Crusty Old Libertarians Spar Over Public Education


Wendy McElroy, who is working on a full bio of the amazing R.C. Hoiles, former editor and publisher of the Orange County Register and America's greatest quasi-anarchist newsman of the 20th century, reproduces in full some great correspondence between Hoiles and libertarian supereconomist Ludwig Von Mises from 1949, which I alluded to in my history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

In it they spar over the propriety of public eduction. Round one highlights, from Hoiles to Mises:

The part of [Human Action, Mises gigantic masterwork on economics] that you really did contradict yourself, and which is rather serious, is on page 872 where you make this statement: "In countries which are not harassed by struggles between various linguistic groups public education can work very well if it is limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic." I have repeatedly contended that even if pubic education was limited to these branches, the fact that some people were compelled to pay who did not want to have their children taught or who had no children, was teaching by example that the majority had a right to coerce the minority to pay for anything the majority wanted. If that is not the worse kind of government intervention, I do not know what intervention means…..

When you make this one concession you are denying that our government is limited in what it has a right to do. It seems to me that intervention by the government is just the same thing as initiating force. Understand, I am not opposed to the use of force to stop someone from initiating force, but the government has no right to initiate force…..

I would certainly be glad to have you explain how you can harmonize such a statement with the rest of the book. When you make such a statement, it looks to me as though you are setting yourself up as God, and that you know how far the government should go and how far it should not go. It is so serious that I think you should have a little slip printed up correcting this and have it put in the back of the book.

I think public schools are bound to destroy the country because they create public opinion that sanctions and endorses government intervention in an unhampered market. 

At the end of the letter, Hoiles buys 10 copies of Human Action from Mises. Hoiles still loves the book.

Mises tries to defend himself against the pugnacious publisher, but doesn't really seem to get to Hoiles' main points. Hoiles rears back up:

The English language doesn't mean a thing if you say you were not expressing an opinion of page 872 where you say: "In countries which are not harassed by struggles between various linguistic groups public education can work very well if it is limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic." Does not the phrase "works very well" express a good thing…?

I contend….that it does great harm because it teaches the youth of the land that their parents are not responsible for the support or education of their children and that the parents have a right to gang up and make those people who do not want public education pay for it….it is the worst form of interference with an unhampered market. it takes from an individual who wants to education his own children part of his life energy and part of his income….

Mises has written of how Hoiles' opinion seemed to require unanimity for government action, whereas the U.S. Constitution worked on a majority-rule principle. Hoiles strikes back:

If we are to study governments that will permit or encourage an unhampered market we must not look at history. There never has been a government that completely practiced or even completely sympathized with an unhampered market. The principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence approach it nearer than any other governmental document that I ever know of. The Constitution was a bad compromiser…..Did you know that William Garrison said the Constitution was in league with the devil and burned it? It sanctioned slavery, and slavery is the very antithesis of an unhampered market.

I wrote my own good thoughts about Hoiles back in 2007.