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Free to Try: Education, Computers & Markets

by Michael Shermer, Apr 21 2009

Imagine that it is the year 1900 and you are tasked with solving the following problems:

  • To build and maintain roads adequate for use of conveyances, their operators, and passengers.
  • To increase the average span of life by 30 years.
  • To convey instantly the sound of a voice speaking at one place to any other point or any number of points around the world.
  • To convey instantly the visual replica of an action, such as a presidential inauguration, to men and women in their living rooms all over America.
  • To develop a medical preventive against death from pneumonia.
  • To transport physically a person from Los Angeles to New York in less than four hours.
  • To build a horseless carriage of the qualities and capabilities described in the latest advertising folder of any automobile manufacturer.

This thought experiment was proposed in 1954 — the year I was born — by an entrepreneur named John C. Sparks in a short essay entitled “If Men Were Free to Try.” Sparks noted that of these seven problems, the first one would have been the easiest to solve, since there were already roads on which to improve, while the other six would have seemed like the wildest of science fiction.

By 1954, however, the first problem had yet to be solved because the roads were made public and the government put itself in charge of building and maintaining them. And today we still drive on congested roads on which 37,332 died in 2008, the lowest in four decades and yet the equivalent of more than ten 9/11s every year. By contrast, the other six problems were not only solved but were so effectively implemented that by 1954 they were simply taken for granted. Why? Because, Sparks’ noted, “solutions have been found wherever the atmosphere of freedom and private ownership has prevailed wherein men could try out their ideas and succeed or fail on their own worthiness.”

Imagine, however, if in 1900 the roads were privatized and the automobile industry was nationalized (as may yet happen in 2009). As Sparks noted, instead of racing competitions between automobile manufacturers, “we would have likely participated in a contest sponsored by the privately owned highway companies to suggest how to improve the government’s horseless carriage so that it would keep pace with the fine and more-than-adequate highways.” Why? “We never do think creatively on any activity preempted by government. It is not until an activity has been freed from monopoly that creative thought comes into play … as long as men are free to try their ideas in a competitive and voluntary market.”

Now, I would like to propose another thought experiment. It is 1954 and you are challenged to solve the following problems:

  • Build and maintain an educational system that will provide the highest quality education at the lowest price for the most number of students.
  • To convey instantly verbal and visual communication between two or more people anywhere in the world with or without wires.
  • To manufacture and distribute high quality powerful computers small enough to sit on your lap and cheap enough for almost anyone to afford.
  • To design and distribute software programs to run personal computers such that anyone can operate them with minimal experience or training.
  • To create a world wide web of connectedness with virtually instantaneous access between servers, computers, and people anywhere in the world with or without wires.
  • To innovate a computer engine that allows all knowledge to be catalogued, searched, and downloaded for free or at a miniscule cost by anyone, anywhere, anytime with or without wires.
  • To make available, for free or at a miniscule cost, all the world’s knowledge for use by anyone, anywhere, anytime with or without wires.

Once again, innovators and entrepreneurs in 1954 would have thought the first problem the easiest to solve and the other six problems the product of a mind mired in madness. And yet, over half a century later, the first problem has yet to be solved, problems two through six are not only solved but continue to be improved at an exponential rate and, assuming the continued application of Moore’s Law of accelerating growth, the seventh problem will likely be complete by 2054, the centennial celebration of what I call Sparks’ Law: innovations are best generated when people are free to try their ideas in a competitive and voluntary market.

Why can we talk to nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime on wireless communication systems? Because innovators and entrepreneurs were free to try. Why can most of us afford powerful laptop computers that run easy-to-use software programs that allow us to access other computers, web pages, and digital books, movies, and music for free or at a miniscule cost? Because inventors and businessmen were free to try. Why is America’s public school system an abysmal failure (UNICEF, for example, ranked it 18th out of 24 industrialized countries in 2008)? Because the public education system has not been allowed to thrive and grow in a competitive and voluntary market. Only when it is, will significant innovation be generated.

This is why private schools are so superior to government schools, and why even pro-public school liberal Presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama send their children to private schools — just as most pro-public school liberals do who can afford it. Why can’t most Americans afford private schools? Because education has not been allowed to flourish in a free market in which, like wireless communications systems and computer hardware, software and search engine technologies, education quality would grow exponentially while the price would drop precipitously. This can only happen if education innovators and entrepreneurs are free to try.

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115 Responses to “Free to Try: Education, Computers & Markets”

  1. Chris says:

    The schools in the 17 countries above the USA are all publicly run. Not being American, I fail to see how exactly education has been held back in your country, or how it could be ” allowed to flourish in a free market”. What are you on about?

    Isn’t the healthcare system in the US “allowed to flourish in a free market”? Last I checked, it was one of the poorest serving in the world to those without the cash. In fact, every other country in the OECD has socialised healthcare, and it seems to work quite well (in addition, private healthcare is available in many of those countries too, for those who have the cash).

    If you really want to improve the schools in the US, all you need to do is redirect a few percent of your $515 billion military budget to your education system, and bingo. Being a teacher becomes a lucrative and attractive career opportunity for the intelligentsia (and teachers, I feel compelled to remind you, do not get cheaper, since they, unlike the components of a wireless router, are not subject to the laws of mass production).

    Schooling should not be left to the free market. It hasn’t worked for the clients of US health industry, it won’t work for the schools.

  2. Deen says:

    I’m rather skeptical about this “free market/government” dichotomy. Clearly, it’s possible to have both, as you point out that there are both public and private schools. Equally clearly, private schools have not out-competed the public schools yet. Also, it shouldn’t necessarily matter where the funding comes from for creativity to be possible. Finally, it can be argued that it is not possible to have a completely free market for schools anyway, as schools are often local monopolists.

    I also don’t think the thought experiment is really fair, both Sparks’ as well as your version. The first problem is always the only one that people were already trying to manage at the time, while the others were only made possible by progressive development, where it wasn’t always clear where the development would lead until a new discovery was made. Hindsight is always 20/20. Why did Sparks put pneumonia on the list, but not any of the many diseases that were known in 1900, but weren’t cured by 1954? Why did you fill your list with examples from the information revolution, but not use the failures to develop alternate fuels, automated highways, house robots, cheap fusion, etc, which people thought were just around the corner in the 50′s? Because none of those happened, and the internet revolution did.

    It’s not a very persuasive argument, if it is an argument at all.

    Finally, I disagree that your final 6 “problems” have actually been “solved”. A large portion of the world still has no access at all to the technology you mention. In fact, that’s even true for most of Sparks’ examples. And you can’t argue that that is caused by a general lack of a properly free market in those places, because they also generally lack a fair and effective government as well.

  3. Christopher says:

    Your choice of challenges represents 20-20 hindsight. Perhaps you should have listed “Send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth”, an accomplishment that certainly would not have been accomplished without government funding or the coordination of NASA.

    And, if you consider yourself a skeptic, how can you make the blanket statement that “private schools are so superior to public schools”? Unfortunately, there’s no valid measure of comparison, as private schools are not subject to the same testing requirements as public schools. As well, private schools have selection bias on the students they admit and don’t have the addtional burden of having to accomodate every possible need. As a public school teacher, I’ve considered moving to a private school, not for the school or the faculty, but for the quality of student certain schools admit.

  4. GAZZA says:

    It’s also worth noting that the Internet infrastructure – required for many of your six points to exist – was created largely as an outgrowth of government funding.

  5. Gordon says:

    There is something terribly wrong with the logic in your article. The article proposes that the US would be ranked higher than 18th out of 24 industrialized countries if the US education system were “left to the free market”. The article blames the failure of the US education system on the fact that it is mostly a public run system. If this truly is the cause for the low US performance in education, you would expect the top countries to have education systems that have been left to the free market. The top four countries are 1) South Korea, 2) Japan, 3) Finland and 4) Canada. Which of these countries have education systems that have been left to the free market?

    In addition, the article makes claims that our wonderful computers and wireless communication was a result of free market competition. This is both true and not true. The underlying and fundamental development for the internet was totally funded and developed as a government project. It can be argued that the internet would not exist if it had only been a free market development because competition would have prevented the cooperation that was required for its development.

  6. Canaidan Curmudgeon says:

    I think the clearest condemnation of private schools is the proliferation of religious based schools that are free to teach the pure nonsense of their owners. Here in Canada, the only schools that I am aware of where creationism is taught are privately owned.

  7. MadScientist says:

    How can education be a competitive thing? What will you do about the children in the failed schools which close? I can just imagine: “We’ll teach your kids more for less!” I think many teachers (like many public servants with office jobs) just have no love of their work and chose teaching as a means of getting a guaranteed paycheck, but I’d be surprised if that figure is anywhere near half the population of teachers.

