The Difference Between Public Libraries and Public Schools

Plans for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s second-oldest public library, were approved in 1852, the same year Massachusetts passed the country’s first compulsory schooling law. Both public libraries and public schools are funded through taxation and both are “free” to access, but the similarities end there. The main difference between public libraries and public schools is the level of coercion and state power that public schooling wields.

Voluntary vs. Compulsory

Libraries are open and available for anyone to access. You can quickly sign up for a library card if you want borrowing privileges, but you don’t have to. You can come and go freely, spend time in whatever library sections most interest you, ignore ones that don’t, and leave when you want. You can ask for help and support from a librarian if you choose. You can participate in a class that the library offers or access one of the library’s many online resources, but those are all optional. You may not always like a library’s programming, but you don’t have to participate in anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like your neighborhood library, you can freely visit one in another neighborhood or another town. You mix daily with a wide assortment of people of all ages and backgrounds at your library, reflecting the diversity of your community. Aside from the public levy, everything is voluntary.

Moreover, you don’t ever have to step foot in a library and still have access to books and resources through bookstores and online retailers. Your library has no control over what your local bookstore sells, and the library system can’t dictate rules to Amazon.

Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening.

Public schools, which are more aptly called government schools because of the force associated with them, are nothing like public libraries. Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening. Parents can choose to homeschool or enroll their child in a private school, but in most states, homeschooling and private schools are regulated by the state under compulsory schooling statutes. Education is controlled by the state, even for non-public entities that receive no public money.

This is akin to your public library monitoring the books that Barnes & Noble sells, but it goes well beyond that. In each state, young people are required to meet certain attendance thresholds in terms of hours of classroom learning. It would be like the library system mandating that you visit your library—assigned to you based on your zip code— a certain number of days and hours each year, or, alternatively, visit Barnes & Noble for those same number of days and hours with a report to the state to prove it. While you’re at your library or bookstore, you are also required to learn about specific subjects whether you want to or not. And there may be a test.

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Freedom over Force

If the public library system had the same power as the public schooling system, there would be far fewer private booksellers. When you are required by law to receive library services for a certain number of hours per year, you will likely go with the “free” option rather than paying to receive your mandatory library services at Barnes & Noble, which would charge a fee. Indeed, this happened with mandatory schooling.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools.In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880.[1]  Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools and education more broadly. As back-to-school time nears, it’s worth celebrating the many ways that public libraries facilitate non-coercive, self-directed learning for all members of the community and questioning why we would ever want our children to learn in spaces where force, not freedom, prevails.

[1] Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.

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Err on The Side of Liberty

There are many things I don’t know. There are things I think I know but I get wrong. There are also things people may believe I’m wrong about, but I’m not — a topic for another day.

When I’m wrong, I want to be wrong in the least harmful way possible.

I’d rather make the mistake of allowing you the liberty to live your life within your rights than to make the mistake of violating you for your own good. Or for the good of society.

Since I’m going to make mistakes either way, I’d rather make the mistakes that won’t make me into the unethical twin of those I dislike.

I don’t know the best way for you to live, the best way for you to make or spend money, or the best way for you to pursue your own version of happiness. It would be a mistake for me to try to rule over you.

It might be a mistake to let you carry a gun. It’s definitely a mistake to allow government to make and enforce rules that make it harder for anyone to carry one.

It might be a mistake to respect your decision of what to ingest — food or drugs. It’s definitely a mistake to allow anyone the power to cage or kill you in the name of a war on some drugs.

It might be a mistake for you to not wear a seat belt. It’s definitely a mistake to allow armed officers of the government to infringe your right to travel and to extract money from you for failing to do so.

Honestly, it’s not my place to “allow” or forbid anything you choose to do until it violates someone else’s rights. Since it isn’t within my rights to do so, I have no right to send hired guns to do this on my behalf. And neither does anyone else.

No one can delegate a right he doesn’t have.

As much as I don’t know, there are some things I know for certain.

I know you have the right to make your own mistakes and the obligation to pay restitution when your mistakes harm others. I know that all humans everywhere have equal and identical rights and deserve the liberty to exercise them to their fullest, regardless of the opinions of the political class.

