A Friedman effect on school opinion?

One of the surprising features of the Australian political identity survey results for classical liberals was the large proportion with statist views on education. From a purely ideological perspective, it seems unlikely that a classical liberal could conclude that any monopoly control of curriculum was a good idea, and especially not a government monopoly. And from a purely practical perspective, the public education system isn’t exactly the greatest advertisement for the state as a service provider.

No 20th century classical liberal did more to argue the case for decentralising control of school education than Milton Friedman. So I wondered if the classical liberals in the survey who said that they had read Milton Friedman would have different views on education issues compared to those who had not. It turns out that they do.



Now of course correlation is not causation. Perhaps people who believe in school choice are more likely to read Friedman’s work because they want to read somebody they think they will agree with. On the other hand, there are a lot of people – I’m one – who were directly influenced by Friedman, and so it is plausible that his worked encouraged his readers to think counter-intuitive thoughts about how our schools should be run.

9 Responses to “A Friedman effect on school opinion?

  • 1
    Rajat Sood
    April 24th, 2009 09:15

    Friedman’s big thing of course was vouchers. Neither of the two questions above really captures that idea: competitive curricula suggests but does not imply a full voucher system (the ‘voucher’ could apply only to state schools as at present and there is already some different in approaches taken by Victorian primary schools) and the same goes for government funding as opposed to delivery (the government could contract XYZ Learning to provide all schooling). So there may have been even a stronger Friedman effect if an outright voucher question had been asked. I, for one, first read Friedman at about 14, so I didn’t have time to develop too many views of my own on how schools ought to be run before then.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    April 24th, 2009 09:53

    Rajat – Though there isn’t much detail in Capitalism and Freedom, the only MF book I have to hand, Friedman’s ideas do seem to me to be more radical than just vouchers. He does not see any role for government beyond the vouchers and ‘minimum common content’ in their programs.

    His ideas have been watered down in the political battles over vouchers, which have usually been to get a better deal for existing private schools. While desirable, this still leaves the majority of students stuck in the centralised system, which is not satisfactory as a broader classical liberal policy agenda.

  • 3
    April 24th, 2009 10:16

    I think you are being unfair on public schools (at least high schools and primary schools) — there are places in Australia where their overall performance is quite good. In particular, if you look at the massive differences between states, then what you will find is that some states are doing really well (NSW), and some are awful. This is of course one reason people should reject any federal control of the schools system, and why people in Queensland and Western Australia should sack the people in their Departments of Education.

  • 4
    April 24th, 2009 10:56

    Hey Andrew,
    It could just be that better read classical liberals tend to favour freedom in education (and perhaps freedom in other areas) and it’s not Friedman specific. Is it worth testing whether the effect from Friedman is greater than having read other liberal thinkers?
    – R

  • 5
    April 24th, 2009 11:12

    Choosing a school isn’t like choosing a coffee shop. If you graduate at age eighteen and decide that the school your parents chose for you in a competitive market wasn’t very good, you can’t decide to do it all again at a different one.

    Don’t efficient markets only occur when consumers can easily switch vendors?

  • 6
    John Greenfield
    April 24th, 2009 11:29


    It seems that the National Curriculum will basically be NSW’s, which is very good for all the other states. As you say, QLD is indire straits. Probably 18 months behind.

  • 7
    John Greenfield
    April 24th, 2009 11:32


    Marketing the voucher idea to leftists or pro-statist types is quite difficult. I have tried a few times, but the argument is quite convoluted.

  • 8
    April 24th, 2009 13:09

    I think the biggest problem with getting everyone to do NSW’s curriculum is that if you stop the other states from doing their own thing, you cannot compare the different levels of efficacy as easily. Thus, if changes are made, it becomes much harder to determine what effect the changes have since scores go up and down from year to year for many reasons. Because of this, under a single system, it isn’t hard to imagine some politically motivated change (adding requirements like e.g., “Liberal studies”,”Australian History”, etc.), scores going up, and then people (politicians) interpreting the correlation as if it was causation. At present, having everyone develop their own stuff is like a natural experiment where you can see the effect of choices with often non-obvious outcomes. When there are massive differences between states, obviously what really is good or bad is easier to see. Thus this type of data, which would be eliminated under a single system, is of massive value in some educational areas.

  • 9
    April 24th, 2009 20:10

    A good point from Robert. I don’t recall Friedman being a huge influence on my thinking on education. The late Ed West was a huge contributor on this topic (he visited Australia a few years ago), check out the West Centre web site and the ongoing work on the strengths of private education. http://www.ncl.ac.uk/egwest/index.html