    One big thing I see is that none of the great inventions were really planned. No one said “one day people will be sending unbelievable amounts of information using blinking lights and a sliver of glass – now if I can only do that”. People go about doing whatever interests them and every now and then someone says “hey, I can make something really neat with this!” Sometimes it’s a big hit and sometimes it’s a flop – sometimes it is initially a flop and comes back decades later. It’s a little sad that the people who originally had the ideas and demonstrated that they work are not rewarded at all except perhaps for recognition that they were the first – but that doesn’t pay the rent. It is very important to recognize that no great development had ever been planned – there are morons running around in many countries around the globe trying to sell their myth of “targeted research” to governments who fund research organizations. What is that “targeted research”? It’s simple – don’t fund any research that’s a sinkhole for money – only fund the projects which will be a success. Duh. Now polish that crystal ball …

    As for the government being no good at things, we have NASA, the NIST (gee, I remember when it was the NBS) and many other government departments which do great research. I agree that a lot of government departments aren’t productive or inventive but I can’t agree that there aren’t any doing serious work for the future. You also have to keep in mind that government research agencies are not allowed to compete with commercial enterprises.

    So, since these lists annoyed me so much I’ll have to challenge Michael to come up with a similar list today, challenging people to build tomorrow. Some magazines like to solicit such visions of the future from certain people – so far it’s been mostly flops. Bill Gates’ ideas seem to be highly prized – but so far flop flop flop. That’s the great thing about studying what you don’t know – there’s no telling what you’ll find.

  8. Max says:

    “This is why private schools are so superior to government schools…”

    Maybe so. What’s the evidence? That presidents send their children there? Maybe those schools are superior BECAUSE only presidents can afford to send their children there. Maybe making them affordable and less exclusive will make them worse.

  9. Ranson says:

    I get highly annoyed when things like this quasi-Libertarian claptrap get mixed in with my skepticism. It’s the kind of reasoning I expect from forum trolls rather than someone who takes all of the evidence into account. Well over half the items on each list heavily involve government funding, subsidy, or infrastructure (not to mention regulation – the 30-year life expectancy change is somewhat dependent on the FDA and USDA).

    Another thing that Libertarians fail to take into account in the “competitive” school environment is that quite a few students are going to get screwed over. Sure, you may eventually winnow out those schools that consistently underperform, but in the meantime, the students that are part of the process are left in the dust. Is a voucher-based, competition-oriented system going to pay for students to go back and repeat three years of work at a better school? Are students going to be willing to do that? I compare it to a similar argument that we don’t need health codes, because word-of-mouth will eventually prevent people from going to unhealthy restaurants. Of course, the six people dead from e. coli in the meantime will just have to suck it up.

    Having been a part of (read: lab rat in) at least two “experimental” educational programs, I can say that not every idea for changing and improving education works out. One of the two I was in was an utter failure, but it took most of a year to figure that out. Were the program designed to hide some of the more egregious issues, it probably could have cruised along for several years. How does a voucher program deal with damage already done to students in that situation? I was fortunate enough to be operating above grade level, anyway. Not everyone is.

    A better tactic might be to look at systems that work, and emulate them, rather than shoehorn a failed economic theory into every aspect of our life.

  10. Becca Stareyes says:

    I just got finished with The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. In it, Butler writes about an America in which public schooling is seen as a failure, and most public schools have closed down. The main character was middle class and she and her brothers and her neighborhood were schooled at home by her parents, as they thought it was too dangerous to let the kids leave the neighborhood. (Considering her father was killed heading home from his job, they were right.) When Lauren Olamina, the main character traveled in this world, she often worked as a scribe and teacher for the working poor and the homeless, many of whom could not even read. Offhand, it was mentioned that one either had a religious education in a time when fundamentalism was sweeping America, a corporate education where oneself (or ones parents) were pretty much indentured to the provider just to learn what the corporation wanted in a skilled future worker, or a private education which was out of the means of most Americans. Or, a lucky few in the middle class had situations like Olamina, where homeschooling by a parent was done.

    It is fiction so does not cite its sources besides that Butler thought it was plausible and would make a good story, but I want facts to know why Butler’s view is wrong and your view is right, not just for the elite, but in maintaining an educated population. You don’t cite any sources, either, and we don’t have a situation where a first-world country does not have largely public schooling, unless I’m missing something.

    Currently the private schools that are run are either expensive enough that they are out of the price range of many Americans, or run by an organization that maps its own doctrine into the lessons (for example, religious education). How do we know that this can scale up without quality dipping below public schooling today for less money than we pay taxes on, besides some sort of faith in the ‘free market’? What happens to the people who can barely afford to feed and clothe their families — currently, these people are educated via taxes because the government and the people* deem it is worth the extra taxes that everyone is educated.

    * Those who thought about it, at least. A lot of people just pay their taxes without questioning why the government provides the services it does.

  11. Julian says:

    “What happens to the people who can barely afford to feed and clothe their families — currently, these people are educated via taxes because the government and the people* deem it is worth the extra taxes that everyone is educated.”

    Yeah but what’s the return on this group? Do we really see anything coming out of this effort? I’m seriously asking. I don’t know much about domestic issues like this.

  12. Doubting Foo says:

    Dr. Shermer, I think you are suffering from confirmation bias in regards to your libertarian ideals. You throw highways and the Internet in there as good things, and yet they were the result of the government funding the development then opening things up for all. We now have to fight for things like “net neutrality” to keep it that way, against the wishes of private companies.

    And you ignore the fact that the schools in other countries that turn out better students aren’t privatized.

  13. andrew says:

    in addition to the points the others have made, it really annoys me when statistics are used so flagrantly to mislead. ~38,000 people died on our roads in 2008? and what percentage of drivers does that represent?

    well, in 2006, there were ~250,000,000 registered vehicles (wiki). even assuming that only half of those were used, and ignoring the number of trips each person took (which would surely be more than 250M), 37k deaths represents a tenth of 1%. That seems pretty damn good to me.

    And aside from the statistics, your unstated major premise is that those deaths are, at least primarily, due to the government! this, of course, is ridiculous.

    Vehicle related deaths are a function of drivers’ ability and focus, the vehicle safety features, weather conditions and road conditions. There may be more, but road conditions are the only one that the gov’t can control. And I would be skeptical of any claims that road conditions are a significant factor in a significant percentage of vehicle related deaths.

    Shermer, I like your science related entries, but the poorly reasoned libertarian ones don’t highlight your best work.

  14. Max says:

    Julian, if they’re recent immigrants who want their child to be a doctor, then there’s a huge return in subsidizing formal education.
    If they don’t value formal education, then forget about preparing the kid for college, and focus on vocational education.

  15. Don B says:

    Michael, I man-love you, but this is not up to par.

    “Build and maintain an educational system that will provide the highest quality education at the lowest price for the most number of students.”

    In my opinion, public schools meet this requirement, some more than others. I live in Ann Arbor, MI, a relatively affluent community, and I don’t know any private schools which meet this requirement in my area – they tend to be expensive, don’t pay their teachers as well as public schools, and provide their services to a very small percentage of the population.

    I went to public school in a blue-collar town, and even there, I know the opportunities to take college courses and foreign languages in the public schools were better than the much-ballyhooed private schools – AP chemistry, calculus, Latin, etc. were not available except in the public schools.

    I have spent a lot of time volunteering in my kids’ elementary school, and there is a lot more to a school than just efficient administration and cost savings through careful budgeting. The dynamic of having hundreds of students from all different backgrounds and socio-economic situations throws a wrench into any attempt at perfection. The parents many times are the difference – you can see kids who are smart and have potential slipping away because they don’t have the parental support. There is nothing a public or private school can do about this. You could double the teachers’ salaries, and these problems would still remain.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  16. Skepticism + Politics = Crap, 99% of the time.

  17. This post is thought-provoking but it involves a certain amount of faith in the free-market system. The free market system has many flaws; just look at our current economic situation. As a Canadian observing the American economy I’m glad our banks were more conservative in their practices because we’re not in the same crash situation. If only America wasn’t our biggest trade partner…

    I dread to think of a situation where there was a road-economy crash or a schooling crash. The roads, at least, might still be navigable if the companies who maintain them go under, but schools are built on employees, and if the pay stops flowing the learning stops as well.

    As far as other problems of this nature, where the government has taken on a huge task to solve the problem for everyone, there are always pros and cons. The US has private healthcare and no public healthcare to speak of, but Canada has the opposite. Both systems have flaws, and European mixed systems tend to score better when reviewed. For roads, I wonder what kind of system we’d have if all the roads were private. Would I have to pay just to get my car out of the driveway? Or would only highways be private? In medieval France peasants died because they couldn’t use toll roads to flee plagues areas.

    I should point out that in Canada we do have some private highways. Needless to say, it isn’t going 100% smoothly, but it may work out in the end.

  18. Deen says:

    I think the comment I had typed up got eaten by a reboot, but I see most of my points have been made by others in the mean time (hindsight is 20/20, etc). I have to agree with the general sentiment of disappointment in this article.

    I still have a few more to add though. For instance, schools will never be a truly free market, as schools are usually local monopolists. This only gets worse if private schools only serve a particular religion.

    Also note that unlike all the other “problems” you and Sparks mention, road construction and maintenance is not primarily a technical problem (I think they know how to lay down a slab of tarmac by now), and neither is education. It’s comparing apples and oranges.

    I also disagree that the “problems” you list have actually been “solved”. A large portion of the world still doesn’t have any access to the technologies you mention – and that is even true for most of the technological advances that Spark mentions. And you can’t argue that this is caused by the general lack of a properly free market in those places, as they generally lack a fair and efficient government as well.

