| The distinguished historian Bernard Bailyn, writing in 1960, argued that books on the history of American education had become “a form of initiation” for those in the teaching profession – a means to illustrate the purportedly glorious achievements of public schools. Such texts were “the patristic literature of a powerful academic ecclesia,” and the entire field “displayed the exaggeration of weakness and extravagance of emphasis that are the typical results of sustained inbreeding.”


This situation changed dramatically during the 1970s, which saw an outpouring of “revisionist” studies on the history of education by Michael Katz, David Tyack, Clarence Karier, Paul Violas, Colin Greer, and others. Some of the most important of these revisionist works, such as those by Joel Spring and E.G. West, were written from a libertarian perspective.

This new wave of historians demolished the rosy picture of state schooling drawn by conventional historians, such as Ellwood Cubberley, which depicted the victory of state schooling in America as a triumph of humanitarian reform over the reactionary critics of state education. The revisionists presented a different perspective: The battle for tax-supported compulsory schooling was a recurring story of political power, social control, and the growth of a powerful, unresponsive bureaucracy.

Revisionists argued that the welfare of children, such as teaching literacy skills, was a relatively minor concern of those reformers who pushed for increased state intervention in education. Instead, nineteenth-century reformers had various social goals foremost in mind – such as “Americanizing” immigrants, “Christianizing” Catholics, teaching a proper respect for government, and inculcating the values of the status quo.

Revisionist works on the history of education are of uneven value, to say the least. Some blame the problems of American education on “capitalism” – that ever-popular bogeyman of restless intellectuals. For example, in Schooling in Capitalist America (1976),  Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis throw everything except the proverbial kitchen sink at the feet of capitalism, including “drugs, suicide, mental instability, personal insecurity, predatory sexuality, depression, loneliness, bigotry, and hatred….” This is alarming news, indeed, but it is at least good to know that such problems do not exist in noncapitalistic societies. (Only academics could get away with this kind of Marxian claptrap.)

Even among the better revisionist works we find a troubling omission: Most pay scant attention, if any, to the libertarian critics of state schooling who flourished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet these advocates of free-market education – or “Voluntaryists,” as they called themselves in nineteenth-century Britain – predicted that governmental control of education would result in precisely those problems that revisionists later complained about.

Voluntaryists received little attention in traditional histories of education. Some of the most important figures were never mentioned at all, and to the extent they were discussed they were portrayed in a highly unfavorable light. Those Voluntaryists who warned against the pitfalls of state education, and who desired an educational free market instead, were summarily dismissed as doctrinaire advocates of laissez-faire who stubbornly resisted social improvement, especially for the lower classes. All this despite the fact that many Voluntaryists were innovators in education. They were frequently the educational progressives of their day, so to speak, who established and supported schools, funded by voluntary means, that were free to those who could not afford to pay.

This most important Voluntaryist of the eighteenth century was the Englishman Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), an accomplished and highly regarded amateur scientist who is best known for his discovery of oxygen. (He also invented soda water.) Priestley, a minister who called himself a “liberal Unitarian,” was one of the most remarkable polymaths of the eighteenth century. A friend of Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists, Priestley wrote over 150 books on an astonishing range of subjects, including philosophy, science, theology, grammar, European history, the history of Christianity, and new methods of education.

Priestley also wrote one of the finest and most consistent libertarian tracts of the eighteenth century, An Essay on the First Principles of Government (1771), which included a previously published piece, Remarks on Dr. Brown’s Code of Education. It is here that we find Priestley’s trenchant criticism of state education.

Dr. John Brown was a popular author who wrote several books bemoaning the supposed decadence of English culture. In Thoughts on Civil Liberty, Brown repeatedly invoked the Spartan model of uniform state education as a remedy for England’s problems. Priestley, who believed that diversity and competition are essential preconditions of progress (most notably the progress of knowledge), would have none of this. Sparta was “the worst government we read of” in the ancient world, “a government which secured to a man the fewest of his natural rights, and of which a man who had a taste for life would least of all choose to be a member.” Priestley continued:

While the arts of life were improving in all the neighbouring nations, Sparta…continued the nearest to her pristine barbarity; and in the space of near a thousand years (which includes the whole period in which letters and the arts were the most cultivated in the rest of Greece) produced no one poet, orator, historian, or artist of any kind. The convulsions of Athens, where life was in some measure enjoyed, and faculties of body and mind had their proper exercise and gratification, were, in my opinion, far preferable to the savage uniformity of Sparta.

