Kevin Currie‐Knight joins our podcast to talk about the libertarian case for markets in education. His book, Education in the Marketplace, explores the variety of arguments that libertarians have made in the past as well as the impact that they each have had on the ever‐evolving education system
What is the government’s role in education? How decentralized did our school system use to be? When did our K-12 education system get so structured? When did we first start seeing grade levels for schooling? Who was Albert Jay Nock?
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Kevin Currie‐Knight, teaching associate professor at East Carolina University’s College of Education. His new book is Education in the Marketplace: An intellectual History of Pro‐Market Libertarian Visions for Education in Twentieth Century America. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Kevin.
00:26 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Thank you, Trevor. Thank you, Aaron.
00:28 Trevor Burrus: Why write a book about doing the overview of pro‐market libertarian ideas in education? And I guess, and why write it now?
00:36 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, I’ve always been really interested in the idea that education, unlike other goods and services, is not only something the government funds, but is something that the government provides. And one of the groups that has been really interesting and very consistent in their criticism of government’s role in education has been market libertarians, people who believe that goods and services of all sorts should be given through the free market. Another interesting thing about that is that most libertarians, especially when they’re kind of writing a theory of what a libertarian world would look like, education is a part of it, but it usually is like a chapter or a sub‐chapter. So what I really wanted to do is take all of these little chapters and sub‐chapters and small essays that these folks wrote and synthesize them into a history. How do all of these flow together? How are different people’s arguments, similar or different, or affected by their approach to libertarianism overall?
01:31 Aaron Ross Powell: Has education always been public education?
01:33 Kevin Currie‐Knight: No, it hasn’t. Now, I guess I can limit my comments mostly to the United States, because that’s what the book is about, and that’s what I’m most familiar with. But really, education at what we’d call the K-12 level, which is also itself a new idea, has generally been private up until, we’ll say, kind of the early 1800s. So even in the Northeastern states, where it was kind of a more… They were quicker to make it public education. It was very much a local affair, to the point where basically each town would get volunteers and stuff to raise a building on government land that would be a school, and the town would basically fund that school, but it wouldn’t be exclusively public. So there would be a lot of private schools potentially around an area and people were still relatively free to kind of go wherever they saw fit.
02:29 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And even the early public schools were largely, I guess, organized and sustained by what we call rate bills, which are basically a way to say tuition. So it was maybe partially publicly funded by the town money, but each person who sent their children would send some sort of tuition, and it was really kind of in the middle 1800s, largely speaking, where that went away and we got the kind of fully public funded education.
02:53 Trevor Burrus: And it’s interesting, you focus on 20th century America, so it’s more or less in place by 20th century America, by the 20th century, but also not fully in place. Like the first guy you profile, Albert Jay Nock, I think died in the ‘50s, if I’m correct, or somewhere around there. And so, he was looking at an education system that was even more decentralized than I think of what we have today in terms of school districts and large school districts over big counties. It was still a developing thing then.
03:26 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. Yeah, so even in the early 20th century, so the last state in the union, I think it was Arkansas, to make public education something that was kind of mandatory in terms of what the state provides, was in 1918. So even in the brief era of that early 20th century there were some states that still didn’t have a system of public education that was kind of mandated that you have by the states. But even then, one of the consistent things I’ve seen in histories of K-12 education is that, even when you did have public education systems, and even when you have compulsory attendance laws, for instance, it wasn’t always enforced very well. States would mandate compulsory ed laws, compulsory attendance laws, and it wasn’t terribly well‐enforced. I don’t know quite when, I didn’t get a sense for quite when states really started enforcing those laws. But so, even when there was a public system, whether kids really went into that public system, depends on the state that was trying to enforce those laws.
04:35 Aaron Ross Powell: You mention K-12, and when we’re talking about this history of public education, there’s public education in the sense of publicly provided, publicly funded, and we talked about when that came in. But the kind of uniform structure of public education as we imagine it now, the K-12 with elementary school and middle school and high school and the grade levels and so on, did that come along at the same time? Or when did we get that kind of rigid structure that we all went through?
05:03 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. So my memory on this isn’t gonna be so great, so I can probably talk in terms of decades. So really when the first public schools, or what we call the common schools came into effect, first of all, they didn’t really have grade levels. That was something that happened maybe in the 1870s, 1880s, was when you first started seeing grade levels. But they were really mostly for what we would call primary education. So it was more typical that kids would go there to learn the things that we would learn today in primary education. So, basic reading, basic math, basic writing. They would learn how to… Basic civics stuff, maybe. High school, my understanding is that high school came about next. That was in the early 20th century. And then, when we discovered or invented, depending on your perspective, the idea of adolescence in 1920s, somewhere around there, is kind of when middle school became a thing.
06:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So, it’s these three really didn’t develop in lockstep. It was really, first primary, then high schools were kind of created for people who are gonna go into the learned professions, into college, and then middle school kind of became its own thing in the ‘20s into the ‘30s.
06:15 Trevor Burrus: I like how you talked about inventing adolescence, because this is obviously very much tied up with how much wealth there is that allows kids to, say, not wake up at… Six‐year‐olds do not wake up and milk the cows every day, and then go to school instead, and how long they can do that. Whether or not you’re going to school from ages six to nine, but then you’re done. Or you’re gonna go through teenagers and be able to lay about until you’re 18, which is an interesting variation. But let’s get to Albert Jay Nock, the first thinker you profiled. So who was Nock?
