Libertarian Reform Is Not Freedom

For the past 25 years or so, the libertarian movement has been dominated by libertarian reformers — that is, those libertarians who have dedicated their lives, energy, time, and money to reform proposals intended to make the welfare-warfare state work more efficiently and more effectively. In the process, they have convinced themselves and others that they are advancing liberty and libertarianism with their welfare-warfare-state reform proposals.

Unfortunately, however, such is simply not the case. That’s because reform is reform, not liberty. 

To achieve a genuinely free society, a two-step process is required: First,  it is necessary to identify what specific government laws, rules, regulations, departments, and agencies constitute an infringement on liberty. Second, it is necessary to remove that infringement. 

If all we do is reform infringements on liberty, liberty has not been achieved. That’s because the reform leaves the infringement intact, albeit in a reformed manner. So long as the infringement remains in existence, people cannot be said to be living in a free society.

There is something else that is important to understand about libertarian reform measures: They don’t cause people to think in terms of what is necessary to achieve a free society. All that they do is cause people to think about how infringements on liberty can be reformed and improved. 

There is something else that is worth noting about libertarian reform measures: Just because it is libertarians who are proposing the reform measure doesn’t necessarily means that the reform measure is libertarian or that it is advancing liberty. An infringement on liberty remains an infringement on liberty even when thousands of libertarians are proposing a reform of an infringement.

How do we decide whether a particular libertarian reform measure is actually libertarian or advancing liberty? We do that by determining whether the reform measure is consistent with the libertarian non-aggression principle, which is the core principle of the libertarian philosophy. If the reform measure that a libertarian is proposing involves the initiation of force or fraud, then it cannot possibly be considered to be a genuine libertarian measure or one that it is advancing liberty. In fact, if the reform measure violates the libertarian non-aggression principle, it actually is an anti-libertarian measure, even if thousands of libertarians are proposing or supporting it.

There are, of course, countless reform proposals that libertarian reformers have made over the years and continue to make. Let’s address one of the most popular — school vouchers, which are also commonly referred to as “school choice” or educational “competition.”

The reform segment of the libertarian movement has long supported this educational reform measure. They say that they are “advancing liberty” by helping children escape the public-school system. They have long maintained that vouchers are “libertarian.”

But the libertarian voucher proponents block an important point out of their minds: Their education reform program violates the libertarian non-aggression principle. How can a reform proposal be “libertarian” when it violates the core principle of the libertarian philosophy? It can’t be, even if thousands of libertarians are proposing or defending it. School vouchers use the state to forcibly take money from people through taxation to fund the private education of people’s children. That’s the same means by which public schooling itself is funded. 

Long ago, libertarian voucher proponents claimed that their reform proposal would gradually bring about the destruction of the public-school system. That was always a ridiculous claim. In Milwaukee, for example, the public-schooling system is still going strong despite 30 years of vouchers. Instead, what vouchers do is expand government control over the private-school system. That’s because the state controls and regulates that which it subsidizes. Needless to say, that outcome is contrary to libertarian philosophy.

Today’s libertarian reformers no longer claim that vouchers will gradually bring an end to public schooling, especially because they realize that voters are less likely to support vouchers if they think that the goal is to dismantle the public-schooling system. Instead, modern-day libertarian reformers tell people that their voucher program will improve public schooling through “choice” and “competition.” Thus, their reform program now endorses the continued existence and improvement of public schooling, which itself is a massive violation of libertarian principles.

Moreover, think about what happens if school vouchers really do improve the educational situation. What are the chances that libertarian reformers will, down the road, suddenly start calling for the end of vouchers and public schooling? There is no reasonable chance of that happening at all. That’s because the libertarian reformers will be so pleased, gleeful, and proud over their reform success that they will celebrate it, promote it, and do their best to expand it, while, at the same time, ignoring and rejecting the only real genuine libertarian position on education: the separation of school and state.

Even though they will never acknowledge it even to themselves, the voucher program reflects the sad reality that the reform segment of the libertarian movement has given up on achieving liberty and instead have resigned themselves to achieving a warmed-over reform of the welfare-warfare state way of life in which we have all been born and raised, one that constitutes a continuous violation of the core principle of the libertarian philosophy, the libertarian non-aggression principle.  

Reprinted with permission from The Future of Freedom Foundation.