Voluntaryist Critics of State Education

By George H. Smith

[Editor’s Note: The author of this article is probably best known to readers of this newsletter as the person responsible for suggesting its title, THE VOLUN­TARYIST. The following excerpts first appeared as the “Introduction” to an anthology edited by George H. Smith and Marilyn Moore, titled CRITICS OF STATE EDUCATION (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2017). The complete book is available as a free ebook at www.libertarianism.org/books.  Permission to reprint given by Grant Babcock, Cato.Org; email of October 25, 2017, 3:30 pm. Freedom and free-market competition in all spheres of life has been and is an on-going theme in these pages. Other articles advocating freedom in education can be found at www.voluntaryist.com/homeschooling.]


The relationship between school and state in American liberal thought has a checkered past. Many traditional heroes of American individualism, such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, upheld some role for government in education, however minor that role is by today’s standard. Even William Leggett, the radical Jacksonian and laissez-faire advocate who opposed nearly all kinds of government intervention, made an exception in the case of education.31

Radical individualism in America was a different matter. Josiah Warren, often regarded as the first American anarchist, warned in 1833 that national aid to education would be like “paying the fox to take care of the chickens,” and said he feared the consequences of placing control of education in the hands of single group.32 Gerrit Smith, a radical abolitionist who supported John Brown, upheld the separation of school and state. “It is justice and not charity which the people need at the hands of government,” Smith argued. “Let government restore to them their land, and what other rights they have been robbed of, and they will be able to pay for themselves—to pay their schoolmasters, as well as their parsons.”33 William Youmans (an admirer of Herbert Spencer and a founder and editor of Popular Science Monthly) favored leaving education to “private enterprise.”34 And the Spencerian John Bonham vigorously attacked “the one true system” of Horace Mann that would impose a dulling uniformity and would extirpate diversity in education.35

The most thorough arguments against state education appeared in the writings of British (classical) liberals during the 1840s and 1850s. Calling themselves “Voluntaryists”—a label originally embraced by those who called for the complete disestablishment of the Church of England—these liberals launched a sustained campaign against state education in England that, though it was doomed to failure, produced a remarkable body of literature that has been largely ignored by historians.

The British Voluntaryist movement grew from the ranks of Dissenters, or Nonconformists (i.e., non-Anglican Protestants). After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Dissenters who refused to subscribe to the articles of the Established Church of England faced severe legal disabilities. Oxford and Cambridge were effectively closed to them, as were other conventional channels of education. Dissenters therefore established their own educational institutions, such as the dissenting academies of the 18th century, which one historian has described as “the greatest schools of their day.”36

Until 1833, elementary education in England progressed without substantial state aid or interference. Free education on an ambitious scale had been undertaken by Dissenters, or Nonconformists, with the establishment, in 1808, of the British and Foreign School Society (originally called the Royal Lancasterian Society). Funded primarily by Dissenting congregations, the society used the monitorial system, which employed abler students to help teach their classmates, to bring education to the working classes without government assistance.37 These efforts motivated Anglicans to form the National Society, which established competing free schools for educating the poor.

Over the next decade, government funds were made available to both Dissenters and Anglicans. Each pound from voluntary contributions was matched by the government, up to £20,000 per annum. Because the Anglican schools were receiving more contributions than the Dissenting schools, the former received most of the government funds, so Dissenters began to learn the hard way that government aid to education would serve the prevailing orthodoxy.

Even by 1839, when the Melbourne administration proposed to increase aid to £30,000 pounds per annum, relatively few Dissenters expressed opposition. Most Dissenters approved of, or silently accepted, state funding if it did not favor one religious group over another and if it did not entail state interference. The one Dissenting deputy who argued that education “is not a legitimate function of the government” could find no support among his peers,38 and a meeting of Dissenting ministers in 1840 expressed its “satisfaction” with government aid for education.

All this changed in 1843 after Sir James Graham, home secretary under the Peel administration, presented a bill to the House of Commons titled A Bill for Regulating the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Factories, and for the Better Education of Children in Factory Districts. Among other things, the bill required factory children to attend school for at least three hours each day, five days per week, and it placed effective control of those schools (to be financed largely from local rates) in the hands of the Established Church of England.39 “The Church has ample security,” wrote Graham, “that every master in the new schools will be a Churchman, and that the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, as far as the limited exposition may be carried, will necessarily be in conformity with his creed.” 40

Dissenting opposition to Graham’s bill was swift and severe. It “set the whole country on fire,” according to one observer.41 Eclectic Review, a leading Dissenting journal, declared:

From one end of the empire to the other, the sound of alarm has gone forth, and the hundreds of thousands who have answered to its call have astonished and confounded our opponents. The movement has been at once simultaneous and determined. The old spirit of the puritans has returned to their children, and men in high places are in consequence standing aghast, astonished at what they witness, reluctant to forego their nefarious purpose, yet scarce daring to persist in the scheme.42

Thousands of petitions with over 2 million signatures were presented to the House in opposition to the Factories Education Bill, whereupon Graham submitted amendments in an effort to appease the Dissenters. But to no avail. Petitions against the amended clauses contained nearly another 2 million signatures, and the measure was withdrawn.