Priestley understood that there must exist some fixed rules in every society, but, as an advocate of limited government, he maintained that governmental institutions, which ultimately rely on force, should be kept to the minimum required to maintain “the tolerable order of society.” Within this legal framework all social institutions – including religious, commercial, and educational activities – should be left free to develop spontaneously: “It is an universal maxim, that the more liberty is given to every thing which is in a state of growth, the more perfect it will become….”

In the preface to his History and Present State of Electricity (1767), Priestley maintained that the history of science provides the best example of the progress of human knowledge. It is here that “we see the human understanding to its greatest advantage, grasping the noblest objects, and increasing its own powers, by acquiring to itself the powers of nature, and directing them to the accomplishments of its own views; whereby the security and happiness of mankind are daily improved.”

Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Priestley believed that knowledge would continue to progress indefinitely, so long as proper conditions were maintained. But unlike those many Enlightenment thinkers who recommended state education, Priestley regarded educational freedom as essential to progress. As he put in An Essay on the First Principles of Government:

[I]f we argue from the analogy of education to other arts which are most similar to it, we can never expect to see human nature, about which it is employed, brought to perfection, but in consequence of indulging unbounded liberty, and even caprice in conducting it….From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance of such productions; and if something odd and eccentric should, now and then, arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such eccentric geniuses.

Priestley continued with another attack on the Spartan model. His preference for  the Athenian model of free-market education is clear:

Education, taken in its most extensive sense, is properly that which makes the man. One method of education, therefore, would only produce one kind of men; but the greater excellence of human nature consists in the variety of which it is capable. Instead, then, of endeavouring, by uniform and fixed systems of education, to keep mankind always the same, let us give free scope to every thing which may bid fair for introducing more variety. The various character of the Athenians was certainly preferable to the uniform character of the Spartans, or to any uniform national character whatever. Is it not universally considered as an advantage to England, that it contains so great a variety of original characters? And is it not, on this account, preferred to France, Spain, or Italy?

Uniformity is the characteristic of the brute creation.

Priestley’s opposition to state education was based on more than abstract theory. In Priestley’s day the established educational institutions of Oxford and Cambridge had degenerated to the point where they incurred severe criticisms by some leading British intellectuals. In his Memoirs of My Life and Writings, Edward Gibbon — author of Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, one of the greatest historical works ever written – noted that he “spent fourteen months at Magdalen College [one of the constituent colleges at the University of Oxford]; they proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.” According to Gibbon, at Oxford “the greater part of the public professors have for these many years given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.”

Incredible as the fact may appear, I must rest my belief on the positive and impartial evidence of a master of moral and political wisdom, who had himself resided at Oxford. Dr. Adam Smith assigns as the cause of their indolence, that, instead of being paid by voluntary contributions, which would urge them to increase the number, and to deserve the gratitude of their pupils, the Oxford professors are secure in the enjoyment of a fixed stipend, without the necessity of labour, or the apprehension of controul.

As academic tenure caused Oxford and Cambridge to stagnate, competitive Scottish Universities developed into the most renowned universities in Europe, attracting many of the best professors and students from Europe and America.

In England, Dissenters, or Nonconformists  — i.e., Protestants who refused to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church —were banned from attending Oxford and Cambridge. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, given the torpid condition of those universities. Dissenters established their own schools, known as Dissenting Academies, and these private institutions became the most innovative schools in England, often teaching the latest developments in science.

