While reading Peter Boettke’s wonderful new book “Living Economics,” I was reminded by Boettke of an interesting disagreement between Scottish Enlightenment figures Adam Smith and David Hume. Both Smith and Hume used economic thinking to understand a puzzling phenomenon of their day: Countries with publicly supported religion were less religiously devoted than those in which the church relied on private funds.

Boettke uses this example to illustrate the “value free” nature of economic analysis. Since Hume was a religious skeptic and preferred a less influential church, he argued in support of publicly funded religion. He understood that this would result in a less religious populace and welcomed that result. Smith used the same economic logic but did not share Hume’s negative feelings toward the church, and thus he opposed public support for religion. As Boettke points out, good economic thinking does not tell us what we “ought” to do, it only reveals cause and effect relationships and shows us what the outcome of various policies will be.

Despite their differences of opinion on the preferred outcome, the logic of economics was the same for both men: When the church is publicly supported it becomes less responsive to parishioners and less creative in gaining and retaining new members. When churches had to rely solely on voluntary support, they innovated. Sermons became more interesting to the listeners, facilities were built to meet the needs of attendees, and church leaders more aggressively and creatively looked for ways to show the applicability and value of religion to everyday life. This marketing, innovation and energy resulted in greater “consumption” of religious “goods” than in countries where the state supported the church.

This conclusion was counterintuitive. It was strongly believed by many at the time that religion was unlike other goods and services. It was a “public good” of sorts. Left unaided by tax dollars, short-sighted citizens would underfund religion in pursuit of more temporary gains at the cost of their moral character and eternal souls. Perhaps bricks and blankets and bread could be left to the market, but religion was too important. Religious ideas and values needed to be firmly in the heart of every citizen, and as such it was the duty of the state to ensure that the church did not wane.

Smith and Hume smashed this logic with clear economic analysis. The analysis itself did not choose sides. It neither supported nor opposed religion. It did not care for the pure or impure motives of the advocates or opponents of state funded religion. It only revealed that, contrary to the intent of its advocates (with the exception of people like Hume), governments who supported churches with tax dollars got a less religious populace.

It’s relatively easy to accept this analysis dispassionately in the United States today. The separation of church and state, at least in terms of direct funding, has been so firmly entrenched, and our experience of the wide variety of flourishing denominations and churches so extensive, that we have no trouble agreeing with Smith and Hume’s conclusion. It’s silly to suggest that religion cannot exist without state support, and even more absurd to suggest that the federal government could improve upon religion. Yet the vast majority of Americans fail to see the same cause and effect relationship between state funding of education and the level of education among the public.

If you like the idea of a population that is competent in math, science, reading, writing, physics, philosophy, biology, history, economics and every other field of knowledge, you should oppose state support for education. Without resorting to complicated debates about curricula, teachers unions and budgets, the same economic analysis Smith and Hume used to understand the relationship between church and state can be used to understand the relationship between school and state. State support for education results in a less educated populace.

As radical as that may sound today, it may not have sounded so radical to the early advocates of public schooling. Their main goal was not to increase the overall level of education or to educate where education was previously absent, but to reduce variety in education. They did not want to increase supply, but rather decrease the number of choices for parents and children so as to produce a more uniform set of beliefs and create a more civically minded and compliant citizen. They wanted graduates able to step in to the regimented Scientific Management of factory life and fit neatly into a centrally planned economy, which they saw as the future of mankind. Whether or not you agree with their intentions, their economic logic was correct: State funded and operated education would reduce the wide range of educational goods being consumed.

If we want a more educated populace, full of energy and a variety of methods and ideas, much like the innumerable churches and denominations on the American religious scene, the removal of state sponsorship is a must. Absent the secure fallback of the state’s coffers, educational institutions would be forced to innovate, listen to consumers, market their services and find new ways of making their offerings beneficial in the day-to-day life of their students. A thriving market for schooling and education (not necessarily the same thing) would produce a more educated populace with greater enthusiasm for knowledge, just as Smith and Hume found with religion.

Perhaps separation of school and state is the first step to a flowering of education.