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).