Free to Try

Let entrepreneurship do for education what it did for technology


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

  1. To build and maintain roads adequate for use of conveyances, their operators, and passengers.
  2. To increase the average span of life by 30 years.
  3. To convey instantly the sound of a voice speaking at one place to any other point or any number of points around the world.
  4. 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.
  5. To develop a medical preventive against death from pneumonia.
  6. To transport physically a person from Los Angeles to New York in less than four hours.
  7. 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."

As we transition from 2008 to 2009, I would like to propose this thought experiment. It is 1954 and you are challenged to solve the following problems:

  1. Build and maintain an educational system that will provide the highest quality education at the lowest price for the most number of students.
  2. To convey instantly verbal and visual communication between two or more people anywhere in the world with or without wires.
  3. To manufacture and distribute high quality powerful computers small enough to sit on your lap and cheap enough for almost anyone to afford.
  4. To design and distribute software programs to run personal computers such that anyone can operate them with minimal experience or training.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a professor in the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of The Mind of the Market (Times Books).

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  1. Michael Shermer is a rightwing true believer pretending to be a skeptic.

  2. I just wish I knew why Daddy used to touch me “down there.”

  3. The ancient greeks already invented a working school system. A teacher paired with willing students. The problem today is with the students and their parents. Schools are expected to teach students who don’t want to learn, and that is not their problem. A motivated student with a used set of encyclopedias can teach themselves. Yes, there are deficiencies in the schools, but a student who wants to learn can and will in those schools. Schools should not be used as a dumping ground for children, or for social work, babysitting, or as a virtual juvenile detention facility during the day.

  4. Don’t forget that Al Gore created the internet.

  5. I fail to see how roads would have been better if they had been built by the market. Actually I fail to see how the market would have built them at all. How do you profit off of a road? Charge a toll? How would we get an efficient interstate highway system via competing innovators?

  6. “It’s also why private schools are so superior to government schools.”

    Come now, UIUC isn’t *that* bad 🙂 In all seriousness, I have argued before that since many state schools receive funding from tuition, endowments, private contributions, as well as whole buildings built with corporate money, so they aren’t completely socialist. This may explain why the engineering school is excellent–lots of private money flowing to that part of campus.

    I second Mr. Rational’s option. Highschool felt like somewhere between prison and day care. Of course, you were rewarded with additional freedoms under good behavior (honors students), or if you were a hopeless cause (the fenced off area known as the “off campus learning center”).

  7. yes, charge a toll. EZ pass probably would have been invented a lot sooner if there were tolls on most roads. Companies would have been clamoring for the opportunity to build highways and charge for their use.

    I do wonder about eminent domain though, since that is often required to build a road. Would have to pay a lot if someone didn’t want to give up land in the way of a great route from A to B. But at least it would have been fair and just.

  8. @Tony

    Do some research before reiterating unfounded opinions:

    In fact, Sweden of all places, a socialist utopia, has a large number of private roads.

  9. America’s school system would score better if kids weren’t compelled to attend school.

    My observation is that private schools are not necessarily better. I went to six different private schools around Los Angeles county from K-12. Some were good. Some not so much. The big difference is that parent’s don’t usually care all that much. The perception is more important. And of course, these schools were not compelled to teach bad students the way public schools are.

    And now, sending my kids to public schools, I’m jealous. They have far more opportunities and choices than I did.

  10. I went to six different private schools around Los Angeles county from K-12.

    Rowdy little bugger, weren’t you?

  11. Glad to see Shermer here, been a fan for awhile. I also wonder about the feasibility of private roads at this point, for the same reason (eminent domain). I just don’t see a ton of room anymore (in places that actually have traffic problems), and i live in small town Iowa.

  12. Tony cannot think of a better way for things to be done, ergo there is no better way!

    All hail Tony The Thinker.

  13. I just don’t see how competition could play a useful role in the creation of efficient road networks. Are we gonna have 20 parallel roads from Chicago to Omaha?

  14. Ok noted. You will not be asked for your theory on competitive private roads.

    What percentage of projects of all kinds do you think competition will play no useful role?

  15. “I just don’t see how competition could play a useful role in the creation of efficient road networks. Are we gonna have 20 parallel roads from Chicago to Omaha?”

    We already have multiple parallel roads going from Chicago to Omaha. Ever seen a map and noticed that Interstate highways often run close to the previous pre-Interstate highway? You can conceivably cross the whole country using nothing but two-lane roads. When there’s heavy traffic or accidents, sometimes these parallel routes are even faster.

    Also, roads compete with other transportation services such air travel, trains, and even foot/horseback travel.

    With the Eminent Domain point, any right of way can be purchased with the right price, or a creative engineer can come up with an alternate route.

