School’s Out; Reactionaries Hate That

If there’s been one bright spot in America’s COVID-19 experience, it’s the near-complete shutdown of an expensive and obsolete government education system cribbed from mid-19th century Prussia.

Across the country, “public” pre-K thru 12th-grade programs closed their doors this spring. Some districts attempted to hobble along using not yet ready for prime time online learning systems. Others just turned the kids loose to likely learn far more than they would have in the combination daycare centers and youth prisons that pass for schools these days.

It was a perfect opportunity to scrap “public education” as we know it, perhaps transitioning entirely to distance learning as a waypoint on the journey toward separation of school and state.

Naturally, the political class hates that idea. Primary and secondary education constitute an $800 billion per year job and welfare program, with beneficiaries (read: voters and campaign contributors) up and down its extensive food chain.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran isn’t one to let a little thing like a pandemic derail that gravy train: He’s ordered the state’s government schools to re-open in August,  operating at least five days per week and offering “the full panoply of services” — from glorified babysitting to teacher pay to big agribusiness buys for school lunch programs — to those beneficiaries.

It seems likely that most states will follow Corcoran’s lead to one degree or another, naturally also seeking ways to blow even more money than usual on enhanced social distancing, increased surface disinfection work, etc.

That seems to be the consensus of the entire American mainstream political class, from “progressive left” to “conservative right.”

Yes, Republicans and evangelical Christians will bellyache about the teachers’ unions,.

Yes, Democrats and the unions will gripe about charter schools and voucher programs.

But they’re united in their determination to resuscitate the system as it existed before the pandemic, instead of letting that rotten system die a well-deserved death and moving on to better things.

There’s a word for that attitude.

The word is “reactionary.”

As time goes on, we’ll hear lots of agonized propaganda about how the pandemic has forced huge changes in “public” education. Those changes will be entirely cosmetic. The authoritarian infrastructure beneath won’t have changed at all.

By letting the political class pretend that history can be forced to run backward, we’re denying future generations the real educational opportunities that past generations denied us.

School’s out. We should keep it that way.

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Feel Challenge, Not Pride, from Your Heritage

If you were born in America, you were gifted with quite a heritage: explorers, craftsmen, warriors, statesmen, sailors, writers, and artists from Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Edison.

Should you take pride in that heritage? (Set aside the bad heritage – and there is plenty of it – let’s talk about the good.)

A common rejoinder is that even the best of our heritage is not a reason to feel any pride. After all, we are not those men, and we did not do their great deeds.

This is true. It’s a good criticism, really. But in its oft-intended effect – to make us lose interest in our heritage (or to be more critical of it) it misses the mark.

We should not feel any personal pride for the inventions of Edison, for the writing of Thoreau, the explorations of Lewis, or the philosophy of Jefferson. We should instead feel our pride challenged. These guys should make us ashamed of ourselves – at least insofar as we are not living up to their standards of character and achievement.

See, this is what our remembrance of history and heritage should do for us. It should not be self-congratulatory, but self-examining and self-motivating. It is up to us to rise up to the best of the legacy given to us, and to exceed that legacy.

If this seems like a tall order, it is. But there is another gift of heritage. With its challenge comes also the strength to meet it. The blood of great men and women flows in our veins – either literally, in genetics, or metaphorically, through ideals and tradition. The heritage they left includes the strength to be better men and women ourselves. And that, insofar as we use it, may be something to be proud of.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty: The New Republic

I’ve been waiting to read the fifth volume of Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty for over 30 years.  Now my former student Patrick Newman, professor at Florida Southern College, has miraculously undeleted this “lost work.”  Patrick’s quasi-archaeological efforts are nothing short of amazing, but how does the actual book hold up?

In the first four volumes of Conceived in Liberty, Rothbard tells the story of the American colonies’ rise, rebellion, and victory over the British.  In this final volume, he tells the story of America’s brief time under the Articles of the Confederation – abruptly  (and illegally!) ended by the revolution/coup/counterrevolution that we now know as the United States Constitution.  Rothbard, a vociferous detractor of the Constitution, could easily have subtitled this last book in his series “The Revolution Betrayed.”

Under the Articles of the Confederation, government was much more decentralized – and therefore much better:

Overall, it should be evident that the Constitution was a counterrevolutionary reaction to the libertarianism and decentralization embodied in the American Revolution. The Antifederalists, supporting states’ rights and critical of a strong national government, were decisively beaten by the Federalists, who wanted such a polity under the guise of democracy in order to enhance their own interests and institute a British-style mercantilism over the country.

