How Many Lies Does “The Good Lie” Tell?

In today’s Western society, with the overwhelming majority of us products of at least twelve years of mandatory government schooling, free market advocates are vastly outnumbered by defenders of the status quo. After all, what use does the state have for critical thinkers who are able to think things out for themselves and come to their own conclusions? A population full of such people could come to all sorts of outlandish ideas such as that the use of force and coercion is always reprehensible, even when committed by “officials”. We can’t have that!

Instead, state-run schools cultivate the sort of hive mind of which we see many expressions in popular culture, perhaps most notably in Hollywood. The basic plot of many a popular movie or TV show has the good guys brandishing uniforms and badges while the bad guys are shady criminals out to destroy the peaceful lives we so happily live thanks to government. Other Hollywood productions, however, include Sudanmore subtle references to the advancements supposedly made possible by – if not exclusively attributable to – state intervention. One recent example of the latter is the 2014 movie by the title “The Good Lie“.

The film follows a group of orphaned Sudanese refugees lucky enough to escape their war-torn homeland to resettle in the United States. After finding a new home in Kansas City, Missouri, the three brothers Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul have to start at the bottom of the societal totem pole. While Jeremiah and Paul start working a low-wage job at a local grocery store, the more ambitous Mamere decides to hit the books and study to become a doctor. Naturally the men experience quite the culture shock trying to adapt to life in the U.S. both in the personal and professional sphere.

One scene has the store manager asking Jeremiah and Paul to trash two shopping carts full of expired food. Considering their background the brothers are perplexed at the notion of so-called old food, but to their objection that there may be hungry mouths out there to feed, the manager responds: “I don’t sell the food inside to give it away outside, I’m a businessman!”. He then goes on to cite “a big headache with the Health Department” as another reason for trashing the food. Later on there is a confrontation where the manager gets upset with Jeremiah for giving away food to a homeless woman, causing him to quit his job on the spot.

The false dichotomy being set up here is that of a store’s choice between giving food away at a loss or selling it at a profit. Rather, the choice is between avoiding any risk of potential lawsuits by throwing something in the garbage or potentially running afoul of onerous health regulations by giving that food away to people in need. While it may not be an efficient use of resources to go out into the streets to find those people, surely it makes perfect business sense to give away food that can no longer be sold. Just imagine how quick that news would spread on modern communication platforms and the subsequent outpour of support for the business. As the manager points out though, he could get sued for selling food that in the brothers’ minds is perfectly fit for consumption. Clearly such overregulation is a major contributor to the mountains of food that simply go to waste in the U.S. every day.

In another scene one of the refugees, after being fired from his job, is told about “this thing we have in America called bosses”. Basically he is told that although these people can be incredible jerks, employees are powerless to do anything “because you need money to live, and to eat, and to go to school”! To call this a gross oversimplification would be an understatement. Are there people in managerial positions that don’t know how to treat their subordinates with dignity? Sure. Is that likely to affect people in low-skilled jobs more than those with more options on the labor market? Most probably.

The important distinction to be made here, though, is that no employee can be forced to work somewhere against his or her will. While the fry cook at McDonald’s is unlikely to want to stay in his job until retirement, the very fact that he is there in the first place indicates he perceives it to be the best alternative at that particular point in time. After all, had a better, more lucrative job been available surely he would have taken that over flipping burgers. And if he performs well on the job, the fry cook may soon be promoted to a more interesting position or use his experience and professional reference to obtain a better job elsewhere.

Resenting low-paid jobs and the businesses that provide them for not offering a so-called living wage is a great way for populists to score points in the public debate. At the same time it reveals their complete ignorance of basic economics and lack of common sense. Like so many before them the Sudanese brothers featured in The Good Lie come to a developed country in search for opportunities to build a new and better life. It just so happens that building something up takes time and hard work. Only in a fantasy world do well-paying jobs defy the unwritten laws of life and economics and just fall in one’s lap because of some words scribbled on pieces of paper by politicians. And only in a fantasy world does government schooling lead to an educated populace.