It was during this agitation that support by Dissenters for state aid to education (provided it did not involve interference) transformed into opposition to all such aid. Edward Baines, Jr.—editor of the Leeds Mercury, the most influential provincial newspaper in England—described the transition:

The dangerous bill of Sir James Graham, and the evidence brought out of the ability and disposition of the people to supply the means of education, combined to convince the editors of the Mercury that it is far safer and better for Government not to interfere at all in the work; and from that time forward they distinctly advocated that view.43

The Voluntaryist philosophy crystallized quickly. In meetings of the Congregational Union held in Leeds (October 1843), Baines articulated the basic arguments against state education that he would develop in more detail over the next 20 years.44 The Congregational Union officially declared itself in favor of voluntary education.45 An education conference held at the Congregational Union in Leeds (December 1843) resolved that “all funds confided to the disposal of the central committee, in aid of schools, be granted only to schools sustained entirely by voluntary contributions.” 46

By 1846 the majority of Congregationalists and Baptists supported voluntary education.47 Leading newspapers and journals of the Dissenters—such as the Leeds Mercury, the Nonconformist, and the Eclectic Review—argued the case for Voluntaryism. Many Voluntaryists were active in the Anti–Corn Law League (which led a successful campaign to abolish import tariffs on grain), and they applied the principles of free trade to education. Voluntaryists energetically disputed reports that purported to show the deplorable condition of voluntary schools,48 and they accused governmentcommittees of misrepre­senting facts and distorting evidence to buttress their case for government interference.49

Not all Dissenters supported Voluntaryism, of course; some Nonconformist journals, such as the British Quarterly Review, attacked Voluntaryism vigorously. In addition, some Manchester free-trade advocates (most notably Richard Cobden) were active in the movement for state secular education, creating a serious rift among British liberals. Indeed, in 1848 Cobden remarked that “education is the main cause of the split among the middle-class Liberals.”50

In Leeds the question was whether the State should intervene at all, while in Manchester it concerned the form that intervention should take. . . . Leeds imposed a prescriptive ban upon state education per se; Manchester sought to define the proper goals of a state education scheme that was both necessary and desirable.51

One important Voluntaryist was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), the leading libertarian philosopher of his day. Although Spencer became an agnostic, he was home-schooled in Dissenting causes by his father and uncle. “Our family was essentially a dissenting family,” Spencer wrote in later life, “and dissent is an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control.” Much of Spencer’s first political article, written in his early 20s and published in the Nonconformist in 1842, was devoted to a critique of state education, and it possibly influenced the birth of the Voluntaryist movement in the following year.52

Other prominent Dissenters who campaigned for Voluntaryism were Joseph Sturge (1793–1859), a Quaker pacifist who played an important role in the antislavery movement; Samuel Morley (1809–1886); Andrew Reed (1787–1862); Henry Richard (1812–1888); Edward Miall (1809–1881); and the previously mentioned Edward Baines, Jr. (1800–1890). Of these men, Miall and Baines were the most important. Edward Miall founded and edited the Nonconformist, one of the most important Dissenting periodicals of its day. Miall was a tireless campaigner for both the separation of church and state and the separation of school and state. Edward Baines, Jr.—for many years editor of the influential Leeds Mercury—was the driving force behind Voluntaryism after 1843. Through Baines’s many pamphlets and articles, which combined theoretical arguments with detailed statistics, the case for Voluntaryism reached a wide audience throughout Britain.53


Liberty was a basic concern of all Voluntaryists. Dissenters saw themselves in the tradition of John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke—defenders of individual rights and foes of oppressive government. Religious liberty in particular—freedom of conscience—was viewed as the great heritage of the Dissenting tradition, any violation of which should call forth “stern and indomitable resistance.”54

Liberty should not be sacrificed for a greater good, argued the Dissenting minister and Voluntaryist Richard Hamilton: “There is no greater good. There can be no greater good! It is not simply means, it is an end.”55 Education is best promoted by freedom, but should there ever be a conflict, “liberty is more precious than education.” “We love education,” Hamilton stated, “but there are things which we love better.”56 Edward Baines agreed that education is not the ultimate good: “Liberty is far more precious.” It is essential to “all the virtues which dignify men and communities.”57

The preservation of individual freedom, according to most Voluntaryists, is the only legitimate function of government. The purpose of government, wrote Herbert Spencer in “The Proper Sphere of Government” (1842), is “to defend the natural rights of man—to protect person and property—to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak; in a word, to administer justice.” Edward Miall agreed that government is “an organ for the protection of life, liberty, and property; or, in other words, for the administration of justice.”58

Government, an ever-present danger to liberty, must be watched with vigilance and suspicion. “The true lover of liberty,” stated the Eclectic Review, “will jealously examine all the plans and measures of government.”

