The Right to a Public Education

In my last post, I mentioned certain “positive rights” that Americans have come to assume are part of the social contract. Public education is perhaps the least controversial example of a positive right in America. As a society, we generally believe that every child has a right to a high school education, regardless of his or her parents’ income level. However, with the recent upswing of right-wing extremism, some (generally Ron Paul supporters) question the right to a public education because it requires redistribution of wealth throughout a community. Many extreme libertarians view government taxation for any kind of social program, including public education, as theft, and advocate a system of government where any redistributive program do not exist.

Consider for a moment the implications: if such libertarians had their wish, many children could not to attend school because their parents could not afford the required tuition. Eventually, a large segment of the American public would consist of fully or partially illiterate adults with no marketable job skills, causing poverty to proliferate. American companies would also struggle to survive in such a situation. The robust post-World War Two U.S. economy would implode because there would no longer be an adequately educated workforce and many high-skilled jobs would eventually move overseas or disappear altogether. The U.S. economy thrived in the post-WWII era in part because of a well-educated work force that could compete with countries around the world to produce high-tech goods and services.

Everyone is better off, especially the “one percent,” when there is a more highly educated public. CEOs of America’s most successful companies would not be in their positions if it were not for a well-educated work force. Relatedly, the unsustainable cost increases for higher education and burgeoning college student debt do not portend well for our future if they are not promptly addressed.

We have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that children in all families have an opportunity to be educated. The United States was founded by a group of people who felt alienated and disadvantaged in aristocratic European societies and desired to create a country where everyone would have a chance to succeed. Positive rights, especially the right to a basic education, help ensure everyone has an opportunity for success.


  1. Ummm, all the libertarians that I know of are BIG BIG fan of education, just not being LIMITED to just the one ‘forced’ choice: public education.

    In fact, they are advocating for multiple methods of education. Like, you know, Freedom of Choices.

    Diversity is good, cookie-cutter is bad, No?

    1. We already have variety: home-schooling, private schools, religious schools. Libertarians despise public schools and would end up preventing millions of children from getting a basic education if they had their way. Poor families can’t afford private schools. And uneducated people, who most often are poor, are unqualified to home-school their kids.

      1. “Poor families can’t afford private schools.” Obviously you have no idea about private schools… Fundraising for scholarships is done all year round at every private school I know about, and Catholic schools across this country educate the poor by the millions. “Libertarians despise public schools” is a broad generalization that is untrue for many, many Libertarians. It’s not that they “despise” public school, they despise having to pay taxes for a school system that DOES NOT WORK. The waste, the fraud, the indoctrination, the unholy alliance between the Federal Government and Public Education is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s CHOICE people need, not taxing everyone into eternity for a failed educational system.

        1. Having spent some time working in and with private schools in a prior career life, I can tell you there is plenty of fraud, plenty of waste, and boatloads of indoctrination going on in lots of private and religious schools, too. Don’t kid yourself. I know lots of people with public school educations, including many who grew up dirt poor, who have gone on to be successful contributing adults. On the other hand, I know a few private and catholic school grads who are now in prison for heinous crimes. And don’t even get me started on the home-schooling victims I know….

          No country on earth succeeds unless it has a robust public school system. Period. No exceptions.

  2. I attended Boston Latin School, THE FIRST PUBLIC SCHOOL in the country (1635, one year before Harvard). It continues to provide excellent middle-to-high school education, including the Classics – Latin and Greek. My mother was a Boston Public School teacher, with hundreds of alumnae over a three-decade career. Many went on to great success. We would not have the major inventions of the 20th century, without good public schools. It is the Great Equalizer, that set us apart from other countries. **Edited** Thank you for a reasoned and well-written article on this important subject.

  3. I think you miss one of the chief benefits of education that libertarians seem completely oblivious to: An educated populace makes more money, and buys more things, thereby making a robust economy.

    Henry Ford doubled the daily pay of his workers once he understood the concept of paying for quality; he later said it was the greatest money-saving idea he ever had. Workers were happier, worked harder and smarter, and Ford’s profits multiplied, efficiency rose in the plants, and waste dropped.

    But secondarily, he had to build a parking lot. Turned out that his workers could afford to buy the cars they made, and did. That more than doubled the Ford market in Detroit. Rising wages made Henry Ford rich.

    Libertarians rarely seem to understand that a business needs a market to be successful. Don’t you forget, too.

  4. No country on earth succeeds unless it has a robust public school system. Period. No exceptions.

    That’s worth getting engraved in stone. Or tattooed on your forehead.

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