals, and argue that while a vast majority support the plan, a few rich individuals could prevent it from being funded15. I could still argue the rich have as much right to their wealth as others, but there are enough who support such egalitarian argument that I feel the need to respond in a different manner16.

We need to divide the programs supported by the state into two categories. Projects which could turn a profit, and those which could not. There is clearly some overlap or grey area, as some projects the government now funds do not turn a profit under the state, but possibly could be made to turn a profit in private hands, or with some changes.For example, passenger rail. The government split passenger rail form cargo, and in many cases this led to massive losses on passenger lines, as passenger runs were just used to offset some of the loss associated with moving around engines for freight runs17. However, there are other areas where passenger runs are profitable, or could be. But for political reasons, the state will never shut down all those areas where passenger traffic is a losing proposition, nor will it allow freight lines to add competing passenger services. Nor will it even consider doing away with costly union workers. However, were we to return to a fully private system, with private firms making decisions about which lines to run, whether to run freight, passengers or both, and fully free to deal with the unions or not as they choose, rail could easily be as profitable as it once was18

However, such cases can be handled as they arise. For now, let us simply say there are those cases where a service could turn a profit (even if it currently does not) and those where it never will.

Before moving on, allow me to mention that many of the profitable ventures, at least the ones actually making money, are not run by the state, but are run by state created monopolies or cartels. I am thinking here of utilities, cable monopolies, even Amtrak which is nominally a semi-private venture. The government generally dislikes being seen to turn a profit (and if there was a greater indictment of the government mentality than that, I cannot find it), so it either creates private "partners" for such ventures, or allows private companies to provide the services, while regulating prices and other terms of service. We see the latter in the utilities, many cable monopolies, and we saw it in the phone company before it was broken up and privatized.

However, not all potentially profitable ventures are private. Many do not presently turn a profit, and so remain government controlled. The postal service comes to mind. Thanks to bureaucratic overhead, byzantine work rules, and a host of other inefficiencies, the postal service is a losing proposition. But as we have seen with private package carriers, what was a money losing venture under the government can become quite profitable under the right management.

But enough of delineating these services, let us make our argument. If a service is capable of turning a profit, then it is very easy to see who would provide it when the state step away form it, anyone wanting to make money. Be it schooling or mail delivery or rail service, if it is in demand, there will be a private enterprise waiting to do it, as there is no limit to mans desire to improve his situation. 

Of course there is the one counter argument to this. Some will say "Yes, there would be private schools, or a private railway, but what about price? What about those without money? What if the railway charges too much? Or stops serving some people? What about those who can't pay for school? What happens to them?"

And that actually leads into the second category, as providing service below market price, or free of charge, is effectively the same as providing an unprofitable service. So we can treat them all at the same time. Whether we are discussing welfare payments or free schooling or rail lines that can't pay for themselves or even social security paying out more than anyone ever paid in, we are talking about some form of charity.

And again, to the question of who will fund such charity under a free market, there is an easy answer that will satisfy no one. And that answer is "Whoever wants to." Because, under a free market, no one will be compelled to give, but no one will be stopped form giving either.

And that points out the simple flaw in this argument. The critics ask who will pay for these gifts, with the implicit assumption that no one will unless compelled to do so, but there is no reason to make that assumption19. The fact that such laws have been passed, and enjoy enough support that many worry about where funding will come from if it is privatized suggests a large number of potential contributors. Likewise, the huge amount of charitable giving, even after our confiscatory taxation takes so much of our income, also argues we are more than willing to give. So, if the state were to stop giving our money for us, let us keep it and decide how to spend it, it seems likely we would continue to give in much the same way as the state did20.

However, there is one other argument, which is rarely heard. The state, by taking this money, retards growth reduces general satisfaction. When a private individual spends money, he does so to produce maximum satisfaction. When that money is taken, unless it is spent exactly as he would, it reduces the total satisfaction. In addition, by taking a disproportionate amount from larger fortunes, as our system does, the tax system discourages accumulation of capital, which is needed to increase economic growth. By preventing growth, the state keeps us from becoming wealthy enough we do not need the services the state supplies. And by reducing satisfaction, the state actually both makes its population less happy and increases the tensions which lead to both less governmental stability and increases social strife21.