To err is human. To err on the side of liberty and human rights is to make the ethical choice. It may not even be a mistake at all.

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Reverse Birth Control: A Thought Experiment

Some prominent sociologists argue that teen pregnancy, when it occurs, is functional.  Teen pregnancy is a foolish life choice for middle-class teens, because they’re sacrificing bright futures.  Lower-class teens, in contrast, don’t have bright futures to sacrifice, so why wait to become a parent?  I’m skeptical of the underlying counter-factuals, but never mind that.  Frank Furstenberg’s “Teenage Childbearing and Cultural Rationality” (Family Relations, 1992) rebuts the functionalists with a thought experiment that is as powerful as it is concise:

[I]f they had to take a pill for a month in order to become pregnant, relatively few teenagers, especially those of school age, would become parents. And, if they had to obtain permission from their parents to take that pregnancy pill, very few parents would give their consent.

In other words, the main source of teen pregnancy is just impulsiveness.  If youths act on their immediate feelings, pregnancy swiftly follows whether they want to get pregnant or not.

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Ethical Consistency, Does it Really Matter?

We see or hear it all the time. Whether we’re on social media or having a conversation with a friend or family member, you may hear or read something like this, your redneck coworker may say, “We just need to turn the middle east into a sheet of glass!” Meanwhile, your progressive, career college student cousin may say something like, “We need someone like Bernie in the white house so we can finally get universal health care!”

More often than not these examples are due to the lack of something I consider invaluable as a Voluntaryist… ethical consistently.

To the best of my understanding, the lack of ethical consistency in today’s culture has led, and continues to lead people toward further social, economic, and foreign policy disasters. For this reason, I wanted to go over the concept of ethical consistency as I see it, the definition of the term, and some examples of how it’s applied in real world scenarios.

Consistency—the absence of contradictions—has sometimes been called the hallmark of ethics. Ethics is supposed to provide us with a guide for moral living, and to do so it must be rational, and to be rational it must be free of contradictions. If a person said, “Open the window but don’t open the window,” we would be at a loss as to what to do; the command is contradictory and thus irrational. In the same way, if our ethical principles and practices lack consistency, we, as rational people, will find ourselves at a loss as to what we ought to do and divided about how we ought to live. Ethics require consistency in the sense that our moral standards, actions, and values should not be contradictory. Examining our lives to uncover inconsistencies and then modifying our moral standards and behaviors so that they are consistent is an important part of moral development.

Consistency and Ethics, from the center of applied ethics at Santa Clara University.

I’ve observed that, especially in the realm of political opinion, being ethically consistent seems to be a real challenge. And as I wrote earlier, this leads to a lot of confusion, controversy, and conflict.

In order to further explain, I’ve provided five scenarios along with an explanation of how ethical consistency applies.

Scenario #1
-Murder is considered illegal or unethical.
-Accidentally killing civilians with drone strikes is collateral damage and therefore justified.

In this example, it should be fairly obvious that killing is inherently unethical, whether intentionally or by accident, however some people believe there is an exception to this universally accepted rule when it comes to war…or so they’ve convinced themselves. In a way, I can’t blame them. They’ve spent a lifetime inundated with nationalism, from reciting the pledge of allegiance in public school every morning to social media and network news filling them with pride for country and military worship.

And that’s the problem. The programming has been incredibly successful, so successful some people have lost their ability to discern between murder and accidentally killing innocent people.

Scenario #2
-Robbing someone of the cash in their wallet is considered illegal or unethical.
-Taking money from someone through the act of taxation is justified.

Think back to when were a child, do you remember when one of your siblings or playmates took your favorite toy from you? I’m not sure I can remember that far back either, but if you have children, nieces or nephews, you’ve witnessed this drama firsthand.

The recognition of personal property is innate in human beings, we know what is ours.

As we mature, we begin to understand the benefits of sharing, whether it’s the desire to connect with others or more selfish reasons. For example, some may share their candy with classmates in order to be seen as likeable and some may do so in order to garner social status and the benefits involved with being popular.