  19. Damon says:

    Perhaps Dr. Shermer’s account has been compromised by a troll…

    @#10: I don’t think return on investment is the only consideration in public education–certainly not in primary and secondary education. That would give primacy to productivity as a goal of society, I think. But equality of opportunity is also a governing premise in the US, and in most other countries with successful education systems, I think. If we categorize students based on likeliness of ROI, then who do we put in charge of determining that likeliness?

  20. Andres says:

    This is pretty funny. You’d think Shermer would know by now that his libertarian posts aren’t exactly very well liked in these blogs.

    It’d be cool if he ever interacted with those who comment, but he just posts and leaves.

    It’d actually be nice to see him address the points that his readers bring up.

  21. tmac57 says:

    The more extreme form of Libertarianism likes to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ so to speak. Both sides of this debate can cherry pick examples to fit their argument, which just highlights the fact that how a society is structured is a complex issue without any clear answer. What we have done though, in this relatively free society, by consensus, and rule of law , is to adjust our approach to fulfilling the public and private needs as the situation dictates. Recent attempts by loan institutions to fore go the commonsense safe lending practices that had been developed carefully over many decades, is and example where letting the free market have free run can lead to dire consequences well beyond their own institutions.
    There needs to be a balance between the things that governments and free markets are charged with doing. We shouldn’t forget that the laws that have been created to govern were put in place one by one to meet specific needs ,such as the safeguarding of our food and banking system, and while not written in stone, they were put there for a reason, and to carelessly dismantle them for ideological reasons, can lead to some very serious problems.
    I am still trying to imagine a free market road and highway system. How would that work? Would we be charged a toll for every separate piece of roadway that someone owned? Can you imagine a trip across town that required you to stop every 100 yards or so to pay someone? I suppose that it might work, and I wonder ,if there is anywhere in the world where this is being done, how successful is it?

  22. teacherninja says:

    This was a great post because I forgot my coffee this morning an it woke me right up with indignation. The best part is all of these well-spoken commenters taking Shermer’s ideas to task most eloquently.

    I hope he heeds them.

    Thanks all.

  23. Deen says:

    Turns out I had submitted my first comment before I rebooted after all, but that my comments were eaten by the spam filter, so sorry for the repeats in my second comment. Thanks to Steve Novella for pulling both of my comments out of the dustbin.

  24. SicPreFix says:

    I am sorry, but this post of Shermer’s is simply dreadful propoganda. I have a lot of respect for Shermer’s work, his books, and certainly many of his thoughts and ideas. But using Skepticblog for such shameless propoganda is really offensive. I hope the skepticblog team has a quiet word with him and strongly discourages such further nonsense. Really shameful.

  25. SkepGeek says:

    I don’t know if this is a Midwest thing, but the private schools in the towns I have lived sucked badly compared to the public schools. People sent their kids there to shelter them from things like science that didn’t conform to their biblical interpretations and to keep them from the “bad apples” and secular influences of public schools. I went 14 years to some of the better private schools in my town, and they were still far behind in math and science education. They offered now AP classes whatsoever, and I supplemented my education by going to community college at the same time. I don’t know where this myth comes from that private schools have been so much more successful. I think it is wealthy private schools that wealthy parents send their kids to that are more successful, and it doesn’t take free markets to explain why they have more opportunities at schools with more funding and resources.

  26. andrew says:

    I’d also like to propose that, in a similar vein as godwin’s law, equating the number of deaths as a result of 9/11 to any non-terrorist act is grossly inappropriate and only serves as an appeal to emotion.

    19,000 people die from AIDS each year in the US. That’s equivalent to 5 9/11′s each year! 550,000 people died from cancer in 2005. this is equivalent to over 130 9/11′s each year!

    such comparisons demean the relevance of 9/11 by reducing the devastation and emotional/physical/cultural/economic/political impact of the event to a statistic. 9/11 is not a statistic. it was a tragedy.

  27. For the record, I don’t oppose Shermer’s politics per se, but the way people who are expert in one area, say, skepticism, apparently feel it lends authority to all their opinions.

    I like Sean Penn’s acting abilities and couldn’t care less about his politics. I like Lebron James’ basketball skills and couldn’t care less about his politics. I like Pavel Datsyuk’s wizardry with the puck and couldn’t care less about his politics.

    And I like Shermer’s skeptical writings, but….

  28. PhilB says:

    Shermer, first and formost I think you’re makeing a correlation/causation error when considering private schools. Discounting religious schools, children that are sent to private schools have families wealthy enough to pay for a private education. People from upper MiddleClass and higher also tend to instill a greater respect for education in their children. Children are also influenced parents who likely have professional careers requiring an education.

    As opposed to many in public schools who tend to reflect American society’s general distaste for education and the “liberal college elite.” Quite simply, it’s the teacher’s job to teach and the student’s job to learn. Yet, especially in public schools, many come with the thought that learning is not cool or accepted.

  29. Drew says:

    The good private / bad public dichotomy is a false one.

    Why don’t I see you arguing that our fire departments have become woefully inefficient and still use 19th century technology? They were also restricted to the realm of state enforced monopolies quite a while ago.

  30. Malachi Constant says:

    “It’d be cool if he ever interacted with those who comment, but he just posts and leaves.

    It’d actually be nice to see him address the points that his readers bring up.

    - Andres”

    I’d like to second this. I’m not grossly offended by this post, and I’m a big fan of Michael Shermer, but with the amount of (mostly) calm and rational counter-arguments that have been posted I’d like to see him respond to them. I’d also like to hear other Skeptologists responses.

    I don’t want to see a big fight or anything, but maybe Michael or another Skeptologist could write a follow up post on this topic. Or even just comment on it here.

  31. Max says:

    Dr. Shermer ought to build a stronger case for his premises before drawing conclusions from them.

  32. John says:

    I am always surprised at how many skeptics require evidence for claims of supernatural or other pseudoscientific claims, but take government ownership as a given good without any proof.

    Listening to the vast majority of economists who advocate a free market system over the fringe who don’t makes the same kind of sense that listening to the vast majority of biologists who advocate evolution over the fringe who don’t.

  33. John Chase says:

    Private schools are better than public schools? By what measure?

    If you’re interested in having your child learn math well and have the opportunity for rigorous, higher-level courses, send them to public school.

    A recent study from the University of Illinois found that public-school students outperform private-school students on standardized math tests. The study attributes this to the fact that public schools have certified math teachers and better curriculum.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090226093423.htm

  34. Chris says:

    @John #32

    “Listening to the vast majority of economists who advocate a free market system over the fringe who don’t makes the same kind of sense that listening to the vast majority of biologists who advocate evolution over the fringe who don’t.”

    That’s an argument from authority. Evolution isn’t true because a biologists say it’s so, it’s true because the evidence strongly supports it. The same cannot be said for the viability of a free market to work something like an education system. Where is the evidence that the free market could do a better job of running education than a body acting in the public interest (government)? I am skeptical that the free market could do a good job, but I’m open to evidence suggesting otherwise.

  35. Wesley says:

    Why is it that people just shut down all faculties when presented with free market solutions to schooling? The unions which prevent bad teachers from being fired are just part of the problem. A more Belgium-like system which allowed for competition among schools would naturally weed out the bad ones. (and to those attempting to compare the health care industry to schools; the health care system we have now is decidedly anti-free market)

    I’d recommend the “Stupid in America” program Stossel did a couple years ago for a starter:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bx4pN-aiofw

    There are lots more resources out there with information on how schooling can be improved with a more free market solution. I would hope that skeptics would be much more open to the vast evidence (in the form of peer reviewed studies, experimentation, mathematical modeling by economists and others, etc.) that shows how much more efficient more free market schooling systems are than socialist ones.

  36. WScott says:

    It’s oddly reassuring to know that even Michael Shermer can fall for teh stoopid occasionally. I have some libertarian leanings myself, but the notion that we wouldn’t have traffic congestion if only we privatized the roads is absurd to the point of lunacy.

  37. oldebabe says:

    One reason that I don’t mind paying taxes, is that some (tho not nearly enough) goes to public schooling. Although I am not a ‘liberal’, I think that ALL should have access to at least a rudimentary education, and beyond, if wanted.

    As a product of the public school system through graduate school (in
    the west coast urban areas and more than 40 years ago, if that makes any difference), it is disturbing to read Dr. Shermer’s denunciation of this educational system. Most people I know, ex-colleagues,
    contemporaries, and even some well-to-do (!), appreciated and benefitted from public education, and would be amazed at such a viewpoint.

    If one views that our public educational system is not all that it could be, has changed, should be better, needs fixing, etc., which obviously is true in some places at the present time, then we need to and, I hope, look for genuine solutions and make changes as necessary by all means. The U. S. government’s stance, as the legal proponent of public education, which is a good thing, is not automatically the problem, unless one sees the `government’ as the ‘people’, but then that’s another, and never-ending story…

  38. WScott says:

    John 32 said:

    I am always surprised at how many skeptics require evidence for claims of supernatural or other pseudoscientific claims, but take government ownership as a given good without any proof.