06:52 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. Albert Jay Nock was a writer, mostly for newspapers and kind of news magazines. He is… So, it’s interesting because I picked him as the first chapter of the book reasoning that, well, he was kind of a libertarian. He had a… In retrospect, we would call him a libertarian. He was very skeptical of the state. And he wrote a…
07:12 Trevor Burrus: He did write a book called Our Enemy, the State. [chuckle]
07:15 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right, right.
07:16 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
07:17 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And of course, then he wrote a book on education called The Theory of Education in America. And I figured, okay, well, he’s libertarian, he wrote a book on education, he must be… He must have very libertarian views on education. And as I researched, I realized that that was kind of slightly a mistake, because he was very pessimistic about the state’s ability to provide good truly educational experience, but he was also, it turns out, very skeptical of the private market to be able to provide educational experience. So he was really just a flat‐out pessimist. He didn’t really think that anyone stood a great chance of providing education.
07:53 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And the reason for that is he… I guess, yeah, we would call him an elitist, that’s fair. I think he would probably even agree to that term, because he thought that education and training were very different things. Education was this thing that was very difficult to do, it was very hard won. You learn about high culture, the best that’s been thought and written. And he thought that government wouldn’t be very good at providing that, because the government, especially in the democratic society, really caters to kind of what he would call the lowest common denominator, the “bathos,” I think was the term that he used.
08:28 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So he thought that really the state could maybe provide training for people, but it wasn’t gonna provide education for the folks who are capable of it. But then he turns to the private market and says, “Well, okay, but the private market also has its own constraints, because you have to get people to voluntarily pay for your service. And if people have a choice between cheap and easy education, that’s not really education, that’s more like just training, or an education that’s really hard won and that’s really difficult to obtain, people are gonna pay for the cheap and easy, they’re not gonna pay for the difficult.” So he thought that if there was a private company or private companies that came along and offered education, they probably wouldn’t survive very long, because they would have a hard time getting customers.
09:10 Trevor Burrus: So this is why reality TV has more, better ratings than Masterpiece Theatre, essentially?
09:15 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. Well, it’s funny because he really, in some ways is predating the arguments that are made by critics of private education today, ’cause some critics will say that, “Well, private education can’t be really good because it’s gonna cater to what people are willing to pay for, and people are gonna pay for the cheap and the easy.” So, coming from an entirely different world view as a lot of the critics today, he’s making, in some ways, a similar critique of market education.
09:44 S32: But… I mean, even as far away as he lived, we, America had quite a lot of colleges and universities, and presumably, people were paying tuition for those. So doesn’t that clash with the story he’s telling?
09:57 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, it might. I mean, he believes… Again, he’s an elitist, in the truest sense of the word, he really believed that there was a small minority of people who were capable of receiving and wanted to receive an education. So I don’t know if he addressed that argument head‐on, but I think he would say something like, even those universities are really confined to a small part of the market, because they can really only take a small part of the marketplace.
10:23 Trevor Burrus: On the normative side, though, should we be concerned with what he was concerned with? I mean, I don’t doubt, as someone who’s against public education, I don’t doubt that the revealed preferences of consumers will not be in line with my desire to read Shakespeare and do some other high‐minded things, but is that something we should be concerned with?
10:44 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I think it’s an interesting argument, especially in light of the book The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan, and there’s other books that have come to similar kind of arguments that argue that really the great value in education, especially at the college level, is in that credential. And whether people learn anything, it turns out that they don’t really learn a whole lot of stuff. They learn it to get the credential and quickly forget it and such. It’s an interesting argument in light of that, because I think Nock would say, that kind of confirms what he’s saying, in that education has become much more about training and for credential, because so few people really wanna spend that time and money and energy getting an education.
11:24 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I don’t know if it’s a conclusive or decisive argument. There are cases in markets where you have kind of a conflict between companies, obviously wanting business, but companies wanting to maintain some sort of rigorous standard. So, private schools, any private school that becomes so watered‐down because it wants to expand its market share will probably fairly quickly acquire a really bad reputation, because people will figure out that the people who are coming out of this school probably aren’t the best educated people, like diploma mills. Diploma mills get caught pretty easily, it’s pretty quick for the market to catch on. So I don’t think it’s a decisive argument, but I think it’s an interesting one that advocates of markets and education should really take seriously.
12:12 Trevor Burrus: You describe him as a conservative in disposition, which seems to be true.
12:17 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, yeah.
12:17 Trevor Burrus: And this question we’re discussing, it reminds me of a question I’ve often asked when I think, to differentiate between conservatives and libertarians, which is, “Do conservatives actually disagree with public education in principle, or do they disagree with public education that they don’t run, and that they’re for the idea, but they don’t like what’s going on right now?”
12:40 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right, right.
12:41 Trevor Burrus: And it’s kind of interesting because we’re in this realignment, so we had this national conservatism conference where conservatives are ditching all these principles and saying, “We shouldn’t sort of kowtow to classical liberal ideas in libertarianism that is subjective values and just says, whatever people choose in the market is okay, and that’s fine.” And now, you’d think that maybe they would be for public education to sort of make people great again. To coin a phrase, I guess.
13:08 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, it’s… Historically, there’s a lot of agreement on the idea that, for good or ill, public education’s purpose has largely been to create a nation in the way that, particularly the state or the government, or whomever, or the public good, if you wanna call it that, wants people to be right. So the there’s folks who kind of wax philosophical on that. It’s like, “This is great, because we need people to be good citizens.” E. D. Hirsch wrote a book defending public education called The Making… I think it’s The Making of Americans, and he meant that literally, the great thing about public education is we’re making Americans.
13:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And then critics will say this is a really awful thing, because if you want diversity and heterogeneity and stuff, public education is designed to create citizens in a certain mold. So I guess to get to your comment there, it’s interesting ’cause most people jockey to try to get control of this institution and they don’t like the institution when it’s doing things they don’t think should be done or molding people in a way they don’t think should be molded. But then when they can get those reins of power and they can get a say in it, it turns out that what they really wanted was the institution to mold people the correct way.
14:26 Trevor Burrus: Your next thinker is Frank Chodorov. He was a little different than Nock. He met Nock too, you point out.
14:32 Kevin Currie‐Knight: He was a protege of Albert Jay Nock, so he was a fellow newspaper writer. They wrote for some of the same magazines and yeah, Chodorov met Nock fairly early in his career and agreed with Nock on almost everything. So they were both philosophically anarchists. They both viewed the state as kind of the ultimate enemy. They were both pro‐market, although Nock was a lot more tepid and cautious about markets than Chodorov was. So the big difference between them, and it really shows in how they viewed education and markets and education, is that Albert Jay Nock was not, as Chodorov was, very shaped and influenced by the Austrian school of economics. So, in Chodorov’s writings Ludwig Von Mises comes up a lot.
15:22 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And the interesting thing about that is Mises and other Austrians argue for what you call value subjectivism, which is that most of us think of economic things as having some intrinsic value that you can get right or wrong. And, Mises and other Austrians said, “No, that’s really not how it works. Each person might value something completely differently, and no one from the outside can say your valuation is wrong because there is no objective value to point to.” So, where Nock was really pessimistic about markets coming in and offering education, because Nock said, “There’s good education, and there’s bad education, there’s education that’s valuable and there’s not,” Chodorov wasn’t really able or willing to do that. He didn’t say, “There’s a good education over here, and there’s a bad education over there.” He said, “Everyone’s gonna have their own preferences. As much as I think someone’s preferences are bad, that’s only really my impression of their preferences, but markets are way better at catering to people’s preferences than the state would be.”
16:23 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So, where Nock was really pessimistic about that, Chodorov thought that clearly markets were going to be superior because they would cater to the customers in a way that the state couldn’t.
16:33 Aaron Ross Powell: There seems to be something odd about that argument. So let me see if I can just kind of tease this out. Preferences come out of some substrate in us. They’re not these just freely existing things that we just happen to have, but they’re a result of who we are, our interests, our level of knowledge; particular skill sets lead to different preferences. And all of that stuff, the knowledge and the skill sets and what we know is education, and so education shifts, like being educated will shift your preferences. And so, it seems odd to say, like it’s almost like the entire point of education or one of the major points of it is to help people to have preferences that they don’t have right now.
17:23 Aaron Ross Powell: And that if it’s working, if education is working and accomplishing what it wants, its preferences, that once they’re educated, they look back and say, “I’m glad that I have the preferences I have now. The decisions I would have made before I was educated would have been bad for me.” So in retrospect, they’re glad for the education even if at the moment that they’re getting it or they’re being forced into it, they’re saying, “God, I wish I was at home playing video games.”
17:47 Trevor Burrus: Or that bad education can change your preferences away. I was thinking about Nock and Chodorov here. I know so many people who hate Shakespeare because of how it was taught to them in ninth grade or never wanna read a classic ever again, because education, poor state education, changed their preferences away from these high‐minded ideals that maybe if someone could get them excited about these things, they would pursue the kind of things that Nock wanted them to pursue.
18:11 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right. Yeah, I don’t know, so I think what Chodorov would say to that, and I don’t think he looked at that objection, or at least I don’t remember that he did. I think what he would say is it’s really not a question of whether markets will get us to the right preferences, if there are such a thing, it’s who stands a better shot at getting us to those preferences, the state or markets. And I think for Chodorov the decisive argument was pluralism. He really, really liked the idea that markets were kind of a plurality, so different people could choose the types of schools that would be maybe best for them and maybe, I wouldn’t agree with their choice, but they could kind of choose and re‐choose; if a school didn’t work for them they can go to another one.
19:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Versus the state where it’s kind of like one set of preferences kind of wins the day. If you don’t like this particular kind of school, you can’t really choose another kind of school, because the state owns the market. So I guess for him, it wouldn’t be whether markets or the state will get you to the right set of preferences, but who stands the better shot if there is such a thing as the right preferences. I guess my response, not speaking as any of the figures in the book, but my response to that is that I can certainly see the point, but I think when you flesh it out, the problem you’re gonna have is that every time you set the types of preferences that I think you should have and we create the education that would get you there, it’s always from someone’s perspective, like I get to choose the preferences that I think everyone should have and therefore we’re gonna create education to this set of preferences.
19:55 Kevin Currie‐Knight: In other words, there’s no neutral way to figure out what preferences someone should have or what preferences are appropriate for an educated person.
20:03 Trevor Burrus: Your next figure is pretty different than Nock and Chodorov, probably hated them. It’s a good bet. Ayn Rand, she had a very… Even though she’s the poster woman for libertarianism.
20:18 Aaron Ross Powell: She had a long enemies list.
20:20 Trevor Burrus: She hated libertarians.
