Tax Us for Universal Pre-K?

Kamala Harris has now told us straight out what she stands for: “I am running to declare, once and for all, that health care is a fundamental right, and to deliver that right with Medicare for All. To declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-k and debt-free college.”

What’s universal pre-k? Supported by taxes, pre-k offers parents pre-kindergarten for 3-year olds and 4-year olds at no direct tuition charge.

Advocates of pre-k argue that this program pays for itself because at age 40, those who have received this schooling have better jobs and stabler families. The research supporting this needs to be examined and questioned, in the same way that climate research and other research cannot be taken for granted. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers raises doubts, for example:

“Analyzing a diverse array of public preschool programs from every region of the country, NIEER found they all produced large short-term effects on the simplest, easiest-to-acquire skills. But, on average, programs had much more modest effects on math and, especially, language acquisition. For some states estimated language effects were near zero.

“This pattern raises concerns because of the salience of language development in the preschool years, and because large boosts to deep learning in language and math seem more likely to lead to long-term gains in achievement and school success. Research has found language to be particularly predictive of literacy success beyond Grade 3. Given the field’s concern with the tendency of the effects of large-scale pre-K programs to decline or even disappear as children move through school, this finding is worrying.”

This study alone suggests that Ms. Harris is off-base in advocating universal pre-k. It probably does not produce the educational benefits that she thinks it does or will produce. (Questions of literacy and public education are beyond the scope of this blog.)

But suppose pre-k did make children better prepared to go to kindergarten. Would that justify taxing us to pay for pre-k care? The answer is “No”. We can pursue our happiness and that of our children by spending our money in many ways. Pre-k is only one possible way. If it’s the way we prefer, we can choose it without a government program. If it’s not the way we prefer, then taking our money from us for a program we do not prefer makes us worse off. In both cases, government doesn’t know and cannot know how to improve our happiness. No one in government can ascertain whether this or that particular use of money taken from us makes us happier or sadder. They have no measuring rod to gauge such matters. On top of that, the answer, if it could be found, would differ for each of us and alter over time.

A right is a human capacity to act freely in a non-aggressive way. No one has a right to education or to medical care in the sense Harris thinks. These are economic goods. You have a right to decide on them and pay for them; the exercise of your rights in the pursuit of happiness comes up against material constraints. Economic goods are not free, and your wealth is not unlimited.

You have no right to make others supply you with these goods, which is what taxpayer-financed programs do. You may not rightfully get a law passed that allows you to correct your teeth or vision free of charge by extracting wealth from your neighbors. This is what Harris and others are saying is a right, that other people will pay for your education, all the way from age 3 to college. Such fake rights (usually called positive rights) foster the illusion that material constraints no longer prevail and that economic goods are free, when they actually cost. Fake rights downplay the fact that government force has to be applied through taxation and regulation to pay the cost. The fake “rights”, such as Harris and many others promulgate, are destructive of rights and thus freedom.


2:10 pm on January 29, 2019