The irony of educational outlaws surpassing established universities in educational quality was not lost on Joseph Priestley, who taught at Warrington Academy (in Liverpool) for six years, beginning in 1761. As Priestley wrote in a letter to the English Prime Minister:

Shutting the doors of the universities against us, and keeping the means of learning to yourselves, you may think to keep us in ignorance and so less capable to give you disturbance. But though ignominiously and unjustly excluded from the seats of learning, and driven to the expedient of providing at a great expense for scientific education among ourselves, we have had this advantage, that our institutions, being formed in a more enlightened age, are more liberal and therefore better calculated to answer the purpose of a truly liberal education. Thus while your universities are pools of stagnant water secured by dams and mounds, our are like rivers which, taking their natural course, fertilise a whole country.

In my first essay I discussed how the libertarian appeal to liberty of conscience was extended to spheres other than religion. This is what we find in Priestley’s call for educational freedom. As he wrote in Familiar Letters, Addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham (1790), “I see no reason why any one man should be compelled to pay for the religion of another man, any more than for his instruction in grammar, philosophy, or any thing else.”


Until 1833 elementary education in England progressed without state aid or interference. Free education on an ambitious scale had been undertaken by Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants) with the establishment, in 1808, of the British and Foreign School Society (originally called the Royal Lancasterian Society). Funded primarily by Dissenting congregations, this used the monitorial system to bring education to the working classes without government assistance. And these efforts motivated Anglicans to form the National Society, which established competing free schools for educating the poor.

Over the next decade government funds were made available to both Dissenters and Anglicans. Each pound from voluntary contributions was matched by the government, up to 20,000 pounds per annum. Because the Anglican schools were receiving more contributions than the Dissenting schools, the former received most of the government funds, so Dissenters began to learn the hard way that government aid to education would serve the prevailing orthodoxy.

Even by 1839, when the Melbourne administration proposed to increase aid to 30,000 pounds per annum, relatively few Dissenters expressed opposition. Most Dissenters approved of, or silently accepted, state funding if it did not favor one religious group over another and if it did not entail state interference. The one Dissenting Deputy who argued that education “is not a legitimate function of the government” could find no support among his peers; and a meeting of Dissenting ministers in 1840 expressed its “satisfaction” with government aid to education.

All this changed in 1843, after Sir James Graham, home secretary under the Peel administration, presented a bill to the House of Commons titled A Bill for Regulating the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Factories, and for the Better Education of Children in Factory Districts. Among other things, this bill required factory children to attend school for at least three hours each day, five days per week; and it placed effective control of these schools (to be financed largely from local rates) in the hands of the Established Church of England. “The Church has ample security,” wrote Graham, “that every master in the new schools will be a Churchman, and that the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, as far as the limited exposition may be carried, will necessarily be in conformity with his creed.”

Dissenting opposition to Graham’s bill was swift and severe. It “set the whole country on fire,” according to one observer. The Eclectic Review, a leading Dissenting journal, declared:

From one end of the empire to the other, the sound of alarm has gone forth, and the hundreds of thousands who have answered to its call have astonished and confounded our opponents. The movement has been at once simultaneous and determined. The old spirit of the puritans has returned to their children, and men in high places are in consequence standing aghast, astonished at what they witness, reluctant to forego their nefarious purpose, yet scarce daring to persist in the scheme.

Thousands of petitions with over two million signatures were presented to the House in opposition to the Factories Education Bill, whereupon Graham submitted amendments in an effort to appease the Dissenters. But to no avail. Petitions against the amended clauses contained nearly another two million signatures, and the measure was withdrawn.

It was during this agitation that support by Dissenters for state aid to education (provided it did not involve interference) transformed into opposition to all such aid. Edward Baines, Jr. – editor of the Leeds Mercury, the most influential provincial newspaper in England – described the transition: “The dangerous bill of Sir James Graham, and the evidence brought out of the ability and disposition of the people to supply the means of education, combined to convince the editors of the Mercury that it is far safer and better for Government not to interfere at all in the work; and from that time forward they distinctly advocated that view.”

The Voluntaryist philosophy crystallized quickly. In meetings of the Congregational Union held in Leeds (October 1843), Baines articulated the basic arguments against state education that he would develop in more detail over the next twenty years. The Congregational Union officially declared itself in favor of voluntary education. An education conference held at the Congregational Union in Leeds (December 1843) resolved that “all funds confided to the disposal of the central committee, in aid of schools, be granted only to schools sustained entirely by voluntary contributions.”

