TCS Daily

Mandatory Libertarianism

By Arnold Kling - July 28, 2003 12:00 AM

"I'm a geneticist," the woman said, as she began an impassioned speech against vouchers and school choice. "I don't want to see schools where students are not taught evolution. And I want to make sure that they get sex education and learn to use a condom."

The setting was a debate over vouchers between Tanya Clay of People for the American Way (opposed) and Marie Gryphon of the Cato Institute (in favor). It was held at a meeting of "Coffee and Politics" in Washington, D.C. (It seems like all groups that meet in the District cater to a singles-bar demographic. I felt conspicuously middle-aged and married.)

"I'm an economist," I wanted to reply. "I don't want to see schools where students are not taught libertarianism." Unfortunately, mandatory libertarianism is too much of an oxymoron. But if I could propose a required course in libertarianism for all Americans, here are some ideas that I would want students to take away.

1. Government cannot be relied upon as benevolent.

A useful way to think about the scope of government is to ask what would happen if a particular government power were exercised by someone with whom you disagree. The geneticist should consider that giving government control over the curriculum for science or for sex education is not a guarantee that she will be happy with the curriculum. The balance of political forces could lead to teaching creationism and abstinence. Furthermore, even if her views prevail, those who are on the other side and who are equally passionate should have their rights respected.

Actually, I agree with Neil Postman, who argues that schools should teach both creationism and evolution. The point is that students should learn to make up their own minds. But I believe that parents should be allowed to send their children to any schools they want. That includes schools that teach principles contrary to libertarianism and to American values. I just have to hope that young people receive enough exposure to good values to overcome the occasional bad school.

2. Government is fallible.

Ultimately, it is people who make decisions in markets and in government. People are fallible in both settings. The difference is that in a market setting mistakes are corrected more quickly than in a government setting. Thus, even if markets were wrong nine times out of 10 and government were right nine times out of 10, over time markets would achieve better outcomes. On a small scale, the persistence of government mistakes can be seen in the mohair subsidy. On a large scale, it can be seen in the between $30 and $50 billion dollars wasted on renewable energy without providing any power that is economically viable.

Education is a black hole for taxpayer spending. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, average annual expenditure per pupil comes close to $10,000. At an average class size of 25, that means that it costs the county $250,000 per year to put a teacher into a classroom. Only about one fifth of this can be accounted for by pay and benefits that go to that teacher. Most of the rest of the cost is union featherbedding -- administrative positions that have no direct student contact.

3. Individuals are well motivated.

Most of the "coffee and politics" attendees were anti-vouchers. They expressed a strong distrust of individual choice. Ms. Clay said that the "single mom with two jobs does not have time" to choose the best school for her children. Others expressed similar concerns. However, when Prashant Kothari asked how many of the twenty-odd attendees planned to have children in the D.C. public schools one day, no one raised his or her hand to express personal confidence in public schools for their future children.

I have confidence that people will make thoughtful decisions concerning their children. Consider a neighborhood couple, who are very left-wing and very committed to the public school system. She is a long-time public school teacher. He recently stopped going to his synagogue and started going to Quaker meetings because he was upset that his rabbi did not oppose the war in Iraq. For their own children, they chose a Jewish private school -- obviously not for the religious education. On the other hand, even though I favor vouchers, we sent our children to the public school because we did not want the ethnic and economic homogeneity that comes with a private school under today's regime of very limited choices among private schools.

The point is that when people make decisions about their own children, they seem to make them with great care and a fair amount of wisdom. They certainly seem less dogmatic and hypocritical than when they make decisions about other people's children.

4. Markets deliver goods and services.

As the writer Julian Sanchez pointed out, none of the voucher opponents could envision a viable free market in schools. Instead, they thought of vouchers as a pure transfer of funds from existing public schools to existing private schools, with no response of supply and demand in either.

Economist Brad DeLong eats a clementine and muses, "Isn't the world market marvelous! Nobody... knows -- no machine has in its memory banks -- the knowledge that an extra clementine tree should be planted in Australia in order to provide J. Bradford DeLong, a U.C. Berkeley professor, with big, sweet, juicy clementines in the northern-hemisphere summer. But the world market -- our system of economic interrelationships considered as a social mechanism for guiding the production, transport, distribution, and allocation of goods and services -- knows this. How wise it is!" But few outside the economics profession believe in the wisdom of markets.

Ms. Clay and other opponents asserted that there could not possibly be enough private schools to support a voucher system. However, if education were completely privatized, then every school would be a private school by definition. All of the schools that exist today would still exist. Of course, parents would attempt to leave some existing schools and send their children to other schools. This increase in demand for alternatives to existing schools would induce today's private schools to expand as well as stimulate entrepreneurs to create new private schools. Ultimately, a better school system (as judged by parents as consumers) would be created by the same mechanism that delivers Australian clementines to an economics professor in Berkeley, California.

The Voucher Debate

Overall, considering that vouchers are viewed as a "radical" idea in education, the case against them is remarkably flimsy. Yes, it is possible that abusive or incompetent parents could make bad choices for their children, but taking the choice away from every parent because of the potential bad choices of a few seems unwarranted. Yes, it is possible that some children will go to schools where they do not learn the theory of evolution, but today many children go to schools where they do not even learn to read and write. Yes, it is likely that a privatized education system will not give everyone an equal education, but neither does today's system.

The one argument against vouchers that was raised that I found challenging was an argument that school competition is limited by geography and transportation. People may find that when the costs of transportation are included, they have only one or two viable options for schools. If these sorts of local monopolies were to emerge, we might fail to see results that are as satisfying as from a strongly competitive market. But I suspect that in reality we would see much more powerful effects from competition.

The opponents of vouchers claim to want to protect us from the risk that vouchers will be an educational and/or ethical failure. However, I cannot shake the feeling that what they really fear is that libertarianism in education would be a practical and moral success.

1 Comment

geographical monopoly
I don't think that geographical competition would be such a problem under the voucher system. I go to school with a kid who take the bart for more than an hour each day because they think our school is so much better under the voucher system. There are a lot of examples of this at my school, because enrollment is not restricted to students in the district. If a school was a good competitor it would attract students from a very large area, not just nearby.

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