He will seldom find himself called to help it, and to weigh down its scale. He will watch its increase of power with distrust. He will specially guard against conceding to it any thing which might be otherwise done. He would deprecate its undertaking of bridges, highways, railroads. He would foresee the immense mischief of its direction of hospitals and asylums. Government has enough on its hands—its own proper functions—nor need it to be overborne. There is a class of governments which are called paternal. . . . They exact a soulless obedience. . . . Nothing breathes and stirs. . . . The song of liberty is forgotten. . . . And when such governments tamper with education, the tyranny, instead of being relieved, is eternized.59

Government is “essentially immoral,” wrote Spencer in Social Statics, and with this many Voluntaryists agreed. A government has only those rights delegated to it by individuals, and “it is for each to say whether he will employ such an agent or not.” Every person, therefore, has “the right to ignore the state.” 60 The source of political authority is the people, argued Hamilton, and the people may revise or even “outlaw the State.” 61

Voluntaryists’ concern for liberty can scarcely be exaggerated. Schemes of state education were denounced repeatedly as “the knell of English freedom,” an “assault on our constitutional liberties,” and so forth. Plans for government inspection of schools were likened to “government surveillance” and “universal espionage” that display “the police spirit.” And compulsory education was described as “child-kidnapping.” Educational freedom is “a sacred thing” because it is “an essential branch of civil freedom.” “A system of state-education,” declared Baines, “is a vast intellectual police, set to watch over the young at the most critical period of their existence, to prevent the intrusion of dangerous thoughts, and turn their minds into safe channels.” 62

Contrary to later historians, who were to portray Voluntaryism as a battle for narrow sectarian interests, the Voluntaryists insisted that crucial moral and political principles were at stake. “The crisis involves larger interests than those of dissent,” stated the Eclectic Review. The threat that state education poses to individual freedom is sufficient ground to “take up a position of most determined hostility to it.”63 The Voluntaryists often drew parallels between educational freedom, on the one hand, and religious freedom, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties, on the other hand. As Baines noted, “We cannot violate the principles of liberty in regard to education, without furnishing at once a precedent and an inducement to violate them in regard to other matters.” He continued:

In my judgment, the State could not consistently assume the support and control of education, without assuming the support and control of both the pulpit and the press. Once decide that Government money and Government superintendence are essential in the schools, whether to insure efficiency, or to guard against abuse, ignorance, and error, and the self-same reasons will force you to apply Government money and Government superintendence to our periodical literature and our religious instruction.64

Baines realized that a government need not carry the principle inherent in state education to its logical extreme, but he was disturbed by a precedent that gave to government the power of molding minds. If, as the proponents of state education had argued, state education was required to promote civic virtue and moral character, then “where, acting on these principles, could you consistently stop?” He asked:

Would not the same paternal care which is exerted to provide schools, schoolmasters, and school-books, be justly extended to provide mental food for the adult, and to guard against his food being poisoned? In short, would not the principle clearly justify the appointment of the Ministers of Religion, and a Censorship of the Press? 65

Baines conceded that there were deficiencies and imperfections in the system of voluntary education, but freedom should not be abrogated on this account. Again he pointed to the example of a free press. A free press has many “defects and abuses”; certainly not all the products of a free press are praiseworthy. But if liberty is to be sacrificed in education in order to remedy deficiencies, then why not regulate and censor the press for the same reason? Baines employed this analogy in his brilliant rejoinder to the charge that he was an advocate of “bad schools”:

In one sense I am. I maintain that we have as much right to have wretched schools as to have wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists, wretched Members of Parliament, and wretched Ministers. You cannot proscribe all these things without proscribing Liberty. The man is a simpleton who says, that to advocate Liberty is to advocate badness. The man is a quack and a doctrinaire of the worst German breed, who would attempt to force all minds, whether individual or national, into a mould of ideal perfection,—to stretch it out or to lop it down to his own Procrustean standard. I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior. Cultivate giants if you please, but do not stifle dwarfs.66

Freedom of conscience was precious to liberal Dissenters, and they feared government encroachment in this realm, even in the guise of “secular” education. The Eclectic Review, using arguments similar to those of Baines, stressed the relationship between religious freedom and educational freedom. Advocates of state education claimed that parents have the duty to provide their children with education and that the state has the right to enforce this duty. But parents have a duty to provide religious and moral instruction as well. “Are we then prepared to maintain . . . that government should interpose, in this case, to supply what the parent has failed to communicate? . . . If sound in the one case, it is equally so in the other.” 67

To the many state-school advocates who pointed to the Prussian system as a model, Baines retorted: “Nearly all the Continental Governments which pay and direct the school, pay and direct also the pulpit and the press. They do it consistently.” 68 This is the potential “despotism” that Baines feared and loathed.


A common prediction of Voluntaryists was that government would employ education for its own ends, especially to instill deference and obedience in citizens. The radical individualist William Godwin, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), was among the first to express this concern. The “project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged,” he wrote, “on account of its obvious alliance with national Government [which] will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions.”69

With the consolidation of Dissenting opposition to state education, the Godwinian warning was frequently repeated and elaborated on. This passage from the Eclectic Review is typical:

It is no trifling thing to commit to any hands the moulding of the minds of men. An immense power is thus communicated, the tendency of which will be in exact accordance with the spirit and policy of those who use it. Governments, it is well known, are conservative. The tendency of official life is notorious, and it is the height of folly, the mere vapouring of credulity, to imagine that the educational system, if entrusted to the minister of the day, will not be employed to diffuse amongst the rising generation, that spirit and those views which are most friendly to his policy. By having, virtually, at his command, the whole machinery of education, he will cover the land with a new class of officials, whose dependence on his patronage will render them the ready instruments of his pleasure.70

Government education, this writer feared, would produce “an emasculated and servile generation.” A possible advance in literacy would be purchased at the price of man’s “free spirit.” Elsewhere the Eclectic Review compared state schools to “barracks” and their employees to “troops.” “The accession of power and patronage to that government which establishes such a national system of education, can scarcely be gauged.”71 Teachers paid by a government will owe allegiance to that government.

