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Central Planning and Education: What would Hayek say?

  • Central planning fails miserably in the economy, why would we think it is best for education?
  • Government bureaucrats cannot possess the localized knowledge of the parents and teachers of students.
  • Empowering parents, rather than bureaucrats, to call the shots in education would benefit students.

F.A. Hayek, one of the most well known names in free market circles, was a man of incredible perception. His brilliance in economics, psychology, and political theory has served to shape thought in each of these disciplines. From his essential book entitled The Road to Serfdom to his numerous essays that range from the ineffectiveness of central planning to the importance of personal responsibility, Hayek has proven his devotion to classical liberalism.

Hayek’s knack for making compelling arguments on behalf of individual liberty and personal responsibility naturally led to an examination of the thought behind government programs and policies, often inspiring the question, “Who is best equipped to make decisions that affect private citizens as they pursue life, liberty, and property?”

In his 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” Hayek explores the natural complexity of knowledge, recognizing that it is so dispersed throughout society that there is no realistic way to govern it from a central location. He explored the implications of geographic and vocation-specific knowledge, asserting that the problem with a centrally planned economy is “that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

Essentially, there is no way to consolidate all of the necessary market knowledge and ship it up to Washington in hopes of creating some one-size-fits-all government program prepared to commandeer the free market. To do so would be, at best, as futile as bottling up the ocean, and at worst, as foolhardy as ignoring history’s many lessons, the latest one now playing out in Venezuela (see here and here). If Hayek’s observations are correct, the question ought to be asked, “Why do we think central planning will be any more effective in our education system?”

When it comes to our K-12 education, both in North Carolina and throughout the other forty-nine states, we would do well to acknowledge that the teacher in the classroom and the parent of the child (or as Hayek said, “the man on the spot”) have supremely greater insight into the needs of individual students than do bureaucrats in the government. And isn’t education ultimately about each unique student and their acquisition of truth and wisdom?

As with economics, the field of education contains many variables that are specific to region. Aside from the framework of the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic), the educator ought to be granted curriculum flexibility, based upon the needs of students in his or her distinctive classroom. Add to this the obvious reality that children develop physically and academically at differing rates and have diverse learning styles, an effective case can be made in favor of teacher discretion that seeks to collaborate with parents on the best means to educate their children.

Finally, just as a free market relies upon price signals, given that no one individual can ascertain all there is to understand in an economy, so might we draw upon the concept of free markets to empower education consumers to provide the signals to guide the academic economy. When public schools have to compete with private or charter schools for consumer dollars, they are likely to become more competitive, responding to the wants of the customer. Such competition is necessary if we want to see academic institutions, both public and private, offer a higher quality product.

The beauty of this approach to education is found in initiatives, such as North Carolina’s Personal Education Scholarship Account and Opportunity Scholarship Program, both of which allow a child’s education to be tailored to fit his or her particular needs. Such programs help cultivate a competitive marketplace that will yield better offerings, because the consumer has greater mobility and can take his business elsewhere if expectations are not being met. The focus becomes catering to each student, rather than complying with top-down bureaucracy.

The “man on the spot”–parents and educators in the classroom–know better than bureaucrats in Washington (or Raleigh, for that matter), when it comes to what works best for North Carolina children. Let’s make sure we’re placing power over one of society’s most important decisions in the right hands.

This article was originally published at nccivitas.org

Brooke Medina / Vice President of Communications

Brooke likes capitalism, Reese's, and CS Lewis.