Even Karl Marx Opposed ‘Free’ College: Here’s Why

May 22, 2022 Updated: May 23, 2022


Few things get progressives more excited than “free” stuff: free health care, free housing, free college.

Evidence for this could be found in The New York Times on May 19, when an article that was published under the headline “Should College Be Free?” pointed out that surging tuition costs are making college less affordable to Americans.

“In the past three decades, the average cost of attending a private college in the United States has tripled — landing at around $50,000 per year,” NY Times writer Callie Holtermann explains.

College is indeed expensive these days—the result of a virtually endless supply of federal loans that have allowed universities to quadruple the price of tuition since the early 1960s (in real dollars). And the enormous price tag is probably why a majority of Americans support making it “free,” a policy that 85 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans say they support.

Though President Joe Biden’s proposal to make community college “free” was scrapped from his $3.5 trillion spending package, some states are forging ahead.

New Mexico, flush on cash from tax revenues thanks to surging oil prices, is leading the way. In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a bill that offers free tuition to all high school graduates (regardless of income) to enroll at public colleges and universities in the state.

Other states are creating less ambitious programs. Lawmakers in Michigan passed a law to offer free college to residents who were deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic, and to extend free community college to individuals 25 and older. The University of Texas System, meanwhile, recently expanded tuition assistance with a $300 million endowment.

While lawmakers around the United States continue to try to make “free” college a reality, it’s worth noting that perhaps the most famous collectivist in history was opposed to the idea: Karl Marx.

In his “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (pdf)—a letter written to Germany’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party in May 1875—the father of communism explained the problem with “free” college.

“If in some states … higher education institutions are also ‘free,’” Marx said, “that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts.”

Readers will notice two things from Marx’s statement.

First, Marx makes it clear that “free” education isn’t truly free, which is why he (unlike The New York Times) put the word in quotation marks. As Marx makes clear, this education isn’t free, but paid through tax receipts.

Marx may have been a lousy economist, but he at least understood (to some degree) a basic economic truth: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, an adage popularized by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

“That is the free lunch myth,” Friedman explained in a lecture on the topic. “The myth that somehow or other, government can provide goods and services—can spend money—at nobody’s expense.”

Second, Marx is clearly skeptical of the idea of making taxpayers pay for higher education, seeing it as a giveaway to wealthier individuals in society (“the upper classes”).

As it happens, this is precisely why many Americans oppose “canceling” student loan debt. As the left-leaning Brookings Institution pointed out earlier this year, about a third of all student loan debt is owed by the top quintile in America (i.e., the wealthiest 20 percent of households). The bottom 20 percent, meanwhile, hold just 8 percent of student loan debt.

Indeed, comedian Bill Maher recently pointed out on HBO that 50 percent of student debt is held by people who went to graduate school. This means that student debt “cancellation” is essentially a wealth transfer to wealthy individuals, since people with advanced degrees earn more than double those who received a high school diploma, on average—$2.7 million in lifetime earnings compared to just $1.3 million for high school grads, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Now, Marx was wrong about a great many things. He was a poor economist, a racist, and an all-around bad person.

But he was at least true enough to his egalitarianism to recognize that “free” college schemes would inevitably benefit the upper crust of society and make inequality worse—something many of today’s progressives stubbornly refuse to acknowledge despite the overwhelming evidence.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Jonathan Miltimore is the managing editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune. Bylines: Newsweek, The Washington Times, MSN.com, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, The Epoch Times.