    But you don’t have a problem with skeptics taking government ownership as a given BAD without any proof? What kind of bias would we call that?

  39. Max says:

    If you want a sober take on school schoice, read Sol Stern’s piece.
    http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_1_instructional_reform.html

    Small excerpt below:

    “Choice is a panacea,” argued education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe in their influential 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. For a time, I thought so, too. Looking back from today’s vantage point, it is clear that the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged. Public and privately funded voucher programs have liberated hundreds of thousands of poor minority children from failing public schools. The movement has also reshaped the education debate. Not only vouchers, but also charter schools, tuition tax credits, mayoral control, and other reforms are now on the table as alternatives to bureaucratic, special-interest-choked big-city school systems.
    Yet social-change movements need to be attentive to the facts on the ground. Recent developments in both public and Catholic schools suggest that markets in education may not be a panacea—and that we should reexamine the direction of school reform.

  40. The Goucho says:

    I think we all respect Michael Shermer’s contributions to skepticism up to this point. However, his recent radical Libertarian rants and total “faith” in the free market system are most disturbing and so unskeptic-like. And congrats to those of you who commented on his post. Not only were the responses intelligent, well thought out, interesting, entertaining, and incisive, but they’re indicative of the appeal of skepticism in a couple of ways: First, skeptics aren’t shy about raising a ruckus when necessary, regardless of the status of the individual making a claim, and second, they’re some of the best critical thinkers on the planet. It’s clear that the early advocates of skepticism (including Shermer) have, over the years, taught you (& me!) well. Bravo.

  41. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    There actually is a bit of “free market” forces at work in the public schools. When we bought our house, one of criteria was a good school system. We chose our home largely based on this. The city taxes were a bit higher than neighboring cities. We chose to pay the higher taxes for the better schools. I do not see a huge difference between this and moving to a less expensive city and sending the kids to a private school for an additional fee.

    In the end, it is all about what you can afford.

  42. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Oh, BTW, the countries that we are always listed as lagging behind in school performance are all government based education systems.

  43. Wow, your arguments got torn to pieces by commenters. What I’m most curious about now is whether you will change your position and admit you were wrong based on that excellent feedback. Or come up with better evidence to support that correlation you see between free market and success in a sector such as education. A true skeptic would imho. :)

  44. ballookey says:

    Thanks to listening to the SGU I can identify false premises and false dichotomies galore in the above essay.

    Private schools exist, as you say, already. So why isn’t there an “educational system that will provide the highest quality education at the lowest price for the most number of students”? Private schools instead, are prohibitively expensive.

    My understanding is that the Internet, upon which so many of the above-listed technologies depend and from where they came, exists because of government research and infrastructure.

    Finally, the item about the laptops that are “cheap enough for almost anyone to afford” betrays the writer’s small world. Just about anyone CAN’T afford these small laptops. I roll with a crowd of designers and tech geeks, and yes each of us has at least one laptop, but most people I meet throughout the day do not – because of cost. No matter how valuable, all the ladies in the front office who earn $12/hour and are raising children without proper health care, aren’t spending a chunk of money on a luxury learning device.

  45. John says:

    WScott:
    “But you don’t have a problem with skeptics taking government ownership as a given BAD without any proof? What kind of bias would we call that?”

    No, I think we should be neutral towards it in the absence of proof either way. It should be required to be pretty positive (moreso than other alternatives) to gain our support of using tax money for it, of course.

  46. Bob says:

    “There actually is a bit of “free market” forces at work in the public schools. When we bought our house, one of criteria was a good school system. We chose our home largely based on this.”

    I think this is one of the best arguments for that the free market does indeed influence school choice. Personally, I would rather the choice parents show be funneled into improving schools instead of inflating the housing prices in some areas. People who can’t afford to live in a certain district (and can’t afford private schools) should not be forced to send their kids to bad schools. I think one of the most undersold aspects of the libertarian/free school choice argument is that it is actually better for those at the lower end of the spectrum financially. (in addition to the other benefits)

    “Wow, your arguments got torn to pieces by commenters. What I’m most curious about now is whether you will change your position and admit you were wrong based on that excellent feedback. Or come up with better evidence to support that correlation you see between free market and success in a sector such as education. A true skeptic
    would imho. :)”

    I have yet to see anyone who tore his arguments to pieces. The multitude of data collected on school free choice in the past decade seems to point quite decidedly in the other direction. A true skeptic wouldn’t ignore the data like it seems many are allowing their political biases to do here. ;)

  47. Eric Durbrow says:

    This article does not live up to the author’s normal proficiency. Among several major factual and logical errors, he implies that private education is superior to public education. Yet nations that have higher math and science scores than do the U.S. also have highly centralized and nationalized educational systems. Furthermore, well-controlled studies that compare public and private schools in the US using demographically similar populations find that private schoolchildren are no better than public school children in math and science. Michael: this is by far your weakest writing. Retract?

  48. Bob says:

    By the way, here is just a cursory glance at the multitude of evidence supporting school choice as being a better system (given some time, I could likely dig up some better/meatier examples):
    http://www.cato.org/subtopic_display_new.php?topic_id=64&ra_id=3
    http://www.hoover.org/pubaffairs/dailyreport/archive/2828721.html
    http://www.schoolchoices.org/roo/research.htm
    http://jaypgreene.com/2008/06/16/the-dc-voucher-evaluation/
    ….among many others….

  49. Max says:

    “Yet nations that have higher math and science scores than do the U.S. also have highly centralized and nationalized educational systems.”

    More correlation=causation.

    Here are some more correlations between science literacy and other things.
    http://www.nationmaster.com/correlations/edu_mat_lit-education-mathematical-literacy

    Let’s see, 55% correlation with technological achievement. Makes sense. 42% correlation with suicide rate among young males and females, uh oh. 38% INVERSE correlation with bottled water consumption. That’s it! Bottled water makes us stupid!

  50. Max says:

    Wrong link. The numbers were right.
    Here’s the right link.
    http://www.nationmaster.com/correlations/edu_sci_lit-education-scientific-literacy

  51. @Bob: “A true skeptic wouldn’t ignore the data like it seems many are allowing their political biases to do here.” What do you know of my political biases (provided I have one, which you don’t know)? You completely ignored that part of my comment: “Or come up with better evidence to support that correlation you see between free market and success in a sector such as education.” Dr Shermer’s post is certainly not citing any such evidence (which doesn’t mean there’s none as several comments have shown). Actually both sides on this debate have provided plenty of evidence to support their view, showing that things may be a little bit more complex. But that is in comments, Dr. Shermer’s post falls short of expectations in that regard. He should in my opinion better support his claims or mention that maybe, just maybe he may be wrong and this is just an opinion (which would be perfectly fine by me). One or the other.

  52. Bob says:

    @Bertrand
    “What do you know of my political biases (provided I have one, which you don’t know)?”
    I wasn’t specifically talking about you with that statement. I just meant in general, that seems to be whats happening here. I was merely observing that those who call themselves skeptics seem to be swayed by political convictions over evidence sometimes.

    “You completely ignored that part of my comment: “Or come up with better evidence to support that correlation you see between free market and success in a sector such as education.””
    I made a lengthy post with lots of links, but it didn’t allow me to post it, so I typed it all up again and it still didn’t allow me to post it. The software must filter out posts with too many links or something to prevent spam. It seems some others have presented links above, and I can email you some more if you would like, but it isn’t allowing me to post it here, sorry.

    I do agree with you (and others) that Shermer should further clarify his position. (with evidence or arguments or whatever he feels is appropriate) I would like to see another post by him on the subject which took into mind some of the concerns raised here.

  53. @Bob: alright then :)

  54. Bob: “I was merely observing that those who call themselves skeptics seem to be swayed by political convictions over evidence sometimes.”

    Reduce it further. We’re mostly skeptics here, but it’s pretty much any and all people who can and do become swayed, but not specifically by their politics. The sway comes from *emotions* attached to political beliefs and opinions.

    It’s a fact of human behavior skeptics do well to remember when dealing with the Wittle Wed Woo-ster Warriors.

  55. Dwatney says:

    Glad to see some skepticism towards government out there! So many skeptic blogs I have started reading show so little skepticism towards big government since the Democrats took over.

  56. Tuffgong says:

    This is another example of when people tend to jump to conclusions about Shermer’s writing. Some of it does deserve a healthy skeptical push back but reading into it, there’s a certain point Shermer makes about education that’s not just “Private schools are better because they’re not government-run.” If he meant that, open criticism is okay.

    However the point he made is that innovation is hard to come by when public schools have to play the budget game with the state and government which keeps them stuck in the middle. Privatizing education would more than likely lead to government regulation so the standards of material would not be an issue. Market principles could little by little work its way to innovating in educations with ways that work as tested over time. Anyone trying drastic change, market or not, will fail more than likely.

    I don’t like that Shermer has advocated the market for the sake of doing so as opposed to laying out the good arguments for it and elaborating on them. And in the end, this post and his point is a giant “what if” question. It’s certainly easier to have government handle education, and when you privatize something, you run the risk of making the edges more severe, but ultimately the middle is much better off. I’m gonna say shame on Shermer for being so polarized in presenting his points.

