by Laurence M. Vance
by Laurence M. Vance
Why do some libertarians continue to support an income transfer program that is just as much a welfare program as food stamps, SSI, and AFDC? I am speaking of vouchers for education.
Vouchers: Another Income Redistribution Scheme
The goal of all proponents of educational vouchers is a government-funded, universal voucher system that allows parents to choose the schools their children attend.
A government-funded (that is, a taxpayer-funded) educational voucher program is a libertarian welfare program. It is a welfare program because it takes money from one taxpayer and redistributes it to another; it is a libertarian welfare program because libertarians are some of the most vocal proponents of vouchers and at the same time the very people who vocally oppose federal income transfer programs.
Many conservatives, and especially devotees of President Bush, likewise support vouchers. In his brilliant analysis, "The Trouble with Conservatives," Ralph Raico remarks that "conservatives are known for their blind nationalism, their readiness to engage in military adventure throughout the world, their envious Puritanism." I would like to add to this their "selective interventionism." It is therefore no surprise that many conservatives support vouchers since most conservatives never met a federal program they didn't like — as long as it furthers their agenda. Thus, in the eyes of the typical conservative, spending millions of taxpayer dollars on the National Endowment for the Arts and the Legal Services Corporation is bad, but spending millions of taxpayer dollars on abstinence education and faith-based initiatives is good.
The fact that a voucher program is just another income transfer program has been pointed out before, so I want to extend my indictment of vouchers further than that. I have two additional propositions:
- Instead of most schools being subject to the control of the federal government, the imposition of a universal voucher program will result in all schools being subject to the control of the federal government. Partial socialism of education will be replaced by total socialism of education.
- Vouchers are not an intermediate step toward a free market in education. A voucher program ensures that a free market in education will never exist.
School Choice: A Myth
The whole concept of "school choice" is a myth.
Although it is true that all states have some sort of compulsory attendance law, no one is forced to send his children to a public (that is, a government) school. In my state (Florida) the compulsory attendance statute (sec. 232.01) basically states that all children between six and sixteen years of age "must attend school regularly during the entire school term." Florida law defines a "habitual truant" as a "student who has 15 or more unexcused absences within 90 calendar days." But nowhere in Florida law (or in the law of any state) does it require that school attendance be at a government school. (On the evils of compulsory education — see Murray Rothbard's Education: Free & Compulsory).
Since no parent in the United States has to send his child to a government school, it is a myth that we need "school choice" (meaning vouchers) so that children can get out of an unsafe, failing government school. Every parent right now has a choice as to where his child goes to school. If the government school in his area is "bad," he can move to some other part of town, move to another city, homeschool his children, or put his children in a private school.
When it comes to their children's education, parents have educational choice just like they have a choice when it comes to their children's food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. A child's basic needs are obviously more important than his education. Why, then, don't we hear libertarians and conservatives clamoring for vouchers for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care? What is so special about educational services? If the state is to provide vouchers for education, then what about vouchers for other services like vacations, haircuts, and recreation? And to be "fair" to everyone, why don't we just give the federal government every dollar we earn and leave it up to the state to dole out vouchers for every good and service that we desire.
Money: The Real Issue
If everyone has school choice right now, then what is the problem? The problem is a financial one; many parents don't have the resources to move to a location with a better school or put their children in a private school. Homeschooling is out in many cases as well since either both parents have to work to make ends meet or else there is only one parent in the home. The "rich" have the resources to move, to put their children in a private school, to have one parent stay home to homeschool the children, or, in some cases, to hire a private tutor to teach their children.
The lack of money keeps us from doing a lot of things. If they had the money, many people would buy a new Cadillac or an SUV. Others would take a cruise to the Caribbean or a trip to Europe. The state doesn't give vouchers for cars and vacations to those who can't afford them. Why, then, should it give parents vouchers for their children's education?
Participation in a voucher program, like the Cleveland program in the celebrated Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, is generally based on financial need. Most schools are funded by property taxes. This means that the "rich," who pay the majority of the taxes, don't qualify; while the "poor," who pay little or no taxes, reap the benefits of vouchers. In this respect, how does an educational voucher differ from a welfare check?
But that is not all. Vouchers are both an income transfer program and a subsidy to private industry — all courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
Yet, I like vouchers. They are a great way to provide needy children with an education. Even if every state closed all of its "public" schools, the federal and state departments of education were abolished, and all governments got out of the education business altogether, vouchers would still be an option for educational funding.
The problem with vouchers is their funding. There is nothing stopping any small business or large corporation from issuing an educational voucher right now to any child. It would, in fact, be a great fringe benefit to offer employees. If libertarian voucher supporters want parents to receive a voucher for the education of their children, then let them put their money where their mouth is. Let them empty their own pockets. Why should they expect someone to pay for the education of someone else's children?