What a host of stipendiaries will thus be created! And who shall say what will be their influence in the course of two generations? All their sympathies will be with the powers by whom they are paid, on whose favor they live, and from whose growing patronage their hopes of improving their condition are derived. As constitutional Englishmen, we tremble at the result. The danger is too imminent, the hazard too great, to be incurred, for any temporary stimulus which government interference can minister to education. We eschew it as alike disastrous in its results and unsound in its theory—the criminal attempt of short-sighted or flagitious politicians, to mold the intellect of the people to their pleasure.72

Indoctrination is inherent in state education, according to Edward Baines. State education proceeds from the principle that “it is the duty of a Government to train the Mind of the People.” If one denies to government this right—as defenders of a free press and free religion must logically do—then one must also deny the right of government to meddle in education. It “is not the duty or province of the Government to train the mind of the people,” argued Baines, and this “principle of the highest moment” forbids state education.73

Herbert Spencer agreed. State education, he wrote in Social Statics (1851), will inevitably involve indoctrination.

For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly, to fit the people for social life—to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this—a government ought to mold children into good citizens, using its own discretion in settling what a good citizen is and how a child may be molded into one.74

Indoctrination was an issue that troubled even some proponents of state education. A case in point is William Lovett, the Chartist radical who is frequently praised as an early champion of state education. In his Address on Education (1837), Lovett maintained that it is “the duty of Government to establish for all classes the best possible system of education.” Education should be provided “not as a charity, but as a right.” How was the British government to discharge this duty? By providing funds for the erection and maintenance of schools. Lovett desired government financing without government control: “we are decidedly opposed to placing such immense power and influence in the hands of Government as that of selecting the teachers and superintendents, the books and kinds of instruction, and the whole management of schools in each locality.” Lovett detested state systems, such as that found in Prussia, “where the lynx-eyed satellites of power . . . crush in embryo the buddings of freedom.” State control of education “prostrates the whole nation before one uniform . . . despotism.”75

Several years later Lovett became less sanguine about the prospect of government financing without government control. While still upholding in theory the duty of government to provide education, he so distrusted his own government that he called on the working classes to reject government proposals and to “commence the great work of education yourselves.” The working classes had “everything to fear” from schools established by their own government, so Lovett outlined a proposal whereby schools could be provided through voluntary means, free from state patronage and control.76

We see a similar concern with indoctrination in the work of the celebrated philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill contended that education “is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for the people,” although

he favored a system in which only those who could not afford to pay would be exempt from fees.77 Parents who failed to provide elementary education for their children committed a breach of duty, so the state could compel parents to provide instruction. But where and how children were taught should be up to the parents; the state should merely enforce minimal educational standards through a series of public examinations. Thus did Mill attempt to escape the frightening prospect of government indoctrination. At this point, he began to sound like an ardent Voluntaryist:

That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. . . . A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government . . . in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.78

Dissenters who favored state education were also sensitive to the problem of indoctrination, but many thought that the danger could be avoided by confining state schools to secular subjects. The Voluntaryists disagreed, and they repudiated all attempts at compromise. Government aid, however small and innocent at first, was bound to be followed by government strings. Government aid is “a trap and a snare,” declared the Eclectic Review. It is “a wretched bribe” that, if accepted, “will have irretrievably disgraced us.”79 The question is not, “How can we obtain Government money?” wrote Algernon Wells, “but, How can we avoid it?” Wells continued with a fascinating observation:

[Dissenters] must ever be equally free to act and speak. They must hold themselves entirely clear of all temptation to ask, when their public testimony is required—How will our conduct affect our grants? The belief of many Independents is that, from the hour they received Government money, they would be a changed people—their tone lowered—their spirit altered—their consistency sacrificed—and their honour tarnished.80

Perhaps Edward Baines, Jr., best summarized the sentiment of the Voluntaryists: “When Governments offer their arm, it is like the arm of a creditor or a constable, not so easily shaken off: there is a handcuff at the end of it.”81 The lesson was clear. Educational freedom is incompatible with state support. If government control and manipulation of education are to be avoided, financial independence and integrity must be maintained.