20:22 Kevin Currie‐Knight: It was hard for me to figure out whether to put her in the book, for two reasons. First of all, I focus on the American arguments and the American scene, and of course she’s technically… She was an American, she was American citizen, but she was born of course in Russia. But then the second thing of course, is that she didn’t really call herself in any way a libertarian. So I had to figure out, okay, do I wanna put her in a book about 20th century American market libertarians, given that she wasn’t born in America and given that she didn’t refer to herself as libertarian. And I decided to, for the reasons that she’s usually included in most libertarian discussions, which is that her positions were close enough to what are standard libertarian positions on most things that I think you can call her a libertarian even if you say she occupies a space of just tremendous overlap. Now, there are things that she didn’t overlap with but yeah, in the end I had to put her in the book.
21:21 Trevor Burrus: If she were alive she’d write you an angry letter about how you included her in this book with all these people who were so wrong and morally benighted and irrational.
21:30 Kevin Currie‐Knight: She definitely would, but I would mail her back a response that it’s just a Venn diagram. Here are the positions you take, here are the positions others take in the book, here are the things you don’t have in common. As you can see there’s an 80% overlap.
21:44 Trevor Burrus: And of course, as you might expect, her view of education was… Learned Aristotle and tap dancing and what else would be in her school, Aaron? Rational thought.
21:57 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, her field of education is actually really surprising on two levels, first of all, in terms of what type of education she most preferred people to have. So she did have a type of education, unlike Frank Chodorov, which he thought was better than others. For someone who’s just looking at her basic views, you would guess that it’s like this really rigorous education and reason and education in the classics and Aristotle, but it’s actually a very more free education, it’s a Montessori‐style education. And for those who aren’t familiar with that, it’s really not so much like a teacher‐led thing, it’s really education by giving students a room full of resources and learning toys and learning tools without really any overt interference from the teacher, which is really interesting. I found that to be unexpected, I guess.
22:51 Trevor Burrus: And even though she was against compromise in some sense, and sticking by your principles, she later supported tax credits.
23:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: She did. This is a really interesting thing, and in the book, I never really answered the question of how she reconciled this. So the type of education system that she supported most was very similar to Frank Chodorov’s, which was a tax credit system in education. And Frank Chodorov said very explicitly this is a compromised position. Chodorov said, “In my ideal world, the state would have nothing to do with education, it wouldn’t even fund education because even that is a slippery slope.” This is really because we have a public system and we need to find a way to get to markets from a public system. So the best thing to do is create a compromise, so we would allow you to basically write off any money you spend in private tuition against your taxes, so you’d get a tax credit.
23:44 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Now, Rand doesn’t really have that ability philosophically, because at about the time that she’s supporting a tax credit system in education, and she wrote an essay on it, she had already written an essay on the dangers of compromising your positions politically. So if you are against government, you should be against any sort of government interference in policy that you are in theory. And she was against any but a minimal night watchman state. She never really explained how to reconcile this, she wrote both essays very separately. I suspect it was because at the time that she was writing the essay that she wrote on tax credits, there was a case going through the New York State courts, and she lived in New York at the time, that was testing the constitutionality of tax credits in education. So I don’t know, I can only speculate, but that’s the only answer I have to why tax credits showed up on her radar and why she was in fact willing to compromise on that issue.
24:50 Trevor Burrus: So next, someone else who didn’t play well with others, Murray Rothbard.
24:55 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And I start the book with Murray Rothbard, actually, I start off with that anecdote, that thought experiment of his. The thought experiment that he gives, and for those who don’t know of him, he’s an Austrian economist who was, unlike his mentor Ludwig von Mises, was an anarchist. He believed that the state should have nothing to do with education, that states shouldn’t exist to get into anything. So, I actually start off the book with a thought experiment of his because it’s just the best way to explain how libertarians view education and certainly is how he viewed education with the state interference.
25:33 Kevin Currie‐Knight: He said, “Imagine a news service, imagine American news service and we say, that well, because everyone consuming news is for the public good, we are going to create a government news service and we are going to allow private news services to exist, but everyone by law has to support with their tax dollars this public news service. And oh, and also everyone has to consume a few hours of public news a day by law, everyone has to do this, because it’s in the public interest.” So assume that we have that system, and you can consume private news if you want, but you have to get state permission, you have to write the state and get permission to consume private news in addition to your tax‐funded public news.
26:18 Aaron Ross Powell: He says, everyone would have a problem with this, everyone would see that this is a gross violation of freedom of conscience, of freedom of speech, of freedom to do what you’d like with your money because you’re being compelled to support this organization. It’s a dangerous tool for government to use for some sort of potential thought control or indoctrination. And he says, “Well, if you really look at it, and the structure of public education, this is pretty much the system we have in place for public ed. We have tax‐supported public‐run schools that kids have to go to, and they can go to private schools that they want but they have to pay tuition and they’re not gonna get their money back for the public schools. And we compel them by law to go to school, which essentially means you can go to the free public schools or the tuition‐paid private schools. Any problem you have with that news service thought experiment, you should also be having with a public education system.”
27:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Does it make a difference that we’re talking about children, though, who are either they can’t make decisions for themselves or at least are, if you give them the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, they’ll likely make ones that they will deeply regret later. And can’t really… With the news service, you’re talking about adults who can have the autonomy to pick and choose, but they’re kind of at the mercy of their parents who might make bad decisions for them.