  57. At my publicly funded Australian university we find that students, at the undergraduate level, who are from government schools generally outperform those from private schools. Possibly they miss all the hand holding?

    Michael’s claim for the “free market” is not evident in the high technology area in the USA.
    In addition to comments others have made (DARPA etc), with the split up of AT&T to the “free market” the world has lost Bell Labs.
    Surely their researchers were the drivers of the solutions to the IT problems he retrospectively proposes? Eg information theory, transistors, optical maser (now laser), C & C++ (programming languages), Un*x (operating system), . . .

    Down here in Australia we were amused at the huge bricks US TV sit-coms used for their mobile (cell) phones. What a joke the US telephone system has become.
    Glad we had GSM.

    Then the olde analogue TV broadcasts from the US with really poor colour, low resolution and the 4:3 format.
    Glad we had PAL.

    The only free market success in the US is that of fundamentalist religion?
    I just hope that export restrictions will be applied.

  58. steve says:

    A mountain out of a mole hill with inaccuracies and blubber. This is the first piece of shoddy work Ive seen by the usually fine Mr. Shermer.That I can think of anyway. I think he’s either trying to put out work too fast and has gotten reckless and out of control or is corrupt or both. The automobile industry, particularly the american one, is an embarrassment to humanity and is not a good example of competition either. Its been quite monopolistic and has used the government to keep competitors out and gas efficiency low. If you want to talk about advanced transportation systems look at former communist prague. No need for a car….And what happened to the electric car mike? Corruption by capitalists is what happened. This is outdated 1980′s talk, get a grip.

    Ok his major point that competition fosters some types of achievement – duh tell us what 3rd graders all know! Projects that require collective efforts and have indirect benefits suffer from the dilemma of the commons, try reading a little game theory. No solution fits everything! Only salesmen tell you that! whaddya selling here? B.S.?

  59. Glenn says:

    I’m getting to the debate a bit late, but as a high school teacher, Many of us are not just in this for a regular paycheck as #8 stated. Most of us are actually in it for the love of teaching and the desire to help the younger members of our society. Granted there are some who are going through the motions, but I do not see many of those. A huge problem that many seem to be overlooking is that the US education system has to try to reach EVERYONE, while many of the schools in different countries, have tracked their students into various programs/schools and not left them into one area high school, where a lot of the testing and thus comparisons occur. When making comparisons to foreign countries, we need to be comparing ‘apples to apples’, not ‘apples to the entire produce department’ It is a shame that some people are trying to force our students into thinking that universities are their only option after high school, and only allowing for that outcome (we had a nearby school get all seniors together and had them ALL fill out college admission forms), but that is another way that we (the schools) are ranked. Trade and Tech schools are, I think, a perfectly viable alternative, yet many students are led to believe that that would be some sort of failure.

  60. Helen says:

    More on free markets and why they are not only the best solution in terms of efficiency, but more moral in most cases by Shermer (lots more out there by him if you google a bit):
    http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/08/money-markets-morality/
    http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/02/mind-of-the-market-explorations/
    http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/01/why-people-dont-trust-free-markets/
    (This last one should be especially interesting to some of the above commentors. It is entitled “Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets”, which I see a lot of here.)

  61. jag says:

    I feel Shermer’s points about the superiority of undirected markets to achieve better results are largely right, but a couple of things come to mind:

    1. Wasn’t the fed gov’t largely responsible for the interstate highway system which, with all its flaws, seems to work fairly well to “build and maintain roads adequate for use of conveyances, their operators, and passengers.”?

    2. Didn’t the fed gov’t, via DARPA funding, play a large role in development of the internet?

    3. Are there instances when the apparent private profit gains are so uncertain that a technology just won’t develop without gov’t support, e.g., NASA science missions, clean environmental technologies?

    4. FWIW, I suspect that the decrease in performance of public schools over many decades can largely be attributed to the increase in Federal gov’t invlovement, which may tend to impose broad policies on schools, rather than letting local gov’ts and citizens decide what’s best in their particular situations.

  62. John says:

    Congratulations Michael!

    This piece gave birth to a wonderful and skeptical discussion. I loved it (although I am with the majority who feel that A) confidence in free-markets to solve all problems is misplaced and B) the examples weren’t fair and representative.)

    More important than what we were discussing is HOW we discussed it: our skeptic community respectfully disagreed and questioned each other’s statements. The next time anyone ever accuses you of being as closed minded as a true believer – or accepting ideas on faith – recall this conversation. True skeptics eyeball ALL ideas even if they come from a friendly source or an authority (Mike, you’re an authority whether you like it or not). True skeptics will scrutinize the responses to these ideas, too.

    I learned much from checking out references submitted by posters. If everyone had agreed with Dr Schermer the discussion would have been far less interesting! It is truly a wonderful thing to be in the company of skeptics!

  63. I believe Shermer has allowed his emotions regarding libertarianism to overrule his skeptical intellect, and in doing so he risks allowing his personality to overrule skeptical principles.

    E/I = Insanity, where E = Emotion, I = Intellect

    No, Shermer’s not crazy, but his article is shot through with problems he’d pick up on in a heartbeat – were it not his own article. While intellectual attachment to libertarianism is supportable and debatable, only emotional attachment to an idea causes what is proffered in this article.

  64. VinceInSeattle says:

    Just wanted to add my voice to others here. I really like Skeptic magazine and much of Michael Shermer’s writing, but the Libertarian ideology doesn’t have any substance. All of the supposed “free market” examples have a big component of govt intervention in a mixed economy. Others have noted the contributions of USDA/FDA in prolonging lifespan and DARPA and other govt funding in the Internet. Then there’s the enforcement of the NTSC standard for TV broadcast – without it, I guess we’d be where we are with video phones and video chat – numerous manufacturer-driven protocols that don’t talk to each other. Govt supported the researchers and research that gave us better and better antibiotics, through student loans, grants to medical schools, etc.. Government built the airports, and tries to ensure the safety of airplanes. Government was heavily involved in all of the advances that are put forward as free market triumphs. The argument doesn’t hold water and it’s disappointing that someone as smart as Michael Shermer makes it.

  65. TryLogic says:

    I became a Skeptic because it fit in with all the logic and reasoning I have always used to question the value of government or religion in our lives. Any skeptic should also be able to see that government or religious oppression in our daily lives is not conducive to liberty, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. We have a complex society but we became the best place on this planet by believing in those values and goals.

    Since Al Gore “invented the internet for government defense use” [excuse me!] it has become a vital part of our lives because of the inspiration and ideas coming from the free market access to the information highway. The government inherited the internet developed by research scientists for defense purposes but opening its use to all people and the free markets has taken the technology to a success level the government never dreamed of.

    The government regulators and teachers unions work constantly to make sure we can’t define students or teachers based on either their failures to perform or on their hard work to succeed. We wouldn’t want to hurt any one’s feelings. The article by Steve Salermo last week was great on this issue…. and on target.

    And don’t forget the recent failure and crisis of our free market system was orchestrated by those who pushed for government to loan money to anyone and make mortgages available to people that didn’t qualify. When you curse free market economics remember the totalitarian governments that took everyone’s possessions and dictated what was taught by government schools. They still control half of the world’s population.

    I say….thanks Michael for good skeptical thinking on this subject. Free markets and democracy beat anything else that has been tried……history proves it!

    The rest of the world has been trying to catch up with our progress ….and as our government oppression and regulation slows us down…they might just pull it off…..or at least bring us down to their same mediocre existence!

    TryLogic

  66. Damon says:

    There’s probably more to the American education problem than the fact that the schools are run by government. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I have come to believe there are large number of parents in the U.S. who simply aren’t that concerned about their children’s education. My experience of living in several small towns in Texas has convinced me that this may be the case. Some of these parents are concerned about their children “passing” so that they’re kid can play football or be a cheerleader. Others assume that “passing a class” is the same as acquiring knowledge.

    Which brings us to another problem: assessment tests. School funding is tied to assessment tests. Higher the scores = more federal funding, lower scores = less federal funding. Teachers end up teaching the assessment test, and not substantive material.

    Then there’s the problem of the quality of our public school teachers. I have met several education majors during the time I was in college, and, I must admit, I am not impressed with the quality of most people who are education majors (albeit this is a biased sample). I would imagine that their are a lot of public school teachers who have Bachelor degrees in education but not in the subjects that they are teaching. How can one teach biology if one has never taken a biology class in his or her life? The quality of teachers and public school education varies from place to place. If the majority of people in a community value education, then the schools are usually good. If the community as whole does not value education, then the school system will suck (several small Texas towns fall into this category).

    Spending more money on public schools will not necessarily improve them. While the amount of money that is allocated to public education is important, how that money is spent is probably even more important. Other countries spend less per student than the U.S. does and they get better results. Of course in some of these countries the opportunities for students are more limited. In short, America’s education problem is a lot more complex than a simple government-run/free market dichotomy. A public school system is not necessarily a bad idea, but there has to be a better way to organize and operate it than what we have now.