Another recurring theme of Voluntaryism was the need for diversity in education. Voluntaryists warned that state education would impose a dulling uniformity that would result, at best, in mediocrity. This lack of diversity in education was a primary concern of the 18th-century Dissenter Joseph Priestley. Education is an art, and like any art it requires many “experiments and trials” before it can approach perfection, he noted. To bring government into education would freeze this art at its present stage and thereby “cut off its future growth.” Education “is already under too many legal restraints. Let these be removed.” The purpose of education is not simply to promote the interests of the state but rather to produce “wise and virtuous men.” Progress in this area requires “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.” Life—especially human life—requires diversity to improve. Variety induces innovation and improvement. “From new and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring.” The “great excellence of human nature consists in the variety of which it is capable. Instead, then, of endeavouring, by uniform and fixed systems of education, to keep mankind always the same, let us give free scope to everything which may bid fair for introducing more variety among us.”82

Godwin expressed similar concerns. State institutions resist change and innovation. “They actively restrain the flights of mind, and fix it in the belief of exploded errors.” Government bureaucracies entrench themselves and resist change, so we cannot look to them for progress. State education “has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice.83

The deleterious effects of intellectual and cultural uniformity were also of great concern to Herbert Spencer, who developed a theory of social progress based on increasing social diversity. National education “necessarily assumes that a uniform system of instruction is desirable,” and this Spencer denied. Unlimited variety is the key to progress. Truth itself—“the bright spark that emanates from the collision of opposing ideas”—is endangered by a coerced uniformity. The “uniform routine” of state education will produce “an approximation to a national model.” People will begin to think and act alike, and the youth will be pressed “as nearly as possible into one common mould.” Without diversity and competition among educational systems, education will stagnate and intellectual progress will be severely retarded.84

According to Spencer, it is because individuals vary widely in their capacities, needs, and skills that we need a variety of educational systems from which to choose. The flexibility of competing systems allows the individual something suited to his or her individual requirements. This flexibility is provided in a free market where teachers are answerable to the public. Conversely, in a state system, teachers are “answerable only to some superior officer, and having no reputation and livelihood to stimulate them,” they have little motivation to consider the individual needs of their students. Education becomes uniformly gray. Hence “in education as in everything else, the principle of honourable competition is the

only one that can give present satisfaction or hold out promise of future perfection.”85

Edward Baines also warned that a uniform state education would obstruct progress. It would serve to “stereotype the methods of teaching, to bolster up old systems, and to prevent improvement.” If we left education to the market, we would see continual improvements. “But let it once be monopolized by a Government department, and thenceforth reformers must prepare to be martyrs.”86 Algernon Wells made a similar point:

How to teach, how to improve children, are questions admitting of new and advanced solutions, no less than inquiries how best to cultivate the soil, or to perfect manufactures. And these improvements cannot fail to proceed indefinitely, so long as education is kept wide open, and free to competition, and to all those impulses which liberty constantly supplies. But once close up this great science and movement of mind from these invigorating breezes, whether by monopoly or bounty, whether by coercion or patronage, and the sure result will be torpor and stagnancy.87

The Eclectic Review, protesting that the “unitive design” of state education “would make all think alike,” continued with a chilling account of uniformity:

All shall be straightened as by the schoolmaster’s ruler, and transcribed from his copy. He shall decide what may or may not be asked. But he must be normalized himself. He must be fashioned to a model. He shall only be taught particular things. The compress and tourniquet are set on his mind. He can only be suffered to think one way. . . . All schools will be filled with the same books. All teachers will be imbued with the same spirit. And under their cold and lifeless tuition, the national spirit, now warm and independent, will grow into a type formal and dull, one harsh outline with its crisp edges, a mere complex machine driven by external impulse, with it appendages of apparent power but of gross resistance. If any man loves that national monotony, thinks it the just position of his nature, can survey the tame and sluggish spectacle with delight, he, on the adoption of such a system, has his reward.88

Auberon Herbert also cautioned against the “evils of uniformity.” Like his mentor Herbert Spencer, he thought that “all influences which tend towards uniform thought and action in education are most fatal to any regularly continuous improvement.”89 Imagine the effect of state uniformity in religion, art, or science. Progress would grind to a halt. Education is no different. “Therefore, if you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their sense with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department.”90

As a former member of parliament, Herbert was especially sensitive to the difficulty of implementing change in a bureaucratic structure. A free market encourages innovation and risk taking. An innovator with new ideas on education can, if left legally unhampered, solicit aid from those sympathetic to his views and then test his product on the market.

But if some great official system blocks the way, if he has to overcome the stolid resistance of a department, to persuade a political party, which has no sympathy with views holding out no promise of political advantage, to satisfy inspectors, whose eyes are trained to see perfection of only one kind, and who may summarily condemn his school as “inefficient” and therefore disallowed by law, if in the meantime he is obliged by rates and taxes to support a system to which he is opposed, it becomes unlikely that this energy and confidence in his own views will be sufficient to inspire a successful resistance to such obstacles.91


Voluntaryists prized social diversity (or what we call today a “pluralistic society”), and they believed that state education would impose the dead hand of uniformity. Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values, they preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market. One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the passionate commitment of many liberals to competition and their unbridled hatred of governmental interference. They believed that coercive intervention, whatever its supposed justification, actually served special interests and enhanced the power of government. The various campaigns against government were therefore seen as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, education, and other spheres.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early 17th century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church-state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.92

When fellow free traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.”93 “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free-trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”94

Before free traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez- faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”95

The Eclectic Review posed the basic question: Can education “be best produced by monopoly or by competition?”—and it came down unequivocally on the side of competition. Education is a “marketable commodity,” and demand for it is “as much subject to the principles and laws of political economy, as are corn or cotton.” Government intervention, in education as elsewhere, causes market distortions.

