Liberalism and education


The Economist is a newspaper that I trust. It also espouses liberalism in a way that no political party does, because it is honest and to the point. The paper uses no by-lines, but in the current issue, we learn that Mr John Micklethwait (quel nom Anglais!) is completing his term as editor that started in 2006 – when Twitter was ten days old.

The editor refers to his ‘only true master’ – the liberal credo of open markets and individual freedom. He surveys the world scene. ‘Democracy is no longer the presumed dimension….Western democracy, too, looks even less exemplary….The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels.’ The political graveyard or playground in Westminster is not apparently worth mentioning.

One issue facing liberalism is inequality. As global markets give more rewards to talent, inequality gets worse and more entrenched. The paper resists the calls from the Left to punish the talented and ‘somehow mandate equality’. (Did the editor really say ‘mandate’?) It advocates attacking privilege and waging war on ‘crony capitalism’, recalling the great liberals of the 19th century who waged war on the ‘old corruption’ of aristocratic patronage and protection for the rich – he might have added Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in the twentieth century with the People’s Budget and the acknowledgement that the sick and the aged are part of the business of the state. Four times as much public money goes to the wealthiest 20% of Americans in mortgage interest deductions than is spent on social housing for the poorest fifth. Those tax laws favour landlords over tenants, the wealthy over the not so wealthy.

The other great issue facing liberalism is the extent of state intervention. The great liberals were progressives who also sought a smaller state but –

….although this newspaper wants government’s role to be limited, some of the remedies for inequality involve the state doing more, not less.

That is the political issue of our time. The editor quotes an example of education – only 28% of American four-year-olds attend state-funded pre-school; China is hoping to put 70% of its children through pre-school by 2020. And we do not need reminding of the economic power of China.

Australia is not giving an equal opportunity to its children to be educated. Those children with wealthy parents get a better opportunity by being sent to expensive private schools which a majority of parents see as better than government schools. This split in schooling, which you do not see in most of Europe, mocks our commitment to equality and serves to entrench inequality. Class might pass into caste.

There is one thing that economists agree on – inequality of wealth is bad for the economy. We as a young nation have an interest in seeing that our young are educated and trained to take part in the competition of all the talents and share in the rewards on offer in global markets. Whether or not we as a people get our money back that way, it seems to me only fair that those who have done well out of a system should give something back to it. I take that as something like a moral given. That is how good clubs and companies, and schools, work.

We need to learn from the good economies how giving back works for them. Just look at German technical education for example, or at the role of universities in Israel in developing information technology. Why should not we be trying to join the world’s best in these and other spheres? Are we looking too hard at the wrong games?

Forty years ago, I paid a lot more tax, but university was free back then. It is offensive to me to hear people say that this country cannot afford to educate its own young, but must get them to pay for it. If this nation is to come anywhere near its potential, it needs to even out education between public and private, and to help as many as possible with free tertiary training and education.

To help the nation and the economy grow, we should be spending a lot more effort and money on educating and training our girls and boys in an attempt to catch up to, say, France, Germany, or China in education. We should just get more tax from the better off to educate those who are worse off. You encourage a cycle of take and give back. The scheme has the primal mark of fairness and therefore justice – symmetry.

The editor of The Economist may not have had precisely that end in view, but it is in any event one that is quite beyond our politicians. We do, after all, have other things to worry about. Like the royal family. The local press has been priming a forthcoming biography of Charles. It says that both he and Diana panicked on the eve of their wedding. We can see why. Poor Diana in desperation told her sister that the marriage was ‘absolutely unbelievable.’ The answer? ‘Your face is already on the tea towels.’

There you have it. We are more interested in princes and duchesses in England than the education of our children. If I were young and fit, and that way inclined, I would run for election on a platform of two policies – an equal opportunity for all Australian children in education, and self-government for all Australians; and it would be a fair bet that my hardest opponents on each would be equally hard on both.