Rothbard’s main focus, however, is not in persuading the reader that the Articles were superior, but simply chronicling the details of their demise.  As a result, the book is disappointing.  I expected to watch Rothbard debunk the standard civics case for the Constitution – to insist that the Articles fostered rapid economic growth, high individual liberty, and peace both between the U.S. states and between the U.S. and the world.  I expected him to enthusiastically defend the repudiation of war debt.  And I expected him to at least consider reconsidering his earlier support for the American Revolution and its many slave-holding philosophers of freedom.  Instead, Rothbard glosses over the Big Questions in favor of detailed multi-stage Constitutional vote analysis.

Admittedly, quantitatively comparing growth, freedom, and peace under the two colonial regimes would be difficult due to data limitations.  But there’s no excuse for ignoring the implications for revolutionary change.  In his engaging introduction, Newman depicts Rothbard as a dedicated supporter of the American Revolution:

Although the Revolution was enormously costly and resulted in the near destruction of the economy (through hyperinflation, military confiscation of goods, British pillaging of infrastructure and supplies, and the flight of British loyalists), the war was worth it since it led to the achievement of highly libertarian goals of inestimable value. Rothbard explains that the American Revolution was radical and led to the restriction of slavery in many areas, the end of feudalism, the emergence of religious freedom, democratic constitutions with increased suffrage, and revolutions in European nations.

Here’s the rub: How can the war (including the “near destruction of the economy”!) be “worth it” if the libertarian revolution gets cancelled a few short years later?  This is an astronomical price to pay for such a transient gain.  Sure, you could reply, “Well, the war would have been worth it if the Articles had endured.”  But that immediately raises a deeper question: Was the American Revolution even a prudent gamble?  The probability of victory aside, what is the probability of winning the war but losing the peace?  If your answer isn’t, “Very high,” I question your knowledge of the history of violent revolution.

Perhaps Rothbard would insist, “The Constitution was only a partial counterrevolution.  Many of the libertarian gains of the American Revolution endured.”  Then he could point to all the items in the preceding list: “the restriction of slavery in many areas, the end of feudalism, the emergence of religious freedom, democratic constitutions with increased suffrage, and revolutions in European nations.”  Given the hellish history of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, I’d say the latter “achievement” outweighs all the others.  In any case, Rothbard barely grapples with the counterfactuals.  How do we know slavery wouldn’t have been restricted anyway?  What’s the probability that the British would have restricted slavery earlier and more peacefully?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Rothbard also fails to grapple with the complex interaction between decentralization and mobility.  As I’ve explained before:

[D]oes decentralization alone really promote liberty or prosperity?  The mechanism is elusive at best. Imagine a world with a thousand sovereign countries of equal size.  This is far more decentralized than the status quo, right?  Suppose further, however, that there is zero mobility between these countries.  Labor can’t move; capital can’t move.  In this scenario, each country seems perfectly able to pursue its policies free of competitive pressure.  Why should we expect such policies to promote liberty, prosperity, or anything else?

The story would change, of course, if you combine decentralization with resource mobility.  In that case, each country’s government has to compete to retain labor and capital at home.  If you don’t make the customer happy, somebody else proverbially will.  But without this “universalist” mobility rule, decentralization leaves everyone under the rule of a preordained local monopolist.

Standard civics classes claim that under the Articles of the Confederation, interstate tariffs were a serious problem; they offered decentralized politics without free trade.  Rothbard only response is to downplay the severity of the regulation:

While Connecticut taxed imports from Massachusetts, and New York in 1787 moved to tax foreign goods imported from neighboring states, the specter of disunity and disrupting interstate tariff s was more of a bogey to sell the idea of a powerful national government than a real factor in the economy of the day.

Perhaps Rothbard’s right, but remember: interstate tariffs only had a few years to get online.  What would have happened to interstate tariffs in the long run if the Articles endured?  And doesn’t the question illustrate the critical insight that decentralization without resource mobility is no recipe for liberty?

To be clear, I enjoyed reading the final volume of Conceived in Liberty.  And to be fair, Rothbard probably would have greatly improved it before publication.  As it stands, though, Rothbard’s lost book dodges the fundamental questions that Mr. Libertarian famously relished.  If you want to read one of his posthumous works, you’d be better off with The Progressive Era – also beautifully edited and annotated by Patrick Newman.

