Journaltalk - Adam Smith and the role of the state: education as a public service

Adam Smith and the role of the state: education as a public service

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  • Andrew S. Skinner
Publication year 1995

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  1. Skinner points out that people who support a more interventionist government policy would cite Smith for his mention of the government’s involvement in social diversions. It is important to note that Smith says nothing about the state creating institutions or subsidizing in his discussion of pubic diversions. His suggestion that the government should encourage diversions by giving entire liberty to the people means that those people should be free to do what they want, within the confines of their liberty. The state does not encourage exercising liberty by granting subsidies; it encourages exercising liberty by not putting up barriers to its existence.

    The problem with a government body effectively “stepping into” the market in order to correct an efficiency problem is that efficiency is not a static concept. In its application towards education, government policy needs to set up certain standards that will show how close a school, teacher or university is to a given level of efficiency. The level of efficiency is arbitrarily set by experts who will weigh in on where students should be in their educational path, based on gender, age, nationality, family income, and a myriad of other variables. When Smith suggested that the government needed to ensure efficiency, it meant that the government needed to make sure that the opportunity for education was available to each person who desired it, not that the government necessarily had to intervene in the curriculum.

    posted 22 Apr 2011 by Ariel Nerbovig

  2. Throughout the chapter Andrew Skinner grossly overstates the scope of Adam Smith’s support for state action. Skinner repeats Jacob Viner’s assertion that Smith “saw a wide and elastic range of activity for government, and was prepared to extend it further.” Viner’s view guides Skinner, but Skinner provides poor support for his notion of Smith the statist. He misinterprets the following direct quotation from the Wealth of Nations in a key part of his argument about education:

    “The expence of the institutions for education and religious instruction is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society, and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society. This expence, however, might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other.” (V.i.i.5)

    Skinner claims the passage makes it seem “likely that Smith would have supported the arrangements he envisaged for elementary education, where there is a combination of modest private, and a more significant public, contribution.” Reading the Smith quote, and going back to the entire section of the Wealth of Nations that Skinner refers to, Smith mentions nothing about any significant public contribution to education at any level. Indeed, not only above, but throughout his discussion of education Smith stresses that the cost should be primarily – if not entirely – borne by the beneficiary of the service.

    It is true that Adam Smith did support some government activity; any careful reading of his works shows the scope of that activity to be far more limited than Skinner implies.

    posted 24 Apr 2011 by Brandon Holmes

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