BIRMINGHAM, Ala., August 9, 2013 — On July 31, think tanks and individuals across the United States and around the world celebrated what would have been the 101st birthday of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.
In Alabama, the Friedman Legacy Day 2013 event was “Conversations for Freedom,” a panel discussion on Alabama education and economy presented by the Alabama Policy Institute, supported by the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice, and hosted at Samford University.
Samford’s Professor of Economics Art Carden moderated the discussion, which consisted of a panel of conservative and libertarian scholars to “continue efforts to establish common ground between conservatives and particularly libertarians in Alabama.”
“Curiously, despite the fact that we generally rely on markets to provide food, clothing, and shelter, we have traditionally turned our back on markets when it comes to providing people with schooling,” observed Carden.
Why, Carden asked, do we trust something as valuable as education to central planning rather than competition? What role, if any, does the state deserve in education?
Daniel Sutter, a libertarian and an economics professor at Troy University, explained that there is a difference between providing education and ensuring that education is accessed, and that the government’s role should only encompass the latter, because when government plays a role in providing education bureaucratically like it does in America today, “it has little to do with teaching and educating children at all … and has a lot more to do with trying to control the values of our children.”
Even higher education is not untainted by this tendency. Daniel J. Smith, a libertarian and Assistant Professor at the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University, admitted “I know it’s weird for a professor to say … but … a lot of [higher education] delays our entry into the workforce and really doesn’t actually give us any significant skills beyond sorting us out.”
Chris McCaghren, a conservative and Assistant to the President for External Programs at Samford University, agreed with Sutter about limiting government’s role in education, and also channeled some of the Founding Fathers’ thoughts on the issue, such as Thomas Jefferson’s letter to George Wythe. “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people.” He also quoted a Benjamin Franklin classic, “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”
“Education is a long-term investment, and we live in a society that hates long-term investments,” said McCaghren, explaining that it is difficult to legislate something generationally beneficial when politicians and voters gravitate towards political expediency and instant gratification.
In reference to a structural debate he had at his university during which the opinion of the Department of Education was invoked, McCaghren observed, “the Department of Education is this big Bad Wolf sitting over us. Why? They don’t have any Constitutional authority over us. They don’t have any executive authority over us. It’s their money, right?”
An excessive attachment to federal dollars is what hinders states’ sovereignty.
Cameron Smith, Vice President and General Council of the Alabama Policy Institute, shared a story about some Birmingham citizens whose neighborhood became littered with trash. Their first inclination was to petition the government to do something about it. Then a community leader brought up an idea that was at once elementary and revolutionary: Why don’t we pick up our trash?
It would be a much more timely and affordable solution than to go through the trouble of petitioning the government to solve it.
“We have conditioned ourselves in society to look to the government as the first stop in solutions,” said Cameron Smith. “That is dangerous.”
The same concept can apply to the effectiveness of education, because as Sutter said, “I think with less government, we would actually see more education.”
What the conservatives and libertarians agreed on is that the culture of entitlement and dependency must be conquered in order for Alabama or any other state to succeed.
The choice to reform and learn from history must be made by individuals. “Governments don’t learn,” Milton Friedman reminded us. “Only people learn.”
Amanda Read is a columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. Trained as a historian, skilled as a writer, and aspiring to be a filmmaker, Amanda investigates the ideas behind contemporary culture and politics. A professional writer and researcher, she is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college graduate, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at www.amandaread.com.
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