In the comments to this post on recent attempts to insert intelligent design into public high schools as philosophy, Ed Darrell and I have been having a discussion about more general questions of public education. I thought it would be a good idea to write a piece about my general view of this subject here, since the discussion is looking like its about to get quite long and detailed.
As I see it, there are two issues here: the government's use of tax money to fund education, and the government's exercise of power over how education is done. Furthermore, there are two facets to each of these issues: the legal question (does the US Constitution grant the government this authority?) and the theoretical issue (should the government have this authority?). This makes a total of four topics for discussion. First, however, let's look at a more general question about taxation and the moral justification of government.
Mr. Darrell recently commented, "Paying taxes to education [of] children is not confiscation. Government by consent of the governed is not despotism. Democracy is not dictatorship." Now, there is a sense in which all of this is true. That is, there is a real difference between having your money stolen and used for private purposes for the benefit of the thief, and paying taxes to government which are used for the general benefit of society. There is a real difference between a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" and a despot who holds power by force. There is a real difference between power being vested in the people, and power being vested in a single man.
However, I believe there is also another sense in which these distinctions are not so pronounced as people generally think. If we choose not to pay for the education of others, we are thrown in prison. In this sense, this type of taxation IS properly described as confiscation; the government applies coercive force to get our money and give it to someone else. "Government by the consent of the governed" is a misnomer: many years ago, the people of this country willingly established our government, but people today are not permitted to "opt out." If someone attempts to remove himself from the social contract (as people, in fact, have), the government applies coercive force to them. I, personally, were I offered the choice, would choose the US government as it is presently constituted over anarchy (although I see much room for improvement in the present government). However, the fact that I would give you money if asked gives you no right to steal it without asking. My rights are violated simply because I have no opportunity to make the choice of whether to give it to you or not. Not ALL of the governed consent. Absolute democracy has been called "the tyranny of the majority," and it might as well be called "dictatorship of the majority." This is why we have a constitutionally limited republic instead. Only those constitutional limitations ensure that our democracy is better than dictatorship. Democracy can, in fact, be worse than dictatorship, because the mob has no direction. It is entirely unpredictable and sways back and forth depending on the mood of the moment. Dictators tend to at least pursue definite ends (although, of course, this can make them worse rather than better, if those ends are evil), rather than to act completely at random. It is the constitutional limitations of our republic, protecting unpopular opinions and limiting what the majority may dictate, that ensures the superiority of our form of government over ditatorship.
Back to the issue at hand. Public education is obviously a good thing. That is, it is good for just anyone to be able to go get an education, and not only the rich. But in this country when we speak of "public education" we don't just mean education available to anyone, we mean socialized education. There are other ways of implementing public education that don't invovle government control, as for instance scholarships offered by private universities and independent charities. These have existed on the primary and secondary education levels as well. However, they have never been good enough to make education truly public, as the socialized system has. I believe that they could be good enough in a culture that placed enough value on education that many many people gave to these charities, but they never have been. As such, I want to make clear that, despite the discussion below, I wouldn't want to suddenly abolish the current system. However, I do think that it is deeply flawed, both in areas of legality and in areas of political morality. Let us discuss the issue at each level off government at which it might be addressed, in turn.
First, the federal government. The federal government has only the authority explicitly granted to it by the Constitution (as the 9th and 10th amendments make clear). The Preamble to the Constitution does not give the government an unlimited power to, for instance, "promote the general welfare." Rather, it merely states that the founders believed that by organizing the government in the way they do in the main body of the Constitution they could "promote the general welfare" and acheive the other ends listed in the Preamble. The subtext, it seems to me, is that if they have failed in these ends, they invite us either to use the amendment process, or to get rid of the Constitution and start over. The Preamble is merely a statement of purpose. Nor does the federal government have unlimited power to make laws which it deems "necessary and proper" - if this were the case, Art. I Sect. 8 of the Constitution would be unnecessary. Rather, Art. I Sect. 8 Para. 18 says that the legislature may "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." (emphasis added.) That is, it may make the laws that need to be made in order to make effective use of the powers given to the federal government elsewhere in the Constitution. In a recent marijuana case, Justice Scalia, who has a very conservative (not in the sense of Republican, but in the sense of restricted) reading of this section in general, ruled, for instance, that prohibiting the transport of marijuana across state lines was part of regulating "interstate commerce," and that, because the government could not easily do this without prohibiting marijuana altogether, prohibition of marijuana was "necessary and proper" to "regulation of interstate commerce." But the necessary and proper clause doesn't just say the the government can do whatever it deems necessary and proper. It must be necessary and proper to the exercise of some authority the government has elsewhere.
Now, there is no mention of education in Art. I Sect. 8. I therefore conclude that, on the legal issue, the federal government has no power to give money to education or to regulate it in any way, except of course for regulations on interstate commerce, which may cover "distance learning" programs where the student and the university are in different states, or boarding schools paid for by parents living in another state, or similar circumstances.
Now, how about the moral issue? One person is forced to pay taxes to finance another's education. I see no moral justification for this whatsoever. Sure, I ought to be willing to voluntarily assist with the education of others, but this doesn't justify the government in forcing me. Furthermore, education, especially at the primary level, necessarily involves some degree of indoctrination, and government control of how children are indoctrinated is a serious violation of the rights of parents, especially when the governnment requires children to attend school. Since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, the federal government does exert a degree of control over primary and secondary school curriculum, and this is a bad thing.
On to the state level. The 10th Amendment makes it clear that the state governments have powers which the federal government does not. As such, it may be the case that a state is legally justified in running a public education system, depending on how its constitution is written. Nothing in the Federal Constitution seems to prohibit this, as long as it cannot be construed as depriving anyone of liberty, which would make it run afoul of the 14th Amendment.
As for the moral issue, I don't see how it is any different on the state level than the federal level, so I must continue to, in principle if not in practice, oppose (socialized) public education, even if it takes place entirely at the state level.
Finally, what if education was handled on the city level? This, I think, would be a great improvement. In fact, most control over education is on this level, and much of it is funded by property tax levys. If a person doesn't like living in a city, there are many states, especially in the western US, that have large areas that are not governed by any city council. This gives the "implicit social contract" argument real application in this situation.
Suppose public education was controlled and funded entirely on the city level. Here I believe that, because of the extra strength granted to the "social contract" argument by the possibility of "opting out," the system could have moral justification. If you don't like what one city does, there are many cities and there are areas that are not in a city. Furthermore, cities could choose whether or not to admit people who do not live in the city and do not pay property taxes. Some cities who were feeling charitable would no doubt admit everyone. Others might not admit outsiders, or might charge them tuition. This would also create better free market competition between schools, since every one could do essentially whatever it wanted. They would all want to have better placement records in colleges and jobs, and parents would want their children in the best one. Schools would be free to innovate in order to acheive this end. This, I believe, would be much better than what currently exists certainly morally, and possibly also practically.Posted by Kenny at January 20, 2006 12:10 PM
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