What’s wrong with liberty?

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Is there any trouble with liberty? According to Christopher Beam there is. In New York magazine he has a decent crack at the philosophical nut of libertarianism, but comes up well short. The question the article asks is “do we want to live in their world?” ‘Their’ being libertarians. His answer is not only that we don’t, but that we are not likely to. He might be right on both counts, but not for the reasons expressed.

The meat of his argument appears to be that libertarianism takes things too far, but his understanding of the scholarship is weak. Bucketfuls of libertarian ink have been spilled on monetary reform, but in a paragraph devoted to this subject, he mentions only a gold standard. His conclusion is that this is “a policy that most economists agree would lead to economic meltdown”. Firstly, a return to a gold standard is not the only game in town, but more importantly since when was it a good idea to listen to most economists?

For Mr Beam, “There’s always tension between freedom and fairness. We want less government regulation, but not when it means firms can hire cheap child labor.” This is a false dichotomy, and not only because fairness is a completely subjective term. It is the fruits of capitalism that have allowed the postponement of work to become a norm for the children of the developed world. While in the developing world, prohibiting children from working often forces them into criminality and prostitution. Most people working on the ground know this and work around it accordingly.

A central criticism Mr Beam throws at libertarians is they need to bend their principles. In fact, libertarians have been working at the dirty coalface of politics and policy for years, inventing and promoting incrementalist policies that often don’t adhere to the full picture of their personal ideals. It is indeed a tough balance between principal and political power, but libertarians have never been afraid to trade in a little bit of the former for the latter. Perhaps, on occasion too much. But to suggest that the movement has been snooty towards politics is just plain wrong. The two most recognisable figures in the libertarian pantheon,  Hayek and Friedman, were not afraid to get their hands dirty when the need arose.

Mr Beam is not entirely uninformed about the key figures and pressures in the libertarian movement. However, he is remarkably ignorant of the ideas and policy successes. To be fair, anyone would find it hard to satisfactorily bring down a political philosophy in a couple of thousand words, especially one that is mostly right.

A balanced education

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According to Sir Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, England’s education system is in danger of making pupils unhappy by pursuing exam success at all costs. His gripe is with the potential of certain schemes, such as school breakfast clubs and initiatives to make school meals healthier, being dropped as part of the package of cuts to public spending.

His criticism does make sense. If school budgets are cut, there will be less room around the edges to do the warm and fluffy things that could indeed making students happier. However, Sir Paul Ennals’ conclusion is largely inadequate. Rather than calling on government not to cut various schemes, this issue has to be seen in the larger perspectives of deficit and reform.

All sectors of public sector activity need to be cut. Although some items of spending have better claims to being saved than others (arts vs. cancer sufferers is a no-brainer), there should be no sacred cows. Education has areas in which savings can be made. In tough times most parents prioritise reading and counting over breakfast clubs and healthy meals.

Beyond the unpleasantness of cuts, reforms should continue to be the focus of Gove and all that he surveys. To put it bluntly, state schools need to function as any service industry, responding to the will of its customers. In the case of schooling, the customers are the parents. Despite the extension of academies and the hesitant free schools agenda, their local supermarket is still more accountable than their local state school.

The more government steps back from education, the more room there will be for the side orders that lead to a more balanced education. This could be along the lines of Anthony Seldon’s happiness philosophy or something else entirely. On the whole Independent schools manage to have a more balanced approach to educating children than state schools, so there is no reason why a voucher-based deregulated state system couldn’t compete, if that’s what parents want.

Pisa or Babel?

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babelPeter Wilby writes a broadly convincing argument in TES against taking the Pisa results too seriously. As the former editor of the New Statesman suggests, comparisons can be misleading. A few potential sampling errors are pointed to, some more convincing than others, but whatever the merit of each, overall his thesis is persuasive. For anyone familiar with the fallibilities of the sciences, none of this should come as too much of a surprise.

Mr Wilby is hoist by his own petard, though. After much sound reasoning he ends by using the Pisa results to attack the US and neoliberalism. Quite why he does this after everything written before is surprising to say the least. I think as a rule one should try not to contradict oneself in the same article, while contradictions between articles should always be forgiven. After all, people have been known to change their minds.