Although we’ve come to find sharing as a virtuous thing to do, we choose so voluntarily. We choose to donate money, our time, or make charitable donations of items because we receive some type of psychological reward.

In the case of the mugger stealing the cash in your wallet, we know this is inherently unethical. In the case of taking someone’s money via taxes, we know that this act is also inherently unethical. Why? Because, unlike charitable donations, the money is being taken from you. Some may say that they’re happy to pay taxes and that’s great! You make your charitable donations to the state and I’ll spend my money supporting alternatives to such coercive systems.

Scenario #3
-A group of neighbors come to your house and forcefully abducted you for smoking a plant in your living room is considered illegal or unethical.
-The police come to your house and forcefully abducting you for smoking a plant in your living room is justified.

Do you own yourself? Is your body, your self considered personal property? Are you responsible for actions taken? Do you have a sense of personal agency?

I would answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions, therefore my body and my actions are mine. If I were to eat a fatty steak and wash it down with a double Old Fashioned, does that affect anyone else? Of course not, but if I were to get in my car intoxicated and hit someone else, that would be violating their person, their self.

Whether it’s eating a steak while drinking bourbon, smoking weed, or doing meth, it’s my body. As long as I do so without affecting anyone, it’s my decision alone.

The act of being abducted by your neighbors simply because they made a “No Weed” rule between them is inherently immoral. The same thing applies to being abducted by the police. In addition to your neighbors, strangers helped make the rules restricting the rights of others to do what they choose with their bodies. The police enforce these rules, although they call them laws instead. Whether rule or law, a person’s self ownership precedes both.

Scenario #4
-A group of people mandating your children attend church is considered unethical.
-The state mandating your children attend school is justified.

My explanation of scenario number three applies here as well. However, in this case it’s not your person, it’s your child’s person.

What separates adults from children is the adults sense of personal agency and responsibility. Since children lack this understanding, their parents, other immediate family members, or other types of surrogate caregivers have the responsibility of taking care of them.

Now this part is going to sound insensitive and simplistic, but hear me out. Your child is your possession. Until they also have a sense of personal agency and responsibility, you are as responsible for them as you are for yourself. Therefore, you have the final say when it comes to their person.

By mandate or law, forcing a child to attend anything without the consent of the parent is inherently unethical.

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Congenial Communications—Another Miracle of the Market

On Saturday, I spent the bulk of the day going to and from Chetumal and taking care of business there. As usual, I had a fairly successful trip. Whenever I make these trips, which I do on average every three or four weeks, I am reminded of how well I get along in a country where I speak the language—to give myself more credit than I deserve—poorly.

Now, it’s true that my transactions are eased by the fact that Mexicans, in general, are very nice, accommodating people. But something else is at play here, and it deserves recognition as another “miracle of the market.” You see, people who are dealing with one another as buyers and sellers, as lenders and borrowers, as investors and entrepreneurs are highly motivated to reach a successful deal. They are therefore not inclined to let the niceties of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax stand in the way of a mutually advantage transaction. However clumsily I may stumble around in speaking and writing Spanish, I virtually never draw a blank from the Mexicans, much less a Parisian dismissal. (I should add, however, that even in Paris I rarely drew such an oft-mentioned dismissal, probably for the same reason I’m discussing here.)

Through the ages, many observers have noted how markets promote peaceful and mutually enriching dealings among people of varying languages, customs, religions, and backgrounds. Voltaire’s account of this matter is a classic. I rediscover this time-honored truth virtually every day while living in Mexico. I assure you that I’m not getting along here so well because I’m the most fluent gringo south of the border or because I’m an extraordinarily nice guy.

