Education: Schooling and Examination on the Free Market

Keir Martland

Announcement: expect a return, in some form or other, of our podcast.

Please watch the following video before you continue reading. Apologies in advance for the foul language.

One thing must be apparent from this video: students, for the most part, dislike exams. In fact, most students would not do them if they had the choice. Most students would not be students if they had more say in the matter.

So, what follows from this? Most of those presently in schooling, were it up to them, would not be in schooling.

Therefore, absent government interference, in a pure free market, schooling would be underproduced, underconsumed, and hence underallocated. The government intervenes because education is a merit good: those with education benefit themselves, but their education has net positive externalities. The government reduces the per unit costs of education in order that it may be more easily provided and hence consumed. The result is the most socially optimal allocation of resources.

The above is false. Let me (very briefly as I do want to get back to reading about Henry II) explain. First, it ought to be obvious that I committed a logical fallacy (the fallacy of equivocation, was it?) above. Education and schooling are not synonymous. If I am said to be educated, it doesn’t follow that I have been to school or college. Likewise, if I’ve been to school or college, it doesn’t follow that I am an educated young man. Therefore, the assumption that if schooling were to be under-provided in a free market this would mean an under-provision of education is false. So the conclusion that the state ought to step in rests on a false premise, so we can’t be said to ‘know’ the conclusion at all.

Second, it also ought to be obvious that schooling is a most imperfect method of ‘gaining’ an education. Incidentally, I remember Tom Sunic making fun of people using the phrase “My son or daughter needs to *get* an education” suggesting that “education” is somehow a perishable commodity. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am still a libertarian. I quoted Sunic because I thought he made a valid point.)

Education is a lifelong process. And when I am an old man and I look back on my days at high school, forced to read ‘Of Mice and Men’ at a rate of a page per lesson by a frustrated old cow of an English teacher, I trust I’ll look back on them as the least academically challenging of my life. Schooling, in my experience and in the experience of thousands of people my own age, does not further one’s education. As for the subject discussed in the video embedded into this post, I can only say what I said recently to Dr Gabb: exams are not all they are cracked up to be. They may be standardised and efficient and even enjoyable to the more dedicated students. It does not, however, follow that they are effective.  Give me an hour and fifteen minutes, four essay titles, a pen, and paper and I’ll write continuously until the invigilator tells me to put my pen down. The result will be barely legible and all structure and coherence will likely have gone out of the window. Give me a week, a reading list, and a single essay title, and I’ll produce something worth reading.

This is not the case just for me, but for a good many students. A free market teaching/schooling firm, I would imagine, would be concerned with its students creating something of a high quality. In the arts and humanities, that means a well crafted essay of perhaps 4,000 words that makes a strong case for or against some point of view. In the sciences, it means a serious experiment or report. I am confident that in a free market, teaching firms would invite willing students of history, for example, to sit down at a word processor for the best part of an afternoon and, under timed conditions, write a single essay. This approach tests the intellect; examinations as they presently are may test many things, but not the intellect.

Lastly, government need not provide schooling. The first schools were not provided by government. The schools of the future, too, will not be provided by government. In the future, if and when we finally see the back of the social democratic state, we will see a return to a system whereby employers are responsible for the ‘education’ of their employees. If my workers aren’t productive enough, if I see profit in doing so, I can pay for them to acquire a certain skill. If there is no profit in it, then I won’t.

Just as the demand for labour is a derived demand, we must understand that the demand for schooling and teaching is a derived demand. If what is being taught is of no value, then the teacher, as it stands, is of no value either.

Who will lose out in a free market system of schooling and teaching? The schools and the teachers in the short-term. They will have to cut costs. They will have to go out and do some market research. They will have to send out their own commissioners to ask ‘How many literate men are there in this shire?’, ‘How many doctors?’, ‘How many bi-linguists?’,… ‘Who held the land in the time of the Confessor?’, ‘Who holds it now?’, ‘Can more be had than is had?’ et cetera.. By carrying out such an inquest, they will begin to learn to what extent they truly are in demand. The results may be very depressing for them. At the same time, for the better sort of teacher, such a system would bring new challenges and very possibly a similar rate of pay as before. As for my frustrated English teacher, the silly bitch would have to tighten her belt – or work harder!


  • Keir, thanks for the warning about the language. A film proving that Hitler couldn’t do algebra would, naturally, have to be x-rated.

    You raise some interesting thoughts. In my youth, I used to be rather good at exams. For one of my strengths is concentration. Another is making the best use of my time when it’s under pressure. A third is (or used to be) a good memory. The exams of 40+ years ago did give an advantage to someone with my particular talents.

    But I do envy you, if you can produce a decent 4,000 word essay in a week. A liberty essay of that size takes me, on average, about three months; sometimes much longer. I think that’s because creativity is quite a slow process.

    As to schooling by the state: When I was a lad, the statists wanted boffins. They tried to make me into another Freeman Dyson. What they got was nearer another John Locke.

    And what they want today seems to be sheep. It’s good – not just for you, but for all of us – that you are not allowing yourself to become ovine. Keep up the good work. And the writing.

