George H. Smith explores the Voluntaryist critique of those who support free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Nineteenth‐​century Voluntaryists, as we have seen, prized social diversity (or what we call today a “pluralistic society”), and they were convinced that state education would impose the dead hand of uniformity. Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values, they preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market.

One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the Voluntaryist commitment to competition and disdain for government interference.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early seventeenth century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church‐​state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.

When fellow free‐​traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (a senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.” “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free‐​trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”

Before free‐​traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez‐​faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”

The Eclectic Review posed the basic question: Can education “be best produced by monopoly or by competition?”– and it came down unequivocally on the side of competition. Education is a “marketable commodity,” and demand for it is “as much subject to the principles and laws of political economy, as are corn or cotton.” Government intervention, in education as elsewhere, leads to market distortions:

How will it affect the balance between the demand and the supply; disturb the relations of the voluntary teacher, and misdirect the expectations and confidence of the market? Let a private teacher attempt to come into competition with such accredited and endowed agents of an incorporate system.…and he will find himself in the same state with a merchant who ventures to trade without a bounty in competition with those whose traffic is encouraged by large public bounties.

Voluntaryists predicted that state aid to education would drive many voluntary schools out of business. Market schools would find themselves unable to compete with schools financed from taxes, and philanthropists who had previously contributed to education would withhold their funds, believing that, since the state would provide education anyway, there was no need for charitable support. As state aid increased market education would diminish, and this consequence would be used to support the contention that voluntary education had failed.

An educational bureaucracy, however tiny at its inception, would grow rapidly. An educational orthodoxy with employees answerable to the government would emerge. Costs would increase, and productivity would decrease. “Public servants,” wrote one Voluntaryist, “are sustained at the largest cost, and always are subject to the least responsibility.” The principle of the market, to produce “the best article.…at the cheapest price,” would disappear in a state system. In an educational free market, on the contrary, a “real and effectual discipline” is exercised over educators by consumers. Free‐​market schools must either satisfy their customers or go out of business.

In calling for laissez‐​faire in education, Voluntaryists squared‐​off against the major economists of their day, most of whom advocated some role for government. J.S. Mill, for example, opposed leaving education to the market: “In the matter of education,” he wrote, “the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one in which the interest and judgment of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity.” Mill continued:

The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of education. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights. It will continually happen, on the voluntary system, that, the end not being desired, the means will not be provided at all, or that, the persons requiring improvement having an imperfect or altogether erroneous conception of what they want, the supply called for by the demand of the market will be anything but what is really required.

Voluntaryists responded impatiently to this elitist argument. They had encountered the same argument many times before during their campaigns for religious freedom. With man’s eternal soul at stake, defenders of a state church maintained that religion is far too important to be left to the untutored judgment of the masses. “It is the old dogma,” wrote the Dissenting minister Algernon Wells, “the people can know nothing about religion and it must be dictated to them.” Wells contended that the argument from incompetence, if used to defend state education, must also justify state interference in religion. The fact that some fellow libertarians failed to understand the ominous implications of Mill’s argument obviously annoyed the Voluntaryists.

In Social Statics (1851), Herbert Spencer dismissed Mill’s argument as “a worn‐​out excuse” that had been repeatedly trotted out to justify “all state interferences whatever.”

A stock argument for the state teaching of religion has been that the masses cannot distinguish false religion from true. There is hardly a single department of life over which, for similar reasons, legislative supervision has not been, or may not be, established.

Spencer questioned whether parents are as incompetent to assess education as Mill alleged. Parents, far more than government, are concerned about the welfare of their children, and uneducated parents can seek advice from others whom they trust. Even granting problems in this area, however, it does not follow that the state should intervene. As a market for mass education developed, Spencer believed that consumers would gain the knowledge that comes with experience and thereby become more sophisticated in their choice of products. Social improvement takes time, and Spencer thought that “this incompetence of the masses to distinguish good instruction from bad is being outgrown.”

Spencer contended that Mill’s argument is based on a false premise. Even if the interest and judgment of consumers are insufficient to guarantee educational quality, Mill assumed that the “interest and judgment” of a government are sufficient security. Mill, in other words, assumed that there exists an identity of interests between rulers and the people they govern.

Spencer ridiculed this tacit belief. The English government desired “a sentimental feudalism,” a country where “the people shall be respectful to their betters” and an economy “with the view of making each laborer the most efficient producing tool.” The interests of a government differ from the interests of the people, and “we may be quite sure that a state education would be administered for the advantage of those in power rather than for the advantage of the nation.” Hence even if we concede some inadequacies in free‐​market education, the problems inherent in state education are more serious and dangerous.

As for the rejoinder that this objection may apply to current governments but not necessarily to an ideal government that may someday exist — a government that would presumably have the best interests of the people at heart — Spencer pointed out that Mill’s argument from incompetence depends on consumers “as they now are,” not on consumers as they might be in an ideal society. We should therefore consider Mill’s alternative — government — “as it now is,” not as it should be in a hypothetical paradise.

It will not do, notwithstanding that it is all‐​too‐​often done, to point out problems that might arise in an imperfect market and then offer government as a solution —as if that government is itself perfect, and as if government intervention will not generate its own unique and serious problems. Spencer was inviting Mill to descend from the clouds of political theory and take a hard look at the real world of governments. All things considered, in matters of education “the interest of the consumer is not only an efficient guarantee for the goodness of the things consumed, but the best guarantee.”