How will it affect the balance between the demand and the supply; disturb the relations of the voluntary teacher, and misdirect the expectations and confidence of the market? Let a private teacher attempt to come into competition with such accredited and endowed agents of an incorporate system . . . and he will find himself in the same state with a merchant who ventures to trade without a bounty in competition with those whose traffic is encouraged by large public bounties.96

Voluntaryists predicted that state aid to education would drive many voluntary schools out of business. Market schools would find themselves unable to compete with schools financed from taxes, and philanthropists who had previously contributed to education would withhold their funds, believing that, because the state would provide education anyway, there was no need for charitable support. As state aid increased, market education would diminish, and this consequence would be used to support the contention that voluntary education had failed.

An educational bureaucracy, however tiny at its inception, would grow rapidly. An educational orthodoxy with employees answerable to the government would emerge. Costs would increase, and productivity would decrease. “Public servants,” wrote one Voluntaryist, “are sustained at the largest cost, and always are subject to the least responsibility.” The principle of the market, to produce “the best article . . . at the cheapest price,” would disappear in a state system. In an educational free market, on the contrary, a “real and effectual discipline” is exercised over educators by consumers.97 Free-market schools must either satisfy their customers or go out of business.

In calling for laissez-faire in education, Voluntaryists squared off against the major economists of their day, most of whom advocated some role for government.98 John Stuart Mill, for example, opposed leaving education to the market: “In the matter of education, the intervention of government is justifiable, because the case is not one in which the interest and judgment of the consumer are a sufficient security for the goodness of the commodity.” Mill continued:

The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of education. Those who must need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights. It will continually happen, on the voluntary system, that, the end not being desired, the means will not be provided at all, or that, the persons requiring improvement having an imperfect or altogether erroneous conception of what they want, the supply called for by the demand of the market will be anything but what is really required.99

Voluntaryists responded impatiently to this elitist argument. They had encountered the same argument many times before during their campaigns for religious freedom. With man’s eternal soul at stake, defenders of a state church maintained that religion is far too important to be left to the untutored judgment of the masses. “It is the old dogma,” wrote the dissenting minister Algernon Wells, “the people can know nothing about religion and it must be dictated to them.”100 Wells contended that the argument from incompetence, if used to defend state education, must also justify state interference in religion. The fact that some fellow libertarians failed to understand the ominous implications of Mill’s argument obviously annoyed the Voluntaryists.

In Social Statics (1851), Herbert Spencer dismissed Mill’s argument as “a worn-out excuse” that had been repeatedly trotted out to justify “all state interferences whatever.”

A stock argument for the state teaching of religion has been that the masses cannot distinguish false religion from true. There is hardly a single department of life over which, for similar reasons, legislative supervision has not been, or may not be, established.101

Spencer questioned whether parents are as incompetent to assess education as Mill alleged. Parents, far more than government, are concerned about the welfare of their children, and uneducated parents can seek advice from others whom they trust. Even granting problems in this area, however, it does not follow that the state should intervene. As a market for mass education developed, Spencer believed that consumers would gain the knowledge that comes with experience and thereby become more sophisticated in their choice of products. Social improvement takes time, and Spencer thought that “this incompetence of the masses to distinguish good instruction from bad is being outgrown.”102

Spencer contended that Mill’s argument is based on a false premise. Even if the interest and judgment of consumers are insufficient to guarantee educational quality, Mill assumed that the “interest and judgment” of a government are sufficient security. Mill, in other words, assumed that an identity of interests exists between rulers and the people they govern.

Spencer ridiculed this tacit belief. The English government desired “a sentimental feudalism,” a country where “the people shall be respectful to their betters” and an economy “with the view of making each laborer the most efficient producing tool.” The interests of a government differ from the interests of the people, and “we may be quite sure that a state education would be administered for the advantage of those in power rather than for the advantage of the nation.” Hence, even if we concede some inadequacies in free-market education, the problems inherent in state education are more serious and dangerous.103

As for the rejoinder that this objection may apply to current governments but not necessarily to an ideal government that may someday exist—a government that would presumably have the best interests of the people at heart—Spencer pointed out that Mill’s argument from incompetence depends on consumers “as they now are,” not on consumers as they might be in an ideal society. We should therefore consider Mill’s alternative—government—“as it now is,” not as it should be in a hypothetical paradise.

It will not do, notwithstanding that it is all too often done, to point out problems that might arise in an imperfect market and then offer government as a solution—as if that government were itself perfect, and as if government intervention will not generate its own unique and serious problems. Spencer was inviting Mill to descend from the clouds of political theory and take a hard look at the real world of governments. All things considered, in matters of education “the interest of the consumer is not only an efficient guarantee for the goodness of the things consumed, but the best guarantee.”104


31 See William Leggett, A Collection of the Political Writings of William Leggett, vol. 1, ed. Theodore Sedgwick, Jr. (New York: Taylor and Dodd, 1840), pp. 80–81.