  67. SPROUTLORE says:

    Liberatarian? Michael Shermer is a pure corporatist, reducing everything to a dollar value. And that dollar value is determined by the market, not utility, necessity, or foresight. From what I’ve read – and maybe it just happens to be a narrow collection of work – Mr. Shermer buys into the notion of “a magical market place that makes everything better”. How he is a true believer, especially in the face of daily evidence, is beyond me? Interesting. But beyond me.

    You want a better educational system – increase the ratio of teachers to students – recognizing that the increased cost of creating a well educated public pays off in the long term – greater opportunity, better jobs, and better socialization. Over time the increased cost of education will reduce the money spent on health care, welfare and crime. This is money spent on long term social well being that is hard to fit on a quarterly report. Of well, forget it then. The market rules.

  68. Allen Cohn says:

    With no comment on the rest of the document, the road analogy is not a good one. The overbuilding of competing railroads after the Civil War and the resulting economic problems is the classic illustration of a “natural monopoly, i.e., an illustration that there are some goods for which competition is not a good thing. In general, areas that require enormous capital costs, such as railroads, wired telephone networks…and roads are thought to be better as regulated monopolies.

    Is education a “natural monopoly”? Doesn’t seem so to me.

  69. Max says:

    Damon,

    Does the fact that “teachers end up teaching the assessment test” explain why test scores are low?

    If parents had to pay for their children’s education, would they be more concerned about it?

  70. Max says:

    “In general, areas that require enormous capital costs, such as railroads, wired telephone networks…and roads are thought to be better as regulated monopolies.” {{by whom?}}

  71. Brian M says:

    Wow, this has sparked some debate.

    When I first started reading, I started to agree. Then you mentioned how schools would be better of privatized. Do you realize, almost (if not all) of the schools that are beating the american school system, are public? Perhaps it is something else that is holding the schools back. Just take a look at health care. America has the worst of all western nations, and it is the only privately owned and run health care system.

    I’m not against a free market, but I am against an ‘all or none’ idea. This isn’t a dichotomy.

  72. Max says:

    “Just take a look at health care. America has the worst of all western nations, and it is the only privately owned and run health care system.”

    Is that a fact?

  73. TryLogic says:

    The government is regulating and manipulating our “privately owned” health care system in to extinction. They are planning a health care system that might be able to extend jobs to the failed management of the deteriorating postal service….oh, and then they can unionize that too so that GM’s auto union leaders can have a government job. If a reasonable and logical person studies the facts…..more government power is not the solution to our complex problems. Individual freedoms and progress will happen only with free markets and less government control. Hey…. look what government compassion did for the mortgage and banking business!

    TryLogic

  74. J.F.Soti says:

    Being a person whose roots are from a country that was part of the socialist/communist block, it sickens me to no end that so many so called “skeptics” are truly leftist cynics, masquerading as free-thinking skeptics. I know from study and experience that free market capitalism is far preferable to the government gods so blindly worshipped by the left. Having been educated in the US I have been preached to by snot-nosed spoiled-brat Marxist-radical professors who do not possess a dime’s worth of life-experience which is the irony of all ironies. It is their arrogance and naiveté that “they” know how to run a government and an economy better then the individuals making their own free choices. “They” have done nothing, created nothing but perpetuated envy, cynicism, ignorance and hatred. Their understanding of economics and psychology is sophomoric. It is this sophomoric understanding of economics that is now pervading the culture and much of this blog. Warnings from those like myself, who have experienced the other side, are generally met with smug answers like “we are not like them, we know better”. Again, the arrogance! Every one of them is a mini-tyrant and a buttinski.
    I do not think Dr. Shermer should bother to answer to his critics here. The level of ignorance is too high (given our public school system), it would take far to long to set them straight. His critics need to go back and hit the books. Maybe they should even start their own businesses and get some real life experience!

  75. I think I had the same professors as did Mr. Scoti. Sure sounds familiar. I went post-grad way into adulthood and was older than almost all faculty I had. Where I was married, with children, had worked for fifteen years, and had owned and operated successful businesses, they had gone to university at age 18… and never left. They just became faculty. Nothing wrong with that, but they insisted on lecturing me on how the ‘real’ world works, which is galling coming from people who’d never visited it and I lived there.

    Again, I am not against Shermer’s conclusions or against libertarianism per se, but I do think he did a very poor job supporting them in this article.

  76. TryLogic says:

    I admire and agree with the comments of J.F. Soti. Our college and high school education systems are overwhelmed with leftist thinkers who deny history, twist the facts and make up thier own versions of reality….while being protected by tenure and unions. In college I was overwhelmed by socialist professors who are still there….or died there! I remember an interview where Michael Shermer said that he believed religions would accept evolution before the left would accept free markets and democracy……re-stated in my words…not his!
    We can see firm evidence of that in the responses to his article….

    TryLogic

  77. Mez says:

    Sad that such an interesting thinker be diseased by Libertarianism. Keep up the good work Mr Shermer, but drop the Libertarian rot. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and it’s based on “evidence” that isn’t actually true.

  78. J. Alves says:

    Many good responses above showing why Shermer’s text is very bad. Specially about his faith-based reasoning — like, my favorite examples, ignoring who runs the successful school systems in the countries that beat the USA or that many of those innovations mentioned begun as government funded projects, later to be privatized when shown to be interesting for business.

    I’d like to add another angle. Since this is society and we can’t run controlled experiments, we have to look at history in different societies. Of course that is not perfect, since we can’t even begin to account for all variables between different countries. But it’s at least somewhat better than the faith-based approach.

    I’d like to present my country’s case: Brazil. I’ve been living in the USA for 7 years now, since I was 28, as a scientist. But I was raised in Brazil. There, the educational system is as follows:

    - before college, public school is utter junk, with very few exceptions;
    - therefore, whomever can sends their kids to private school — and there are private schools of many prices and quality levels (mine was a small, middle level one, with 1900 students total from pre-school to senior high school year);
    - college and graduate school, things are inverted: public ones are very good (some are among the best in the world), completely free (well, for the student, not for society since tax money pays for them), while private colleges are usually just diploma mills that are expensive and bad quality education, with no research being done to boot. Again, few exceptions. There are plenty of private unis, so lots of opportunity for competition. Things have not improved so far, so I guess the magical market does not work below the equator?

    Now, the interesting thing is that in the past, public schools at pre-college level were BETTER than the few private ones. Our elder intellectuals, business people, scientists, etc., all keep saying/writing that they went to public schools. And they were excellent, nobody needed to pay for a good education.

    So, somehow, the private sector took over — one important factor was, supposedly, the fact that education became accessible to the whole population, and with such a huge task quality ended up falling.

    Anyway, now we have to pay (not little) for mediocre private school. The very rich can pay for the very good schools, as always, and that’s fine. The middle class struggles to pay for the mediocre private system, but the lower-middle and lower classes (vast majority) send their kids to the horrible schools, since they can’t afford anything private at all.

    Once middle-class abandoned public schools, they degenerated beyond repair. Private college “cartels” are trying hard to repeat this process with the college level now. We are hoping they won’t succeed, but if there is something the market is good at it is buying the politicians they need.

    Do you want this process repeated in your country?

  79. It’s entirely possible that I’m misinformed on this (in which case please enlighten me) but the place where too much regulation would be responsible for the current crisis looks like a massive RDF to me. While previous administrations did encourage house ownership beyond reason, where is the legislation that forced financial institutions to accept to sell subprimes? Isn’t it just a little more credible that greed has a lot more responsibility? (By the way, Wikipedia has a decent writeup of the financial crisis here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_mortgage_crisis).
    Both views that regulation is always wrong and that the market is evil are equally puzzling coming from people who think of themselves as skeptics.

  80. Malachi Constant says:

    And still no response from Michael Shermer or any other Skeptologists.

    I’m a big fan of Michael’s and I don’t want any mass condemnation, but are there any contributors to this site that will engage in a public, respectul debate?

    Michael, I really do like your other writings, but can you give us some kind of response on this article? I agree with some of your points, but obviously many skeptics here have made some good counterpoints.

    Do you have any response to this?

  81. MadScientist says:

    @Peter Ozzie Jones:

    Hey buddy, careful what you say. Although it’s true that NTSC is never the same color and admittedly inferior to PAL, the USA just whips Australia in just about anything (including big-time loonies). The last time Australia had anything to do with rockets was when it was working with the UK government. Australia has never launched a serious satellite (although you built a microsatellite once upon a time). Have a look at hi-tech exports – what does Australia export? Let me put it another way: what is it that Australia doesn’t import?

  82. Ranson says:

    @MadScientist

    Spectacularly dangerous plants and animals?

  83. autoengineer says:

    Sorry Dr. Shermer, you’re off the rails on this one. Better luck next time.

  84. TryLogic says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_Reinvestment_Act#Legislative_changes_1994
    On signing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, President Clinton said that it, “establishes the principles that, as we expand the powers of banks, we will expand the reach of the [Community Reinvestment] Act”

    There is a lot of blame to spread around here…..the Democrats were promoting loans and mortgages for the unqualified needy and the Republicans in some cases went along with it and in other cases didn’t fight enough to stop the madness.

