Moral Absolutists Stand by While Kids Suffer: Observations on the Anti-Voucher Separationists

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by Joseph Bast and David Harmer

Originally published in The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 8, October 1996

Editor’s Note: Joseph Bast is president of the Heartland Institute, a public policy research organization. David Harmer is author of the book, School Choice. This article was excerpted from their 20-page paper, “The Libertarian Case for Vouchers.”  The full paper is available from the Heartland Institute.

WebEditors’s note: The Cato paper was published in March 1997 as Policy Analysis #269, titled “Vouchers and Educational Freedom: A Debate” and included a response from Douglas Dewey. Also of note is Marshall Fritz’s response to Bast and Harmer printed in the same issue of The Education Liberator. See “Why we won’t hush: A response to Bast and Harmer.”


We support vouchers because we care enough about separating school and state to seriously grapple with the question of “how do we get there?” Separation of school and state isn’t just a slogan or a goal for us. It isn’t a posture, or a way of showing how radical or principled we are. It is an objective we intend to help advance.


At stake are the futures of millions of kids currently trapped in public schools. It is not exaggerating to say that every aspect of the lives of these students lies in the balance. To do nothing-which many anti-voucher separationists are doing-is criminal negligence. Even worse is opposing steps toward privatization-which Marshall Fritz and a few other separationists are doing-without putting forth your own plan to reach separation. That, in our opinion, betrays a lack of sincere commitment to reaching the goal, and maybe a smug satisfaction with just talking about it.



(Un)libertarian voucher criticisms


A complete argument against vouchers from a libertarian perspective has yet to be made. Most criticism appears in the form of short essays in The Freeman, op-ed pieces in newspapers, or most recently, essays in The Education Liberator.


In reviewing this “literature,” one is struck by the repeated appearance of several assumptions that are jarringly at odds with the professed libertarianism of their authors:



A. They think letting someone keep their own money is the same as a subsidy or new entitlement.


Since the point seems so often missed by the anti-voucher separationists, we will restate it clearly: Vouchers do not create any new entitlements, none. They take dollars currently going to support a socialist system and put them back into the hands of parents, to be spent in a growing private marketplace of competing schools.


Confusing tax relief-letting someone keep his or her own money-with a subsidy or an entitlement is a common mistake among liberals and statists. The premise is that a family’s income belongs, not to those who earned it, but to the government, and the family must petition the government to keep some of it. This notion is repugnant to libertarians. It is surprising, therefore, to find it embraced on this issue by separationists.



B. They don’t trust people to make their own decisions.


Libertarian critics of vouchers are afraid that vouchers will come with strings attached, thereby compromising the independence and integrity of participating schools. They are afraid that other people don’t see as clearly as they do the danger inherent in accepting government funds.


Anti-voucher separationists should have a higher regard for the wisdom and wits of the average mother and father. In this, they are little different from voucher critics on the left, who claim that specially trained bureaucrats care more for the well-being of children than do parents.


Part of the libertarian perspective is humility: knowing that knowledge in a free society is widely disbursed and unknowable to any one individual, we submit to the superior wisdom embedded in and revealed by social and economic processes. We trust that impersonal markets will determine who “really” wants something and at what price. That humility should lead us to give parents and school administrators the opportunity to decide for themselves whether vouchers are a blessing or a curse.



C. They imagine that the trend toward increased regulation and government control is irreversible.


So great is their fear of government control that anti-voucher separationists would rather live with socialism than dare to experiment with privatization. What a sad commentary on their lack of vision and faith!


The faulty assumption here is that the “slippery slope” to socialism is never ending, and consequently any proposed reforms that still involve public funding-even proposals that dramatically scale back government’s capacity to commit evil, and which set the stage for further privatization in the future-will lead to dependency, government control, and decline.


What proof do they have of this claim? Perhaps as much, or as little, as the Marxists and Hegelians had in the 1950s. In his essay, “Trends Can Change,” Ludwig von Mises wrote:


Today the doctrine of the irreversibility of prevailing trends has supplanted the Marxian doctrine concerning the inevitability of progressive impoverishment. Now this doctrine is devoid of any logical or experimental verification. Historical trends do not necessarily go on forever. No practical man is so foolish as to assume that prices will keep rising because the price curves of the past show an upward tendency.