32 Quoted in William O. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1976), p. 70.

33 Quoted in Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith: A Biography (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1878), p. 184.

34 Popular Science Monthly, May 1887, pp. 124–27.

35 John M. Bonham, Industrial Liberty (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888), pp. 286–326.

36 Irene Parker, Dissenting Academies in England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914), p. 45.

37 For a history of the British and Foreign School Society, see Henry Bryan Binns, A Century of Education (London: J. M. Dent, 1908).

38 R. W. Dale, History of English Congregationalism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), p. 652.

39 See J. T. Ward and J. H. Treble, “Religion and Education in 1843: Reaction to the Factory Education Bill,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 20, no. 1 (1969): 79–110. A thorough account of this bill is also contained in Dale, History of English Congregationalism, pp. 654–59.

40 Charles S. Parker, Life and Letters of Sir James Graham, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1907), p. 344.

41 Dale, History of English Congregationalism, p. 661.

42 Eclectic Review, n.s. 13 (January–June 1843): 698.

43 Edward Baines, Jr., Life of Edward Baines (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851), p. 315.

44 Dale, History of English Congregationalism, pp. 659–60.

45 R. Tudor Jones, Congregationalism in England, 1662–1962 (London: Independent Press, 1962), p. 212.

46 Dale, History of English Congregationalism, p. 661.

47 This was the opinion of R. W. Dale (ibid., p. 633), a prominent Dissenter who opposed Voluntaryism. An article in The British Quarterly Review (probably written by Robert Vaughan) questioned whether Voluntaryism was as widespread among Dissenters as its supporters claimed: “We doubt much if there will be a single county union of Congregationalists in England that will not present considerable difference of judgment in reference to this question.” Among the supporters of state education Vaughan listed were “Churchmen in England and Scotland; Free churchmen and Methodists in both countries; the bulk of Dissenters north of the Tweed, and a considerable number south of it; together with the whole body of British Catholics;—all our great political parties, moreover,—Tories, Whigs, Radicals, and the Chartist and Working Classes.” Robert Vaughan?, “The Education Controversy,” British Quarterly Review 6 (August–November 1847): 544–45.

48 See Edward Baines, Jr., The Social, Educational, and Religious State of the Manufacturing Districts (New York: Augustus Kelly, [1843] 1969).

49 See, for example, Henry Richard, “On the Progress and Efficacy of Voluntary Education, as Exemplified in Wales,” in Crosby-Hall Lectures on Education (London: John Snow, 1848), pp. 171–224.

50 John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1906), p. 495.

51 Derek Fraser, Urban Politics in Victorian Cities: The Structure of Politics in Victorian Cities (Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University, 1976), p. 272.

52 Herbert Spencer, “The Filiation of Ideas,” in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, ed. David Duncan (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911), p. 537. Spencer’s series of articles, The Proper Sphere of Government, appeared in 12 parts, beginning on June 15, 1842. Did Spencer’s critique of state education contribute substantially to the Voluntaryist movement? According to Raymond Cowherd, “Spencer constructed a new political platform to combine economists, Radicals, and Dissenters. . . . The political events of 1843, seeming to confirm Spencer’s conclusions, impelled the Dissenters towards a more extreme voluntaryism.” Raymond Cowherd, The Politics of English Dissent (New York: New York University Press, 1956), pp. 157–58. Cf. G.I.T. Machin, “The Maynooth Grant, the Dissenters and Disestablishment, 1845–1847,” English Historical Review 82, no. 322 (1967): 66. Machin agreed that Spencer “provided the extreme Voluntaries with a political philosophy.” Unfortunately, neither Cowherd nor Machin provided documentation to show that Spencer’s early writing had a significant impact on the Voluntaryist movement. Spencer indicated that Edward Miall (editor of the Nonconformist) was impressed enough to say that “if the Nonconformist had had a more extensive circulation he should have been happy to have offered me a share in the editorship”; Spencer, Life and Letters, p. 38. Miall recommended Spencer to Thomas Price as a possible contributor to the Eclectic Review, to which Spencer contributed an article on education. (The article was accepted but never published.) Thus, it is safe to say that the young Spencer was admired by leading Dissenters who were to become prominent in the Voluntaryist causes, but I have been unable to find any proof of direct influence.

53 In 1845, when the Committee of the British and Foreign School Society decided to continue accepting government aid, Sturge (a successful businessman) withdrew his support, stating that “a small annual Government grant may make the recipient subservient to the State”; see Henry Richard, Memoirs of Joseph Sturge (London: S. W. Partridge, 1864), pp. 336–39. On Miall, see Arthur Miall, Life of Edward Miall (London: Macmillan, 1884); William H. Mackintosh, Disestablishment and Liberation (London: Epworth Press, 1972); and David M. Thompson, “The Liberation Society,” in Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, ed. Patricia Hollis (London: Edward Arnold, 1974), pp. 210–38. On the younger Baines, see Derek Fraser, “Edward Baines,” in Pressure from Without, ed. Patricia Hollis (London: Edward Arnold, 1974), pp. 183–209. Cf. Fraser, Urban Politics.

54 Eclectic Review, n.s. 13 (January–June 1843): 576.

55 Richard Winter Hamilton, The Institutions of Popular Education (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1845), p. 266.

