Education Entrepreneurs Are the Only Ones Who Can Disrupt the Status Quo

Transforming entrenched systems and industries comes through disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship. Coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation is the process by which new ideas and inventions create value and ultimately topple existing competitors. A visionary individual or group spots opportunity and develops new solutions that meet consumer demand faster, better, and more cheaply. This innovation improves our lives through efficiency and cost-effectiveness, allowing us to keep more of our hard-earned money with better service and satisfaction.

Independent and Innovative Education

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the organizations I highlight in Unschooled are independently run. Disruptive innovation may originate with individual ingenuity, but it is fueled by consumer demand and value creation within the private sector. Not that the public sector hasn’t tried. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a surge of interest in reforming mass schooling from within. The Open Classroom movement emerged, encouraging less restrictive classrooms and more choice and freedom for students.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1967, the city’s public school system launched its Parkway Program, sometimes known as the “school without walls,” in which young people were able to select their own classes and learn throughout various spots across the city, including private businesses, museums, local universities, and public spaces. In 1970, the New York Times called the Parkway Program “one of the nation’s boldest experiments in public education,” noting that over ten thousand students applied for only five hundred available slots.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector.

Within a decade, though, momentum for programs like Parkway waned. New public education fads appeared and old ones faded. Ultimately, Parkway was reabsorbed into the larger school district, becoming indistinguishable from Philadelphia’s other public schools.

More recently, a fully self-directed district high school that I also write about in Unschooled was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city just outside of Boston. Powderhouse Studios had everything going for it, including relief from onerous public schooling requirements under the state’s Innovative Schools legislation and a $10 million grant from XQ Super School, an organization co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. After seven years of concessions and compromise by the school’s leaders, the city’s school committee ultimately voted unanimously this spring not to approve Powderhouse’s opening.

Private Sector Reforms

As much as many parents and educators would like to believe that meaningful reforms can occur within the mass compulsory schooling model, real education innovation occurs most successfully and enduringly through the private sector. Free from state curriculum requirements, standardized testing mandates, and restrictions on hiring and firing, private educational organizations are able to experiment and innovate, with parents as the key stakeholders to ensure accountability.

Many of these schools and organizations are tiny non-profit enterprises that serve a small group of children and are often financially inaccessible to many families. But disruptive innovation in education has the capacity to bring real change to the masses—if educators embrace an entrepreneurial, free-market mindset.

In his book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey writes about his early days immersed in the left countercultural movement of the late-1960s and 1970s. He lived on a commune in Texas for two years and became active in the local food co-op movement.

Entrepreneurship and Capitalism

Mackey writes in the book’s introduction:

Politically, I drifted into progressivism (or liberalism or social democracy) and embraced the ideology that business and corporations were essentially evil because they selfishly sought only profits. In contrast to evil corporations, I believed that nonprofit organizations and government were “good,” because they altruistically worked for the public interest, not for profit.

The longer Mackey was part of the non-profit food co-op movement, the more disenchanted he became with its ideology. He writes:

I ultimately became disillusioned with the co-op movement because there seemed to be little room for entrepreneurial creativity; virtually every decision was politicized.

Discovering the power of free-market capitalism, Mackey was able to scale his vision for healthy food and a healthier planet in ways that small, local, non-profit food co-ops were unable to, leading many more people to have access to organic food and many more jobs created to provide that food.

Mackey writes about his path from progressive anti-capitalist to proud entrepreneur:

I learned that free enterprise, when combined with property rights, innovation, the rule of law, and constitutionally limited democratic government, results in societies that maximize social prosperity and establish conditions that promote human happiness and well-being—not just for the rich, but for the larger society, including the poor. I had become a businessperson and a capitalist, and I had discovered that business and capitalism, while not perfect, were both fundamentally good and ethical.

Education needs its own Whole Foods moment. It needs entrepreneurial innovators to move small, non-profit organizations into larger-scale, profitable enterprises that serve more families and students with better outcomes and lower costs. Now with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the potential for greater accessibility at lower costs increases.

Seeds of an enterprising moment in education are beginning to sprout. Acton Academy is a low-cost, self-directed network of private schools, often operating on a hybrid homeschool model, that is expanding across the country by educators committed to entrepreneurship and educational creativity. In an article for Forbes, Bill Frezza describes Acton Academy’s potential to remake the educational landscape. He writes:

With the right program as a model, anyone who home schools his kids can operate an Acton Academy. And not just for his or her own children, but for a schoolhouse full of them. Run the numbers and you can even make a lucrative living while charging tuition well below than that of most conventional private schools.