27:38 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right, right, right. I think that most of the figures in the book, and certainly Rothbard, just thought that it made more sense if children are going to be in some sense coerced into a choice anyway, whether it’s by the family or by the state, that it makes a lot more sense for the people who are closest to them, who have the most vested interest in them, to kinda make those choices rather than the state making the choice.
28:03 Trevor Burrus: But he did also, weighed into… And this is true about things other than education, the question of the rights of children, which is under‐theorized by libertarians, to say the least, I would say.
28:14 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, it’s a great credit to him that he did take this seriously. He wrote a really interesting essay on it, the essay was called Kid Lib, I think it’s in For A New Liberty. His view of children’s rights, I think, is problematic, but at least he addressed the issue and it does have its own level of sophistication. So he was writing at the same time that some children’s rights advocates like Paul Goodman were writing books like Growing Up Absurd and…
28:44 Trevor Burrus: Who was not a libertarian?
28:46 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Who was not a market libertarian. He was libertarian in more of a, I guess, he would say more of a socialist direction, maybe, but he wasn’t like a pro‐market guy. But Rothbard was influenced, I think, by some of what was in the air when people… As people started talking about children’s rights. So, Rothbard came up with this idea that, okay, so children aren’t owned by their parents. If they were owned by their parents that would kind of be a certain form of slavery that libertarians should be against. But they’re not entirely free, because they do rely on their parents, they live in their parents’ houses, their parents do a lot of things for them. So the best way I think he saw to reconcile these two positions, you’re not owned by your parents, but you are in some sense subordinate to your parents, is that… We might wanna think of children as analogous to, like a sort of house guest, who the parents choose to have in their home, and as long as the child chooses to remain in the parents’ home, they kind of have to play by the rules of that home, just like any sort of house guest would.
29:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But he said at any time, if the child feels like they’re being put upon, they’re being abused, they’re being made to do things that they don’t wanna do, they can leave, just like any potential house guest could leave. So he was for the right of children to run away if they wanted to find a new place to live, a new home, if they wanted to kind of start on their own. He was in favor of that. Of course, that becomes really problematic when you start talking about young kids because, unlike most house guests who come to your house have the resources to be able to leave whenever they like to, young children it’s an open question whether they do and also…
30:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Right, when I was three I left my family to go to the donut shop.
30:34 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And how long did that last?
30:35 Aaron Ross Powell: I think I made it like three blocks.
30:37 Kevin Currie‐Knight: You made it. [laughter] Yeah, I left home, maybe when I was six or seven, and I just camped out in the woods until it stopped being fun. And then I went back home, because I was really hungry.
30:46 Trevor Burrus: It’s funny, it’s like you’re trying to get Herschman in here. It’s like I’m gonna exercise my exit, right of exit, ’cause voice is clearly not working. I’m picturing Aaron with one of those sticks with the bandana when you hold over your shoulder, be like, I’m out of here, mom and dad.
31:01 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So to Rothbard’s credit. First of all, again, he addressed the argument… He’s trying to reconcile. We don’t want kids to be slaves, we don’t want them to be owned by their parents because anything the state can coerce your child into you can coerce your child into and it’s really not that different. So he wanted to figure out a way to kinda make that work. I don’t know if it works and especially because he’s an anarchist so it gets even more problematic because he doesn’t have a way to enforce it. So let’s say that I see that a child who’s in the next door neighbor’s house really wants to leave. I can’t call the state, because there is no state in Rothbard’s world, and I can’t go over there and just take the child because for Rothbard that would be an impermissible aggression on the family and the property rights and stuff like that, so it really becomes up to the child. And yeah, when you’re five or six, that’s a really hard sell.
31:52 Aaron Ross Powell: On this house guest analogy, what’s his view on the flip side of it, that the house guests can choose to leave any time, so that the kid can choose to leave any time, but also the host can choose to kick the house guest out at any time, so does he have views on kind of parental obligations to their children?
32:12 Kevin Currie‐Knight: He does and unfortunately his position, because I think it’s consistent with his position overall also, is that the parent has no positive obligations to the child. Now, I don’t think he believes that most parents would just hear that and be like, “Oh, cool, I can stop feeding my kids.” I think he believes that parental love will kind of win the day, that all but a few parents will decide to stop feeding their kids or kick them out or whatever, but yeah, but it is problematic, because there’s certainly strong arguments to be made that if you have a child and especially if it’s your choice to have a child, that at some point you therefore owe your child certain things that would come to them, just by virtue of you bringing them into existence.
32:58 Kevin Currie‐Knight: The writer that I should point out is actually I think a little bit more sophisticated, at least from my point of view on this, is another character in my book, John Holt, who’s in a later chapter. Now, I don’t mention Holt’s view on children’s rights in the book, but he actually wrote an entire book on children’s rights that’s really sophisticated. It’s called Escape From Childhood. And Holt believed, that he wasn’t a libertarian in any market, pro‐market sense, he did believe that there should be a state and his position is kind of similar to Rothbard’s but with the benefit of having a state that can protect the child’s rights.
33:30 Kevin Currie‐Knight: So he believes that if a child wants to live on their own, they should be able to. But he believes that what they can do is somehow get the state involved. So like a child protective services, maybe the child can find a way to get them involved, or a neighbor could find a way to get them involved, and then from there, the child could live on their own and I believe he also suggests that the child should have the right to receive, if they’d like to, a guaranteed basic income, so that they can figure out a way to support themselves, or find another family to live with or something like that.
34:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But unlike Rothbard, Holt has a state that he can appeal to and say, “Well, the state can actually get involved and can protect the child’s rights against the parents,” and he didn’t think that most children would en masse decide to move out on their own. He felt like it’s a pretty sweet deal for kids to live at home because you get everything paid for, everything taken care of. But he did think that there would be kids who maybe were abused, didn’t come from great households who would actually choose to either live on their own or try to find some other family they can live with or something like that. But I think Holt’s views are pretty sophisticated on children’s rights.
34:35 Trevor Burrus: Well, you bring up Holt and Goodman and the other people that were theorizing on education from a different ideological standpoint, and it kind of seems to me you have sort of ‘60s‐style reinventing theories of parenting in kind of a more hippie direction, and of course Rothbard sees that, as he did in many parts of the… Different times in his career, he’s like, “Oh, now we need to align with the left.”
35:00 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, yeah.
35:00 Trevor Burrus: So that was before he decided he needs to align with the paleoconservatives like 20 years later, but at that time, he’s like, “We need to align with the left on this stuff. We’re on the same page.” And that did not seem to be true, ultimately.
35:12 Kevin Currie‐Knight: He dropped a lot of names on the left, he talked about, “Look, my views are really similar to Paul Goodman’s views. My views are really similar to Ivan Illich’s views.” The interesting thing, and I think I say this at the end of the chapter, is that when you look at the people who he names on the New Left, it says, “I’m kind of like these guys,” none of them really mentioned him at all. I don’t know what to make of that but it’s kind of interesting because he really wanted to align with this New Left view, especially on children’s rights and educational issues, but none of the people he mentions really seemed to want to align so much with him.
35:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I think Jennifer Burns in an interview I saw, she was the one who wrote the biography of Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market. I think she said something to the effect of, “He kind of seemed to write himself into a lot of the history of these things, that there really wasn’t a lot of evidence coming from other folks but him and his friends that he was really a figure in a lot of the things that he had mentioned.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I know I came across that when I was researching the book, and that aligned with what I had seen with his writings on education.
36:20 Trevor Burrus: Now, the next one we talked about, two people who don’t necessarily play well with others, Rand and Rothbard, but now you have Milton Friedman, and Rose, of course, who did a little bit better, but took some cost for it. At the very beginning of your chapter on the Friedmans, you cite an interview with him, it was a Brian Doherty one or A Reason magazine in 1995, where he was asked… Milton Friedman was asked about Murray Rothbard and he said, “I had some contact with Murray early on but very little contact with him overall. Partly this is because whenever he’s had the chance he’s been nasty to me and my work, which I think is interesting.” And then on Rand, he said, “She was utterly intolerant and dogmatic person who did a great deal of good but I could never feel comfortable with her.” So he kind of tried to chart a middle road here.
37:02 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I mean, the reason he and Rand and he and Rothbard didn’t play well together, beside the respective temperaments of everyone involved, was that he was kind of a consequentialist, he was really an economist in the sense that most of us think of today where it’s really about figuring out what policies work best for the general good or whatever that is, rather than starting from some kind of controversial ideological principle and going from there. So he didn’t really talk about individual rights in the same way that Rothbard or Rand did, not that he was against individual rights, but it was more like, “Look, I’m trying to figure out the positions that are going to work best for everyone involved on some sort of utilitarian calculus.” Individual rights, property rights, things like that are justified in so far as they serve that purpose.
37:51 Trevor Burrus: And he’s the most well‐known advocate of voucher. I think a lot of people learned about vouchers from him.
37:58 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And one of the interesting things is that he… When I was thinking about this book on libertarianism and market libertarianism, libertarians overall haven’t had a huge impact on the school choice debate. But they did produce the guy who’s been the most… Probably the single most well‐known advocate of school choice, at least in the United States, if not the world. So it’s… That right there is an argument that they’ve had some importance.
38:26 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned… We talked about tax credits earlier with people, why the move from tax credits to vouchers?
38:33 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, well, so the difference, for those who don’t know, is that tax credits is really about the state giving you money, only after the fact. So you spend money on tuition, you send in your tax receipts during tax time, you get that money back, you would get a tax credit if you spent more than you paid in taxes. Vouchers work a little bit differently. Vouchers are… The state collects tax money first, then divides it up by basically by child and then every family gets the amount of money per child, that it would, an equal amount of money per child. I don’t think Friedman really addressed why he preferred vouchers to tax credits. I think that he had toyed with the idea of some sort of voucher system in other cases and kind of education just came up and he just applied those principles to education, but I don’t think there was any reason he gave for why he supported vouchers over tax credits.
39:32 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I can think of some reasons why it would make sense to support vouchers over tax credits. The first being that oftentimes, especially families that are more vulnerable economically might need that money before they can actually pay tuition. I think there was some faith with Chodorov and Rand that families could scrape together money to give tuition and then kind of get the tax rebate afterwards, whereas I think there’s a case to be made that it actually might be better for some families to get that money first and then spend it afterwards.
40:05 Trevor Burrus: But Friedman was, as an economist, as a consequentialist, as you said, in Capitalism and Freedom, he talks about positive externalities or neighborhood effects, is the words he uses, endorsing a fairly… A view of education as almost a public good, or have at least so many positive externalities that the state should be subsidizing it, but he also is not into for‐profit, at least in the early days. But then, he changed it. I find this to be probably my favorite part of the book, is that changing from what he believed in ’62, to what he believed in Free to Choose and thereafter about how much the government should actually be involved in this.