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On Capitalism IV

It’s vogue these days to claim that capitalism is responsible for the suffering and deaths of more lives than has been communism or socialism. The argument goes that when capitalistically produced food, drugs, medical care, et cetera, are withheld from those who can’t afford it, the resulting suffering and death (which numbers in the billions, orders of magnitude greater than communism or socialism) was thereby caused by capitalism. Interestingly, the same “greed” which produced the aforementioned goods and services supposedly keeps entrepreneurs and capitalists from simply giving it all away. Remove capitalistic “greed” from the world, and not only are those who can’t afford these goods and service no better or worse off, but those who can must now join them in their suffering and death. Gee, if only the world ran on wishes and dreams. And that’s today’s two cents.

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Take Care of Your Tools

Back in May I spent a few days clearing brush with an older Hispanic man – someone far more experienced in the art of tree work than I. And every day before we started work and after we finished, he would take care of his tools.

He would tighten the chainsaw blade. He would sharpen the machetes. He would sharpen the shovels. And man, did his tools work well, despite the hard work we put on them.

I saw this every day and noticed a discipline and a level of care I still lack. This was a professionalism on the part of my coworker that I aspire to.

It’s easy to focus on getting the job done – I tend to be in this camp. I throw my energy, resources, and guts at a thing and worry about the mess later. But caring about the tools that get the job done – that’s a level up. And it’s an underrated aspect of success.

“Capital goods” are the materials that create wealth. And when what you have to work with are your machetes and your shovels and your chainsaws, those are your capital goods. If you can take care of those, maybe you will take care of the bigger capital goods (with more potential for wealth creation).

It’s also worth noting that just as acquiring customers is more costly than keeping them, acquiring tools is more costly than keeping your old ones in good shape. Our business has one tractor that’s nearly 40 years old, and it’s still in working order because of the discipline of maintenance. We could have flipped through two or three tractors if we hadn’t done that.

Finally, there’s a psychological edge to keeping tools in proper order that’s similar to the edge you might get from brushing your teeth, eating well, dressing well, and exercising in the morning. You feel more prepared for the work ahead when your tools are ready, and you feel a sense of pride that you have fought back the chaos in your world.

I’ll be trying to spend more of my time doing this in the weeks ahead: taking care of the things that take care of me.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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5 Things I Learned Debating the Harvard Prof Who Called for a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling

On Monday, I debated the Harvard professor who proposes a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling. Thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the live, online discussion hosted by the Cato Institute. With 1,000 submitted audience questions, the 90-minute webinar only scratched the surface of the issue about who is presumed to know what is best for children: parents or the state. Here is the replay link in case you missed it.

Last week, I outlined much of my argument against Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet that I incorporated into our debate, but here are five takeaways from Monday’s discussion:

1. There Are People Who Believe the State Should Be Your Co-Parent

While this event was framed as a discussion about homeschooling, including whether and how to regulate the practice, it is clear that homeschooling is just a strawman. The real issue focuses on the role of government in people’s lives, and in particular in the lives of families and children. In her 80-page Arizona Law Review article that sparked this controversy, Professor Bartholet makes it clear that she is seeking a reinterpretation of the US Constitution, which she calls “outdated and inadequate,” to move from its existing focus on negative rights, or individuals being free from state intervention, to positive rights where the state takes a much more active role in citizens’ lives.

During Monday’s discussion, Professor Bartholet explained that “some parents can’t be trusted to not abuse and neglect their children,” and that is why “kids are going to be way better off if both parent and state are involved.” She said her argument focuses on “the state having the right to assert the rights of the child to both education and protection.” Finally, Professor Bartholet said that it’s important to “have the state have some say in protecting children and in trying to raise them so that the children have a decent chance at a future and also are likely to participate in some positive, meaningful ways in the larger society.”

It’s true that the state has a role in protecting children from harm, but does it really have a role in “trying to raise them”? And if the state does have a role in raising children to be competent adults, then the fact that two-thirds of US schoolchildren are not reading proficiently, and more than three-quarters are not proficient in civics, should cause us to be skeptical about the state’s ability to ensure competence.

