January 29, 2003
Andrew Wood - Adam Smith - David Friedman

An email has flooded in, from Andrew Wood, which I assume he won't mind me reproducing.

Dear Brian,

I quite often read your blogs, and generally enjoy them.

Very sporting of you, my dear chap. I almost always enjoy your emails, so much so that I often read them.

I was interested to read this remark in your latest education blog: "At the beginning of his lecture, Green quoted Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in support of his support for the principle of state-funded education, and revealed a gaping hole in this alleged support which I didn't previously know about."

I wonder if anyone has drawn your attention to this essay by David (son of Milton) Friedman where he makes a similar remark.

Incidentally, Friedman says on his web page that he sends his children to a school where attendance at lessons is strictly voluntary and the children have a large say in how the school is run. I think it would be worth inviting him to write a piece for you about this school and how well he thinks it works. I'd certainly be interested to read it.

Best wishes,


Joking aside, thanks very much Andy. I'm terrible at acting on good suggestions like this, so don't hold your breath. I merely record here how extremely delighted I would be if David Friedman (whom I greatly admire and enjoy reading) were to hear by psychic emanation that such a piece of writing would be welcome, and were to supply such a piece. So, someone emanate him please.

Here's DF's first paragraph:

It is often said that Adam Smith, despite his general belief in Laissez-faire, made an exception for education. That is not entirely true. In the course of a lengthy and interesting discussion, Smith argues both that education is a legitimate government function, at least in some societies, and that it is a function which governments perform very badly. His conclusion is that while it is legitimate for government to subsidize education, it may be more prudent to leave education entirely private.

To expand a little on what Damian Green (see below) said, what Green said was that Adam Smith supported the principle of state provided education "for a very small expense", although I don't know if those were Smith's words or merely Green's. The latter I suspect, although he made it sound like the former. But the system of state funded education that Green then went on to support, and in his imagination only to tinker with somewhat, can hardly be described as involving only a "very small" expense.

And DF is quite right. If you actually read what Smith thought about education, you find that he actually had an extremely sceptical attitude toward state provision or payment, and, unlike later "liberals", strongly supported fee-paying. See also this essay by the late great E.G. West. It's only an acrobat file I'm afraid, but it is worth printing out and reading in full. I did the former last night and am now about half way through doing the latter. Expect further bloggage here about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Politics