Illiberal and irrelevant

“Francis Green and David Kynaston do not like private schools. They think the government should do something to stop children attending them. Why? You already know the answer.”

Books
Eton College: Kynaston and Green argue that eliminating privilege is more important than liberty (Kazimierz Mendlik CC BY SA 3.0)

Francis Green and David Kynaston do not like private schools. They think the government should do something to stop children attending them — such as taxing them to the point where the fees are prohibitively expensive, even for the rich, or banning universities from admitting more than a tiny percentage of privately educated students.

Why? You already know the answer. As Green and Kynaston (G&K) put it: “Through a highly resourced combination of social exclusiveness and academic excellence, the private school system has in our lifetimes powered an enduring cycle of privilege.” Or, as Alan Bennett sermonised in Cambridge in 2014, “Private education is not fair.”

To make their case, G&K must show at least three things: that private schools really are “engines of privilege”, that this is unfair, and that governmental intervention is not worse.

Much of the book contributes nothing to the case. Chapters are wasted rehearsing the political debate about private schooling over the last century, describing the “Roads not Taken” and telling us that “We Need to Talk”. And the few passages where G&K do address the relevant questions are feeble.

Start with their engines of privilege hypothesis. They proceed by looking at the percentage of people in top jobs who were educated privately. Judges are the most extreme example. Although only 6 per cent of the population attend private school, 74 per cent of judges did. Or, to put it another way, someone attending a private school is 45 times more likely to become a judge than someone attending a state school. G&K conclude that attending private school greatly advantages would-be judges.

To see their methodological error, imagine I ran a basketball school that coaches aspiring professionals when 16 years old. I advertise my school by pointing out that while only one in a million people who do not attend it become professionals, 20 per cent of my students do. This is absurd because only people who are already good at basketball attend my school. I need to show that my students do better than people who are otherwise just like them.

That’s also what G&K need to do. They must show that people who are otherwise just like those who attend private schools,

but  who instead go to state schools, do worse. Otherwise they cannot rule out the hypothesis that it is the shared characteristics, not the private education, that explain the later success. People who come from the kinds of  families who send their children to private schools might dominate the judiciary even if there were no private schools. Yet G&K provide no statistics that test this hypothesis.
What about the idea that, if private schools were indeed engines of privilege, this would be unfair? G&K seem to take this for granted, offering no argument. Yet it is far from obvious.

Stick with judges. Suppose they get the job on merit. Something will explain how they become the best people for the job. Now suppose that, besides an interest in the law, only three things affect the chance of getting into this position: a high IQ, a propensity for hard work and a private education. All are “cosmic windfalls”. We do not choose the families we are born into. Why is the windfall of smart and encouraging parents a fair advantage, but the windfall of parents rich enough to afford private schooling an unfair advantage? It’s a difficult question. But G&K must answer it to make their case against private schools. They don’t even try.

A potential answer is that while the advantages of inherited wealth can be eliminated by governmental intervention, the advantages of inherited intelligence cannot. This isn’t strictly true, of course. The government could interfere with reproduction in ways that reduce inequalities in inherited intelligence. It’s just that the required interventions, such as banning certain couplings, are unacceptable. G&K surely agree.

Which brings us to the third question they must answer. What makes government interference with the voluntary provision and purchase of private education any more acceptable than governmental interference with reproduction? Again, G&K provide no answer, if only because they seem unaware of the issue.

They acknowledge that their policies are illiberal, and that liberty is valuable. But they deal with this problem by simply asserting, without argument, that eliminating the privilege bestowed by private schools is more important than liberty. And, for a subsidiary defence of their authoritarianism, they claim that people should not be free to spend money in ways that deprive others of something they want, such as jobs as judges, apparently failing to notice that this would rule out buying a classic car or any other good of strictly limited supply.

Green and Kynaston propose a profound governmental interference with our liberty. You might expect something more from them than irrelevant history, irrelevant statistics, and a failure to even engage with the important questions.