So, to put it simply, the answer to "Who will do it" is as follows: Profitable ventures will be taken over by those who want a profit. Those ventures which amount to charity will either be forgotten, if they lack the support of enough individuals, or will be provided by private groups of citizens who fund it with their own money. And, with any luck, the growth that comes from the end of confiscatory taxes will make such charity less necessary over time. And, while it is needed, the increased efficiency from eliminating bureacuracy will hopefully amke the money used go much farther than it did before. ("Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing", "The Inevitability of Bureaucratic Management in Government Enterprises", "Bureaucracy and Arbitrary Power", "Fear Driven Enterprises", "Killing the Railroads","Adaptability and Government", "Inflexibility and Bureaucracy", "In Praise of Contracts")

It probably will not satisfy those dedicated to the public sector's constant growth, but for those on the right who still imagine the state should have a large role in private lives, I hope I have provided an alternative perspective. ("We're From the Government and We're Here To Help You", "Something We Forget")


1. It is only because of continued monopolistic regulations that the entire area of first and third class mail has not yet opened up to private competition. The state is not yet ready to admit the postal monopoly had absolutely no purpose.

2. There are examples which do not quite fall in this category, yet still serve to show how little help the government is in the economy. For example, prior to money market funds with checking, regulation Q prevented payment of interest on demand deposits because of the fear of banks going bankrupt in competition. In truth, such competition has brought benefit to the consumer without bankrupting any financial services. And such examples of government economic illiteracy and bizarre financial theories are legion. (Cf. "Politicians and Economic Ignorance ", "Greed Versus Evil" and just about everything else I have written on this blog.)

3. Before someone makes the inevitable absurd straw man argument about privatized police or armies, let me say that there are proper functions for the state, and those are not services which can be run for profit. The government must provide police and armies, as well as criminal courts. I have considered the possibility of civil courts being made private, and that is feasible for contractual agreements, but the existence of tort-type offenses between total strangers argues for at least some civil court mechanism. But beyond that, the state is better off leaving matters in private hands. Still, that does not mean everything can be privatized, police and armies will always remain public, so, please none of those absurd "Robocop" arguments about privatized police.

4. For my generally negative view of such "pragmatic" arguments, see "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revistied, Again", "Impractical Pragmatists", "Opposing a General Principle With a Single Example", "Anecdotes and Extreme Examples" and "The Problem of the Small Picture".

5. In some ways it is almost impossible to compare the schools funded voluntarily and those funded by the state, either through taxes or land grants. The schools of the east served far larger and richer communities, and had been established for quite some time. The frontier schools served small, poor communities, and were often founded very recently. So if the single room school of the frontier did not compare to the established schools and universities of the east, it was not due tot he lack of government involvement, but simply the lack of sufficient students, or wealth, to support a more elaborate structure and organization.

6. There are also non-economic factors which may intervene and prevent the free market from working. For example, the prohibitions various nations have enforced against providing various minorities with education, or preventing various minority groups form entering universities or working in certain professions. However, under a free market, most such prohibitions seem to fall apart as demand for educated labor, and specialists, rises. Most often, legal fictions are developed to get around such rules. 

7. Unfortunately, history has provided us with no states which allowed education to develop entirely free of state interference, so we can see this pattern work out in practice.

8. Of course there is sometimes the opposite problem, schools which hire teachers almost exclusively for research and ignore the teaching role. In part this is due to the quest for state money, which pays well for attracting top researchers. I discussed this in more detail in "The State Versus Universities", "Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "Publish Or Perish" and "Funding and the Corruption of Science".

9. Obviously these generalizations are as imprecise as any generalization. There are expensive, exclusive catholic and protestant schools, and there are affordable secular schools. I only mention the protestant schools as I am most familiar with charismatic and evangelical schools (and a few Baptist) founded to provide lower cost religious education. But do not take these generalizations to imply any assumptions about the sects involved, they are just based on my general impressions of the schools I know.
10. I am not going into it here, but ideally the sole criterion for the quality of education would be the parents who pay for it. The state would not be allowed to decide if an education was "proper" or not. But I discuss that in much more detail in my essays "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education" and "In The Most Favorable Light".

11. Many more expensive schools would also see an increase in students and more "scholarships". After all, scholarships are, in many ways, just a tool for price discrimination. If the school cannot fill a class at list cost, they give a 10% discount to a few students to fill the slots. It costs them little, as they would offer the class with or without those students, but by giving a discount they get more income. And so schools actually have something to gain by allowing in a certain percentage of students paying less than their fellows, at least if they cannot fill their seats at the stated tuition. (And given the current market it seems many schools are happy to do so, at least I have been told this is true of the Annapolis area market. today [2008/02/23].)

12. However, not all highways would be maintained. There are many highways which serve very small communities and exist more because of federal highway dollars than any need. Some would probably bemoan the loss of these highways, asking why small communities should  not have highways, but the truth is, if a community has little enough traffic, a highway is not needed and is something of a luxury. If they won't pay for it, then it should not exist. And it certainly does not make sense to strong arm the rest of the nation into funding such roads just because the state has a n influential senator. At least private roads would be created based on a combination of need and willingness to pay. (Need, only in the sense that a real need would implay a communal willingness to pay money which would attract those seeking to profit, or else would inspire local groups into making voluntary contributions. I do not want to imply need alone will make roads appear.)

