Debate: “It is the duty of government to educate its citizens.”

Below is the opening argument I made during an Oxford-style debate on public education, hosted by the New York Political Forum in New York City on February 22nd, 2017. My partner Roberto Guzman and I argued the dissenting view, with me focusing on the philosophic arguments and Rob focusing on the economic and statistical arguments. We managed to increase the number of audience members who also held the dissenting view from 2% before the start of the debate to 20% after its conclusion. (Reading time 5 minutes.)


To begin, I’d like to bring some clarity to the meaning of the proposition that we’re arguing against, which is that it’s the duty of the government to educate its citizens. Regarding that proposition generally, it’s important to note at the outset that the term “duty” is essentially a moral term that applies to individuals. Only in a metaphorical sense can the term be applied to the government. 

 So the proposition,It’s the duty of government to educate its citizens,” in reality translates to the proposition “it’s the duty of every individual to pay for the education of his neighbor’s children.” In the moral realm, if one has a duty to pay for the education of his neighbor’s children, then in the political realm it would follow that it would be a proper function of the government to compel each individual to perform such a duty.

And it’s this moral proposition that we oppose. 

We oppose it on the grounds that, just as we all understand that slavery is immoral, in principle any proposition that involves forcing one man to work for the unearned benefit of another, and against his own will, is immoral. We hold that all propositions of this kind are immoral, no matter what particular form they take. We hold that no one is born with an impersonal, unchosen obligation to work for the sake of others, regardless of their number or their alleged needs. 

 So that’s point one: no one has a duty to work to provide for the education of another. 

Apart from this moral issue, there is the political question of whether it’s proper for the government to play any role in education whatsoever. And to this question, our answer is an unequivocal “no!”

The reason is that education essentially consists of the dissemination of ideas. For exactly the same reason that we need a separation between church and state, likewise, we need a separation between the state and ideas. Just as it’s improper for the government to attempt to compel one’s agreement with a particular religion, it’s likewise improper for the government to compel the dissemination of any particular set of ideas into the unformed minds of children. 

So that’s point two: it’s the right of the parent, not the government, to choose which ideas are to be taught to one’s own children.

Next, it’s important to make explicit that the essential characteristic of government education that differentiates it from private education is not that it’s public, but that it’s coercive. 

In coercive education, the government forces one man to pay for another man’s education.

In coercive education, the government determines which ideas to disseminate, whether you agree with them or not, and then forces you to pay for their dissemination.

In coercive education, the government decides how many years the students will attend government schools and then forces the students to attend government schools for those number of years.

So point three is that we want to remove coercion from education.

Finally, in this debate, we want you to stop thinking in abstract, impersonal terms such as “the public,” “government duties” and the like. This issue concerns irreplaceable, individual lives, your lives and the lives of those you love. Think about yourselves and your children, of what are your own interests and how to best achieve them.

Who is better to control your child’s education? You, or a government bureaucrat?

Are you qualified to live free and think for yourselves, or not? Do you need a government bureaucrat to tell you what your child has to learn and how many years he has to spend learning it? Or are you qualified to determine what’s in the best interest of your child, and love your child enough to provide it for him?     

Conversely, do you think you are qualified to run other peoples lives, and tell them how to raise their children, using the threat of physical compulsion to enforce your demands? If not, then why would you ever consider granting such power to a government bureaucrat, who has no more right to run other people’s lives than you do?

If you’re a conservative, would you want Barack Obama controlling your child’s education? If you’re a progressive, would you want George Bush controlling your child’s education? Would anyone want Donald Trump controlling their child’s education? But this is exactly what government education means in practice: He who funds education controls education. We propose to bring both the funding and the control of education back to the parents with whom it belongs.


Comments and replies from an earlier version of this blog are reproduced below.

Jacky, February 24, 2017, 08:02 PM:

Education should not be left up to the whims of individual and private institutions.

We as a nation of free persons, have the duty and the responsibility to protect and preserve the nation. To disavow public education is to break the foundation on which we build our social cohesion, and our common understanding of, and tolerance towards, each other.

Without public education, public value is impossible. 

Our sense of duty to each other is not just a fabrication, it is what binds us together, and most importantly, the basis on which we pass judgment in a court of law. If every man hold his private values to be the highest good, then on what basis do we judge him by? Only his own. Then our courts will be obsolete; no judgment on the matter of common good can be decided.

Candis, February 25, 2017, 08:02 AM:

Duty also applies to groups, in this case, society and government. Better educated populations make for stronger and more viable economies. Since the U.S. is a democratic republic it becomes the responsibility of the government to use our tax dollars to further the viability of the nation and one of the best routes is via the best education possible for all of its citizens.

Chuck Braman, February 25, 2017, 10:02 AM:

Jacky and Candis,

In your rebuttals, you both simply chose to ignore each of my arguments above, just as if they had never been made. Since you’re publishing your comments on my blog, I consider that a bit rude, although I presume it was not intended as such. But you raise interesting points of your own that I will address.

Re: Jacky’s comments:

I find it quite odd to assume that a parent’s decisions concerning their own children would be based on whims, whereas (as is implicit in your comment) a government bureaucrat’s decisions, backed by force, concerning children who are not his own, would not. I would assume exactly the opposite.

In “a nation of free persons”—which America ideally should be—we would have no duties, i.e., unchosen obligations, to work to fulfill the needs of others enforced by law, i.e., under the threat of physical compulsion. As argued above, that is the principle underlying slavery. Our only obligation towards others in a free society is to respect their rights. It is the concept of respecting each other’s rights, not “our sense of duty to each other,” that is the basis of the legal system in a free society, and “the foundation on which we build our social cohesion, and our common understanding of, and tolerance towards, each other.” But morally speaking, social cohesion is a consequence of individual rights, not their primary purpose. In a free society, the primary purpose of individual rights is to protect every individual’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, i.e., his private values. And there is no more private value than the education of one’s own child. Your moral purpose in a free society is to achieve the happiness of yourself and those you love, including your children, while respecting the rights of others.

Re: Candis’s comments:

My essay concerns the philosophic arguments supporting the rights of parents to control the education of their own children. It was my debate partner Rob who made the economic arguments as to why private competition in an educational marketplace would necessarily produce a wide range of better quality and lower cost alternatives than could be offered by a coercive government monopoly. I don’t have time to address those arguments, although Rob has published them on his blog, so you might want to visit there. I’ll just comment that, on logical grounds, it begs the question to presume that government education provides the “best education possible for all of its citizens.”

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