By 1846 the majority of Congregationalists and Baptists supported voluntary education. Leading Dissenting newspapers and journals – such as the Leeds Mercury, The Nonconformist,  and The Eclectic Review – argued the case for Voluntaryism. Many Voluntaryists were active in the Anti-Corn Law League (which led a successful campaign to abolish import tariffs on grain), and they applied the principles of free trade to education. Voluntaryists energetically disputed reports which purported to show the deplorable condition of voluntary schools, and they accused government committees of misrepresenting facts and distorting evidence in order to buttress their case for government interference.

One important Voluntaryist was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a leading libertarian philosopher of his day. Although Spencer became an agnostic, he was home-schooled in Dissenting causes by his father and uncle. “Our family was essentially a dissenting family,” Spencer wrote in his Autobiography,  “and dissent is an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control.” Much of Spencer’s first political article, written in his early twenties and published in The Nonconformist in 1842, was devoted to a critique of state education, and it possibly influenced the birth of the Voluntaryist movement in the following year.

Other prominent Dissenters who campaigned for Voluntaryism were Joseph Sturge (1793-1859), a Quaker pacifist who played an important role in the antislavery movement, Samuel Morley (1809-1886), Andrew Reed (1787-1862), Henry Richard (1812-1888), Edward Miall (1809-1881), and the previously mentioned Edward Baines, Jr.  (1800-1890). Of these Miall and Baines were the most important.

Edward Miall founded and edited The Nonconformist, a periodical devoted to the separation of church and state and to the separation of school and state. Edward Baines, Jr., was the driving force behind Voluntaryism after 1843. Through his many pamphlets and articles, which combined theoretical arguments with detailed statistics, the case for Voluntaryism reached a wide audience throughout Britain.

Liberty was a basic concern of all Voluntaryists. Dissenters saw themselves in the tradition of John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke — defenders of individual rights and foes of oppressive government. Religious liberty in particular – freedom of conscience – was viewed as the great heritage of the Dissenting tradition, any violation of which should call forth “stern and indomitable resistance.”

Liberty should not be sacrificed for a greater good, argued the Dissenting minister and Voluntaryist Richard Hamilton: “There is no greater good.  There can be no greater good! It is not simply means, it is an end. We love education, but there are things which we love better.” Education is best promoted by freedom, but should there ever be a conflict, “liberty is more precious than education.” “We love education,” Hamilton stated, “but there are things which we love better.” Edward Baines agreed that education is not the ultimate good: “Liberty is far more precious.” It is essential to “all the virtues which dignify men and communities.”

The preservation of individual freedom, according to most Voluntaryists, is the only legitimate function of government. The purpose of government, wrote Herbert Spencer in “The Proper Sphere of Government” (1842), is “to defend the natural rights of man – to protect person and property – to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak; in a word, to administer justice.” Edward Miall agreed that government is “an organ for the protection of life, liberty, and property; or, in other words, for the administration of justice.”

Government, an ever-present danger to liberty, must be watched with vigilance and suspicion. “The true lover of liberty,” stated The Eclectic Review, “will jealously examine all the plans and measures of government.”

He will seldom find himself called to help it, and to weigh down its scale. He will watch its increase of power with distrust. He will specially guard against conceding to it any thing which might be otherwise done. He would deprecate its undertaking of bridges, highways, railroads. He would foresee the immense mischief of its direction of hospitals and asylums. Government has enough on its hands — its own proper functions — nor need it to be overborne. There is a class of governments which are called paternal….They exact a soulless obedience….Nothing breathes and stirs….The song of liberty is forgotten….And when such governments tamper with education, the tyranny, instead of being relieved, is eternalized.

The concern of Voluntaryists for liberty can scarcely be exaggerated. Schemes of  state education were denounced repeatedly as “the knell of English freedom,” an “assault on our constitutional liberties,” and so forth. Plans for government inspection of schools were likened to “government surveillance” and “universal espionage” that display “the police spirit.” And compulsory education was described as “child-kidnapping.”