    Massive regulation is oppressive to free markets but that does not remove the need for reasonable and intelligent regulation at times. In the case of “money and homes for everyone” the Democrats blocked regulating Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and ignored the warnings and pleas from the Bush Administration to fix the problems or face massive financial problems. You can look at the facts or be a blind revisionist on this matter.

    The main point here is that improper government manipulation of social issues can cause weakening of prosperity for all of us.

    The government has given us the Post Office, IRS, dismal Welfare programs, etc…..don’t let them manage healthcare! Maybe FedEX or UPS should manage healthcare? A good skeptic should easily be able to see why government should not dictate our every move.

    TryLogic

  85. Helen says:

    “Just take a look at health care. America has the worst of all western nations, and it is the only privately owned and run health care system.”

    About 65-70 percent of healthcare (conservatively, actually it is probably more) in the US is government run. (Medicare, Medicaid, the Indian Health Service, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Public Health Service, programs such as KidCare, and the bulk of medical research)

    It is far from a free market system, which is why it is in such bad shape.

  86. JRB says:

    @ TryLogic, J.F.Soti, et cetera.

    I’m just wondering if you are aware of the false dichotomy you seem to be presenting, i.e. “giving the government total power is bad, therefore giving them _any_ power is bad.”

    As someone J.F.Soti would most likely describe as a “leftist cynic” I accept both free markets and democracy. I also accept government run services and regulations. I think the mark of a great country is being able to balance free markets with government control to the benefit of their citizens. As other people have pointed out already, the internet is a great example of something created by a government and improved upon by the private sector to benefit people world wide.

    I would also point out that while most commenters who disagree with Dr. Shermer do so by using actual evidence that disagrees with his conclusion (i.e. countries that rank higher in education than the US do not (primarily) use privately run school systems, the examples he used in his exercise are cherry-picked after the fact, et cetera), you have largely just tossed out terms like “ignorance,” “sophomoric,” and “naive” towards those who disagree with you, while providing little hard evidence to support your preferred system beyond your own anecdotal beliefs and meaningless declaratives like “history shows it” (Really? How? By _every_ modern western nation (including the US) being a mixed system of free market and government control?).

    NB: No, UPS or FedEx are not good examples of free markets being better than a government controlled system because at the most basic level UPS does not have to provide consistent and comparable service to a nations entire population (regardless of personal economic means) like an effective healthcare or education system is required to do.

  87. TryLogic says:

    http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/DP.CHART.V19.JPG
    http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/DP.BACKSIDE.V.16.JPG

    Professor R.J. Rummel has spent his life researching War and Governments.
    He is one of the most referenced authors on the subject. He is an Agnostic skeptic and began his career as a very socialist student at University of Hawaii. He started his research in the 50′s to try and find out why his Marxist/Socialist professors and friends ignored facts or distorted the truth. His amazing research is summed up in his great charts based on his 50 years of work. Research changed his belief in the power of government. So for the skeptic mind….here is proof and facts. His charts verify and explain to me the things that I have always accepted based on reason and logic. It is proof of what I say….unless you are one that wants to deny facts and weave your own truth.
    I know one thing….as a fellow skeptic, Rummel would side with Shermer’s view point. So do I….based on facts.

    TryLogic

  88. TryLogic says:

    http://www.doingbusiness.org/EconomyRankings/Default.aspx?IncomeId=4

    Increasing complex government regulations on business will drop our standings on this chart…..

    Freedom and less restrictions on business helps economies……and prosperity.

    TryLogic

  89. @TryLogic: thanks for the link, I found this section of the same page to be especially interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_Reinvestment_Act#Relation_to_2008_financial_crisis. It does present both points of view, but most of the empirical evidence seems to indicate the CRA was not a major factor in the crisis if at all. At least that’s how I understood it.
    I’m totally with you on “a good skeptic should easily be able to see why government should not dictate our every move” (and I don’t think you’ll see anyone here claiming such a thing), but the opposite view that markets should be free of all regulation seems just as crazy.

  90. TryLogic says:

    Bertrand Le Roy….
    I for one have never said we need no regulation….and I don’t think in today’s complex society that is even possible because of our blended government. But it is possible to regulate our society in a fair and reasonable way..for instance the attempts to regulate Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were to stop the expanding dangerous lending practices that we are all now paying for…royally. Shermer’s recent post on how massive regulations have grown since the 1980′s is very alarming [including the government employees needed to enforce them]. We need government to help us maintain our freedoms….not take them away!

    I have met too many skeptics who turn off their radar and reasoning when the subject of oppresive government or socialism is brought up. Thanks for your reply!

    TryLogic

  91. Lysistrata says:

    I would argue that the free market economy is the best solution to the access to the internet. South Korea has investigated heavily into access for it citizens via government funding has access at 100 Mbps for the vast majority of its citizens. This allowing its businesses and its citizens to be leaders in the digital age. The end results access to information means a higher of standard of living for the Korean people.
    Today, I must pay $50 for my 5 Mpbs with the providers either turning off my access when I reach a limit of data per month or charging me outrageous fees if I top a certain limit. As costs decline as technology increase, I just see the broadband providers making more money. As any good capitalist knows, that when prices go up demand decreases. The results less people are able to access the Internet. This again puts the United States behind other developed countries and lowering our standard of living and putting us behind other developed countries. I am tired of seeing the United States at the bottom of the list.

  92. Max says:

    South Korean broadband is a good example.

    http://news.cnet.com/South-Korea-leads-the-way/2009-1034_3-5261393.html

    “I think there are a quite a few lessons,” said Taylor Reynolds, an International Telecommunications Union analyst who recently completed a survey of Internet and mobile services in South Korea. “Most of the growth is tied to effective competition, which you don’t see in a lot of places in the United States.”
    The Seoul government’s clearly articulated vision for modernizing the country’s infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the regulatory morass that has stunted development in U.S. telecommunications for several decades. South Korea’s policy–the cornerstone of a national technology initiative to help revive a devastated economy–has created true broadband competition, which in turn has helped prices fall and speeds rise.

  93. @MadScientist in 79.
    “Have a look at hi-tech exports – what does Australia export?”

    Well, just from my own department, at one of the four Universities in Perth, population less than 2 million, the world’s most isolated capital city.
    The DQDB protocol used in much of the networking you may well be using.
    See http://www.watri.org.au/research-labs-watri/networking.html

    Also at my University the 2005 Nobel prize winner Dr. Barry Marshal, who cracked the medical/pharmacy myth behind the causes of stomach ulcers. It turns out that mostly this is from the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Able to be detected now with a simple breath test, cured by a course of antibiotics.
    See http://www.hpylori.com.au/index.html
    See http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/
    In the 1940s Howard Florey in SA cracked the problem of mass producing penicillin.

    Then from Perth the Sirtex microspheres which deliver yttrium-90 to tumour cells in the liver.
    See http://www.sirtex.com/content.cfm?sec=world&MenuID=A040E9B4

    In shipping Perth has developed world beating high speed ferries. For instance, in November 2008 they were awarded a US$1.6 billion contract by the US Navy. These are the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV).
    See http://www.austal.com/

    I might add elsewhere in Australia Dr Graeme Clark’s work lead to the Cochlear implant with over 150,000 people having them fitted.
    Approved in 1984 by the US FDA for adults, and now for children.

    And just maybe you might have seen the film “The Dish”? This told the story how our radio telescope in NSW was used to receive the first broadcast from the moon of the Apollo crew making history with their walk in 1969.
    See http://www.csiro.au/places/ps6n.html
    More mundane ones of the wide-mouth can opening for guzzling beer and the ring pull that stays attached to the can so you don’t clutter up the environment.
    Then there are bank notes made of a plastic polymer that might also now be used to manufacture cheap solar converters, . . .

    That is just off the top of my bald head, there must be heaps of others.

    Not so good are our coal exports to the northern hemisphere to warm us all up!

  94. Steve L. says:

    Me thinks Dr. Shermer is running some kind of experiment on us skeptics and will soon be publishing the results of our reactions to his “trick” article.

  95. 79. @MadScientist
    “Have a look at hi-tech exports – what does Australia export?”

    Well, just from my own department, at one of the four Universities in Perth, population less than 2 million, the world’s most isolated capital city.
    The DQDB protocol used in much of the networking you may well be using.

    Also at my University the 2005 Nobel prize winner Dr. Barry Marshal, who cracked the medical/pharmacy myth behind the causes of stomach ulcers. It turns out that mostly this is from the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Able to be detected now with a simple breath test, cured by a course of antibiotics.

    In the 1940s Howard Florey in SA cracked the problem of mass producing penicillin.

    Then from Perth the Sirtex microspheres which deliver yttrium-90 to tumour cells in the liver.

    In shipping Perth has developed world beating high speed ferries. For instance, in November 2008 Austal were awarded a US$1.6 billion contract by the US Navy. These are the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV).

    I might add elsewhere in Australia Dr Graeme Clark’s work lead to the Cochlear implant with over 150,000 people having them fitted.
    Approved in 1984 by the US FDA for adults, and now for children.

