Commerce is Better Than Education

I’ve recently read several essays on education by some of the American Founders.  These writings have in common a belief that good education will promote civility, manners, advances in agriculture, manufacturing, and morality.  It seems to me effect is confused with cause.

It’s not education – at least not formal education or schooling – that produces industriousness and social cooperation, but social cooperation and industriousness that increases knowledge and education.  Commerce is the great civilizing force in the world.  The greater and freer the extent of trade, the more scope individuals have to exercise and explore their abilities and the greater the incentive to obtain knowledge of value to them.

When people are free to reap the rewards or pay the costs of their endeavors, they have every incentive to improve.  This incentive leads to advances in industry, arts, and even culture and values.  Peaceful, mutually beneficial transactions bring the greatest returns, and these require knowledge and respect for other cultures, proficiency with products and processes, and constant adaptation and learning.

When commerce happens, the incentive exists to become educated.  No one need impose an educational plan on their neighbor, and no one has the ability to know what kinds of knowledge their neighbor needs.  We over-estimate the role that education plays in determining the kind of world we live in.  In reality, markets do most of the heavy lifting, and education follows and fills in the well-worn paths etched by exchange.  You could expend all the energy in the world trying to ensure more young people learn your favorite subject.  But if the market signals excellent returns in a different field, people will flock their despite what they’ve been trained in.

We needn’t fret so much about what kind of educational systems exist around us.  We do need to do everything we can to ensure free exchange is unhampered, and myriad educational opportunities will flower as a result.

A Noble Library

We love to go to Barnes & Noble.  It’s one place everyone in the family enjoys.  There’s WiFi and coffee for me and my wife, there are books and toys for the kids, and it’s free!

It’s great to have a peaceful place full of books where you can go to read, think, browse and let the kids do the same.  Such places used to be called libraries.  Before we moved to South Carolina, there was a library closer to us than a large bookstore.  We would go from time to time for story hour or just to meander.  It was OK, but pales in comparison to B&N.

B&N charges no membership fee.  Nor to they do they take money coerced out of taxpayers.  They have Starbuck whereas the library doesn’t even want you to drink inside, besides the crusty drinking fountain.  There are toys for kids of all ages.  The architecture and lighting are fresher and newer, unlike the Societ-esque design of most public libraries.  You can browse books in both, but if you really like one at B&N, you can buy it too.  They have wonderful story times and special events for kids.  And it’s located close to other places we like to go, unlike suburban libraries which are often far from retail areas.

You can look at books for free or you can buy them, but you cannot borrow them.  This may be a major downside for some people, but I’ve never found it much of a problem.  For one thing, children’s books are usually so short that you can read it all to your kids in the store in one sitting.  As for myself, I try to read books that I think worth buying anyway, and I am increasingly moving to all eBooks.

Suburban libraries seem pretty silly now.  There are wonderful and spacious bookstores.  There are all kinds of non tax supported niche libraries at everything from local churches to the Polish American Club.  For people who use libraries to do serious research, there are a growing number of online solutions like JSTOR and others, and of course universities maintain their own, often much more extensive, libraries for such purposes.

All of this seems sufficient to at least propose an end to tax dollars flowing to libraries.  Some would certainly survive by charging higher membership fees, raising donations, or finding some other revenue model.  Some would disappear.  The adjustment doesn’t really seem that difficult given what’s available online and the kind of experience offered for free by large bookstores.

I am constantly reminded of just how amazing commerce is as a civilizing force.  Who could have imagined a business model where you let anyone off the street waltz in to your store and thumb through all of your merchandise as long as they like with no charge?  If I’d never seen it myself and you asked me whether a service like that could be provided on the market, I would have said no.  Entrepreneurs have shown time and again how things no one could imagine being done outside of a coercive monopoly can be done, and done better, through voluntary markets.

Keep an open mind and think about what else might be possible if legal barriers that prevent entrepreneurs from providing other services were removed.

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