Yet Mr Wilby’s point stands. With headlines and policy cobbled together from some tentative results, it would have been much better if these tests had not received so much attention, or perhaps not taken place at all. Like so much public policy, education has lurched from one failed silver bullet to the next. Today it is teachers’ qualifications, while yesterday it was class sizes. The behemoth of the state is tying itself in a knot, leaving no room for innovation. That governments still have such a uniform model of education within its borders is a sign of how stilted things are – Pisa is a sign of how far we have to go.

Rather than rely on the tentative, much better to build upon surer ground. There can be no doubting that the private sector does stuff better and cheaper than government run and regulated stuff – therefore, in education we should keep government to an absolute minimum, only interfering when we can be as certain as we can be that we are not making things worse.

The road to freedom

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There is likely no book on the market that better sums up the state of the British education system than Chris Woodhead’s A Desolation of Learning. It opens with a damning tsunami of proof on the dumbing down of exams and ends with a thoughtful conclusion entitled The Road to Freedom (a nod to an essay by Iris Murdoch, not Hayek). Everything in between is just as good.

Written prior to the transfer of power from Balls to Gove, the critique of both is still relevant to the current debate. Take his references to Oakeshott for example. Despite Gove’s unreserved and worthy personal intellectualism, the government nevertheless often defines education policy as an economic public good instead of intellectual private good that happens to result in unforeseen public benefits. The distinction is important because the former has been used to justify increasing government interference for social and economic ends impacting unduly upon the role of the educator and those to be educated.

Every person I speak to involved in education policy is asking themselves the same question right now – when will Gove come out and confirm or deny whether free schools can be run for profit? Woodhead addresses this issue straight on this book and offers a robust defence of for-profit schools for the delivery of education (and is not afraid to support them over the charitable model). On this he writes: "where there is no profit motive there is no incentive to expand capacity. It is more congenial to avoid risks and challenges of expansion and instead to channel ever-increasing surpluses into ever more elaborate facilities, which entrench the elite nature of the institution. Surpluses, which could achieve high returns on investment if re-invested in capacity creation, are used to build state of the art, five star facilities for the tiny minority of pupils whose parents can afford the highest fees. It is hard to think of An ownership system less likely to expand capacity and widen access." So true.

Reflecting upon education policy since the book, I think Woodhead strikes the right tone. There are of course things to congratulate Gove for, and leaks about this week’s white paper suggest that there will be more to celebrate. An overhaul of teacher training looks to be unashamedly radical and positive. But still we are right to want more because the success needs to be undeniable and universal. And as James Tooley of Newcastle University states in TES, "The problem with the free-school policy is that, ultimately, the schools are not accountable to the parents, but to their paymaster, the Government."

Woodhead and Tooley are both right. Gove needs to allow for-profit free schools. Once free to choose, future governments will not be able to to wrestle power back from the people, as they will be up against one interest group they cannot ignore: parents.

Should we be optimistic about economic education?

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The state of the structural deficit requires cuts to spending if we are to avoid going bust. Only someone bereft of the facts and a rational mind could argue anything different. As Allister Heath of City AM pointed out last week “reasonable people can disagree about what the priorities should be; but nobody can deny that the government is spending close to 20 per cent more than it is collecting in tax. Countries that go on like that for too long eventually go bust.”

Supporters of a minimal state can on the whole admit that cutting isn’t in every instance going to lead to more positive outcomes than we currently have. Stopping spending is really only part of the battle. The more important job is freeing people from the plethora of regulations thwarting those who have the drive and ideas to increase the economic pie. We have all been living on borrowed money for too long in an overregulated economy and society estranged from its tradition of self-help.

The immediate concern is to ensure that the current government does indeed cut public spending while reforming public services. However, the larger challenge is to ensure that more people in the country have a better understanding of the economic way of thinking. A while back Allister Heath called on Goldman Sachs to spend £1bn on financial and economic education. Sadly, I’m not so sure it’s entirely in Goldman’s interest to have a population that understands finance too well. As such, the work of the Adam Smith Institute and others remains vital.

Perhaps there is room for some optimism though. Recent popular economics books by authors such as Steven Levitt, Tim Harford, Peter Leeson and Nassim Nicholas Taleb show that there is an appetite for the pretty robust works that explore the economic way of thinking. More importantly economics on the internet is a place where obfuscation is pounced upon by smart amateurs that are as likely to be better informed than the expert. If students increasingly eschew the mass media and get their economic education from such websites as The Library of Economics and Liberty, Marginal Revolution, Coordination Problem, Think Markets and David Friedman’s Ideas rather than the mass media, this country would be both intellectually and materially richer for it.