  16. Here in lies the conundrum. Parents want their children to get an education; they just don’t want to do it themselves.

    Up until about 100 years ago, you went to school because you wanted an education, to better yourself and your family. In hopes you might get off the farm and do something bigger for the world.

    Now people pop out babies faster then I can say RU486 and they expect the state to raise them. Everything from “head start” to the “no child left behind”. I grew up in Southern California where the Mexican to White kid population was 3-4. My high school was a “performing arts school” ( It is a magnet school, publice) Which meant you had to audition and maintain a GPA to attend. But in 1990 they changed the rules and the state and city demanded that a “racial balance” be implemented. There where already Blacks, Mexicans, and many Asians along with the White kids. These students wanted to be in the school.

    When they implemented this quota they took anybody. They didn’t have to audition, nor did they have to maintain the same GPA as other students ( White students, I dropped to a C- in a class and I was put on probation, while another gal who was Black failed the class, and nothing was done about her). The quality of the school slipped immensely, the rooms became over crowded and many of my teachers I had known since 4th grade (this was a 4-12 art school) left because of the overcrowding and the violence. Now it wasn’t because they brought in more “ethnic” children who wanted to perform, paint, and dance, they took anyone who applied, talent, or not.

    In my senior year there where two shootings on campus by rival gangs (both students where attending my high school) thankfully it was mostly a lot of posturing, and shooting in the air.

    I will be home schooling my children. I have no intention of putting them through that social circus. I’ve met some of the educators in my neighbor hood, and it’s only reinforced my decision to stay out of the public system.

    Nothing will change with our education system until people stop popping out more children than they can feed, and stop dumping them on the state and the tired, over stretched and weary teachers.

    I don’t believe in “free education” I feel strongly that all families should put forth some of financial effort in their children’s education. If they had to pay for it, perhaps they would curve their birth rate, and take more of an interest in what they are learning.

    I’m not a cold hearted right wing bigot.

    I’m just tired of doing the work so someone else gets off easy.

    -Damn it all

  17. Omaha to Chicago, curteousy of google maps

    Under the current system I see a lot of parallelism going on here, probably 20 factorial ways of getting between the two places.

  18. Rowdy little bugger, weren’t you?

    Not really. My parents were rather Gypsy like. I don’t think I ever lived anywhere longer than about three years straight until I moved out.

  19. adrian,

    I don’t know the percentage, I’m just not convinced that everything worth doing is best done by a competitive market. But then again I believe the government has uses, like providing certain specific services in the name of providing equal access to the benefits of our wonderful marketplace.

  20. “But then again I believe the government has uses, like providing certain specific services in the name of providing equal access to the benefits of our wonderful marketplace.”

    Currently, highways and major roads are paid for by gas taxes. This is a user fee, so the more you drive on a road, the more you pay for it. No car, you pay no gas taxes, and you don’t get access (just try riding a bicycle on the interstate, I dare you). This is functionally equivalent to tolls.

  21. @Tony: Anything that may be done poorly by the market is liable to be done even more poorly via central planning. If a thousand brilliant minds working together and in competition, motivated by profit and fame, cannot produce a satisfactory answer, what are the odds that one dullard with a guaranteed income, no incentive to improve, and no responsibility to anything but personal prerogative will come up with a satisfactory solution? Bureaucratic positions aren’t exactly magnets for genius, after all. Whatever decisions get made by the individual or committee, the public is stuck with the outcome and the bill.

    You don’t see how competition could have played a useful role in the development of an efficient road network? On the contrary, I don’t see what useful role central planning did play in the development of a road network. It’s a haphazard network of nodes connected with assorted types and qualities of roads laid out more or less according to the dictates of public demand. Expansion and upgrades are extraordinarily expensive compared to the cost of materials and labor. They take years to plan and more years to complete, during which changing situations often render the original plans less than optimal. Maintenance is spotty and underfunded, congestion is high, accidents – many of which could have been prevented with better road engineering – are frequent. Alternative methods of transportation are rare or nonexistent for many trips and crippled due to the competition of an (apparently, but not actually) free alternative.

    Even if you suppose a similar set of consumer demands would have evolved around private, competitive transportation, I can’t imagine the market could have created anything less efficient or organized, or at a greater expense. At the very least, I predict we would not be worse off.

  22. I’m actually a supporter of publicly controlled infrastructure but also favor privatizing education. Simple reason: It’s easier to gain a monopoly on transportation routes than on schools.

    Unless, of course, the state is helping certain schools to obtain a monopoly.

  23. “Providing equal access” is a slippery goal that can be easily twisted to the political whims of whomever is in power.