Mises was right, of course, and the tendency toward serfdom at long last appears to be reversing itself. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of international communism, the worldwide spread of privatization, the deep decline in public trust in and support for government here in the U.S…. all this suggests a major change in the public’s attitudes toward government. Do the anti-voucher separationists not see the change going on around them?



Vehicle to freedom


A voucher plan implemented today would quickly become a vehicle to reduce, not increase, public spending on education. The public does not seek lowest-common-denominator services delivered by government bureaucracies. They understand very well the adverse effects of rules and regulations. In this climate, education vouchers are part of a trend away from reliance on government and toward freedom.



D. They overlook the fact that the current system is neither free nor just.


When separationists criticize vouchers, it is often by comparing them to a hypothetical free and just system, not the current system of public schooling. No real-world plan compares well to utopia, and a voucher plan is no exception.


Libertarian critics of vouchers spend much of their time worrying about the effect of a voucher system on students enrolled in private schools. If vouchers come with unacceptable strings attached, some schools will refuse to participate. They may not be able to compete with schools that accept vouchers, and they may go out of business. How serious a problem is this?


Only 12 percent of students attend private schools, nearly 80 percent of which are religiously affiliated. Voucher critics point to this 12 percent as a precious remnant of the free enterprise system that would be destroyed by vouchers. But the great majority of private schools differ very little in their curricula or classroom activities from their public school counterparts, and would not hesitate to accept vouchers. Those that differ significantly probably stand to lose very few students precisely because they do offer a unique product. Such schools already exist despite the presence of free competing schools that typically outspend them two- or three-to-one. A voucher plan would not significantly worsen their odds of survival.


The overwhelming majority of private schools exist only because parents want religious instruction and discipline, not because they do a better job educating children. These schools are not a last remnant of the free market at work: they are an expression of religious liberty, exercised despite laws that punish parents who choose private over public schools.


But while possible injury to private schools may not be a plausible argument against vouchers, the way the current system treats private schools may be a compelling reason for vouchers.


Parents of students enrolled in private schools are forced to pay tuition at the school of their choice, and property taxes to support the public school they do not choose. This flies in the face of religious freedom as well as simple justice, and cries out for corrective action. Vouchers correct the problems, which is why much of the support for vouchers today comes from the private schools community.


The focus on the fate of private schools, then, may seem like madness on the part of voucher critics. But perhaps there is purpose here as well.



The other 88 percent


While we debate the fate of the one or two percent of all students who might somehow be adversely affected by the creation of a comprehensive educational system, we turn our attention away from the 88 percent of students trapped in a system where government owns the buildings, hires the teachers, employs the principals, determines the curriculum, and oversees testing and evaluation. By ignoring the 88 percent, separationists can blithely claim that they shouldn’t have to come up with a non-voucher plan to privatize the schools.


·       The 88 percent are not being taught to read or write, and so enter society without the skills needed to become contributing members.


·       They are being indoctrinated with creeds and dogmas that are profoundly at odds with the values of their parents and with what is needed to genuinely understand the world as it really exists.


·       They are being sold drugs, recruited into gangs, introduced to sex, and sometimes caught in the crossfire of gang wars while still on school property.


Our first concern should be saving the lives of millions of children now put at risk in public schools. Once that becomes our first concern, we understand the need for a plan to get there, and the vital role that vouchers play in the movement for complete separation of school and state.



Morality requires that we act immediately


It is incredible that some critics of vouchers portray the children currently being victimized by government schools as being unworthy of compassion or assistance, or to hear their parents blamed for not “caring enough” to change the system.


Conservative and libertarian critics of vouchers do not deserve forgiveness. They know that millions of kids are being sent every day to schools that are little more than prisons. They know that conditions in those prisons are getting more dangerous and more destructive of character and mind with each passing day. They know how grave a threat government schools pose to democracy, liberty, and prosperity. They know, yet they do nothing. Is this not immoral?


We beg that our friends who have adopted this position with the best of intentions see the horrible crimes that they are aiding and abetting, and act quickly to change their ways. If philosophical purity or moral absolutism prevents you from joining us in promoting school choice, we ask that you at least cease trying to stand in the way of those who would rescue the innocent victims of government schools.