13. Inflation is a particular inefficient, and invidious, form of taking, as not only does it appropriate money, but the economic dislocations it causes do more harm than simple confiscation of an equal amount of money would cause. Honest taxation, though more politically dangerous, is much, much less damaging that inflation. See "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Bad Economics Part 7 ", "Bad Economics Part 8", "Why Gold?", ""What Is Money?" and "What Is A Dollar? ".

14. Some would argue that private individuals could do the same as the state, but would do it only for themselves and neglect the poor. We will deal with this later in the essay, but I want to point out here, any scheme intended to correct this presumed problem falls into the category of redistribution and suffers from the problems I described in "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution".

15. In reality, very few such situations exist. Most tax income comes from the middle class, as they are far more numerous and have less access to tax avoidance measures. The "rich", despite the rhetoric of populists, are not terribly numerous, control a very small percentage of the national wealth, and provide a relatively small percentage of the funding of our government. So, while they might imagine in a wholly private economy a few rich individuals could hold up a project, but the numbers suggest a wide coalition of middle class contributors would provide better funding than a few rich individuals.

16. I am not suggesting that I agree that majority rule could allow for the confiscation of the wealth of others, or that the rich have less right to their possessions than others. I am simply recognizing that some accept such arguments, and so I will address them here. I have argued in many places ("The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "Greed Versus Evil", "A Great Quote") that confiscation is self-defeating, that great fortunes, even when spent in idle luxury, help even the poorest among us more than redistribution would. But, for this argument, I will ignore those truths.

17. I discuss this in more detail in "Killing the Railroads".

18. Being as used to railways being a losing proposition as we now are, along with our familiarity with the railroad bankruptcies of the great transcontinental lines, we tend to forget rails were once very profitable, so much so that many of the great fortunes of the 19th century were wholly or partly made in rail.The bankruptcies were largely the result of the badly thought out subsidies during the push for as transcontinental line, as well as increasing regulation in various states and localities, almost amounting to extortion in many cases. (Though shakedown by legislation had existed int he east for many years before the railroad collapses. Many transportation tycoons, in all forms of shipping, found themselves being confronted with senseless legislation, intended to line the pockets of politicians rather than serve any public interest. But that is a topic for another essay.)

19. Except, of course, the standard liberal assumption people cannot do what is "right" without being told to do so by their betters. See "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Essence of Liberalism", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism" and "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences".

20. The one difference would be private charity is not constrained by the rules which make the state favor life-long welfare. Private charity's flexibility would prevent many of the ills state charity encourages. See "Why Must The Government Do It? Part I", "Consequences", "Perverse Incentives", "When Help Hurts", "When Help Hurts II" and "Subsidizing Irresponsibility and Poor Planning".

21. Some have argued in the past, for example, that racist incidents are worst at colleges with the strongest affirmative action programs. In a similar way, the greater the amount of money taken for welfare spending, the more the citizens who work resent welfare recipients. This tends to make the lives of those recipients worse, as the stigma attached to welfare increases, their chance of finding a job declines, and their social isolation gets worse. Thus, the government manages to make lives worse, not better. ("How the Government Corrupts Relationships")



There was an alternate version of this post, written prior to this version. As I think it was a good start, though this one was slightly superior, I am going to reproduce here the incomplete beginning of that original version (with the placeholders for linked articles removed):
One of the most difficult problems confronting an advocate of governmental minimalism is history. Government has performed some functions for such a long time that people simply cannot imagine a way to accomplish them without government involvement. Just suggest doing away with state highway funding and you will see this. ("") Never mind that roads were privately owned and maintained at many times in history, never mind that highway funds more often end up being used for payoffs, or to bully states into complying with federal demands, never mind that there are many feasible models allowing for privately funded roadways, the fact that government has done it for ages makes it impossible for many to imagine the state no longer involved. Nor are roads the only example. I have seen the same blindness when discussing ending public education (""), ending government involvement in marriage (""), ending government regulation of medicine (""), licensing of doctors and other professions (""), government safety regulations ("", ""), government control of banking ("") and the money supply (""), even ending social security ("").

