Only limited government can be decent government…a single omnipotent ‘legislature’…is wholly incapable of pursuing a consistent course of action, lurching like a steam roller driven by one who is drunk.
(Hayek 1982 Vol. III: 11)
Carr and Hartnett (1996) argue that ‘any vision of education that takes democracy seriously cannot but be at odds with educational reforms which espouse the language and values of market forces and treat education as a commodity to be purchased and consumed’ (p. 192); in particular, there will be contrasting interpretations of autonomy by those who espouse markets in education and those who espouse ‘democratic education’. On the contrary, I argue that markets in education are not incompatible with democratic education at all, nor are they incompatible with conceptions of autonomy which purportedly embody democratic principles. Indeed, it may be that a ‘democratic’ conception of autonomy is better served by markets than by democratic control of education, paradoxical though this may sound.
Carr and Hartnett are certainly not alone in this position (a selection from the ubiquitous examples include Green 1991, Hillcole Group 1991, Ball 1990, 1993, Ranson 1990, 1993, 1995, White 1988, Whitty 1989); their recent, strongly argued case for the need to resist moves towards markets in education for ‘the struggle for democracy’ will be used as a springboard into the discussion. The second section outlines their argument, bringing in definitions of democracy, autonomy and markets in education. It then sets out why markets in education are not incompatible with democratic education. The next section looks at some objections to this position, while the fourth explores whether a stronger case can be made about the desirability of markets in education to promote democratic ends. Finally, the last section summarises the issues.