Standardized Equals Restrictive

Similarly, the Academy of Thought and Industry is a for-profit network of schools that could trigger necessary disruption in education. Founder Michael Strong acknowledges the power of profit-driven free enterprise to create lasting educational change that is higher-quality, lower-cost, and ultimately scalable. He says:

Any time something is profitable, that is what makes it able to go to scale. The reason we have low-cost groceries now (compared to 100 years ago) is because it’s profitable to bring food to millions and millions of people.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector. Public schools have tried to innovate; yet compulsory mass schooling has become more restrictive, standardized, and all-consuming of American childhood than at any other time in our history. To enact real, scalable change in education—just as Whole Foods did with the organic food movement—entrepreneurial parents and educators will need to imagine and implement new models of learning. These models must be rooted in the time-tested principles of free-market capitalism, or what Mackey describes as

the heroic nature of business, its essential virtues, and its extraordinary potential to do more good for more people in a sustained manner than any other social or economic system ever invented by humankind.

Entrepreneurs can help to replace an obsolete schooling model of education with a new learning one fit for the innovation era. In fact, they may be the only ones who can move us from where we are to where we could be.

Listen to Kerry McDonald discuss unschooling with FEE president emeritus Lawrence Reed (12:00 mark):

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The Art and Science of Physical Removal

Part 1: Removing Yourself

I have long been of the opinion, as a Voluntaryist, that there are only two legitimate ways of voting: With your money, in terms what products and services you choose to buy (outside of taxation, of course, where you are effectively given no choice), and with your feet – choosing where you prefer to live, all things and circumstances taken into consideration. It follows, then, that most libertarians of whatever stripe gravitate towards locales where, at least, the politics and general presence of government are not as aggressively antithetical to the basic enjoyment of life as others. For example, at present, I am seriously considering getting out of Vermont sometime during the next few years, and taking up residence in Wyoming – where taxes are both less numerous and lower, the cancerous hysteria of gun control has not yet taken root, and where there is still a rural, low-population environment (not to mention one almost certain to contain a higher percentage of like-minded people). In short, all the things Vermont had once upon a time, and no longer does.

There is certainly nothing wrong or immoral about wishing to improve one’s circumstances by choosing to go and live somewhere else – so long as one has every intention of paying one’s own way rather than leeching from whatever Welfare State may exist in one’s new chosen location. There is nothing wrong with wanting to cohabitate amongst one’s own “tribe,” as it were. Having libertarians (and even a couple of conservatives here and there…maybe) as neighbors is always preferable – to me, at least – than being surrounded by roughly 70% Democratic “progressive” lefties who are almost sexually enthralled by Marxism of every conceivable variant. Surely, the former promises a better life. So, I’ll be investigating that – thoroughly and in full – over the next couple of years. You’ll likely hear from me more on that as things unfold. Stay tuned.

Part 2: Removing Others

So now suppose I’m living my new life happily in the Big Sky Country of Wyoming, enjoying that big boost in freedom that was rapidly dying back over my shoulder there in Vermont…and before too long, the same kind of leftist disease begins to take hold within Wyoming’s Forever West political system.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe has this rather blunt commentary to make about just such a situation: “There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Now this is not to say, first off, that Wyoming is a strictly “libertarian social order” to begin with. More accurately, it might be characterized as predominantly conservative Republican in flavor – with some inevitable libertarian blandishments as a consequence. That stated, conservative and libertarian camps both, I would think, have a mutual vested interest in seeing that leftist ideology does not gain serious ground or take root in the Wyoming landscape. Such concern can be quite correctly characterized as nothing more nor less than self-defensive in nature: People who are paying few and low taxes, enjoying virtually unrestrained gun rights, and relishing most or all of the trappings of rural rugged individualism do not want these conditions to be reversed or undone – most especially not at the hands of some Marxist-inspired brigade of self-styled do-gooders who believe with almost religious fervor that they’ve come to the unwashed lands to teach the heathens how to live a better, more civilized life under full-on socialism.

So for the conservatives, the solution to this equation is very easy: Out come the pitchforks, and away we go. For the libertarian camp though, there’s a bit of a problem.

Unlike all forms of statism, libertarian ethics demand tolerance. Unlike libertarianism, however, statism requires force. I think you can see the quandary this seems to present.

