Government and Education

In a comment Ram wrote, “What are your thoughts on governments (or quasi government bodies) deciding what subjects should be taught in schools. For physical and social sciences, yes, I could think of market deciding it. But specifically what about languages? Can a government decide? But again, if we leave it to the market, some languages may not survive. I find it abhorrent that in some Indian states one could complete schooling all the way until Grade 12 without learning the local language.”

TL;DR version: Government should never get into any aspect of education — funding and running schools, dictating content, etc. That’s the job of parents, and if necessary, the job of society. Regarding languages, people decide what survives and what doesn’t. It’s a pity when a language dies but the use of force to keep a dying language alive cannot be morally justified.


The fundamental principle I subscribe to is that of self-ownership, from which follows the notion of personal responsibility. But if one denies the basic axiom of self-ownership, then one is compelled to admit that someone else owns the self, and therefore the person cannot be held responsible for anything, and therefore everything regarding the person becomes the responsibility of the owner.

Assuming that the self-ownership axiom is admitted, let’s proceed to examine the idea of a government.


Government is an institution (one among many) that is collectively created to serve some functions that is supposed to be in the interests of the people that comprise the collective. The functions of governments differ among societies since societies differ in their culture, goals, capacities, etc. A society of free people would admit a kind of government that differs from the government of non-free people.

Let’s recall what Edward R Murrow (1908 – 1965), the legendary American journalist said. “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” Governments are creations of the underlying society and thus are functionally related to the nature of the society.

Free Society

In a free society, the people, individually and collectively, assume the responsibility for themselves and what’s theirs. Being free naturally implies that they are free to give up whatever freedoms they freely choose to, and assign the associated responsibilities to others, including governmental institutions.

Let’s assume here that a certain free society retains all conceivable freedoms and the responsibilities that flow from them. What then is the role of the government in such a free society? The answer is straightforward: to prevent the use of any force between and among the people through the enforcement of laws that prohibit coercion. That’s all, and nothing else.

Parents are Responsible for Children

With that preamble, we are ready to address that part of the question related to the matter of what should be taught in schools for the education of children. Children are the responsibility of parents. Therefore it is the parents’ duty and their sole prerogative to decided what their children should learn, and where and how they will learn. It is not anybody else’s business what the child learns other than his parents’. The government of a free society certainly has no justification to interfere in the right of parents to decide what the children learn.

That is the principle but is empty of any content or directions on how to operationalize the education of children. It leaves a lot of room for the precise form and functioning of the financing and provisioning of education. The choice ranges from home-schooling to private institutional schooling to public institutional schooling.

Public Schooling

Now it is true that “public institutional schooling” (public schools) is usually equated with government schools but the equation is only incidental and nothing compels it to be so. Public schools don’t necessarily have to be run by the government. They could as well be in the domain of organizations that are funded and controlled by the parents who have an interest in educating their children in public institutions.

It is usually the case that governments run public schools and finance them through taxation. But that’s not dictated by any unalterable law of nature. The reasons why governments do run public education are many, the primary reason being that it allows the government to brainwash children into believing whatever the government wants people to believe. Catch them young and with the proper indoctrination they will become obedient citizens.

Indoctrinating the Children

As an aside, here is a short list of doctrines that children are force-fed by the government in government-controlled educational institutions (including private schools):

  • Government is always the answer to all of society’s problems
  • Government is never at fault for any of society’s problems
  • The government’s sole purpose is the “public good”
  • Nationalism is good
  • Joining the army is noble
  • Democracy justifies all the powers that the government usurps for itself
  • All laws passed by the government are good because the people freely elected the legislators
  • It’s the government’s responsibility to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medicate people
  • The government will decide what you can, cannot and must do
  • It’s the government’s responsibility to redress all social imbalances and ensure equality among the people
  • Without the government’s intervention in every aspect of life from the cradle to cremation, society would collapse into chaos

Recent additions to those doctrines

  • Climate change is anthropogenic
  • Global warming is threatening the planet
  • CO2 will kill us all

Education is Not the Government’s Business

Alright, now that that rant is out of the way, here’s my take on the issues that Ram raises.

Government has no business to dictate to anyone what children should learn. (The corollary follows: government should not unilaterally decide to run schools and force people to pay for schools that they are not willing to send their children to.) That’s the job of the parents.

If the parents are unable, then they have to admit their incapacity and hand over the education of their children to others who would decide. In short, “I don’t know what my child should learn. You please take this job. And here’s the money I will pay you to do it.” So if a set of parents want that their children to be taught by the government, then they should approach the government with money in hand. Note that this is a “market solution” — the people who want public schooling, pay for it with their own money, and the government provides what the people are willing to buy. It’s no different from parents sending their children to private schools.