    • Provided I already have some cognisance of the topic, if I’m given an essay title and two or three books then something worth reading would flow from my fingertips.

      I may just set about writing an essay on Laud’s changes to the early Stuart Church for the Hobson History competition. If not for the competition, I may do it. Laud is given a bad press all too often. It will go nicely with my soon to be started work on James II. Now, he was treated very unjustly!

      Thanks for the kind words.

      • James II was a reactionary Conservative scumbag, or perhaps instead a liberal! “Discuss” (as they say….)!

        • If given the proposition “JIIR was a scumbag”, the following plan would suffice:

          Yes he was:
          – Bloody Assizes
          – Ireland, the army
          – Oxford and Obadiah Walker etc
          – Ecclesiastical Commission
          – Use of the dispensing power
          – Parliament, the attempt to rig the election
          – Trying seven bishops for sedition
          – Warming pan

          No he wasn’t:
          – but the Assizes were in response to a rebellion
          – He only made Tyrconnel Lord Deputy and not Lord Lietennant of Ireland
          – A compromise was reached regarding the universities
          – JIIR shut down the Ecclesiastical Commission after a year
          – His use of the dispensing power was hardly tyrannical; it was used to ‘force’ toleration on England!
          – It only seemed tyrannical in the context of the 1680s (Louis XIV revoked Nantes a few years prior)
          – His brother had also issued a Declaration of Indulgence!
          – He alienated his own natural allies in order to attempt to ram through religious toleration, seemingly quite selfless
          – The Seven Bishops had decided to take offence at his council’s demand that they read out the Declaration. It was certainly not intended as an insult. It was, in fact, an excellent way to get his Declaration widely circulated.
          – Most historians now do not think James Francis Edward was smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan. It was perhaps foolish that JIIR did not have a suitable number of Protestants there to witness the birth, though.

          – he was a “scumbag” compared to whom?
          – compared to the other Catholic monarchs, he was the model of chivalrous courtesy

          • OK I will buy your conclusion then, Keir – so far as that should stand in the ending of your weekly essay-tute essay assignment, that was your essay-tute matter.
            So why did he have to go then?

            • Because he was a fool. Wrightson says that while his intention wasn’t to force conversion on England, looking back on his reign it appears “farcical in retrospect.” Indeed, appointing Catholics to the Privy Council is not a bad thing in and of itself. But doing so in the 1680s was “gross political folly.”

    • Oh Keir, that video is so so funny!

      PS did you find C1 hard? some people did.

      • It is hilarious. It is based on the C2 exam I did last Wednesday.

        C1 was OK. In flicking through in the last few minutes, I noticed a few errors which I had not the time to correct, though.

        C2 was awful.

        If I don’t tell you what I get in my AS Maths, it won’t be out of modesty!

  • His belief in religious toleration needs to be seen in conjunction with his behaviour in Scotland, where he did nothing to stop the persecution of the Covenanters, and his behaviour in exile, when he did nothing to secure toleration for his Anglican followers.

    In general, he inherited a stronger position than any other Stuart. He was seen as legitimate by just about everyone. He had a growing revenue, and his enemies were all scattered. He blew the lot in four years. His father took twenty years to push his subjects to breaking point.

    • And yet his father was a tyrant.

      James appointed a few catholic bishops to new bishoprics, whereas Charles I forced Arminians on the C of E so that within 10 years both Archbishoprics were filled by men who looked suspiciously like papists. No wonder he was deposed, on that count alone.

      The very most James wanted was to “remove the disabilities of his co-religionists” (Wrightson), he didn’t want to re-Catholicise England by force. By contrast, his father set out to force High Church practices on an overwhelmingly Calvinist Church.

      • I see Charles I as, in our context, an admirable anti-puritan fighting the first wave of political correctness. His appointments of Arminians was a “conservative” act which was intended to reduce the influence of extremists over the Church.

        • Arminians were a reviled minority in the Church. Arminianism was reviled continent-wide. He was foolish to appoint them as he did, especially appointing Montague to Chichester.

          Still, just because he was foolish and tyrannical in his means doesn’t mean I don’t concur with your assessment of the religious struggles the 1620s-onward.

          • Just because people are reviled, and upset other people, doesn’t make them wrong. We are currently reviled by the extremists running our society, also. It was clear that the Calvinists were dragging England into a very dark place, and indeed that came to pass. It was only due to the destruction of the Puritan hegemony after the Cromwell dynasty ended that England enjoyed the period of liberty that gave rise to our own philosophy.

            So while Charles undoubtedly made many practical mistakes and was far from perfect, he should be seen as a flawed Libertarian hero in my view. He fought the cultural enemy that we are still fighting to this day. Much of his whig-described “tyranny” was really just fighting for moderation in the face of extremism.

            • Charles was not all bad, really. He did have serious faults, like most kings in most places.

              Charles, I think, also founded The Royal Society. You know, scientist blokes and nerds like Hooke (under-rated) and Newton (who nobody really likes but was clever. all the same, and who was probably seriously autistic – he’d have “died of mysterious circumstances in most English villages in the 19th and early 20th centuries) unlike Hooke, who “fully and legally kept in his residence a handsome woman for his pleasure”.

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