  24. And in any case, “equal access” is a myth. If you live out in the sticks, far away from sources of power and water, it’s more expensive to access electricy and water than if you live in the city, because the cost of distributing them is higher. Equal access would be ineffient. Building an interstate to the middle of nowhere is a similar bit of idiocy.

  25. Justen, you don’t think that the highways could have been built by one or a couple of large private firms? You don’t need a large number of independent firms operating independently to build an efficient highway system like you’d want a large number of independent firms for a competitive private education industry. If there were such a large number of firms, they’d be coordinating the work as one large organization and be competing for land for roads as well, because I doubt you’d want to build as many roads as there were potential private companies – there’s only certain strips of land that are prime routes.

  26. @economist: You prefer a state monopoly to a private monopoly? The difference between the state monopoly and the private monopoly being, of course, that the state collects whatever fee it feels appropriate using threat of force regardless of whether you choose to use its roads, where the private monopoly cannot charge you a dime if you choose not to use its product, and all other things (outrageous costs, corruption, malfeasance) being the same?

    That’s beside the incredible improbability of being successful in the road monopoly business without the aid of the government. For starters where do you get the capital to create even a local monopoly on roads? What town is occupied by a group of people foolish enough to sell all the parcels of land necessary to pull off such a scheme to a single entity? In what country is there only one organization interested in building roads in a given town? In what town will the citizens dumbly pay your tolls if they become outrageous without protest, abstention, illegal use, or frankly, vandalism? What city council would be complicit in such a scheme, or fail to excercise anti-trust laws to prevent it? What police are going to enforce the property rights on your roads when people fail to pay?

    This isn’t the same as plopping down a Wal-mart, where you have to buy one piece of land and hope to coerce the chamber of commerce into letting you build, then drive out your competition. You’re talking about owning nearly half the land area of a town, and beating every other potential competitor to the punch (or else buying up preexisting networks), and flying under the government radar, and not enraging the population. You must do all this while remaining profitable. You must dupe your investors into thinking it’s a sustainable scheme, which it could never be when you consider for a moment the total impact of monopolistic exploitation of transportation in a community.

    I don’t know, even without anti-trust it doesn’t seem a likely scenario.

  27. Economist,
    I’m actually a supporter of publicly controlled infrastructure but also favor privatizing education. Simple reason: It’s easier to gain a monopoly on transportation routes than on schools.

    I do not see how one leads to the other – that is, reads like a non sequitur. Why do you think that a State controlled infrastructure is better than a private one, again? Or are you saying you prefer a State monopoly than a private monopoly?

    BTW, in Mexico, we are taught that the oil the State extracts is “ours”. I don’t know, maybe you are arguing from the same absurdity, that State-controlled infrastructure is “ours”.

  28. I’m all for allowing private industry to flourish where it isn’t allowed, but… aren’t we sort of already free to try? Some of the best education that happens in this country is the home-schooled sort.

    Most people are just cheap and lazy. The government offers a socially acceptable “free” education — the masses opt for it nearly every time.

  29. Instead of personal flying cars, we invested in an interstate highway system.

  30. Shermer tries to pull a fast one with statistics. He shows how bad the US public educational system is by comparing it to other public education systems and then claims it is the “public” part that makes the US public schools bad. Clearly it is not the “public” part that is bad but rather the “US” part.

  31. This is a very contrived and skewed view of history. The reason highway safety is a problem has almost nothing to do with highways themselves. It’s mainly due to the designs of cars (free enterprise at work), and even more so due to drivers. We democratically allow almost anyone to drive, with only the most minimal tests of competence, and no safeguards against mental impairment.

    Similar, the problems with education do not stem from schools’ being public. I think a large part of the problem lies with parents who expect schools to be able to do the job of education alone, with no home encouragement of fostering of a love of education. Private schools are not immune to this.

  32. For the development of new technologies that pose very few free rider or holdout problems, a minimally constructed market is mind-blowingly powerful. The problem with using the market for things like infrastructure (ie, highways, telecom grid, etc.) is that the market imperfections are pretty crippling. Effects on third parties that are neither buying nor selling the service, market imperfections (like the difficulty of successfully negotiating with thousands of landowners along a potential highway route) and transaction costs make such huge expenditures intractable without resorting to the use of government force. You can certainly make the moral case against government planning, however, if you are categorically against government force, or you can argue that the market would develop a better method of transit, although the market has yet to do so.

  33. Tony, you could have stopped at, “I fail to see,” and that would have summed up your world-view perfectly.

  34. Although I like this article, I would argue private schools are not doing anything that much greater than public in terms of teaching and learning, but instead private schools get to choose the students (intentionally or unintentionally) thereby creating a more stable student population leading to better results. Results which are more of a result of what the student learned around the dinner table than through the better teaching and learning in the classroom at their private school.

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