Taxes have to be justified by the benefits they bring to the taxpayers. There must be collective benefits for them that can only be obtained by the collective action of government. Defense against aggression foreign and domestic — the military, the police and the court system — is the one great such benefit. Unless a tax benefits the taxpayer, it is mere robbery under another name. It is not enough to argue that government needs the money: that argument can justify anything, and therefore nothing. Government exists only for the benefit of its citizens.
Our public school system is supported by taxes. What benefits does the public school bring to those who pay for it? If they have no children, it is extremely difficult to discover such a benefit. If they have children, but send them to a private school, it is equally difficult to find the benefit and justify the taxes unless the taxes pay for their private schooling. As things stand, our public schools are systems of massive redistribution. Schooling was the first branch of our society to be socialized, during the nineteenth century, long before there were even any trade unions. But education is not a collective good: it is an individual one, and most people are perfectly capable of getting themselves and their children an education if they want one.
Our government has entrusted itself with the responsibility to provide education. But it is increasingly unclear to many people why government should have that responsibility. For government is subject to many inherent limitations that do not well equip it for the task of educating children. The politicians that operate our government do not appear to have any special knowledge or gifts for educating children. Few of them would be hired as teachers. Some are themselves not very obviously well educated. The task of governing is different from the task of educating. Government has no special ability to decide on a school curriculum or on school policies for hiring or promotion. What is the goal of education? Is there a goal of education? Philosophers have debated these questions. Government’s only answer is to produce citizens that will reelect the government.
Worse, all the actions of government are done by the use or threat of physical force, coercion. Education is no exception. The right to use force is the distinctive feature of government, as John Locke pointed out some centuries ago. Compulsion is fine for repressing criminals. But education is a peaceful activity and should be carried out on a voluntary basis and by persuasion, not force. A civilized society is one where force is used as little as possible and only where necessary. To create a good school it is by no means necessary.
If parents cannot afford to pay for schooling for their children, economists point to means-tested welfare payments as the best option. These are payments direct to families so they can pay for the school they desire. To provide education to the poor does not need anything like the enormous centralized government bureaucracies we have allowed to be created at our expense.