Educational freedom is crucial, according to the Voluntaryists, because it is “an essential branch of civil freedom.” As Edward Baines put it:

A system of state education is a vast intellectual police, set to watch over the young at the most critical period of their existence, to prevent the intrusion of dangerous thoughts, and turn their minds into safe channels.

The Voluntaryists often drew parallels between educational freedom, on the one hand, and religious freedom, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties, on the other hand. As Baines noted, “We cannot violate the principles of liberty in regard to education, without furnishing at once a precedent and an inducement to violate them in regard to other matters.”

In my judgment, the State could not consistently assume the support and control of education, without assuming the support and control of both the pulpit and the press. Once decide that Government money and Government superintendence are essential in the schools, whether to insure efficiency, or to guard against abuse, ignorance, and error, and the self-same reasons will force you to apply Government money and Government superintendence to our periodical literature and our religious instruction.

Baines realized that a government need not carry the principle inherent in state education to its logical extreme, but he was disturbed by a precedent which gave to government the power of molding minds. If, as the proponents of state education argued, state education is required in order to promote civic virtue and form moral character, then, as Baines put it, “where, acting on these principles, could you consistently stop?”

Would not the same paternal care which is exerted to provide schools, schoolmasters, and school-books, be justly extended to provide mental food for the adult, and to guard against his food being poisoned? In short, would not the principle clearly justify the appointment of the Ministers of Religion, and a Censorship of the Press?

Baines conceded that there were deficiencies and imperfections in the system of voluntary education, but freedom should not be abrogated on this account. Again, he pointed to the example of a free press. A free press has many “defects and abuses”; certainly not all the products of a free press are praiseworthy. But if liberty is to be sacrificed in education in order to remedy deficiencies, then why not regulate and censor the press for the same reason? Baines employed this analogy in his brilliant rejoinder to the charge that he was an advocate of “bad schools.”

In one sense I am. I maintain that we have as much right to have wretched schools as to have wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists, wretched Members of Parliament, and wretched Ministers. You cannot proscribe all these things without proscribing liberty. The man is a simpleton who says, that to advocate Liberty is to advocate badness. The man is a quack and doctrinaire of the worst German breed, who would attempt to force all mind, whether individual or national, into a mould of ideal perfection, to stretch it out or to lop it down to his own Procrustean standard. I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior. Cultivate giants if you please; but do not stifle dwarfs.

To the many state-school advocates who pointed to the Prussian system as a model, Baines retorted: “Nearly all the Continental Governments which pay and direct the school, pay and direct also the pulpit and the press. They do it consistently.”

The literature of nineteenth-century Voluntaryism is virtually unknown today, even among many libertarians. I can think of no argument against state education by modern libertarians that was not formulated, and often with more force and clarity, by the Voluntaryists. I shall present more of their arguments in my next essay.



A common prediction of nineteenth-century British Voluntaryists was that government would employ education for its own ends, especially to instill deference and obedience in citizens. The radical individualist William Godwin, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), was among the first to express this concern. The “project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged,” he wrote, “on account of its obvious alliance with national Government [which] will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions.”

With the consolidation, in 1843, of Dissenting opposition to state education, the Godwinian warning was frequently repeated and elaborated upon. This passage from The Eclectic Review (a leading Dissenting journal) is typical:

It is no trifling thing to commit to any hands the moulding of the minds of men. An immense power is thus communicated, the tendency of which will be in exact accordance with the spirit and policy of those who use it. Governments, it is well known, are conservative. The tendency of official life is notorious, and it is the height of folly, the mere vapouring of credulity, to imagine that the educational system, if entrusted to the minister of the day, will not be employed to diffuse amongst the rising generation, that spirit and those views which are most friendly to his policy. By having, virtually, at his command, the whole machinery of education, he will cover the land with a new class of officials, whose dependence on his patronage will render them the ready instruments of his pleasure.

Government education, this writer feared, would produce “an emasculated and servile generation.” A possible advance in literacy would be purchased at the price of man’s “free spirit.” Elsewhere The Eclectic Review compared state schools to “barracks” and their employees to “troops.” “The accession of power and patronage to that government which establishes such a national system of education, can scarcely be gauged.” Teachers paid by a government will owe allegiance to that government.