And I’ll repeat a line from above: Such concern can be quite correctly characterized as nothing more nor less than self-defensive in nature.

Ever since my awakening as a libertarian some 25 years ago now, I have spoken with probably a couple of thousand leftists – from garden-variety Democrats, to hardcore Marxists. Out of all of them, I have come across maybe two who I sincerely believed when they told me that they did not wish their views or economic system to be imposed on others by force. One of them even used the term “libertarian socialist” – which made me laugh derisively at the time. But I’m older now, and no longer laughing. I think that’s a valid term to describe such a philosophical position. I also think, through experience, that scarcely one in a thousand leftists possess a viewpoint of such benign integrity. The overwhelming majority of them are more than willing to use whatever level of violence and brute force they feel is necessary to bend you to their will – to force you to be subjugated to their ideas whether you agree with them or not.

And I will say unequivocally that these are the leftist elements about whom Hoppe is spot-on correct. Those who would agitate and proselytize for the dismantling of a libertarian socio-economic environment – which, no doubt, would have likely taken tremendous efforts and sacrifice in order to build in the first place – in favor of mandatory economic regulations, taxation, gun control, redistribution of wealth, etc. – such individuals must indeed be “physically separated and removed” from the midst of a region or territory which has managed to construct a libertarian society.

As would, for that matter, anyone from any ideology that sought to reinstitute involuntary political governance in any form.

Legitimate self-defense, after all, should never require apologism.

That said, it is the even smallest potential for “libertarian socialism” that causes me to distance myself somewhat from Hoppe. That one-in-a-thousand leftie who just wants to live peacefully in a commune with his or her buddies down the road – so long as their chosen lifestyle and preferred economic models are kept among themselves and other willing participants who are free to leave at any time – is not and should not be considered a problem. So long as, being the phrase of paramount import here. Hoppe’s absolutism lends itself too readily to a total witch-hunt mentality otherwise. Thus, allow me to offer a revision of his above maxim, more in line with purist libertarian sentiment:

“There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists who agitate for political and economic control over others in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and removed from society.”

Liberty, sovereignty, and autonomy are key elements of my own personal vision. Not living as a slave to a bunch of parasitic politicians and soul-sick bureaucrats, as the Left would have us do – all the better to control, manipulate, and dominate us to death. It is a vision worth both projecting and fighting for, I think, especially in the face of a world bent on ever-increasing authoritarianism and control.

I’m thinking I may be able to do that more effectively by physically removing myself to a different geographical locale, surrounded by a different culture. We’ll see. Life is strange, and can take many unexpected twists and turns.

Should I get there, however, when I do, I’ll then be prepared to defend my place, person, and property in it. Not with indiscriminate prejudice against others whose philosophies I find abhorrent, but with a more finely targeted and focused sense of just what is absolutely necessary in order to do so.

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Triple Standards: The Dollar, the Throne, and the Altar

The last chapter of Tyler’s Big Business is called “If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?”  At risk of seeming narcissistic, this passage put a big grin on my face:

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”

Hmm. Your parents too (usually) have done lots and lots for you, but—especially in America—large numbers of people are unhappy with how that all turned out, or at least some parts of it. For all of their gratefulness, they resent what their parents have done to them.

On reflection, though, my “Hating corporations is like hating your parents” quip misses a crucial point.  Namely: In the absence of extreme abuse or neglect, virtually every society condemns hating your parents!  When you retrospectively rate your parents, you’re supposed to forgive even serious character flaws and obvious cruelty with, “Well, mom did her best” or “Well, dad loved us in his way.”  When you rate a business, however, almost no one expects you to give it the benefit of the doubt.

You could object, “Well, we hold large impersonal organizations to higher standards than familiar individuals.”  But that’s utterly wrong.  Governments are large impersonal organizations, and people hold them to absurdly low standards.  They’re even willing to brush mass murder under the rug.  Churches, too, are large impersonal organizations, and people also hold them to shockingly low standards.  Many Catholics briefly punished their Church after massive sexual abuse scandals, but virtually none cried, “These child molesters can go to hell; I’m finding a new religion!”  Note, moreover, that government and organized religion aren’t two itsy-bitsy counter-examples.  They are by most measures the oldest and largest kinds of large impersonal organizations.

