Acton Commentary

The Education Monopoly and Intelligent Design


With the recent election results in Kansas and Delaware, the debate continues to intensify over teaching evolution and “Intelligent Design” in the public schools. There is much at stake, from scientific integrity to philosophical baggage. The stakes are greater than they ought to be because of the way our country delivers educational services.

Evolution refers to two different but related areas in science. On one hand, evolution is an observable mechanism by which life evolves in modest increments over time. This evolution is an indisputable scientific theory, supported on empirical grounds. On the other hand, evolution is also used to refer to a largely unobservable process by which today's observable range of life supposedly developed from the earliest days on the earth. In this case, evolution is a hypothesis, proposing that the development of life is an unguided process.

“Intelligent Design” fully accepts evolution in the former sense. But it proposes an alternative hypothesis for the development of life: The development of life was a guided process, caused by an intelligent designer of some sort. This, too, is intuitively compelling. When one sees something complicated and meaningful (for example, Mount Rushmore), it is easy to infer that it was designed. As today's most famous evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, has said: What we see today has “the appearance of being designed.” Is the apparent design real or an illusion?

Scientific considerations aside, this issue provokes such controversy because the dominant provider of education has such strong monopoly power, and most consumers have little ability to avoid its dictates. Let's see why this is the overarching problem, and how we could avoid it.

Imagine that the government decides that food is important, so everyone can eat for free at the government-run restaurant in their neighborhood. A government bureaucracy, the manager of the restaurant and a local “Food Board” would determine the menu. And passionate constituents would try to influence their choices. Proponents of the Atkins diet would clamor for all meat, vegetarians would argue for all veggies and other people would want a range of options. This is a recipe for turmoil. For example, if the Atkins people were politically persuasive, the vegetarians would be deeply offended, and the others would not be wholly pleased, either.

The solution is as easy as the problem is silly. The government would allow different types of restaurants to compete, based on consumer preferences. Better yet, government would get out of the restaurant business, leaving that to the private sector, intervening only to help the needy afford food through vouchers or other subsidies to individuals.

The same is true with education. Leaving aside the question of moral obligations, if one group wants their children taught sex education with cucumbers and condoms in the fifth grade, that is their prerogative as parents. But that shouldn't be forced on other people. Another contentious example is school prayer. Some parents want a prayer to Jesus Christ. Many parents want a prayer to the lukewarm deity of civil religion. Others want no prayer at all or prayer to other gods. By providing options, school choice deals with such issues in a far more effective manner than a government entity with significant monopoly power.

Who doesn't want this freedom for others? Elitists and theocrats don't. They wage battle within the monopoly, hoping to capture the process and force their view of truth down the throats of others. (Ironically, these two groups despise each other, but they're more alike than they realize.) More important, the special-interest group that enjoys its monopoly power is not interested in such freedom. All producers prefer as little competition as possible; the market for education is no different.

For self-proclaimed liberals, this should be an easy decision, given their usual penchant for individual choice and support for the poor. Instead, they are often captive to the dominant interest group. Conservatives generally support competition and the private sector, but they are not passionate enough in this context to carry the day. Libertarians strongly favor breaking up government monopolies, but they are not yet numerous enough to make a difference.

Science, religion and politics. Real wars and now “culture wars” have been fought in their name. Let's put down our weapons and give all Americans freedom to educate their children as they see fit.

This article also appeared in The News-Sentinel in Ft. Wayne, Ind., on Dec. 19.