56 Richard Winter Hamilton, “On the Parties Responsible for the Education of the People,” in Crosby-Hall Lectures on Education (London: John Snow, 1848), p. 77.

57 Baines, Letters to the Right Hon. Lord John Russell, on State Education (London: Ward & Co, 1847), p. 76.

58 Herbert Spencer, “The Proper Sphere of Government,” in Political Writings, ed. John Offer (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 7.

59 Eclectic Review, n.s. 20 (July–December 1846): 291.

60 Herbert Spencer, Social Statics New York: Schalkenbach, [1851] 1954), pp. 185–86.

61 Hamilton, “On the Parties Responsible,” p. 82.

62 Eclectic Review, n.s. 13 (January–June 1843): 581; Eclectic Review, n.s. 21 (January–June 1847): 507; Baines quoted in n. s. 21, page 363; Baines, Letters to Russell, p. 124; Eclectic Review, n.s. 20 (July–December, 1846): 303; Baines quoted in Eclectic Review, n.s. 21 (January–June, 1847): 363; and Baines, Letters to Russell, p. 72.

63 Eclectic Review, n.s. 21 (January–June 1847): 507.

64 Baines, Letters to Russell, pp. 73–74.

65 Ibid., p. 8.

66 Edward Baines, Jr., “On the Progress and Efficiency of Voluntary Education in England,” in Crosby-Hall Lectures on Education (London: John Snow, 1848), p. 39.

67 Eclectic Review, n.s. 13 (January–June, 1843): 579.

68 Baines, Letters to Russell, p. 8.

69 William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, vol. 2, 3rd ed., ed. F. E. L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, [1797] 1946), p. 302.

70 Eclectic Review, n.s. 13 (January–June 1843): 580.

71 Eclectic Review, n.s. 20 (July–December 1846): 291.

72 Eclectic Review, n.s. 21 (January–June 1847): 359.

73 Baines, Letters to Russell, pp. 7, 10.

74 Spencer, Social Statics, p. 297.

75 William Lovett, Life and Struggles of William Lovett, vol. 1, ed. R. H. Tawney (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), pp. 139–43.

76 William Lovett and John Collins, Chartism: A New Organization for the People (New York: Humanities Press, [1840] 1969), p. 63 ff.

77 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, vol. 2, 5th ed. (New York: Appleton, 1899), p. 574.

78 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. David Spitz (New York: Norton, 1975), pp. 98–99.

79 Eclectic Review, n.s. 20 (July–December 1846): 297–98.

80 Algernon Wells, “On the Education of the Working Classes,” in Crosby-Hall Lectures on Education (London: John Snow, 1848), p. 65.

81 Baines, Letters to Russell, p. 120.

82 Joseph Priestley, Priestley’s Writings on Philosophy, Science, and Politics, ed. John A. Passmore (New York: Collier, 1965), pp. 306–9.

83 Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, vol. 2, pp. 298–99.

84 Herbert Spencer, “The Proper Sphere of Government,” Nonconformist, October 19, 1842, p. 700.

85 Ibid. Spencer’s contempt for uniformity remained with him throughout his life. In 1892, he complained of “a mania for uniformity, which I regard as most mischievous. Uniformity brings death, variety brings life; and I resist all movements towards uniformity.” In 1897, Spencer again referred to the “mania everywhere for uniformity,” and he argued that “competition in methods of education is all essential and anything that tends to diminish competition will be detrimental.” Spencer, Life and Letters, pp. 315, 404.

86 Baines, “On the Progress and Efficiency,” pp. 42–43; Baines, Letters to Russell, p. 53.

87 Wells, “On the Education of the Working Classes,” p. 60.

88 Eclectic Review, n.s. 20 (July–December 1846): 290.

89 Auberon Herbert, The Sacrifice of Education to Examination (London: Williams & Norgate, 1889), p. 191.

90 Auberon Herbert, “State Education: A Help or Hindrance,” Popular Science Monthly, September 1880, p. 68.

91 Ibid., pp. 68–69.

92 Quoted in Norman Gash, Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, 1832–1852 (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 64, n. 1.

93 The Economist, April 3, 1847, p. 380.

94 Eclectic Review, n.s. 22 (July–December 1847): 598.

95 Thomas Hodgskin, “Shall the State Educate the People?” The Economist, April 3, 1847, p. 381.

96 Eclectic Review, n.s. 22 (July–December 1847): 592, 596, 607.

97 Ibid., pp. 609, 611.

98 On the classical economists and state education, see William Miller, “The Economics of Education in English Classical Economics,” Southern Economic Journal 32, no. 3 (1966): 294–309; Mark Blaug, “The Economics of Education in English Classical Political Economy: A Re-examination,” Essays on Adam Smith, ed. Andrew S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 568–99; and E.G. West, Education and the State (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1965), pp. 111–25.

99 Mill, Principles of Political Economy, vol. 2, pp. 573, 577.

100 Wells, “On the Education of the Working Classes,” p. 77.

101 Spencer, Social Statics, p. 300.

102 Ibid., p. 302.

103 Ibid., pp. 303–4.

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