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In Defense Of Libertarian Liberal Learning


One aim of a recent essay in Modern Age by Peter Augustine Lawler is to discredit the notion that the only purpose of education is to impart practical, marketable skills to students.  Liberal education, says this proudly conservative Professor of Government at Berry College, is also valuable.  Such education involves “the search for who we are as more than technological or determined beings.”

I agree that liberal education is vitally important and in danger today.  My agreement, however, will shock Prof. Lawler.  You see, I’m a libertarian, and Prof. Lawler’s essay is chiefly an extended attack on what he assumes to be the libertarian case against liberal education.  The title of his essay makes his stance clear: “Libertarians vs. Liberal Learning.”

Libertarians, we are told, care only about material interests.  Any education that does not teach students useful skills is (libertarians supposedly insist) wasteful and unwarranted.  And so an army of libertarian philistines is allegedly marching arrogantly into battle against this inefficiency in education.  Libertarians wage this battle not only against politically correct and overtly political professors of such subjects as “gender studies” (who, Lawler agrees, deserve to be denounced) but also against the noble and ennobling professors of traditional liberal subjects such as Latin and the classics.

Yet who, exactly, are these libertarians who demand that only STEM subjects be taught?  In his tract of 6,100 words Lawler never says.  He offers up only two names of people who might possibly represent the boorish libertarians bent on killing liberal learning.  One is Nathan Harden, a blogger at College Fix.

But Harden – however wise or not his insights into higher education – is no representative of libertarians.  Indeed, his website reveals that he writes chiefly for National Review, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, The New York Post, The Washington Times, and The Huffington Post.  Liberally educated readers will note that none of these publications is libertarian.  Indeed, all but the last are solidly conservative.

Libertarians, we are told, care only about material interests.  Any education that does not teach students useful skills is (libertarians supposedly insist) wasteful and unwarranted. 

The other putative libertarian named by Lawler is indeed a libertarian, and an enormously influential one at that: my George Mason University colleague Tyler Cowen.  Yet Lawler says nothing about Cowen’s views on education.  Lawler instead criticizes Cowen’s analyses and celebration of commercial culture.  The connection, I guess, is that Cowen explains how market forces influence culture, mostly in positive ways.  And so because education is kinda, sorta connected with culture – and because Cowen is libertarian – Cowen’s work on culture can be assumed to reveal central aspects of the libertarian theory of education.

Even if this tenuous connection holds, however, Lawler’s caricature of Cowen’s work on culture will only confuse readers about just what sorts of values libertarians hold, as well as about what libertarians might in fact say about pedagogy and education.

Lawler is disturbed by Cowen’s applause for globalization’s capacity to make music, literature, cuisine, and other cultural products available to ordinary people located vast distances – in both physical and cultural space – from the ‘native’ producers of these products.  For only a few pennies, a mail carrier in Minneapolis can now listen to taarab music that was once not only played exclusively by, but heard exclusively by, Zanzibarians.  How appalling that the uniqueness of different cultures is today available for sale in bourgeois markets!

Lawler overlooks the significance of two unique effects that global capitalism has on culture.  First, by fusing different cultures, it creates entirely new cultural offerings.  I’m writing this essay on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first performance in America.  The Fab Four, of course, were deeply influenced by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and other non-British musicians – and the Beatles, in turn, influenced the musical styles of later musicians in America and around the globe.

Conservatives such as Lawler seem to lament that rock music and other modern global cultural products each has no one small patch of earth to call home.  But so what?  The ‘localness’ of the cultures of past eras resulted from nothing more venerable than widespread illiteracy combined with prohibitively high costs of transportation and communication.

Second, no individual in market economies today is sentenced to consume only the culture of the place where chance determines he or she is born.  A Berliner with no taste for bratwurst can today dine on the likes of sushi, pad thai, or jambalaya.

Yes, yes – all this choice and consumption are so bourgeois.  They diminish the importance of each person’s relational status to his or her tribe, kin, and countrymen.  Conservatives of Lawler’s stripe worry about this liberation of individuals from the grip of place, ethnicity, and the faiths of their fathers.  Yet the evidence screams that these worries are misplaced.  Today, violence is at historically low levels, while life-expectancies, literacy rates, and ability to consume are at historically high levels.  Whatever is the culture that produces such results is fine by me.

Like Lawler, I’m certain that liberal learning contributes to a free, prosperous, and civil society.  Like Lawler, I would be distraught if liberal learning died out.  Unlike Lawler, though, I know that the best libertarian scholarship reflects and encourages liberal learning.

I urge conservatives who perceive libertarians as being philistines or libertines to read the works of libertarians such as F.A. Hayek, Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Epstein, Tom Palmer, and, yes, Tyler Cowen.  Such an exercise will correct that misperception.  It will make clear the tremendous advantages of free markets, the great value of cultural dynamism, and the enormous benefits of liberal learning.

Boudreaux is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Getchell Chair at George Mason’s Mercatus Center.