And that last points to a bigger problem, and a reason even those not committed to strict governmental minimalism should be concerned as well. Once we allow that the government may stray a little from a stringent "night watchman" model1, it becomes impossible to draw a line (""), and the logic of the argument leads us to allow almost any government intervention one could imagine. ("")

Before I begin, perhaps I should make a small distinction here, as there are actually two, related problems. First, there is the problem as I presented it above, at least literally, and that is the government intervening in what should be a private matter2. The most clear example being the one I mentioned first, the building of roads and highways. While the government has been doing this for some time, on a federal basis for less than a century, but locally for much longer, and yet, from the point of view of minimalist government, it is completely unjustified, as roads have no bearing on the protection of individual rights. They are, viewed properly, a strictly private, economic issue, and the only argument for allowing government to handle them (other than some rather mediocre arguments about defense needs3 ) is that the government has been doing it for a long time4.

On the other hand, there is another type of activity, and that is something the government is now doing which no one should do at all, such as setting minimum wages, or establishing price caps. In these cases, not only should the government stop, but so should everyone else. These are not issues where it is a question between public and private action, it is a question of whether it should be done at all.

The two can sometimes be a little difficult to distinguish, as the same question can sometimes be viewed as a bit of each. For example, social security can be viewed as the first, as it is the government engaging in retirement planning, which should be handled privately. But it is also part of the second category, as the government is also forcing individuals to save for retirement which is a function that no one should perform. Which can make some of these questions a little confusing, as it may be possible, by changing one's perspective, to make different arguments about what appears to be the same topic, and be right in both cases. In such cases, however, a bit of thought will show that the apparent similarity is not quite accurate, as in the case of government planning retirement versus the government compelling retirement savings, and so the change of perspective actually makes the two issues completely different topics.


1. I do not like the "night watchman" description, as it is usually used in a critical way, to mock those who would have government do nothing more than protect individuals from force, theft and fraud, and perhaps operate a forum for settling disputes with binding decisions. (Though I have considered that even that last could properly be moved into the private realm. At least to a degree.) Still, it is a fair description in many senses, and, were it not weighed down with so many negative connotations, I would think it ideal. After all, the drowsy night watchman, sitting at a desk and doing little or nothing seems to me a model of the safest government imaginable.

2.There are a few areas where one could see the government function as eligible for private or public control. For example, civil courts, outside of the original realm of torts, that is unplanned incidents between strangers, could be handled by private arbitrators. All contracts could be registered with private arbitrators, with parties either posting bond, or else intimidated by the threat of never again being able to contract if they refuse to comply. In either case, it could easily be handled privately. On the other hand, as it prevents individuals from resorting to private methods of satisfaction, I can see the civil courts as within the scope of government. (Torts, of necessity, would be governmental, as there is no preexisting relationship. We could have private traffic courts handle private roadways, for any accidents or other torts, but we would still have some number of torts where the parties truly were unknown to one another and no preexisting agreement could possibly exist, making it necessary for some government civil courts to exist.)

3. Defense was one of the arguments for the interstate highway system, but it always seemed a flimsy excuse. First of all, even before the highway system there were more than enough surface roads for the transport of troops, not to mention rail and air transportation. Second, if the worry is defense against invasion, it may be better to try to make interstate travel harder, not easier, as invaders generally benefit from good infrastructure more than defenders. The invaders need reinforcements more, and must move limited troops quickly, while defenders, especially in guerrilla conflicts, benefit from opponents with limited mobility.

4. Of course, whenever I say there is but one argument, someone will have an alternative one, and this is no exception. People will always offer "public necessity" or "general welfare" arguments for almost any government program they favor.And, obviously, there will be arguments about economic "realities", and the simple "pragmatic" position that "it works this way", but in general these arguments have little foundation and, when examined critically, still boil down to "the government has done it all along, so why stop?"



Lest readers imagine I am proposing some sort of imposed government minimalism, I still stand by the arguments I made in "" and "" (as well as "", "" and ""), that the ideal solution to our political problems is to be found in a distributed government which allows for local experimentation. Still, for such experimentation to work, we must be willing to try eliminating government interventions which have existed for a long time. We do not need to forcibly eliminate them in every local government, but we must be willing to try removing them in at least one or two local governments just to see if it is not possible to perform privately what we currently consider to be exclusively government functions.

I must also point out one other issue. Whenever someone proposes privatizing roads or schools, some other will propose privatizing police, and that is absurd. Police functions are inherently governmental functions, and cannot be privatized realistically. There are numerous reasons such an idea is absurd, but, as this is but a postscript to another essay, I will not get into them here. Perhaps in the future I will write about this bizarre idea, so often examined in mediocre science fiction. Until then, perhaps reading "", "", "" and "" will help explain why this function, as well as the army, is a proper function for government.
I leave it to my readers to decide if the version which finally made it to print is better or worse than the beginning I abandoned.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/02/23.