From Milton Friedman (), Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press); earlier version (1955) in Robert A. Solo (Ed.), Economics and the Public Interest, pp. 123-144 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).
The current pause, perhaps reversal, in the trend toward collectivism offers an opportunity to re-examine the existing activities of government and to make a fresh assessment of the activities that are and those that are not justified. This paper attempts such a re-examination for education.
Education is today largely paid for and almost entirely administered by governmental bodies or non-profit institutions. The result has been an indiscriminate extension of governmental responsibility.
The role assigned to government in any particular field depends, of course, on the principles accepted for the organization of society in general. In what follows, I shall assume a society that takes freedom of the individual, or more realistically the family, as its ultimate objective, and seeks to further this objective by relying priong individuals for the organization of economic activity. In such a free private enterprise exchange economy, government’s prie by enforcing contracts, preventing coercion, and keeping markets free. Beyond this, there are only three major grounds on which government intervention is to be justified. One is “natural monopoly” or similar market imperfection which makes effective competition (and therefore thoroughly voluntary exchange) impossible. A second is the existence of substantial “neighborhood effects,” i.e., the action of one individual imposes significant costs on other individuals for which it is not feasible to make him compensate them or yields significant gains to them for which it is not feasible to make them compensate him – circumstances that again make voluntary exchange impossible. The third derives from an ambiguity in the ultimate objective rather than from the difficulty of achieving it by voluntary exchange, namely, paternalistic concern for children and other irresponsible individuals. The belief in freedom is for “responsible” units, among whom we include neither children nor insane people. In general, this problem is avoided by regarding the family as the basic unit and therefore parents as responsible for their children; in considerable measure, however, such a procedure rests on expediency rather than principle. The problem of drawing a reasonable line between action justified on these paternalistic grounds and action that conflicts with the freedom of responsible individuals is clearly one to which no satisfactory answer can be given.
Children of congress members do easy installment loans in Alaska not have to pay back their college student loans
In applying these general principles to education, we shall find it helpful to deal separately with (1) general education for citizenship, and (2) specialized vocational education, although it may be difficult to draw a sharp line between them in practice. The grounds for government intervention are widely different in these two areas and justify very different types of action.
General Education for Citizenship
A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens. Education contributes to both. In consequence, the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but to other members of the society; the education of my child contributes to other people’s welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society. Yet it is not feasible to identify the particular individuals (or families) benefited or the money value of the benefit and so to charge for the services rendered. There is therefore a significant “neighborhood effect.”
What kind of governmental action is justified by this particular neighborhood effect? The most obvious is to require that each child receive a minimum amount of education of a specified kind. Such a requirement could be imposed upon the parents without further government action, just as owners of buildings, and frequently of automobiles, are required to adhere to specified standards to protect the safety of others. There is, however, a difference between the two cases. In the latter, individuals who cannot pay the costs of meeting the required standards can generally divest themselves of the property in question by selling it to others who can, so the requirement can readily be enforced without government subsidy – though even here, if the cost of making the property safe exceeds its market value, and the owner is without resources, the government may be driven to paying for the demolition of a dangerous building or the disposal of an abandoned automobile. The separation of a child from a parent who cannot pay for the minimum required education is clearly inconsistent with our reliance on the family as the basic social unit and our belief in the freedom of the individual.