The Case Against Education vs. Libertarian Education Reform

Libertarian education reformers have long argued that education is great, but education plus market reforms is even better.  The Case Against Education in contrast, argues that the education industry is more like government-sponsored football stadiums: Government support is good for the industry, but bad for society.  Here’s an excerpt from the book’s final chapter, “Five Chats on Education and Enlightenment.”

Frederick [fictional character who writes for the Wall St. Journal and blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education]: You make your reforms sound pragmatic, but isn’t libertarian ideology right below the surface?

Bryan: It’s complicated. My heterodox views on education long precede my interest in political philosophy. I’ve believed in something like signaling since kindergarten.

Frederick: [ironic] Strangely enough, the facts all fit the theory you cooked up when you were five.

Bryan: I had no “theory” in kindergarten. Just two epiphanies:

First, I had to excel academically in order to get a good job when I grew up.

Second, I would never use most of my book learning on the job.

Though it took me years to see the tension between these two epiphanies, I (crudely) reinvented the signaling wheel sometime in junior high. Armed with my crude signaling theory, I gamed the system, working as little as possible to get A’s in all the classes I deemed boring and useless.

Frederick: So you were a rebel, not a reformer?

Bryan: Right, until my senior year of high school. Once I discovered libertarianism, education reform came naturally. Why on earth should government subsidize socially wasteful education?

Frederick: Then you admit your education reforms are ideologically driven.

Bryan: No. I only admit that my political philosophy–or “ideology” if you prefer–sways the questions I ask.

Frederick: But surprise surprise, the facts are in perfect harmony with your ideology.

Bryan: Hardly. Libertarians rarely challenge the beloved education sector. Instead, they promise, “Free markets will make education even better.”

Frederick: Well, why don’t you say that?

Bryan: Because I disbelieve it. It goes against everything I’ve seen. I’ve attended both public and private schools. They’re cut from the same cloth.

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Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.