Now to the matter of languages. Recall Ram wrote,

“…what about languages? Can a government decide? But again, if we leave it to the market, some languages may not survive. I find it abhorrent that in some Indian states one could complete schooling all the way until Grade 12 without learning the local language.”

The principle I would consistently apply is of non-coercion. It’s true that some languages may not survive. So what are the alternatives.

  1. They die
  2. They are kept alive by government mandate
  3. They are kept alive by those who find the idea of a language dying abhorrent, and they do so by funding the continued survival of the language with their own money

Option 2 is clearly out of the question as a viable means in a free society. It is easy to see why if you consistently apply the principle of non-coercion. I leave it to the interested reader. Or perhaps for another post.



Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Government and Education”

  1. I think the idea of self ownership is non-negotiable and everything else you said essentially flows from that very easily.

    But even for those people who think government got to do something for protecting languages:

    Though I do not have much evidence for my claim, I think if we apply Darwinian principles it is safe to say the languages which fail to adapt to the needs of the modern world are likely to go extinct. The surest way to make something less adaptable to changing times is to put it in the hands of government for “protection”.

    I have seen this in Goa. Government pumps a lot of money into Konkani. This attracts cronies of politicians into the world of publishing, movie making, textbook writing and what not. Soon there are fights and politics to be the president of various government organisations in the name of local language. People who get high posts then have institutional control of affect everything related to the language. Authors are targeted for their views and publishers are bullied. Eventually all you have is bunch of fake authors publishing third rate books.

    There is no better way to kill a language than letting government officials promote poetry and literature !

    Internet however has changed things a lot. I am member of several literary groups in Marathi and Konkani which now exclusively publish online. These platforms are far away from government sponsored academics and “ministry of culture” and yet go much far in preserving languages and ensuring we have fresh high quality content.


    1. Akshar, your statement “There is no better way to kill a language than letting government officials promote poetry and literature!” is a particular instance of the more general statement “There is not better way to kill any worthwhile enterprise than letting government officials promote it.” Want to kill health care? Let the government do it. Want to kill an airline? Let the government take it over. Want to kill an industry? Let me think. Ah yes, let the government monopolize it.

      Thank goodness for the internet, as you point out. The internet essentially enables a marketplace where the monopoly power of the traditional channels of information dissemination is blocked. That marketplace allows numerous suppliers and consumers to meet and exchange, thus allowing the best (as judged by the users) to survive.


  2. I understand this post was mostly on the abstract principles and philosophy level.

    But I do believe a form of specific govt interference in funding children with vouchers, which in turn can be used to send the kids to pvt schools can be a good a solution. The cost of illiteracy is very high for the society, so i think this can be packed along with the idea of a society funding its defense and the police etc. But of course then politics enters this and the whole thing starts falling apart in a some way or form.


    1. almostaristotle,

      I would be careful in assigning the role of subsidizing the education of children to governments. Sure, it can be done but why? It is the collective responsibility of society to help those who need it but the knee-jerk response of assigning that job to the government needs to be examined, and in my opinion, rejected. Why not the government? Because of this: the government is the only agency in a nation which has the territorial monopoly on the use of force, and therefore is the only agency capable of imposing tyranny.

      Let’s be clear that no agency can do everything. A society needs get done hundreds of essential jobs, all of which are specialized. Over time, different agencies have evolved to supply to those needs. We consider it a higher-level division of labor. The baker, the mechanic, the plumber, etc, are low-level division of labor. The car manufacturer, the commercial airline, the hospital, the computer hardware firm, etc, are higher-level division of labor. That is why you see firms that build cars do just that and not get into commercial aviation or merchandise retailing.

      Expecting the government to provide domestic law and order, external defense, and health care, and education, and scientific research, and charity, and mineral exploration, and mining, and manufacturing, and central banking, and religious services, and … is silly at best and disastrous otherwise.

      Society can provide for everything that it needs, and indeed does. The mistake societies make is in the decision on what to assign to the government and what to retain within its own direct control. Socialist societies give all the powers to the government with predictably dismal outcomes. Market-oriented societies limit the role of the government to its basic function — enforcement of laws against violence and coercion — and retain everything under the control of society. That creates prosperity which is conducive to peace.


    2. The cost of illiteracy is very high for the society, so i think this can be packed along with the idea of a society funding its defense and the police etc.

      The cost of illiteracy is very high for the individual as well. In such cases markets work much better than government because individuals have the choice to make decisions that will give them maximum education for minimum price. It also gives incentives for people to invest in education and lower the prices.

      The principle that government should do something where there is a negative cost to society can be applied (and I am skeptical about it too) only when the individual actions that contribute to it have no direct negative impact on that individual. For example my car pollutes the air you breath but it has no negative cost to me and when everyone does that the air pollution reaches New Delhi level. But then all examples show that government’s solutions in such cases do more harm than good.


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