Democracy and Alpine Valley School

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Democracy and Alpine Valley School

Ari Armstrong Replies to Larry Welshon
March 1999

I appreciate Larry Welshon's reply to my article on Alpine Valley school. I'm a lot more comfortable with the rules of the school given Larry's description of their historical context. In this back-and-forth discussion, I don't want readers to forget that I really like this school. I work on a daily basis with students, and most of them attend government schools. (My work is through the market, not the government, system.) Alpine Valley is an intellectually and emotionally refreshing alternative to the schools most students attend.

I still question the democratic principles of the school, though. Libertarian circles frequently refer to democracy as "mob rule" or "tyranny of the majority." There is no natural affinity, then, between libertarianism and the vote.

However, libertarian theory does make room for democratic systems into which entry is voluntary and from which exit is a right. For instance, housing covenants are democratic and perfectly libertarian alternatives to coercive zoning laws. Similarly, the voting structure of Alpine Valley is entirely voluntary in that students can freely enter and exit the school. (Entry is of course also contingent upon acceptance.)

Thus, I argued, Alpine Valley "checks out" with libertarian theory. My criticisms of the school were not rooted in my political philosophy, but rather in more pragmatic concerns about the practicality of some of the votes held at the school.

From the perspective of the founders of Sudbury Valley, however, extending the vote on every school issue to every student is a political issue, because the democracy of the school is seen as a model of and preparation for American democracy. This, I still contend, is where the Sudbury philosophy falls apart.

I argued that American democracy is fundamentally coercive, because people cannot choose to leave it and sign up with another system of government. Thus, "democracy" means something entirely different than it does in the context of Alpine Valley. The fact that people vote in both systems is a superficial similarity. What's important is the nature of the voting systems.

Larry grants that American democracy is coercive, but he argues that it would not be if we were to return to the Constitutional form of government implemented by our Founding Fathers. I agree that restricting policy by a stricter Constitutional reading would eliminate many of the worst forms of government interference.

However, a system doesn't become free just because it's guided by a constitution. Even our Constitution is not perfect, after all. It permits the State to tax its citizens, impose tariffs, run the mail and build roads, and interfere with money. And let us not forget that in its original form, the Constitution recognized slavery and counted black individuals as but three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation.

Further, I don't remember reading anything in the history books about the general population voting to implement the Constitution. Many people voted for the delegates who attended the meetings, but the expressed intent of the affair was to revise the existing Articles of Confederation, not dump them completely and start anew. I'd also like to know when exactly the vote was held that established the legitimacy of representative government in the first place. Finally, who first decided that voting is even a legitimate way to govern? (It wasn't "the majority.") It's a strained argument indeed that tries to make out American Constitutional government as a fundamentally voluntaristic system. Alpine Valley School is voluntaristic; the American form of government is not.

My comments should not be taken as anti-patriotic. Certainly I'm a fan of Thomas Jefferson. I feel extremely lucky to have been born in the United States and I believe the system of government under which we live is one of the best in the history of the world. However, if libertarian theory can be sustained, it can be much, much, better.

One thing I like about the Constitution is that it is basically anti-democratic. The main point of it is to tell people what they can't vote on. When the Constitution was enacted, suffrage was anything but universal, day-to-day decisions were not intended to be made by vote, and the signers feared democratic systems.

So Alpine Valley is democratic in the voluntaristic sense, completely unlike American government. Is the voting process still a good idea? I got out my articles on Public Choice economic theory (the school of thought founded by Gordon Tullock and Nobel laureate James Buchanan) to see if any of those arguments might apply.

Public Choice has more to say about coercive democracies than voluntaristic ones. For instance, it cites "significant barriers to entry into political markets" as a factor contributing to "monopoly power in bureaus" ("Monopoly Bureaus and Fiscal Outcomes: Deductive Models and Implications for Reform," by Robert J. Mackay and Carolyn L. Weaver, page 143). That doesn't apply to Alpine Valley, as students can easily enroll in another school. Another concern is that "the bureau may have the power to effectively set the entire agenda and, hence, confront the voters with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal." Again, this doesn't apply to Alpine Valley, as anyone can contribute to the agenda.

There is a problem raised by Public Choice theory that does applies to Alpine Valley. One source of voting failure arises from "a free-rider problem among citizen-voters in putting forth costly proposals." In other words, if putting together a proposal is difficult, students (and staff) will tend to free-ride on the efforts of others to do the work. This is a real problem at Alpine Valley, I suspect, but not a debilitating one. What Public Choice does not explain is how people overcome free-rider problems to contribute to a common goal.

A related problem involves the link between funding and voting. Only one section of voters actually pays the bills: the parents. But the staff and students carry an equal vote. Is there a dis-connect between what the parents want to pay and the staff and children want to spend? The fact that the school runs on a more or less set annual budget helps. The fees cannot be abruptly raised, at least not without the risk of losing parents, who retain the "trump" right to withdraw their children from the school. However, the question remains whether a greater financial burden should bring with it more control over expenditures. (An easy solution would be to let students vote in "School Meetings" but not in "Assembly.")

Larry has convinced me that allowing young children to vote on sophisticated financial decisions hasn't been a problem at Alpine Valley. However, I still contend that, while there is little reason for Alpine Valley to alter this policy, it could in principle offer less extensive voting privileges and retain its fundamentally voluntaristic status.

Larry suggests that, without the right to vote on every school decision, children would not be "full members of the community." I don't buy it. Come to think of it, I'm not a member of any voluntaristic democracy, and yet I'm deeply involved in community. I don't vote in family matters, and yet my family is a tight-knit, loving community. I attend various discussion groups, and hold no (binding) vote in any of them. I don't thereby feel slighted. Sometimes my friends and I hold informal votes on proposed activites, but we rarely do so and the votes never "count." My community of friends is not somehow reduced because of this. There is even a community surrounding my work in education where voting never arises.

I like Alpine Valley because it treats students with respect and it is fundamentally voluntaristic. The fact that the students can vote on matters is a nice, but not an essential, element of the school. The voting privileges extend too far, in my view, but do not create significant problems. Certainly it is a mistake to view Alpine Valley as a training-ground for American-style democracy. The two are distinct and antagonistic. Training children to live by force is the job of the government schools.


"I have sworn eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." -- Thomas Jefferson

Alpine Valley: Main Article | Welson Replies | Armstrong on Democracy

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