What a host of stipendiaries will thus be created! And who shall say what will be their influence in the course of two generations? All their sympathies will be with the powers by whom they are paid, on whose favor they live, and from whose growing patronage their hopes of improving their condition are derived. As constitutional Englishmen, we tremble at the result. The danger is too imminent, the hazard too great, to be incurred, for any temporary stimulus which government interference can minister to education. We eschew it as alike disastrous in its results and unsound in its theory — the criminal attempt of short-sighted or flagitious politicians, to mold the intellect of the people to their pleasure.

Indoctrination is inherent in state education, according to Edward Baines. State education proceeds from the principle that “it is the duty of a Government to train the Mind of the People.” If one denies to government this right — as defenders of a free press and free religion must logically do — then one must also deny the right of government to meddle in education. It “is not the duty or province of the Government to train the mind of the people,” argued Baines, and this “principle of the highest moment” forbids state education.

Herbert Spencer agreed. State education, he wrote in Social Statics (1851), will inevitably involve indoctrination.

For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly, to fit the people for social life – to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this – a government ought to mold children into good citizens, using its own discretion in settling what a good citizen is and how a child may be molded into one.

Indoctrination was an issue that troubled even some proponents of state education. A case in point is William Lovett, the Chartist radical who is frequently praised as an early champion of state education. In his Address on Education (1837), Lovett maintained that it is “the duty of Government to establish for all classes the best possible system of education.” Education should be provided “not as a charity, but as a right.” How was the British government to discharge this duty? By providing funds for the erection and maintenance of schools. Lovett desired government financing without government control: “we are decidedly opposed to placing such immense power and influence in the hands of Government as that of selecting the teachers and superintendents, the books and kinds of instruction, and the whole management of schools in each locality.” Lovett detested state systems, such as that found in Prussia, “where the lynx-eyed satellites of power…crush in embryo the buddings of freedom.” State control of education “prostrates the whole nation before one uniform…despotism.”

Several years later Lovett became less sanguine about the prospect of government financing without government control. While still upholding in theory the duty of government to provide education, he so distrusted his own government that he called upon the working classes to reject government proposals and to “commence the great work of education yourselves.” The working classes had “everything to fear” from schools established by their own government, so Lovett outlined a proposal whereby schools could be provided through voluntary means, free from state patronage and control.

We see a similar concern with indoctrination in the work of the celebrated philosopher J. S. Mill. Mill contended that education “is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for the people,” although he favored a system in which only those who could not afford to pay would be exempt from fees. Parents who fail to provide elementary education for their children commit a breach of duty, so the state may compel parents to provide instruction. But where and how children are taught should be up to the parents; the state should merely enforce minimal educational standards through a series of public examinations. Thus did Mill attempt to escape the frightening prospect of government indoctrination. At this point he begins to sound like an ardent Voluntaryist:

That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating…. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government…in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.

Dissenters who favored state education were also sensitive to the problem of indoctrination, but many thought that the danger could be avoided by confining state schools to secular subjects. The Voluntaryists disagreed, and they repudiated all attempts at compromise. Government aid, however small and innocent at first, was bound to be followed by government strings. Government aid is “a trap and a snare,” declared The Eclectic Review. It is “a wretched bribe” which, if accepted, “will have irretrievably disgraced us.” The question is not, “How can we obtain Government money?” wrote Algernon Wells, “but, How can we avoid it?” Wells continued with a fascinating observation:

[Dissenters] must ever be equally free to act and speak. They must hold themselves entirely clear of all temptation to ask, when their public testimony is required — How will our conduct affect our grants? The belief of many Independents is that, from the hour they received Government money, they would be a changed people – their tone lowered – their spirit altered – their consistency sacrificed – and their honour tarnished.

Perhaps Edward Baines best summarized the sentiment of the Voluntaryists: “When Governments offer their arm, it is like the arm of a creditor or a constable, not so easily shaken off: there is a handcuff at the end of it.”

The lesson was clear. Educational freedom is incompatible with state support. If government control and manipulation of education are to be avoided, financial independence and integrity must be maintained.

