Reply to Vance: Wise Consistency is a Virtue
by Ari Armstrong
[This article, posted June 17, 2002 but started in February, is a reply to James Vance' article "Steer Clear of 'Foolish Consistency'" at http://www.lpcolorado.org/cl/2002/02vance.html. Vance currently serves as Publications Director for the Libertarian Party of Colorado.]
"We boast our emancipation from many superstitions; but if we have broken any idols, it is through a transfer of idolatry. What have I gained... if I quake at opinion, the public opinion..." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Character"
In the charming film *Next Stop Wonderland*, three friends misquote Emerson by telling a woman they're trying to date, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." As the film and now Vance remind us, the full quote refers to a "foolish consistency." Eventually the woman dumps the three unreliable friends in favor of a more stable man who recognizes that wise consistency is a virtue.
Vance cites "privatization and deregulation" as the "cornerstones" of libertarianism. However, he warns, sometimes the "consequences of our idealist solutions" demand that we depart from the ideals. For Vance, libertarian principles can be applied only in moderation and only to some social problems. Unfortunately, Vance fundamentally misunderstands the nature of principles.
Vance gives us several examples of old ideas which were replaced by new, better ideas. For example, many people used to believe the sun revolves around the earth; now we know better. Of course, we should always be willing to question our accepted beliefs in the light of new evidence and argument. However, the fact that outdated, incorrect beliefs give way to new understanding in no way implies that principles *per se* are suspect. Indeed, the progression of knowledge is itself a manifestation of the principle that we ought always seek the truth.
Vance advocates pragmatism. Principles are fine, as far as they go, but we have to be willing to seek a "new solution for every problem." However, pragmatism is not a rejection of principles; it is itself the principle that each political problem must be solved on its own terms without reference to some kind of standard or unifying theory. Thus, Vance is no less "consistent" than libertarians; he is consistently a pragmatist. The question is, which principles are closer to reality: libertarianism or pragmatism?
Principles are sometimes at odds with practicality, Vance argues. However, as Rand put it, "The moral is the practical." Rand is not merely arguing that moral principles coincidentally accompany good results; she is arguing that properly formed principles are consistent with reality and are essentially related to their good consequences. We ought not conflate principles with dogmatism. An unjustified rule that has no grounding in reality is not a principle.
Vance suggests libertarian principles require us to advocate the immediate repeal of government ownership of roads and education and the end of all taxation. Of course, libertarians are split on the issue of taxation: most minimal statists argue that some taxes are necessary. But on the other issues, Vance needs to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals. Most libertarians do not actively seek to privatize all roads, because that is not such a pressing problem. Many libertarians seek to expand the market in education without directly seeking to repeal the entire government infrastructure. Even Carla Howell, who advocates "bold" libertarianism rather than "gradualist" proposals, is content to work within the system to attain marginal (but significant) improvements.
In short, a libertarian can be both principled and incrementalist. Those are separate issues. By conflating principles with an advocacy of sudden, far-reaching change, Vance confuses the very meaning of principles.
Oddly, even though Vance criticizes libertarians for not being sufficiently practical, he makes no attempt to show how his pragmatic approach will lead to better results than a principled libertarianism. He takes as an example education.
Vance says he seeks "deregulation of the school system," yet he makes clear in subsequent paragraphs that he is talking about the government school system. How is it possible to "deregulate" a state-run enterprise? For libertarians, the term "deregulation" refers to lifting onerous restrictions from private businesses. It simply makes no sense to speak of "deregulating" a government program. What Vance seems to advocate, then, is to operate the government school system differently than it operates today. What specifically does Vance have in mind, and why does he believe a differently operated government school system will be an improvement?
Vance refers to the "problems created if you simply eliminate free education. The immediate net result is that you have also just lost the ability to require people to educate their children to today's academic standards... [J]ust imagine trying to solve these massive looming problems [in the world] when the average education level drops because we just eliminated the public education system."
The confusions manifest in Vance' comments are legion. First, what is this "free" education to which he refers? Last time I checked, property owners (and, indirectly, renters) pay a hefty tax to subsidize government schools. In his article Vance mentions some problems with religion, yet his theory of education is reminiscent of manna from heaven.
Second, today's system in no way "requires" parents to indoctrinate their children to "today's educational standards." Market schools and homeschools have a great deal of freedom to set curricula. Vance confuses tax-funded education with compulsory education.
Third, what are "today's academic standards" in government schools? Those standards are not stellar, and they include many elements which are not only irrelevant to a good education but hostile to it. Certainly it is a libertarian principle that it is not the purview of government dictate what parents must teach their children. And the considerations backing this principle are quite practical indeed.
Finally, why does Vance assume that ending government schools would decrease the quality of education? His thinking is static. If government schools suddenly closed, market institutions would immediately spring up to meet demand. Market schools, homeschools, and, yes, autodidactic learning would surge in popularity. It is true that many students acquire a superb education at government schools, but it is also true that a significant minority of students, especially among the poor, are left to intellectually rot. For many poor students, government schools are little more than babysitting clinics. A system of market education would free those students from the "standards" of their government schools. Market schools would again establish sliding tuition rates and links with education charity groups, as they did before government took over the business of education.
This is not to say, of course, that libertarians should advocate the sudden closing of all government schools. Most libertarians advocate an incrementalist approach to return control of education back to parents, students, and teachers. Regardless, Vance offers neither evidence nor logic to substantiate his claims about education.
Like all people, libertarians should take care to evaluate all their beliefs and adopt justified principles. Unfortunately, Vance thrashes a straw-man version of libertarianism without ever understanding the actual theory.