As my family and I practice social distancing, I’ve decided to take time to read some of the “must-read” authors in the free-market or classical liberal tradition. First up is Frédéric Bastiat. Many of his thoughts are salient for issues we are facing today.
Bastiat (1801–1850) was a French economist. In his most prominent essay, What is Seen and What is Not Seen, he explained how policymakers often tout the immediate effects of a policy but ignore what might have happened without the policy—what is not seen. This would later be known as the concept of “opportunity cost.” Whether discussing tax subsidies for sporting stadiums, tax-increment financing for development in flood plains, or a host of other issues, policy analysts at Show-Me Institute regularly follow in the tradition of Bastiat by explaining what is not seen.
In another of his popular essays, The Law, Bastiat explains that “the law is justice.” The purpose of the law is not to bestow rights or benefits on members of society, but instead: “Its function is to prevent the rights of one person from interfering with the rights of another.” His ideas on property rights and the purpose of the law help form the foundation of the classical liberal tradition.
Lately, I have been particularly intrigued by his essay Justice and Fraternity. I am an educator by trade. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in elementary education and my Ph.D. is in education policy. I have been a classroom teacher in public schools and I currently teach university classes for aspiring principals and superintendents. Through my experiences, I have developed some specific views on the purpose of education and what constitutes great teaching. Often, I find these views are not shared by others. Indeed, there are many ideas on the matter that are often incongruous with one another. This is one of the reasons I am so supportive of school choice; it allows individuals to explore the type of education they view as the best.
Others, however, are not sold on school choice. They believe the state should dictate what and how students learn. Oh, they may not say this directly, but consider what they propose. They want the government to dictate which schools children will attend. They want those schools to be accountable to government agencies and financed by funds from the government. They want the government to certify teachers who will teach government-approved content standards. In short, they want a heavily regulated and centralized system of education.
Now let’s suppose that there is one best way to educate students. Bastiat suggests in Justice and Fraternity that the best way to discover this one best way is through a decentralized system:
Obviously, if people could agree on the best possible kind of education, in regard to both content and method, a uniform system of public instruction would be preferable, since error would, in that case, be necessarily excluded by law. But as long as such a criterion has not been found, as long as the legislator and the Minister of Public Education do not carry on their persons an unquestionable sign of infallibility, the true method has the best chance of being discovered and of displacing the others if room is left for diversity, trial and error, experimentation, and individual efforts guided by a self-regarding interest in the outcome—in a word, where there is freedom. The chances are worst in a uniform system of education established by decree, for in such a system error is permanent, universal, and irremediable. Therefore, those who, in the name of fraternity, demand that the law determine what shall be taught and impose this on everyone should realize that they are running the risk of having the law direct and impose the teaching of nothing but error; for legal interdiction can pervert the truth by perverting the minds that believe they have possession of it.
There are two important points made here. First, that the rational self-interest of diverse groups of individuals is better suited to discover the best way to educate students, or at the very least to satisfy the desires of the most individuals. Second, instituting one method from on high via government agencies is a surefire way to mandate error. At present, we do not have the magical education bullet that will meet the needs of every child. Therefore, a centrally imposed system will by its very nature force some students into a system that doesn’t work for them.
Think about this as we move forward in the coming months. As schools remain closed, parents throughout the country will be taking on the new role of home educator. They will, undoubtedly be working to find the system that works best for them. These parents will need the support of teachers and schools, but they are most likely to find that system through their own trial and error. They do not need a government order that forces every family to conform to the same routines.
In my estimation, some of Bastiat’s essays should be required reading for high school economics students. Maybe I should work to impose that view on others.