By Leonard E. Read
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. –LORD ACTON
The question I wish to pose, and seek to answer, is this: Does government–organized force–have any more rightful role to play in education than in religion? The sage observation by Lord Acton (1834-1902) is really the key to my thesis, a point to be explained below. Should the answer turn out to be negative, which I believe it will, then we are faced with another question: What are the appropriate methods for changing the well-nigh overwhelming sentiment to the contrary? To challenge public (government) education in this day and age is akin to denouncing motherhood, the former as popularly sacrosanct as the latter.
Most thinking people will admit that the separation of Church and State was a forward step in Western Civilization. Yet, few there are who have the slightest idea of the name of the scholar mainly responsible for the initial separation; nor do they know the time of its occurrence, the ideological antagonisms of this medieval period, or the tactics used by the State Church to preserve its political dictatorship.
My own meager knowledge of these matters derives from a book first published in 1910, authored by Andrew Dickson White: Seven Great Statesmen.1 White was a professor of history at the University of Michigan, later co-founder and president of Cornell University, and known to freedom devotees of our time for his great book, Fiat Money Inflation in France.2
White accords first place among his seven statesmen to Paolo Sarpi, a Venetian priest. White declares that Sarpi
… fought the most bitter fight for humanity ever known in any Latin nation, and won a victory by which the whole world has profited ever since.
This “bitter fight” took place in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and repercussions were felt all over Europe.
The ideological antagonism was between Venice and the Roman Court: The Papal Establishment. Venice was far more than the city we know today; it was the trading center of the world–freedom in trade more nearly approached than ever before in history. As to the opposition, White points out, it was founded on:
. . . a theocratic theory, giving the papacy a power supreme in temporal as well as in spiritual matters throughout the world.
In view of the fact that Catholicism was as much respected by the Venetians as by the Romans, the issue was not religious. Rather, it was political: independence–to trade or whatever–versus a dictatorship encompassing matters social as well as spiritual.
Vicious? Of earlier papal dictators, as distinguished from many remarkable Popes once Church and State were separated, White reports:
The Venetian Ambassadors [to Rome] were the foremost in Europe…. They saw Innocent III buy the papacy for money. They had been at the Vatican when Alexander VI had won renown as a secret murderer. They saw, close at hand, the merciless cruelty of Julius II. They had carefully noted the crimes of Sixtus IV, which culminated in the assassination of Julian d’ Medici beneath the dome of Florence. . . . They had sat near Leo X while he enjoyed the obscenities of the Calandria and Mandragers,–plays which, in the most corrupt of modern cities, would, in our day , be stopped by the police. No wonder that, in one of their dispatches, they speak of Rome as the sewer of Europe.”
Move on to the year 1607. The Papal political Establishment, keenly aware that a lone individual–Sarpi–was its nemesis, the threat to a continuing dictatorship, decided to get rid of him. White, after carefully researching this lowest form of having one’s way, reports:
On a pleasant evening in October, 1607, a carefully laid trap was sprung. Returning from his day’s work at The Ducal Palace, Father Paul-Sarpi-just as he had crossed the little bridge of Santa Fosca . . . was met by five assassins … these ruffians sprang upon him in the dusk, … gave him fifteen dagger thrusts … and then, convinced that they had killed him, fled to their boats….
Surprisingly, Sarpi survived and, fortunately for Western Civilization, he was able to put the final touches on that brilliant reasoning of his which led eventually to a separation of Church and State!
Reflect now on Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This profound observation is quoted now and then, but rare indeed is the individual who grasps its significance. Were I asked to name the number one human frailty most responsible for the woes of mankind and the archenemy of individual liberty, power would be it. Friedrich von Hayek, in his book, The Road to Serfdom, expanded on this thought in a chapter entitled “Why The Worst Get On Top.”3
Who are “”the worst” in society, as Hayek sees it? Power mongers; precisely the same breed as Lord Acton-a devout Catholic-warned against: those who seek power in order to cast others in their blighted images. Anyone whotends or even wishes to exercise power over others is tainted, and those who gain absolute power are wholly debased! Briefly, they are those who lack the common sense to mind their own business; they strive–with varying degrees of success–for dictatorial power over your life and mine.
There would be little need to dwell on this matter if the power mongers corrupted only themselves. Were they alone to fail in expanding their own awareness, perception,consciousness–life’s purpose–we could bemoan their plight and let it go at that. But observe how their corruption wreaks havoc on the rest of us!