40:46 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. In the earlier book, you’re right. A lot of his justification for state spending was that everyone should get a voucher. It was roughly of a similar amount, too. Everyone should get a voucher of a similar amount because education has positive externalities so when everyone is educated, everyone else benefits and when no one is educated, everyone else pays certain costs, whether they’re crime enforcement costs or whatever. So his argument was really that everyone should get a certain voucher so that everyone can afford education, because it benefits everyone else that everyone gets education. And so, he was influenced by E. G. West, who was a British economist most famous for a book called Education and the State, and in that book, West looked at both the English scene and the American scene, and said really, it’s honestly, historically, it’s been the case that most people have been able to and willing to afford education privately, even if they don’t get state support for it.
41:50 Kevin Currie‐Knight: It’s really only the very poor who had a problem scraping together the money to do education. So by the time, what, 15‐so years later, I think. By the time Free to Choose comes out, the Friedmans have kind of changed their position because they believe, influenced by West, that the majority of people, if they weren’t given a voucher, would probably still be able to scrape together the money to send their kids to school. And that really, it’s only the very poor that would really need the help. Friedman, like all the other market libertarians, really wanted to minimize the state’s involvement to whatever was absolutely necessary. And if it’s not necessary to support middle class families with a voucher, then don’t do it, because that’s gonna lead to a slippery slope, so it really may just be the very poor. And that’s what he endorsed.
42:45 Trevor Burrus: And finally, to kind of, he works within the Friedman paradigm, is your last thinker, Myron Lieberman, who wrote a lot for Cato, who has an important difference with Friedman on the for‐profit non‐profit thing, but also, as he’s one of my favorites, I’ve enjoyed him for years, but it has such an interesting back story, of how he… ’cause you cite his first book and then at some point in between that and his book where he attacks public education, he seems to have some sort of road to Damascus moment.
43:15 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, you probably know, Trevor, ’cause you’ve been reading him, he’s like the best libertarian critic of education that nobody’s ever heard of.
43:24 Trevor Burrus: Exactly, yes.
43:24 Kevin Currie‐Knight: At least in libertarian communities, so he’s a guy who started off his career as a teacher and then he moved to being a negotiator of contracts between labor unions and governments and at some point, it became clear to him that these contracts had some clauses in them that were just questionable if we’re talking about education producing value for consumers. It seemed like a lot of the contracts benefited unions, a lot of them benefited unions and the city together at the expense of consumers. And he started really thinking about, “Well, why is that?” And he read some economics and that led him to public choice economics, particularly, although he read Friedman as well.
44:09 Kevin Currie‐Knight: And the whole idea that when unions and cities negotiate and they have kind of a stranglehold on a particular institution, it’s pretty rational that they will do what’s best for themselves in the institution, whether or not that’s necessarily good for the users of the institution. Not because they’re evil, not because they’re bad, but because they’re self‐interested people like everyone else. He really got into James Buchanan and Mancur Olson, and the theory of the concentrated benefits that the union and the school system have and the dispersed costs. So people in general won’t be trustworthy to vote to improve schools to benefit them, but since school districts have a really strong interest in schools, they’re gonna show up to the polls, and they’re gonna really control a lot of those debates.
44:58 Trevor Burrus: And he also was sort of adamant that the only real way to get the kind of innovation and cost on it you can get in education is to have profit schools being a significant part of it.
45:10 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, he emphasized that. He was the only one of the figures that I reviewed who really emphasized it. I’m quite sure that people like Rothbard and Rand wouldn’t have shied away from supporting for‐profit schools. I’m pretty sure that was part of their vision, too, but Lieberman said so very specifically. He said, look, the problem with voucher systems that he was starting to see come down the pike and especially charters, he hated charters. The problem is that they don’t give a significant amount of room for for‐profits operating in truly market‐based situations. And the reason he thought that for‐profits were necessary is that if you want companies to invest in significant research and development, if you want them to scale rapidly and well, non‐profits can’t do that job, because they don’t earn a profit that they can then reinvest into that business, but for‐profits can.
46:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Why do people react so negatively to that line of argument? Like they… Just the very thought of for‐profit educational institutions seems to creep out a lot of people and set a lot of people off in a way that they don’t get upset about for‐profit in basically anywhere else, grocery stores.
46:25 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. It’s just… It’s one of the points that a lot of critics, Diane Ravitch, Debra Meyer, a lot of critics of private education, they can’t wait to use the word for‐profit, because it just scares people. This is interesting because at least… My read of the history is that when public schools were starting to come about in the early 1800s, 1830s, thereabouts, their… The argument against… The argument for public education, no one ever used the argument of, there’s something icky or gross or morally problematic about people paying for education. Nobody said that. The arguments for public education were things like, “We wanna make sure that everyone can be educated to the same quality and we wanna make sure that everyone can be educated in the same spaces so there aren’t like these rich schools and poor schools.”
47:18 Kevin Currie‐Knight: But no one ever said, it’s problematic for people to pay for education. Like I’d mentioned earlier, in fact the public education, public schools for a long time, were supported in large part by what we call rate bills or private tuition. Even in the early years of public education, you had kids and families paying and nobody had a problem with that. I don’t know, I think what’s happened is we’ve gotten used to public schools, we’ve gotten used to school being a government institution, that you don’t have to pay for in the same way like a direct payment where you pay for a service. You pay through the back door, which is easy to kinda forget about. You pay your taxes and then you forget that it’s really… You’re still paying for that service. I think we’ve just gotten used to, this is a thing you don’t pay for. This is a thing… And that becomes this is a thing that it’s wrong to pay for, that it’s wrong to have to pay for.
48:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, but that’s slightly… That’s on the consumer side, that it’s wrong to have to pay for it, but there seems to be a very strong attitude among many who oppose markets in education, that there’s a corrupting influence to making a profit off of education. That the very existence of the profit motive will cause these schools to do bad things.
48:39 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I’ve never really been able to kind of sympathize with that argument, but it’s tough because what I would say in response is that there’s a lot of money that’s flowing through the public system. A lot of people are getting paid in the public system. Just because no one’s making a profit, meaning there are no stakeholders who expect returns on an investment, doesn’t mean that a lot of people aren’t getting paid for that service. It just means that it’s coming directly out of the budgets. And I don’t know… Yeah, I don’t know what the difference is, I don’t know what the difference is that people have in their head between expecting a return on your investment as profit, versus getting paid out of these budgets. You’re still getting paid, so if there’s a corrupting influence in the private system you could just as easily argue there’s a corrupting influence in the public system. I think it’s just that we’ve gotten used to it, like I said before, I think it’s just that we’ve gotten used to this idea that, “Okay, well, money isn’t directly changing hands in this system, and therefore there’s something wrong about that.”
49:37 Aaron Ross Powell: I wonder if there’s partly a connection to, if there’s profit to be made then profit is what we will want to make. And if I’m a teacher who… ’cause yes, teachers, contrary to what many people will tell you, public school teachers are paid quite well, especially if you factor in the level of the benefits that they receive and that they get summers off. But… They’re earning money but their money is to some extent divorced from how much money they’re bringing in. And their advancement then is either based… Is largely based on seniority, but it’s like it’s… They can just set about doing their job and their values are to educate kids to the best of their ability, and they’re in the classroom, and they can do that. But if you introduce a profit motive, then the incentive either to them as individuals or from on high, becomes your job is to yes, we wanna educate kids because that’s why people send their kids to our school and the more they think are getting educated. But if you can find ways to do things to cut corners or manipulate to drive up that profit mark, that becomes a motivation now, that wasn’t present under the non‐profit set‐up.
50:53 Trevor Burrus: I’m thinking about Rainmaker teachers. You bring in as many kids as we… To fill up the class. Yeah. I can see that. I can see that. To add to that, it’s interesting too because you talk about for‐profit in healthcare and people say we’re gonna be harvesting the organs of poor people or some… Or just willfully taking away healthcare from them. But if you’re kinda warehousing kids and sort of putting them into huge sort of assembly line situations, which is what a for‐profit might do, I’m not sure, in order to educate them. It’s hard to imagine to me what would be totally wrong with that, unless you have some of your… Some Jay Albert, Albert Jay Nock in you that says, “Oh, the for‐profits gonna make them just to have a class about reality television and all this trashy stuff ’cause that’s what… ”
51:40 S?: Fortnite.
51:40 Trevor Burrus: Fortnite will be half the day. Yes, ’cause that’s what the kids want, they’re gonna learn Fortnite and Minecraft, and then come home and they’re not gonna be educated. And that’s what for‐profit will bring.
51:49 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I guess it depends on what you think is gonna get you the best chance of profit. I don’t know if I put it in the book, but there’s a quote that I ran across from Myron Lieberman that sticks out to me. It went something like this, “Those who worry about efficiency and the dangers of making schools efficient have never had to deal with budgets.” Have never had to deal with a company where you have to manage the costs versus the expenditures. Efficiency is a good thing, and it doesn’t just mean lowering costs. When I hear people in education spaces talk about how we can’t worry about efficiency, they always talk of efficiency only as lowering the costs.
52:33 Trevor Burrus: And not getting more output for less input. Yeah, which of course, Lieberman points out that one of the factors in bureaucracy seems to put, it seems to be less output for more input as you grow all these things together. Can we synthesize anything from these seven thinkers? And we’ve also brought up some other people like John Holt who also wrote about education. Or maybe the point is not to synthesize, but is there some sort of overall lesson we can learn from this?
52:58 Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, I think the lesson that I would like people to take away from it, which is one of the reasons I started researching this book, is it’s fascinating how many ways there are to come at a school choice position. Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard came at a school choice position, really based on a strong belief in natural rights. And Frank Chodorov was really enamored with the idea of pluralism. He came to school choice because he thought it would really foster a really pluralistic environment where people can go to the schools that best suit them. And Milton Friedman did it under a more utilitarian calculus and Myron Lieberman did it for a public choice reason. States are just, even the best well‐meaning states are plagued by bad incentives in a way that he argues private companies wouldn’t be.
53:46 Kevin Currie‐Knight: I think to me again, in education spaces I see a lot of folks talking about school choice as if it’s this one thing, it’s motivated by a desire to segregate the rich from the poor and it’s motivated by the desire to kind of enrich capitalists and it’s motivated by a corporatist neo‐liberal agenda, and I guess the figures in this book don’t really agree on the rationales for it. They agree on the basic position and they disagree on how to implement that position, like what level of government is involved, but they completely disagree about the justification for it and what the value is of it.
54:35 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, write and review us on Apple Podcasts, or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Airs. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.