Tyler spends many pages developing a specific version of the “higher standards for large impersonal organizations” story:

[P]eople tend to anthropomorphize even when such attributions are inappropriate. Along these lines, we tend to think of corporations as being like people and we tend to judge them by the same standards that we use to judge people, whether we seek to do so consciously or not. To some extent we are bound to talk that way, but we need to understand that it can mislead us, and it is a kind of shorthand that has pitfalls and hazards if we take the metaphors too literally or allow them to drag around our emotions too much. It is simply very hard for most people to think about corporations without investing them with the personal attributes of human beings or at least the attributes of those small groups of social allies and enemies we evolved to obsess over.

Since the general story is utterly wrong, however, there’s no hope for Tyler’s specific version.  If he were right, people would also anthropomorphize governments and churches, leading to unfairly harsh judgment.  In fact, however, governments and churches enjoy overwhelming deference even when they’re engaged in vile crimes.  We damn the dollar, yet honor both throne and altar.

What’s really going on?  I’ve spent many years highlighting mankind’s anti-market bias: our irrational pessimism about the social benefits of markets.  I’ve even argued that this bias provides the common core of leftist ideology.  Scapegoating business and the rich comes naturally to psychologically normal humans – and big (≈ “rich”) business is one of the best scapegoats of all.  The only better scapegoat, really, is foreign big business – those beastly multinational corporations you keep hearing about.

Why do human beings have this corrupt emotional make-up?  I sincerely don’t know.  While I’ve heard Darwinian explanations, most seem like shaky just-so stories to me.  All I know is that human beings do have this corrupt emotional make-up.  And that’s why we I hope Big Business inspires a chorus of imitators – because our emotional corruption is not going to fix itself.

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Could Such a Man Care?

Nicolas Maduro now rules a land of chronic hunger, horrific crime, terrible fear, and mass exodus.  How does he maintain his dictatorship?  With a pact of steel between his ruling party, the military, the secret police, and on-site foreign allies – especially Cubans.  You would have to be mad to think that Maduro’s doing all this for the good of his people, or the good of the world.  His only credible motivation is power-lust gone wild.  Maduro is a pervert for power.

He’ll never admit this, of course.  He still claims he’s doing it all for the people and the higher good.  Here’s Maduro in an interview this February:

Venezuela is a country with dignity. We are patriots, revolutionaries. We have an ideology, that of Simon Bolivar. Our movement came from the depths from the Venezuelan people. We’ve been governing democratically for 20 years. Everything that we are, everything that we have, we have because of the popular vote.

Which raises a deeper question.  Namely: Deep in his soul, when did Maduro stray from the path of decency?

For Maduro’s former fans, it’s tempting to sigh, “Power corrupts.”  Power turns a good man bad.  He – like his mentor Chavez – started out as an idealist.  Yet ironically, he ended up a tyrant.

On reflection, however, this “ironic” account is absurd.  Think about the nicest, sweetest person you personally know.  Can you seriously imagine that this person, given power, would forge a brutal police state, destroy the economy, and cling to power with fire and blood?  I can’t.

Indeed, think about the average person you know.  You can probably imagine that this person would go along with great evil out of cowardice.  Still, would the average person you know take the initiative to commit these horrors?  That doesn’t make sense to me.

The lesson: Maduro was never an idealist.  Indeed, he was never an average person.  The average person in his shoes would have done far less evil, and relinquished power long ago.  What Maduro has done reveals what Maduro has always been: insatiably hunger for power.

So what?  Well, while this is all clear in hindsight, Maduro used to have millions of fans all around the world.  Millions of fans who took his rhetoric at face value.  Millions of fans who thought he was a noble man.  And these fans would have called me paranoid and unfair for calling their idol a power-luster.

The fans’ error would have been understandable if Maduro were the first politician to start with idealistic rhetoric and end in savagery.  In fact, however, history provides countless examples of this pattern.  Which means two things.

First, while extreme power-lusters are a small fraction of humanity, they are a large fraction of successful politicians.

Second, regular human beings are awful at the detection of extreme power-lusters.  When humans hear flowery words, their impulse is to take them at face value, instead of reminding themselves, “That’s just what a power-luster would say – and politics is packed with power-lusters.”

You could object, “Well, popular gullibility is for the best.  If the man in the street assessed politicians realistically, political progress would be almost impossible.”  The tempting reply is, “Yes, but political disaster would be almost impossible too.”

