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I critically examine a set of 191 interpretations dating from 1893 to 2020 that characterize Adam Smith’s views regarding taxpayer financing of schooling for youngsters. I find that the interpretation of Smith as an advocate of taxpayer funding predominates, and that it has done so consistently over this time frame of professional Smithian scholarship—making a sort of orthodoxy. But one passage prompts the question as to why. The passage is Smith’s final words on the subject. I focus on the treatment of this passage which places the options of taxation and voluntary funding (user fees and charity) in a complex equipoise. Those who dissent from orthodoxy more often cite and examine this passage. Those who perpetuate the orthodoxy fail to give the passage an attentive reading, widely omit it, sometimes suppress the heterodox portion of it, and abstain from engaging with those who find it evidentiary of an alternative view. I complement the study with a literature review for the reader’s further exploration, and I pose some challenges to the orthodox view.
Podcast related to this article: Scott Drylie on Scholarship on Adam Smith on Schooling and Government (EJW Audio, November 2020).