Fable of the Shoes and Education

After many unproductive conversations on getting government out of running K-12 education, I came across this post on EconLog.org a few weeks ago, which might  improve the productivity of such conversations. 

In the post, Bryan Caplan reviews six-page chapter 10 in Murray Rothbard’s Liberty, The Libertarian Manifesto in which Rothbard writes his Fable of the Shoes. 

I highly recommend reading the whole post and the whole chapter (Caplan provides a link to an electronic copy of the the book in his post).  If Caplan says these are the best six pages in economics, the pages deserve a read. 

Fable of the Shoes:

The libertarian who wants to replace government by private enterprises in the above areas is thus treated in the same way as he would be if the government had, for various reasons, been supplying shoes as a tax-financed monopoly from time immemorial.. [H]ow would most of the public treat the libertarian who now came along to advocate that the government get out of the shoe business and throw it open to private enterprise? He would undoubtedly be treated as follows: people would cry, “How could you? You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes to the public if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? How would the shoe firms be capitalized? How many brands would there be? What material would they use? What lasts? What would be the pricing arrangements for shoes? Wouldn’t regulation of the shoe industry be needed to see to it that the product is sound? And who would supply the poor with shoes? Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?”

This struck a chord with me because I’ve heard these questions when discussing education.  The beauty for people asking such questions is you can’t answer them. 

Nobody can predict how people will supply education in the absence of government K-12, just as nobody can predict how the shoe market does such a great job.  But that’s the beauty of Rothbard’s Fable, it makes that clear in a market that has met the needs of everyone. 

If someone says, education is a different product than shoes, turn the conversation to college education and explore that market. 

Also, ask them when they last checked out a book from the library for free.  Then ask when they last rented a movie.


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