Mises Daily Articles
Forgotten at the Door
"There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions." – Ludwig von Mises
I met William Graham Sumner's Forgotten Man — actually forgotten woman in this instance — while shopping at a local supermarket a couple of months ago. With her eighty year-old legs steadily supporting stiff knees and tired feet, this woman is cheerful and ready to share a story or a laugh as she greets shoppers entering the store. This openness endears her to customers who know her by name and smile when they see her. Though her tales and goodhearted fun remain with shoppers for a long time afterwards, she is sadly forgotten by those who live to tax and spend.
There is theory, and then there is reality. To those who adhere to the Austrian School of economics, theory and reality are the same. Yet to many, the separation between theory and reality is the gulf that drowns in anonymity those such as this eighty-year-old woman.
You see, the forgetful ones — the officeholders, bureaucrats, and rent-seekers — have no concern for this woman. Sure, they pay lip service to their beloved concept of community, but they are only concerned with the community of tax recipients; the taxpayers be damned.
The Austrian School, on the other hand, recognizes individuals — not averages, aggregates, or some other convenient statistical or rhetorical tool — just the individual acting at the margin. In the Austrian School, there is no such notion as a typical community member. There are simply individuals going about their own business, utilizing means to satisfy personal ends, all within some arbitrary lines on a map: the collectivist's revered political boundaries.
The Austrians readily recognize our forgotten woman. She is not some faceless automaton, some Economic Woman. She is real, so real that we will give her a name: Edith.
Now, Edith truly lives at the margin. She buried her husband of forty-some years over a decade ago. Since that time, she has struggled. Money is tight and, despite what the Feds says, inflation is running high. However, the cost of consumer goods is only one of her worries. Edith also has to find the means to pay rising property taxes; taxes that are rising at a local rate of almost three times the reported consumer price index. So, she works.
Edith does not want much; she simply wants to live out her days in the house where she and her husband raised their family. Who could possibly desire to put this woman out of house and home? Well, the forgetful ones of course.
You see, in this instance, the forgetful ones want to spend more money on failed public education. There are the locally elected officials who cheer on the efforts of the bureaucrats — the school administrators who live to conceive of new ways to spend money on programs destined for failure. And then there are the hoards of rent-seekers who want others — such as their neighbors — to share the cost of personal expenses, all in the name of the public good.
The forgetful ones base their means on the theory of aggregates and averages. They note the reported average federal adjusted gross income in the area and claim that the community is wealthy. Therefore, they state, the typical resident can afford another $700 or $800 in property tax.
But the average homeowner is a nonexistent myth: a chimera. There is no average, or typical, resident. There are the forgetful ones, plus, among others, you, me, and our dear friend Edith. And, she is certainly not average. To those who know her, Edith is something more. Yet, she cannot afford an extra $100 per year, let alone another $700 or so.
The forgetful ones ignore her plight. To most of them, her suffering does not exist. To others, her situation is a problem that has to be rationalized away. Maybe — so the line of thought goes — Edith should move to another home in a more remote area, an area with lower taxes.
Certainly, it is sad that a long-term resident must leave, but the taxes are for the kids. And, with the kids being the next generation, some eggs have to be cracked.
Whether one chooses to ignore Edith outright, or to rationalize her away, the line of reasoning is the same: the collective decides who wins and who loses. Or, more aptly, who receives, and who pays. It's this line of reasoning that is just about the only thing taught in public schools: the hammer of government creates the community that the majority of voters desires.
Students learn that might makes rights. Well, of course, it's never taught in such harsh terms. Students learn that the community (through might) decides issues of property, liberty, and freedom. This, they learn, is the American ideal.
The schools, through their unionized workforce, teach that unrestrained democracy is wonderful. The ideals of our Founding Fathers are from a time and place that no longer exists. Students can, and should, dream of anything, and attempt to have government implement it by force. Whether it’s recycling, carbon offsets, or additional coerced funding for schools, it's the vote of the majority that makes any dream ethical.
So, the schools rally their constituents — their rent-seekers — in order to influence likely voters to support the new tax. And, the schools, again through their constituents, create the impression that those who do not support the waste that is public education are not true community members — that they do not care about kids.
But Edith does care about kids. She raised three of her own, and she now enjoys regular additions of grandchildren to her growing family. She simply wants to keep her house, which leaves poor Edith in quite a fix.
Not to worry, the occasional forgetful one will finally admit Edith's existence. He will recognize her by name and take on her cause. His solution: property tax relief for seniors. And, what a solution it is! Now we can have our public school cake and eat it too. And, we can eat it without remorse or regret.
Sounds reasonable, with the exception of that ever-so-annoying Austrian concept: the margin.
Property tax relief for Edith moves the burden of taxation to a smaller pool of homeowners. While Edith is no longer the one at the margin, now it is Henry deciding whether the new tax will drive him from house and home. Theory meets reality, and the margin exposes the lie that is the average.
OK, so what do we do? How do we solve this whole mess? How do we address education within the reality of the margin? The answer is quite simple: privatize education. Remove government from the minds of our youth. Recognize the wisdom of Mises and let parents — as consumers — decide what is best for their children. For some, religious schools, for others secular schools, and for many, such as myself, homeschooling.
In all cases, the market will generate systems of education that solve the wants of individuals. Allow theory and reality to come together so that Edith keeps her home, as does Henry, and we all get to keep more money in our wallets; money that will fund the education of the next generation.