The Failures of Public Schooling (Part I)

As detailed by Albert Jay Nock[1], the three ideas or principles historically underlying the theory of education are equality, democracy, and the notion that a literate citizenry assures good public order and honest government. With these ideas in mind, it is often concluded that schooling should be considered a “public good”, or even a right.

On the topic of equality it is fitting to echo the words of economist and historian Murray Rothbard:

“It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.[2]

free_market_educationStill, it could be argued that the least we should do for equality’s sake would be to make schooling accessible for all children regardless of race, color, creed, or socio-economic background. After all, few would contest the argument that getting a good education generally increases one’s chances of being successful in life. But how does that relate to schooling? If equality were the overarching goal, why not have other necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter – arguably more important than schooling – funded by taxpayers and their consumption mandated by law? Exactly what kind of equality are we talking about?

Understanding the term “equality” in the context of schooling to refer to equal access, let’s try to put the current situation in historical perspective. It is worth noting a few historical facts that help dispel some of the myths and commonly held beliefs many seem to have. What was education like prior to the dawn of “public”, mandatory schooling?

The supply of schooling in Britain between 1800 and 1840 was relatively substantial, despite educational institutions having to depend on private funds, mostly from working parents and the church[3]. Needless to say, education was in less abundant supply than today, just as can be said about virtually everything else. Yet the percentage of the net national income spent on day-schooling of children of all ages in England was higher in 1833 than after schooling had become tax funded and compulsory[4].

On the other side of the pond, before the dawn of taxpayer funded schools, the state of New York appointed five commissioners to analyze the common school system in the state. The commission acknowledged that in order to credibly make the case for public schools, it would have to prove that the existing system was failing to meet children’s educational needs. Except what they found was the opposite: “(..) there is a natural stimulus to education; and accordingly we find it generally resorted to, unless some great local impediments interfere” [5]. Schooling was already widespread!

Judging by their actions, though, government bureaucrats were nonetheless determined to intervene. The Free Schools Act of 1867 abolished rate bills (fees) in taxpayer-funded public schools, thereby bringing an end to the level playing field in which public and private schools had been competing freely. Predictably the effect was the crowding out of the private by the public sector[6]. The public school system was further strengthened by the introduction of laws for compulsory schooling[7].

Over time this monopoly has become so entrenched that any policy to re-introduce competition in whatever form would be, and has been, vehemently opposed by teachers’ unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and subsequently voted down by their political minions.  Naturally the same can be said about their European counterparts such as the NUT and NASUWT in Britain and the GEW in Germany, not to mention the global teachers’ union federation Education International (EI). These organizations lobby for and massively benefit from maintaining the status quo in education, keeping competition out of the market and prices artificially high.

But what of equal quality? In the current system the majority of children do end up attending school because (a) they are forced to and (b) the taxpayer is made to foot the bill. The current system also mandates that a central government set the educational standards for all schools within its borders, whether public or private.

Quality control is thereby put into the hands of bureaucrats in a faraway government building. The standards and requirements are passed on from the top all the way down to those actually in the field working with the children that are supposed to meet said demands, or fail. Conformity and obedience are rewarded while the creative, critical thinkers are deemed “difficult” if not given the label of having a mental disorder.

Stay tuned for part two with which we’ll start 2014 in style!

Nock, A.J. (1932). The Theory of Education in the United States. Rahway, NJ: Quinn & Boden Company. p. 27.

[2] Rothbard, M.N. (1999). Education: Free & Compulsory. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

[3] West, E.G. (1996). The Spread of Education Before Compulsion: Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century. Digital version available here.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Common School System of the State of New York. (1851). Report by S.S. Randall and the New York Dept. of Public Instruction. p. 18. Digital version available here.

[6] West, E.G. (2000). Public Education and Imperfect Democracy. p. 4. Digital version available here.

[7] Ibid.