    And just maybe you might have seen the film “The Dish”? This told the story how our radio telescope in NSW was used to receive the first broadcast from the moon of the Apollo crew making history with their walk in 1969.

    More mundane ones of the wide-mouth can opening for guzzling beer and the ring pull that stays attached to the can so you don’t clutter up the environment.
    Then there are bank notes made of a plastic polymer that might also now be used to manufacture cheap solar converters, . . .

    That is just off the top of my bald head, there must be heaps of others.

    Not so good are our coal exports to the northern hemisphere to warm us all up!

  96. Elle MacPherson. Nuff said.

  97. gfunkusarelius says:

    can i just step in to say i love coming to blogs like this because the comments are often as well or better written and thought out than the original post? what a welcome relief considering what the comments are like on the vast majority of sites.

  98. Well, most of the article writers here are “TV people”.

  99. Joe Ferguson says:

    I thought this was a skeptical publication. Why all this Libertarian mythology presented as fact? What next: Intelligent Design?

  100. Jason Lee says:

    Why are people defending public schools? We spend over $10,000 per child and it’s gotten us terrible results compared to other countries which spend less and achieve greater results.

    And I teach at a public school — which is turning more and more like a prison, what with the police presence and metal detectors and our newly erected barbed-wire fence.

    The reason why European schools outperform American schools is because they actually teach what the students want to learn, instead of degrading subjects like Art and Music.

    • @Jason: “degrading subjects like Art and Music” uh? Degrading? By the way, having studied in European (public) schools from kindergarten to PhD, I can tell you that art and music are mandatory in European schools. You’ll have to look for another scapegoat.

  101. TryLogic says:

    @Jason Lee

    Another important point is that the high school drop out rate is approaching 50% in many major comuunities including mine. We pay taxes to have the government run failing schools that are controlled by unions that are in bed with much of congress. [and every year more members of congress send their children to private schools and vote against easing that path for the public] When nearly half of Public School students are dropping out how do we account for the cost of their failure? We will never find the perfect solution but we should at least recognize that govenment isn’t the answer and should be challenged constantly by free market competition. I remember when UPS and Fedex started competing with the Postal Service…..the Post Office wa running scared and tried hard to improve for a short time. And how are they doing today?…oh I forgot…they are still being run by the government while the other guys are free market enterprises.

    I would love to see public schools survive by being challenged from private schools and seeing public schools return to the healthy days of strict discipline and merit based competition…with teachers that have to be good to keep their jobs!

    Our public schools are in crisis….they are government run….what else needs to be said?

    TryLogic

  102. Roy Lahtam says:

    Now he’s gone too far, attacking the religion of omnipotent, omniscient, and good government.

    A brilliant essay.

  103. “Our public schools are in crisis….they are government run….what else needs to be said?”

    With a perhaps not-so-healthy dose of input from the NEA, teachers’ unions, and the elected officials they support with considerable campaign donations.

  104. Michael says:

    I have been following this discussion and I feel that I have lost the thread.
    Are we debating how to improve education in America? Or, if a distant, bloated, central government should make educational decisions for individuals and their children? What exactly are we debating? It seems that Mr. Shermer, in an in-elegant way, is trying to build an argument that schools should be privatized. I don’t believe that he has supported such a notion. But perhaps his point looks at a more important question: Who gets to decide what and how to teach our children?
    What happens to any community in which more and more decisions about life are left in the hands of cognitive elites whose claims to knowledge have become difficult for the average person to verify? How can the average man check Darwin’s Theory, or the Copenhagen version of quantum mechanics?
    It seems that some people here are supporting the idea of central educational authority. Some are arguing for privatization of the schools. And still others seem to be discussing personal anecdotes regarding their education for the purpose of espousing a particular educational paradigm.
    I infer that Mr. Shermer supports public financing of a private system for primary education (closely resembling the existing system used for secondary education). I assume he is espousing some form of a voucher system. It would be nice for Mr. Shermer to clarfiy this. If this is the case, then whether or not that the resulting system created a net better educated populace, may not be the central point. It becomes a question of whether we trust individuals or government bureaucrats to make decisions. For better or worse.
    Education is part of a cultural battle over ontology and epistemology. Does anyone feel secure in the federal government’s ability to adequately respond in such a battle?

  105. Mr. Shermer does not interact with hoi polloi in the Comment Section.

  106. WScott says:

    Here’s a much more informed and well-reasoned article on the stengths and weaknesses of government involvement in transportation:

    http://thepublicdiscourse.com/viewarticle.php?selectedarticle=2009.04.17.001.pdart

  107. terry_freeman says:

    I am amazed at the number of commenters who seem to be totally unaware that free-market schools do exist, and do very well. I recommend reading James Tooley’s research, about many countries where poor people much prefer private-sector schools to government schools.

    I have a grandson who, at the age of five, emailed me a cryptogram of his own devising, and challenged me to decode it. I did so, and responded with another, which he decoded. He and his siblings read fluently. At the age of seven, he confidently handles negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and other problems which would challenge high school students. He’s not a genius; he has the advantage of being a second-generation homeschooler. Like many others, he doesn’t waste time on the factory approach to education.

    People who claim to be “skeptics” are entirely too willing to believe that the Authorities know all the answers about how to teach effectively. Free market providers swap information; they try what works and discard what does not. In short, they innovate. Governments coerce; they reduce choices; they may sometimes outlaw bad choices, but above all, they do not innovate; inertia causes governments to preserve old ways of doing things, however flawed they may be. How can you tell that a better way exists, absent comparision? Today, homeschooling provides a window by which we can compare our “fine government schools” to unregulated alternatives.

    True skeptics are invited to investigate the research into the performance of homeschoolers. If they can explain why children learn to read and write at home by the age of three or four, but government schools consider it a marvel at the age of nine or ten, I’d be all ears. It’s a fair bet that most of you who consider yourself very bright learned a great deal outside of the school environment.

  108. terry_freeman says:

    Regarding railroads, anybody who thinks that the post-Civil War experience is a good argument for “Natural Monopoly” has been reading too many government-approved texts. Much of the American railroad experience was heavily subsidized, via huge land grants, lucrative government contracts, and government-backed bonds. Whatever you subsidize tends to increase, but it tends to attract people who are good at politics, not at sound entrepreneurship. The railroads overbuilt, and did not watch expenses. Initially, profits were high; when the subsidies were cut back, the big railroad companies had trouble competing with newer, more eager competitors. The big railroads petitioned for government regulation to protect their profits; to create a legalized cartel. You can find documentation for this in many sources, including Kolko.

    The history of “public utilities” is a history of firms seeking above-market returns in exchange for “regulatory discipline.” Since the firms themselves write the regulation, this “regulatory discipline” is as meaningful as the “conflict” in studio wrestling.

    The prevalence of erroneous beliefs about history, which happen to be propagated by government monopoly schools, suggests that those institutions are more about promoting the government line than about discovering the truth. Skeptics are surely aware that at least two States – California and Texas – have state-wide agencies which control all textbooks used in their states. Richard Feynman documented his experience on such a committee. Their efforts were less about improving the educational quality of textbooks than about improving their political quality.

    Some commenters remark that European government schools are better than American schools. You may be accustomed to thinking of Europe as “socialist” and America as “laissez faire”, but the reality is that we Americans can afford a lot more political lobbying than Europeans can, so our schools are actually more politicized than theirs.

  109. danekart says:

    In Australia the private schools aren’t superior to the public schools. They all teach the same curriculum! Private schools are just for parents with money, so the school has better facilities – or religious schools, where the children are indoctrinated with the appropriate mythology daily to ensure the health and prosperity of the religion meme.

    • Max says:

      There’s a lot more to a school than its curriculum and facilities. Like its teachers.

  110. Max says:

    Bill Gates said that American teachers are rewarded for the two least important factors, seniority and a Masters degree in education, instead of the most important factor, their performance.
    He said that some teacher’s contracts allow the principal to come into the classroom as little as once per year with advanced notice.
    As others have noted, that’s largely thanks to teachers’ unions, which also oppose the successful Teach for America program.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teach_For_America
    In a study published by the Urban Institute and the Calder Center in March 2008, the authors found “that TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in-field. Such effects exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in math and science.”

  111. Sara N says:

    I really hate the idea of competitive schooling. You have charter schools and schools run by companies like a business vying against public schools. Then you take money away from public schools. This also creates more of a classist (and often racist) division in the kinds of schools parents can ‘afford.’

    Worse, private schools are generally Catholic or religious. By giving out vouchers to private schools the government most definitely skews the line between the separation of church and state.

    Educational entrepreneurs are everywhere in public schools, developing standards, professional growth, and methodologies of teaching. Good teachers will implement such measures with appropriate training. In this essay, you seem to imagine teachers as having very little power.

    Stick to skepticism, Mr. Shermer… not education politics.

  112. Fred says:

    Some Canadian Skeptic has written quite a response to this article:

    http://somecanadianskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/08/michael-shermer-false-profit-of.html

  113. Dale says:

    Surely, Dr. Shermer is putting us on – perhaps stirring the pot a bit for reaction! You can’t possibly believe that an education funded by private interests would be able to to teach critical thinking about those same private interests.