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Reflections from Spain

I just got back from a five-week visit to Spain.  The first four weeks, I was teaching labor economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín while my sons took Spanish-language classes on Islamism, Self-Government, and the Philosophy of Hayek.  Then we rented a van and saw Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Fuengirola, Granada, and Cuenca.  During my stay, I also spoke to the Instituto von Mises in Barcelona, Effective Altruism Madrid, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, and the Juan de Mariana Institute.  I had ample time to share ideas with UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián, UFM professor Eduardo Fernández, Juan Pina and Roxana Niculu of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, and my Facebook friend Scott McLain.  Using my sons as interpreters, I also conversed with about 25 Uber drivers.  Hardly a scientific sample, but here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected.  The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.  Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas.  Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude.  There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population.  Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English.  Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day.  Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution.  While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrantsThe biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis.  I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months.  Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience.  Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan.  Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain.  By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S.  The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal.  One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump.  You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.”  I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%.  Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy?  My chats with local economists – and observation of the labor market – confirmed my skepticism.  According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.  Immigrants reported little trouble finding work, though they did gravitate toward “New Economy” jobs like Uber driving.  I still think that Spanish unemployment is a tragic problem, especially for the young.  Yet properly measured, finding a job in Spain is plausibly easier than finding a job in France or Italy.  (This obviously raises the question, “To what extent is unemployment in France and Italy inflated in the same way?”  If you know of good sources, please share in the comments).

7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement.  Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S.  Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw.  A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians.  Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite.  I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction.  Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing.  (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect.  We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty.  You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid.  The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert.  Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live.

11. The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography – the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem so leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth.  There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth – and only 47 million people in Spain.  (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!)  Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate.  And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running.  You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.

13. Won’t these migrants vote to ruin Spain?  I don’t see the slightest hint of this.  Migrants come to work, not to change Spain.  And it’s far from clear that natives’ political views are better than migrants’.  Podemos, the left-wing populist party, doesn’t particularly appeal to immigrant voters.  Vox, the right-wing populist party, seems to want more immigration from Spanish America, though they naturally want to slash Muslim immigration.

14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch?  Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity.  Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home.  Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws willfully defy this economic logic.  When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits.  Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years.  Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like.  I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees.  Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp – or even get deported to Venezuela.  Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits?  Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?

16. Our favorite day was actually spent in Gibraltar.  Highly recommended; you simply cannot overrate the apes.  I was astounded to learn that the border with Spain was totally closed until 1982, and only normalized in 1985.  In a rare triumph of the self-interested voter hypothesis, 96% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit.  Crossing the border is already kind of a pain; pedestrians have to go through (cursory) Spanish and British passport checks both ways, and the car line is supposed to take an hour.  I’d hate to be living in Gibraltar if security gets any tighter.

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

18. Related observation: Once you’ve seen Spain, the idea that underdevelopment and oppression are somehow “intrinsic to Islam” is ridiculous.  The monuments of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Spain are all around you.  So are basic facts like: Muslim Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe – and plausibly the most tolerant as well.  While bad outcomes are somewhat persistent, dramatic turnarounds are also common.

19. Another example: In less than a century, Spain has gone from being a battleground between reactionary Catholicism and violent atheism to a land of extreme religious apathy.  Non-practicing Catholics now outnumber practicing Catholics 2:1.

20. After I visit a new country, Tyler Cowen always asks me, “Are you long or short?”  In terms of potential, I’m very long on Spain.  The trinity of “deregulate immigration, employment, and housing” is vital in almost every country, but this formula would do more for Spain than nearly any other country.  Wise policy would make Spain the biggest economy in Europe in twenty years flat.  Unfortunately, these policies are highly unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, so my actual forecast is only moderately positive.  At this point, I can picture Tyler aphorizing, “The very fact that a country has massive unrealized potential is a reason to be pessimistic about its future.”  But this goes too far.  All else equal, a higher upper bound is clearly a reason for optimism – and by European standards, the Spanish economy is now doing very well.

21. Overall, my visit has made me more optimistic about Spain.  Much of the measured unemployment is illusory, and immigrants are pouring in to profit from Spain’s combination of high productivity and linguistic accessibility.  Housing policy remains bad.  Since housing regulation is decentralized, however, some regions of Spain will be atypically tolerant of new construction.  Where is the Texas of Spain?  I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.

Correction: I originally stated that Spain had lower population density than the contiguous U.S., but I was mixing up population per square mile and population per square kilometer.

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