Another theme of Voluntaryism was the need for diversity in education. Voluntaryists warned that state education would impose a dulling uniformity that would result, at best, in mediocrity.

According to Baines, the uniformity of state education will serve to “stereotype the methods of teaching, to bolster up old systems, and to prevent improvement.” If we leave education to the free market, we will see continuous progress. But “let it once be monopolized by a Government department, and thenceforth reformers must prepare to be martyrs.” Algernon Wells made a similar point:

How to teach, how to improve children, are questions admitting of new and advanced solutions, no less than inquiries how best to cultivate the soil, or to perfect manufactures. And these improvements cannot fail to proceed indefinitely, so long as education is kept wide open, and free to competition, and to all those impulses which liberty constantly supplies. But once close up this great science and movement of mind from these invigorating breezes, whether by monopoly or bounty, whether by coercion or patronage, and the sure result will be torpor and stagnancy.

The Eclectic Review, protesting that the “unitive design” of state education “would make all think alike,” continued with a chilling account of uniformity:

All shall be straightened as by the schoolmaster’s ruler, and transcribed from his copy. He shall decide what may or may not be asked. But he must be normalized himself. He must be fashioned to a model. He shall only be taught particular things. The compress and tourniquet are set on his mind. He can only be suffered to think one way….All schools will be filled with the same books. All teachers will be imbued with the same spirit. And under their cold and lifeless tuition, the national spirit, now warm and independent, will grow into a type formal and dull, one harsh outline with its crisp edges, a mere complex machine driven by external impulse, with it appendages of apparent power but of gross resistance. If any man loves that national monotony, thinks it the just position of his nature, can survey the tame and sluggish spectacle with delight, he, on the adoption of such a system, has his reward.

Auberon Herbert also cautioned against the “evils of uniformity.” Like his mentor Herbert Spencer, he thought that “all influences which tend towards uniform thought and action in education are most fatal to any regularly continuous improvement.” Imagine the effect of state uniformity in religion, art, or science. Progress would grind to a halt. Education is no different.

Therefore, if you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their sense with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department.

As a former Member of Parliament, Herbert was especially aware of the difficulty of implementing change in a bureaucratic structure. A free market, he argued, encourages innovation and risk taking. An innovator with new ideas on education can, if left legally unhampered, solicit aid from those sympathetic to his views and then test his product on the market.

But if some great official system blocks the way, if he has to overcome the stolid resistance of a department, to persuade a political party, which has no sympathy with views holding out no promise of political advantage, to satisfy inspectors, whose eyes are trained to see perfection of only one kind, and who may summarily condemn his school as “inefficient” and therefore disallowed by law, if in the meantime he is obliged by rates and taxes to support a system to which he is opposed, it becomes unlikely that this energy and confidence in his own views will be sufficient to inspire a successful resistance to such obstacles.

The Voluntaryists had even more arguments in their arsenal, and I shall consider those in my next essay.


Nineteenth-century Voluntaryists, as we have seen, prized social diversity (or what we call today a “pluralistic society”), and they were convinced that state education would impose the dead hand of uniformity. Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values, they preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market.

One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the Voluntaryist commitment to competition and disdain for government interference.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early seventeenth century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church-state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.

When fellow free-traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (a senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.” “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free-trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”

Before free-traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez-faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”

The Eclectic Review posed the basic question: Can education “be best produced by monopoly or by competition?”— and it came down unequivocally on the side of competition. Education is a “marketable commodity,” and demand for it is “as much subject to the principles and laws of political economy, as are corn or cotton.” Government intervention, in education as elsewhere, leads to market distortions:

How will it affect the balance between the demand and the supply; disturb the relations of the voluntary teacher, and misdirect the expectations and confidence of the market? Let a private teacher attempt to come into competition with such accredited and endowed agents of an incorporate system….and he will find himself in the same state with a merchant who ventures to trade without a bounty in competition with those whose traffic is encouraged by large public bounties.

Voluntaryists predicted that state aid to education would drive many voluntary schools out of business. Market schools would find themselves unable to compete with schools financed from taxes, and philanthropists who had previously contributed to education would withhold their funds, believing that, since the state would provide education anyway, there was no need for charitable support. As state aid increased market education would diminish, and this consequence would be used to support the contention that voluntary education had failed.

