‘But it’s right here in the constitution!’

In the recent wave of Fees Must Fall protest, once again we have seen a certain argument for ‘free’ education arise, namely: that education is a right. It’s something we’re entitled to, either morally or legally, or both.

But in reality, this notion – and I admit, it could certainly be true hypothetically – really just isn’t the case. It’s yet another piece of leftist rhetoric which just seems so right! I mean, what kind of a cold bastard wouldn’t entrench the right to free education in law?

The short answer? Me, and for good reason: such rights are not good; in fact, they are really quite evil. This might seem strange. How on earth could educating people be evil? It’s not the education part which is evil, but rather the fact that it’s an entitlement enshrined in law. What would the implications of a legal right to education be?

First of all, it is fundamental to understand that anytime you want something to be required by law, you are essentially saying that you would use force to institute it. Such is the nature of government, i.e. a monopoly on the use of force. It’s no small issue in creating new laws, as you literally need to ask yourself: ‘Would I put a gun to someone’s head to do this?’ It might sound extreme, but that’s the reason the police carry guns around. The law is not a guideline; it’s an opinion with a gun.

So we need to ask ourselves then: what would the right to education entail? Education is not some kind of tangible object. It requires an educator, or more specifically, the labour of an educator. What one is saying in wanting ‘the right to education’ is really ‘the right to someone else’s labour.’ In making this statement, they simply do not take into account that such a legal right would mean the government exercising force in making lecturers, teachers, etc. work for the population. If you were the only teacher who lived in a country which guaranteed its citizens the right to education, you would be compelled by law to work, whether you were paid for this work or not. This is tantamount to slavery, and it is something which I have great moral issues with.

So given the ethical problem of having the right to another individual’s labour, what does South African Constitution say about this? The following is taken from the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Chapter 2, Section 29, Subsection 1:

(1) Everyone has the right:
a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and
b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

An important fact to notice here is that in South Africa, the only education to which one has the ‘right’ is basic education. The key to (b) is the wording, i.e. ‘make progressively available and accessible.’ There is no end date to this and no specification that ‘available and accessible’ implies ‘without any sort of cost.’

As far as ‘available and accessible’ is concerned, in my recent letter to Blade Nzimande, I pointed out that the only way our higher education system can be made more accessible is if we institute market-based reforms and get some serious deregulation going.

However, in addition, I think it’s important that one also needs to read. I speak of Section 13:

13. No one may be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labour.

Given my argument above, it would appear that this would contradict Section 29 which grants – to an extent – exactly that, i.e. labour. What’s more, the fact that it is in our supreme law means that it is something which (if need be) the government may institute by force. I’m no legal scholar, but that sounds to be not dissimilar to what Section 13 prohibits.

What’s at stake here has really now become a question of values. Supporters of Fees Must Fall need to ask themselves if they really do believe in the South African constitution, or, if they are like me and they don’t agree with everything it says, we need to be asking: isn’t there a moral issue at stake here? Is it a good idea to legally give someone the right to the fruits of another’s labour? I think what this issue will truly come down to is a test of values.

I end off with this video of US senator Rand Paul (R-KY) during a committee meeting. Bernie Sanders had raised the possibility of making free healthcare a right. Paul – a qualified eye surgeon – responded:

‘I’m a physician, that means you have the right to come to my house and conscript me.’

I so hope that the same won’t ever apply to our lecturers, or anyone else for that matter.

Nicholas is a Senior Staff Writer at the Rational Standard. He is a Local Coordinator for Students For Liberty as well as an organiser of SAFREECON 2017. He takes great interest in the philosophy underlying classical liberal values as well as the Austrian school of economics. He is currently a student at Rhodes University studying towards a BA in Chinese and German.