This reply, however, gives gullibility too much credit.  Imagine a world where people were ever-mindful of politicians’ proclivity for power-lust.  What would happen?  Politicians would compete for popularity by promising and doing things that power-lusters hate to do.  Things like: Respecting individual freedom, welcoming dissent, defining crime narrowly, heeding international criticism, avoiding even the appearance of demagoguery, and yes – shrinking government and cutting regulation.  And given the documented dangers of politicians’ power-lust, that is just what anyone who cares about human welfare should be hoping for.

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The Gig Economy is What Yesterday’s Socialists Said They Wanted; Why do Today’s Socialists Hate it?

A February Harris poll finds that 49.6% of Millennial and Generation Z Americans would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), among other politicians, proclaim a message of “democratic socialism,” evoking an ideology last ascendant in the early 1900s when Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas moved the needle in US elections.

But the devil is, as always, in the details. The goals of today’s American “democratic socialism,” as laid out in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, in Sanders’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” etc. look a lot more like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s effort to “save capitalism” through welfare statism than like the proposals of socialism’s last rise to prominence.

The essence of socialism as laid out by Proudhon and Marx and promoted by the International Workers of the World, et al., came down to destroying the wage system and building a classless society based on worker ownership of the means of production.

Those earlier socialists would almost certainly have lauded gig economy workers as examples of what socialism sought. Today’s socialists disdain them.

Consider gig economy drivers, once just called “gypsy cabbies.” In recent years many of them have chosen to affiliate with services like Uber and Lyft to get easier connections to people seeking rides.

Gig economy drivers own the means of production (their cars).

Gig economy drivers set their own hours and choose their own workplaces instead of slaving away on  someone else’s terms.

Gig economy drivers can use customer discovery services like Uber/Lyft, or they can go their own ways (many Uber drivers give me their cards, telling me to call them directly next time and cut out the capitalist middleman).

But today’s “democratic socialists” fought tooth and nail to preserve the capitalist “medallion cab” monopoly, and having lost that fight they’ve re-oriented their struggle toward roping the drivers, and the companies they choose to work with, into the old-style capitalist “wage employee” system.

Even the most virulent revolutionary Marxism posited that the state would wither away as workers seized the means of production, got rid of the bosses, and started working for themselves. That didn’t work out — the socialist parties ended up substituting themselves for the old ruling class, operating in the name of, but not as true proxies for, “the workers” — but that was the goal.

In the US, the same kind of substitutism came about “democratically” and incrementally as “progressives” co-opted pieces of socialist-sounding reforms. But just like the Marxist-Leninist parties in the old Soviet orbit, today’s “democratic socialists” are … well, conservative.

They don’t want the wage system to go away. They just want to run it.

They don’t want the workers to own the means of production. They just want to tax and regulate it.

They don’t want a classless society. They just want to be the new ruling class.

US president Donald Trump is already touting the 2020 presidential election as a referendum on “socialism.” Are any real socialists going to show up for that fight?

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Why I’m an Economic Optimist but Happiness Pessimist

Seven years ago, my mentor Tyler Cowen did an interview with The Atlantic entitled, “Why I’m a Happiness Optimist but Economic Pessimist.”  His point: Though GDP growth has been disappointing low for decades, the internet does give us tons of free, fun stuff.  The more I reflect on the Paasche price index, though, the more I’m convinced that Tyler’s picture is exactly upside-down.  At least in the First World, the sensible position is economic optimism combined with happiness pessimism.

How so?  To repeat, we shouldn’t take the ultra-optimistic Paasche calculations of GDP at face value, but neither should we dismiss them.  The judicious position is that U.S. growth has been excellent, though not astronomical.  Even so, we’re way richer than we were in 1990. Yet sadly, Americans’ measured happiness has barely changed.  We have abundance, but not bliss.

What’s going on?  Well, we already knew that income has a very modest effect on happiness.  But when you upwardly revise your estimate of prosperity, you automatically downwardly revise your estimate of the effect of prosperity on happiness.  Such is life.

When I insist that standard measures sharply underestimate economic growth, it’s easy to accuse me of motivated reasoning.  Before you make this accusation, however, consider the whole picture.  What possible agenda could I advance by simultaneously claiming that GDP has greatly increased, but brought us little joy?

So what’s the real story?  Simple: I look at the world and see great economic growth.  I take a second look at the world and see that money doesn’t buy happiness.  Then I report my observations.  This picture isn’t ideologically convenient for me.  But when I put ideology aside and stare at the world, this picture is what I see.

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