November 24, 2003
What I'm going to say tonight to the LSE Hayek Society

This evening I am to give a little talk, arising directly out of having been doing this blog, on educational matters. More exactly, I am there to stir up discussion. It's with the members of the London School of Economics Hayek Society. It kicks off at 7 pm, in the George IV pub, which is near to the LSE. These discussions take place every Monday evening, and if you want to get in on them, email Nick Spurrell of the Hayek Society and ask him about that.

I will now use this blog posting to gather my thoughts for this evening. Here are the kinds of things I will dangle in front of these good people:

Free markets are great for other things, why not education?

The equality objection. People ought to get a fair break in life. If their families or genetic endowments vary, all the more reason for egalitarian education policies. Free markets won't give you those, quite the contrary. (That's the argument, not my argument.) But: free markets are, I think, surprisingly egalitarian, as conservatives (real ones, not members of the Conservative Party) have complained throughout the twentieth century. Which, because of mass market capitalism, has been dominated by the debased and lowest-common-denominator tastes of the lower classes, and which has seen the refinements of the upper classes overwhelmed by a tide of vulgarity. So a totally free market in education might actually have given the masses a pretty reasonable (if perhaps not very refined) start in life compared to what state education has given them. That's my opinion anyway.

The peacock feathers argument. In English: the fear that we are moving more and more towards a world in which you will need a super-advanced degree in order to become a Tesco Check-Out Person. I further surmise that this is a reason why lots of people fear a totally free market in education. It would unleash a world in which more and more people spent about two thirds of their lives still at school. Again, I think this fear is mistaken, and that a free market would bring people up against the costs of such absurdities. But it's something to think about and talk about, I hope.

The whole Sovietisation thing. A constant theme here, as the link above will demonstrate if you scroll down, and down, and down. Excessive centralisation, bogus statistics, everybody (including and especially the supreme political heads of education) helping each other to cheat. Think, Soviet steel production or agricultural production statistics. (And think: collapse of Soviet Union.)

And, in response to Sovietisation, the argument for freedom because education (like the "economy") is too complicated and too subtle and too unmeasurable to centralise. I like postings here which undermine the simplicities involved in assuming that educational success can be fully and accurately measured. (Queue argument: what exactly do we mean by "education"?) Ironically, the free marketeers are the ones who now like educational numbers and "objective" educational "research", and their statist opponents pour scorn on the numbers, and on the tests which crank out the numbers. My answer is, let educational practice be negotiated locally between parents, children and autonomous and entrepreneurial teachers. Ditto, with testing. By all means permit testing enterprises, and let people pay attention to them and buy their services is they make sense, but don't impose tests from the centre. Again: as in the free economy. If large scale educational organisations emerge in response to consumer demand and producer inclination, fine. But don't impose them. The economic calculation argument applied to education, in other words.

That ought to keep the pot boiling.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:28 PM
Category: This and that