An educational bureaucracy, however tiny at its inception, would grow rapidly. An educational orthodoxy with employees answerable to the government would emerge. Costs would increase, and productivity would decrease. “Public servants,” wrote one Voluntaryist, “are sustained at the largest cost, and always are subject to the least responsibility.” The principle of the market, to produce “the best article….at the cheapest price,” would disappear in a state system. In an educational free market, on the contrary, a “real and effectual discipline” is exercised over educators by consumers. Free-market schools must either satisfy their customers or go out of business.

In calling for laissez-faire in education, Voluntaryists squared-off against the major economists of their day, most of whom advocated some role for government. J.S. Mill, for example, opposed leaving education to the market: “In the matter of education,” he wrote, “the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one in which the interest and judgment of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity.” Mill continued:

The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of education. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights. It will continually happen, on the voluntary system, that, the end not being desired, the means will not be provided at all, or that, the persons requiring improvement having an imperfect or altogether erroneous conception of what they want, the supply called for by the demand of the market will be anything but what is really required.

Voluntaryists responded impatiently to this elitist argument. They had encountered the same argument many times before during their campaigns for religious freedom. With man’s eternal soul at stake, defenders of a state church maintained that religion is far too important to be left to the untutored judgment of the masses. “It is the old dogma,” wrote the Dissenting minister Algernon Wells, “the people can know nothing about religion and it must be dictated to them.” Wells contended that the argument from incompetence, if used to defend state education, must also justify state interference in religion. The fact that some fellow libertarians failed to understand the ominous implications of Mill’s argument obviously annoyed the Voluntaryists.

In Social Statics (1851), Herbert Spencer dismissed Mill’s argument as “a worn-out excuse” that had been repeatedly trotted out to justify “all state interferences whatever.”

A stock argument for the state teaching of religion has been that the masses cannot distinguish false religion from true. There is hardly a single department of life over which, for similar reasons, legislative supervision has not been, or may not be, established.

Spencer questioned whether parents are as incompetent to assess education as Mill alleged. Parents, far more than government, are concerned about the welfare of their children, and uneducated parents can seek advice from others whom they trust. Even granting problems in this area, however, it does not follow that the state should intervene. As a market for mass education developed, Spencer believed that consumers would gain the knowledge that comes with experience and thereby become more sophisticated in their choice of products. Social improvement takes time, and Spencer thought that “this incompetence of the masses to distinguish good instruction from bad is being outgrown.”

Spencer contended that Mill’s argument is based on a false premise. Even if the interest and judgment of consumers are insufficient to guarantee educational quality, Mill assumed that the “interest and judgment” of a government are sufficient security. Mill, in other words, assumed that there exists an identity of interests between rulers and the people they govern.

Spencer ridiculed this tacit belief. The English government desired “a sentimental feudalism,” a country where “the people shall be respectful to their betters” and an economy “with the view of making each laborer the most efficient producing tool.” The interests of a government differ from the interests of the people, and “we may be quite sure that a state education would be administered for the advantage of those in power rather than for the advantage of the nation.” Hence even if we concede some inadequacies in free-market education, the problems inherent in state education are more serious and dangerous.

As for the rejoinder that this objection may apply to current governments but not necessarily to an ideal government that may someday exist — a government that would presumably have the best interests of the people at heart — Spencer pointed out that Mill’s argument from incompetence depends on consumers “as they now are,” not on consumers as they might be in an ideal society. We should therefore consider Mill’s alternative — government — “as it now is,” not as it should be in a hypothetical paradise.

It will not do, notwithstanding that it is all-too-often done, to point out problems that might arise in an imperfect market and then offer government as a solution —-as if that government is itself perfect, and as if government intervention will not generate its own unique and serious problems. Spencer was inviting Mill to descend from the clouds of political theory and take a hard look at the real world of governments. All things considered, in matters of education “the interest of the consumer is not only an efficient guarantee for the goodness of the things consumed, but the best guarantee.”

By George H. Smith