I made the point on Monday that we already have an established government system to protect children from abuse and neglect. The mission of Child Protective Services (CPS) is to investigate suspected child abuse and punish perpetrators. CPS is plagued with problems and must be dramatically reformed, but the key is to improve the current government system meant to protect children rather than singling out homeschoolers for additional regulation and government oversight. This is particularly true when there is no compelling evidence that homeschooling parents are more likely to abuse their children than non-homeschooling parents, and some research to suggest that homeschooling parents are actually less likely to abuse their children.

Additionally, and perhaps most disturbingly, this argument for more state involvement in the lives of homeschoolers ignores the fact that children are routinely abused in government schools by government educators, as well as by school peers. If the government can’t even protect children enrolled in its own heavily regulated and surveilled schools, then how can it possibly argue for the right to regulate and monitor those families who opt out?

2. Random Home Visits Will Be a Weapon of the State

Of all the recommendations included in the Harvard professor’s proposed presumptive ban on homeschooling, the one that caused the most uproar among both homeschoolers and libertarians was the call for regular home visits of homeschooling families, with no evidence of wrongdoing.

In my remarks during Monday’s debate, I included a quote from a Hispanic homeschooling mother in Connecticut who was particularly angry and concerned about imposing home visits on homeschooling families. (According to federal data, Hispanics make up about one-quarter of the overall US homeschooling population, mirroring their representation in the general US K-12 school-age population.) She made the important point that minority families are increasingly choosing homeschooling to escape discrimination and an inadequate academic environment in local schools. She also pointed out that, tragically, it is often minorities who are most seriously impacted by these seemingly well-meaning government regulations. Writing to me about Professor Bartholet’s recommendation, she said:

“To state that they want to have surveillance into our homes by having government officials visit, and have parents show proof of their qualified experience to be a parent to their own child is yet another way for local and federal government to do what they have done to native Americans, blacks, the Japanese, Hispanics, etc in the past. Her proposal would once again interfere and hinder a certain population from progressing forward.”

Anyone who cares about liberty and a restrained government should be deeply troubled by the idea of periodic home visits by government agents on law-abiding citizens.

3. Private Education Is in Danger

Despite the landmark 1925 US Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional to ban private schools, there remains lingering support for limiting or abolishing private education and forcing all children to attend government schools. Homeschooling is just one form of private education.

In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends “private school reform,” suggesting that private schools may have similar issues to homeschooling but saying that this topic is “beyond the scope” of her article. Still, she concludes her article by stating that “to the degree public schools are seriously deficient, our society should work on improving them, rather than simply allowing some parents to escape.”

The government should work to improve its own schools, where academic deficiencies and abuse are pervasive. But it should have no role in deciding whether or not parents are allowed to escape.

4. State Standardized Testing Begs the Question: Whose Standard?

Some advocates of homeschooling regulation suggest that requiring regular standardized testing of homeschoolers would be a reasonable compromise. In her law review article, Professor Bartholet recommends: “Testing of homeschoolers on a regular basis, at least annually, to assess educational progress, with tests selected and administered by public school authorities; permission to continue homeschooling conditioned on adequate performance, with low scores triggering an order to enroll in school.”

During Monday’s debate, I asked the question: By whose standard are we judging homeschoolers’ academic performance? Is it by the standard of the government schools, where so many children are failing to meet the very academic standards the government has created? I pointed out that many parents choose homeschooling because they disapprove of the standards set by government schools. For example, in recent years schools have pushed literacy expectations to younger and younger children, with kindergarteners now being required to read. If they fail to meet this arbitrary standard, many children are labeled with a reading deficiency when it could just be that they are not yet developmentally ready to read.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported in 2015: “Once mainly concentrated among religious families as well as parents who wanted to release their children from the strictures of traditional classrooms, home schooling is now attracting parents who want to escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.”

A key benefit of homeschooling is avoiding standardization in learning and allowing for a much more individualized education. And it seems to be working. Most of the research on homeschooling families conducted over the past several decades, including a recent literature review by Dr. Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, finds positive academic outcomes of homeschooling children.

5. Homeschoolers Will Win

There are very few movements today that bring together such a diverse group of people as homeschooling does. Families of all political persuasions, from all corners of the country, reflecting many different races, ethnicities, classes, cultures, values, and ideologies, and representing a multitude of different learning philosophies and approaches choose homeschooling for the educational freedom and flexibility it provides. Homeschoolers may not agree on much, but preserving the freedom to raise and educate their children as they choose is a unifying priority. In times of division, homeschoolers offer hope and optimism that liberty will prevail.

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