A Libertarian Case Against Vouchers
by Ari Armstrong, August 23, 2002
Back in high school my father handed me a copy of Milton and Rose Friedmans' *Free to Choose*. It was the first time I was exposed to "classical liberal" or libertarian ideas, and those ideas have resonated with me ever since.
Friedman's voucher plan seemed like the perfect solution to me. Vouchers would give parents and students more choices and more control over education. They would encourage healthy competition in our schools.
While I still admire the aims of voucher proponents, I no longer believe vouchers are the right policy to achieve those aims. My views started to change when I met Marshall Fritz, a long-time libertarian who helped start the influential Advocates for Self-Government and went on to found the Alliance for the Separation of School and State (www.sepschool.org).
The most widely publicized proponents of vouchers are free-market conservatives and libertarians who believe vouchers will bring more independence and more market choice. Against this view, the left-liberals believe vouchers will damage government schools and weaken the boundaries between church and state.
But Fritz and a growing number of libertarian scholars and writers oppose vouchers precisely because they fear vouchers will lead to greater dependence on government and more government regulation of now-private schools. Fritz argues on his web page, "School vouchers... will continue the infantalizing of the parents of the 46 million already on the dole; worse, they will entice many of the families of 5 million children who use voluntarily funded schools to surrender their independence, too."
Vouchers are welfare. They forcibly transfer money from some people to other people. In her July 7 editorial, the *Denver Post's* Sue O'Brien said she "abandoned the anti-voucher orthodoxy of many liberals" because she wants vouchers for poorer children. But as Fritz points out, this entails putting more homeschoolers and market schoolers on the government dole. This represents an expansion of the welfare state that in other contexts market conservatives would rail against.
Fritz and other libertarians believe education welfare makes people worse off. It makes families more dependent on the government and undermines parental responsibility. Fritz is not reticent about his goal: he wants to "repeal tax-financing of schools." He argues that will help poor students. Market schools tend to adopt sliding tuition rates for poorer students. In addition, if people redirected even a small portion of the money they saved in taxes into education charity programs, poor students would be much better off than they are today.
But won't private schools be better off with vouchers? No, they will merely become more regulated by the government. Entities that accept tax dollars are subject to government regulations -- or they soon will be. Conservatives who doubt this need only imagine the public outcry when a school associated with Satanism, radical Islam, or David Koresh-style Christianity applies for tax dollars. Taxpayers will also demand that subsidized schools meet certain politically-determined academic standards. Tax subsidies very quickly turn into puppet strings.
Both the *Rocky Mountain News* and the *Denver Post* point out in their July 28 editorials that Colorado's constitutional restriction against vouchers is rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. But the massive rise of the government school system in the mid-1800s was itself largely rooted in religious bigotry. As Sheldon Richman summarizes in his book *Separating School and State*, one "aim of the public schools... was the creation of a homogeneous, national, Protestant culture..." Colorado's two largest newspapers have yet to advocate the dissolution of the modern government school system. (Fritz is a devout Catholic, by the way.)
Of course, it would be a logical fallacy to argue that, because Colorado's constitutional provision precluding vouchers is rooted in bigotry, vouchers are therefore a good idea. By analogy, just because American gun control laws are rooted in bigotry against blacks, as Stephen Halbrook describes in *That Every Man Be Armed*, doesn't mean other arguments favoring gun control are automatically invalidated. (Other arguments must be addressed on their own terms.) As I recall, both the *Post* and the *News* editorialized in favor of certain gun control laws despite the racist origins of gun control.
Even if the Supreme Court is correct that vouchers do not constitute an "establishment of religion," still vouchers strain against the separation of church and state and impose religious favoritism. Just because a government policy is legally permitted, doesn't mean that policy is prudent, ethical, or consistent with the principles of a free society.
The public obviously will not allow tax dollars to subsidize absolutely every religious school, so the task will be left to politicians to discriminate on the basis of religion. But the broader point is that every religion has its critics and detractors. No person should be forced to subsidize the promulgation of views or beliefs he or she finds abhorrent. Vouchers harm those who oppose religious instruction even as they threaten the integrity of religious institutions.
As we have been reminded recently, "get rich quick" schemes often go awry. Vouchers are a "get free quick" scheme that will achieve the opposite of what market conservatives hope for.