The cry is often made that "we must do something to ‘rescue' children from unsafe, failing government schools." But "we" don't need to do anything. Parents need to do something. Grandparents need to do something. Concerned citizens need to do something. And if, as Milton Friedman says, "The business community has a major interest in expanding the pool of well-schooled potential employees," then let the business community do something. If parents, grandparents, concerned citizens, and potential employers of children do not want to do anything then so be it. Not only is it unlibertarian to expect someone to pay for the education of someone else's children, it grossly immoral and the height of arrogance. If a couple doesn't want their children in a public school, can't afford to hire a tutor or send them to a private school, and doesn't want to teach them at home — they shouldn't have any children. The problem is that most people spend more time deciding where to eat on Friday night or where to go on their next vacation than they spend planning their children's education.
Vouchers: Another Central Plan
Estate planning, so the government doesn't confiscate your hard-earned wealth when you die, is a good thing. On the other hand, state planning, where the government takes your money now and controls how it will be spent, is a bad thing — unless you are a socialist.
Vouchers are the ultimate in state planning and control.
Recall my proposition: Instead of most schools being subject to the control of the federal government, the imposition of a universal voucher program will result in all schools being subject to the control of the federal government. Partial socialism of education will be replaced by total socialism of education.
Under a government-managed voucher system, the state must calculate the amount of the voucher, it must come up with some kind of criterion to determine who is entitled to receive the voucher, and it must decide on certain standards that a school has to meet in order to be able to accept a voucher redeemable from the state in lieu of payment. Those familiar with economics will recognize that we have an incredible calculation problem here. Instead of father knows best we would have government knows best.
The government at present has control over the education of children in its schools. Under a universal voucher system, the government will have control over the education of all children. The only children who will be exempt are those whose parents homeschool or refuse to accept a voucher and pay their child's school tuition themselves. It is even conceivable that the state might not recognize schools that don't meet its requirements to accept vouchers. Vouchers would allow the state to take complete control of private schools that accepted voucher payments through regulation, hiring quotas, teacher certification, curriculum requirements, etc. Federal control of private schools would have the same disastrous results as federal control of airport security. All but the most prestigious private schools that cater to the rich will be forced to serve the one that pays the bills — the state — or go out of business.
Voucher advocate Charles Murray sides "with those who are prepared to accept government funding, though not government control, of education." But the two can't be separated. How can a libertarian be naïve enough to think that they can? And how can a libertarian countenance government funding of education? Instead of castigating "libertarian purists" for their intransigence, libertarian voucher proponents need to face the fact that their agitation for vouchers amounts to a call for more government control over education and more government spending on education.
So rather than making things better, vouchers would further cement the bond that the government has on the educational system.
Vouchers: Market Socialism
According to the "godfather" of the voucher movement, Milton Friedman, "Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system."
Vouchers are another attempt to reach market ends by socialist means.
My other proposition was this: Vouchers are not an intermediate step toward a free market in education. A voucher program ensures that a free market in education will never exist.
Vouchers are not a step toward the free market. The imposition of a universal voucher program will merely give us an additional layer of government bureaucracy financed by taxes, inflation, or borrowing. Vouchers will also ensure the continued existence of the federal Department of Education.
Suppose that vouchers proponents get their heart's desire: The public schools are abolished, private schools flourish, total spending on education decreases, and the state gives a voucher to every parent to get education services for each one of his children, including parents who homeschool their children. Voucher proponents would be ecstatic. They would finally get what they have clamored for.
But then what?
Once this universal voucher scheme was instituted, voucher supporters would then (if they mean what they say about vouchers being an intermediate step toward a free market in education) say to the state: "Now we need to abolish the voucher system." The state would reply: "Now wait a minute, we just gave you everything you wanted. We closed our public schools, we cut spending on education, and we instituted a universal voucher system — just like you asked. And now you want to abolish the voucher system? Nothin' doin'."
The state will never relinquish its hold on the American educational system without a fight — even if it means embracing vouchers.
Vouchers: Just Say "No"
Just say "no" to vouchers.
Say "no" to state control of education. Say "no" to state funding of education. Say "no" to state central planning. Say "no" to compulsory education. Say "no" to parental irresponsibility. Say "no" to pseudo-free market schemes. Say "no" to income redistribution. And say "no" to libertarian welfare programs.
As I have pointed out before, libertarian voucher supporters should pay more attention to Ludwig von Mises than Milton Friedman: "There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions" (Mises, Liberalism, p. 115).
I am getting weary writing about vouchers. I have written my fill of articles, book reviews, comments, replies, and responses about vouchers. Nevertheless, after reading some of the comments by libertarian voucher supporters about my most recent article on vouchers, I felt compelled to pen yet another article.
February 17, 2005
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] is a freelance writer and an adjunct instructor in accounting and economics at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, FL. His new book is Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State. Visit his website.
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