Simply stated, man is a social as well as an individualistic being. As individuals we are all unique, no two remotely alike. We live by working with and for each other. Each individual produces and exchanges the fruits of his uniqueness, in the form of goods, services and ideas. This is the social side. Now to my point: To the extent that the power mongers get their way, to that extent are we made dummies-our uniqueness squelched! Reflect on the mess they make by this maneuver: The schemes of those who don’t even know they know nothing are substituted for the potential creativity of the countless millions.
Properly defined, absolute power takes the form of aggressive, coercive, physical force. A few have perceived what Lord Acton observed. Socrates possessed that rare wisdom which removed any tendency for power:
I know nothing but I know that I know nothing.
Shakespeare observed the results of power:
Man, proud man! dressed in a little brief authority, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep.
So did John Foster Dulles:
Dictatorships usually present a formidable exterior. They seem, on the outside, to be hard, glittering, and irresistible. Within, they are full of rottenness.
Power to rule the lives of others is doubtless a far more common ambition than the desire for riches. All history seems to attest to this. Nor does it make one whit of difference what posts are occupied by power mongers: religious, political, or educational. Allow absolute power to the Papal Establishment and the power mongers will crowd out the spiritually minded.
Parenthetically, those individuals who qualify as the cream of mankind are never observed in positions of coercive power over others. Why? It isn’t that the masses would reject them, but rather that such persons would never accept dictatorship over a single individual-let alone over a village or state or nation or the world. Each realizes that he himself is the only person among all who live that he has been commissioned to reform and improve–that this is the biggest project Infinite Wisdom has assigned to anyone!
Apply similar considerations to schooling and I cannot help but draw this conclusion: Allow absolute power to the Educational Establishment and power mongers will become our “teachers.”
Have a look at what we call “public education” or Bfree education.” Free? The taxpayers foot the bill, a very high amount per student per year.
Government “education” includes three forms of coercion: (1) compulsory attendance, (2) government dictated curricula, and (3) the forcible collection of the wherewithal to pay the enormous bill.
True, our “educational” power mongers are more sophisticated, or should we say less obviously brutal, in getting their way than were medieval “Popes.” But, Mr. Taxpayer, refuse to pay the bill and see what happens! Try it if. you wish to find out; I won’t!
The results of force are bad enough as related to the pocketbook, but they are far worse as they affect the educational process. Force is precisely as inefficacious in education as when applied to religion and for the same reason. Merely look about and observe the countless thousands of “teachers” who cannot read or write in the realm of ideas; indeed, many of them cannot even get a good grade in spelling! Reflect on this lamentable situation:
• Coercion is a ramming–into procedure. Education is a taking-from process.
• “Graduation” in many schools requires no more than attendance; learning is no longer a criterion.
• To really appreciate the extent of coercion, try to run a private school and observe how your freedom of choice and action is restricted. The power mongers insist that you run your school their way–no other. This coercion–backed by physical force, the constabulary–is rapidly on the increase.
So I ask, why not separate School and State as Church and State are now separated? Leave education to the free market where the wisdom is. Let organized forcegovernment–have no role, none whatsoever, other than to inhibit fraud and misrepresentation.4
Finally, we face the challenge as to how such a formidable, seemingly impossible, wholly unpopular task can be achieved. A fact in our favor is that this is not a numbers problem. Father Paul–Sarpi–proved that. Further, such an objective is not to be attained by combative methods.
Father Paul confined himself to pure reason, having many freedom devotees in Venice who were capable of seeing the light he shed and who stood steadfastly in his support. The victory!
For a remarkable illustration of how the separation of Church and State worked its wonders, observe how diametrically different was Leo XIII (Pope, 1878-1903) than were the power mongers 300 years earlier, prior to Sarpi’s victory. Wrote this wise Pope:
It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially and generically from the brute.
Here we have wisdom of the highest order, for it is reason that distinguishes human beings from the brutes-the power mongers. Let even a few among us resort to reason, and brutishness-murder, war, coercive “”education,” and the like–will be no more than historical nightmares. And then? We will witness mankind in freedom pursuing human destiny: Ascendancy!
1 New York: The Century Co., 1919.
2 Irvington, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1959.
3 Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 134-152.
4 1 have given my analysis as to where lies the responsibility for the child’s education, plus a critique of government education as well as the case for free market education–Chapters 15, 16, 17–in Anything That’s Peaceful, pp. 180-221.