Like the post office, public elementary and secondary schools and state-run universities are socialized businesses; unlike the post office, they are not national institutions, although regulation of education in recent decades has become more and more nationalized. Elementary and secondary schools are controlled at the local level but must comply with state regulations, as well as federal laws that apply. State-run universities are state institutions, but they also must comply with federal laws. And private schools and universities are subject to state regulations and federal laws. Bureaucratic education is so rule-bound and regulation-driven that it is best described as a monopoly or medieval guild—there is little difference. First, the monopoly.
The Education Monopoly. Any intrusion into the marketplace by government is monopoly in the political sense. Monopoly is a government-granted privilege that favors one group of entrepreneurs, workers, or consumers at the expense of others who would otherwise compete with the favored. The privilege is maintained by initiating physical force against those others, through various laws and regulations, thereby hindering or preventing the others from entering the market. Government ownership of a business, as in the case of the post office and schools, is the most obvious form of such monopoly, but occupational licensure, protective tariffs, minimum-wage and pro-union legislation, antitrust laws, and government franchises granted to utilities also constitute monopolistic favoring of some at the expense of others. In this political sense of monopoly the socialist state is not only totally bureaucratic; it is also the one giant monopoly that Marxists for decades have accused capitalism of moving toward.
The alleged motive for such monopolistic legislation is to protect smaller businesses, workers, or consumers from untrammeled business practices. The actual effect, and often the real motive, is to restrict the market to the control of the monopolists. Sometimes, because of a restricted supply, the favored few enjoy high prices, wages, and profits, as in the case of the medical and legal professions and labor unions. Primarily, the goal is to dictate who will produce what, in which quantities, and who will distribute what, to whom, in which quantities. Prices, wages, and profits may or may not be directly controlled by the government. In government-run education, though, everything is controlled. Teachers and professors may not make as much money as trial lawyers and surgeons, but their market is just as monopolized, if not more so.
The education monopoly in the United States is not as restrictive as that of the post office, or as education monopolies in other countries, because private schools are allowed to compete (to some extent) and regulation is not totally nationalized. Nevertheless, distortions in the educational marketplace that otherwise would not exist in a free market are noticeable, most particularly the discrepancy between tuitions charged by public, government-run schools and their private counterparts. This discrepancy stems from the same source as the disparity that exists in rents between controlled and uncontrolled rental apartments in such cities as New York. Both distortions are caused by price controls designed to favor one group of consumers at the expense of others. Those others must then subsidize the controlled apartments and schools and the full costs of their own operations with abnormally high prices; decontrol of both markets would produce prices somewhere in between the highs and lows of the private and controlled sectors. The most significant distortions in the educational marketplace, however, stem from the guild-like paraphernalia of bureaucratic management, all of which affect the quality of service provided.
The Education Guild. Government control of education is said to be necessary in order to protect parents and students from the alleged ruthlessness and inferior quality of free-market profit-seeking. The result of control, however, is to create a closed brotherhood not unlike that of medieval guilds. Indeed, modern educational institutions, particularly universities, originated in the Middle Ages as guilds. Today, their character is essentially unchanged, and their aim, as in guilds, is to control production and distribution.
One distinctive characteristic of medieval guilds was the special project or “masterpiece,” a kind of final examination that journeymen had to complete in order to become masters. The purpose of the “masterpiece” was to determine who should be allowed to become a full member of the guild. In the universities, which had organized themselves during the Middle Ages on the model of craft and merchant guilds, students who completed final examinations were granted a certificate, the licentia docendi, or license to teach. Thus, the modern degree came into existence as an occupational license, granted by the church, the governing body of the time. In later centuries, the state took over as dispenser of degrees. Examinations were required in order to determine who deserved the license.
The use of a qualifying examination is not unique to education or to medieval guilds; it is an essential characteristic of bureaucracy. Without a market-based yardstick to help make personnel decisions, bureaucracy usually falls back on patronage. To avoid the arbitrariness inherent in patronage systems, and thereby to set up an alleged objective measure of talent, bureaucratic management employs the examination as a means of screening applicants. The model of modern bureaucracy is nineteenth century Prussia, brought to the United States as the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. The problem with examinations is that the choice and wording of questions can be just as arbitrary and subjective as a patron’s judgment. The examination system in bureaucracy—and in education—is a pretense at objectivity.
The Paraphernalia of Bureaucratic Management. Examinations, grades, credits, degrees, accredita-tion, as well as academic freedom and tenure, are all trappings of bureaucratic intrusions into the educational marketplace. They are extensions of the rules and regulations required, as in any monopoly or guild, to control the production and distribution of education. They are the certifications that give rise to the epithet: “Today, we live in a credentialed society.” They are in fact the rewards and punishments that accompany the modern forms of status and privilege granted by the government. They are the trappings of authoritarianism. . . .