Why I support Vouchers

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Why I support Vouchers

by Ralph Shnelvar, August 26, 2002

[Ralph Shnelvar is the Libertarian candidate for governor.]

I read with interest Ari Armstrong's analysis of why education vouchers are bad.

I happen to agree with him in all his arguments.

Nonetheless, he's still wrong.

The problem with most people's analysis of economic phenomenon is their inability to see the dynamic nature of the effects of policy changes. Leftists and socialists are truly terrible at this (or deliberately blind to it). A typical example is their desire to have government sponsored "open space" and then rail against the increased cost of housing when open space is actually purchased.

The problem that we face right now is that the public school system is failing us right now. Let me place the emphasis on the word "us" as well as the doubly stressed "right now". It is failing libertarians and other free market and "quality education" advocates.

Thus, the current publicly funded school system promotes two objectives: mass produced education for regimented minds and a delight in fuzzy thinking.

The sad truth is that in what is now the third or fourth generation of publicly funded education, the teachers are unable to think and they pass this inability on to their students.

The dynamic effect that I am looking at is that it will take time for government to place its iron grip of regulation onto the private schools. For some time - a year, five years, or ten years - there is a chance - just a chance - that a freer market in education will create smarter and more freedom oriented individuals than the current system and will do so in time to stop government from excessive regulation of the private school sector. Freedom is a heady thing and once obtained it takes time to remove.

Our opponents have had four generations.

If we do nothing but demand that publicly funded schools be privatized and taxation to fund the schools be eliminated, the political reality is that it simply will not happen. Indeed, in 2000 the voters of this state barely passed a state Constitutional Amendment to pour even more money in to this failing, corrupt, and massively inefficient publicly funded school system.

We do not have much time left. Another generation of mushy minds will forever vote for even more money for mushy minded schools.

Vouchers do, indeed, infantalize parents, may generate government controls, and are transfer payments from one group to another.

Another generation or two of publicly funded schools and there will be no one left who will see that there is anything wrong with the previous paragraph.


Ari Armstrong Replies

It is precisely because I take into account the "dynamic effects" of policies that I oppose vouchers. Shnelvar would benefit from a greater familiarity with the Public Choice school of economics, led by Nobel laureate James Buchanan and now centered at George Mason University.

Public Choice cautions us to be wary of how legislation is captured by special interests. Shnelvar seems to imagine he could write a voucher proposal just so and have it passed into law exactly as he envisions it. But the only way a perfect voucher proposal could be passed into law is if most legislators were libertarians -- and then the voucher proposal would not be needed.

The "dynamic effect" Shnelvar predicts is optimistic fiction. The actual dynamic effect is much more likely to be as I describe: vouchers will be used to expand state power over now-private education.

Shnelvar states, "If we do nothing but demand that publicly funded schools be privatized and taxation to fund the schools be eliminated, the political reality is that it simply will not happen." But nobody is suggesting we "do nothing."

The libertarian approach to education, in addition to advocating policy changes that curtail state influence, is to encourage individuals to abandon political education one by one. A small but significant percent of American families now enjoy education essentially free from political control. The job of libertarians is to support the growth of that community. Vouchers threaten to squash it instead.


Ralph Shnelvar Replies (August 30)

I am mildly familiar with Public Choice Theory. I am certainly no expert.

Ari, I've not seen it described this way (so maybe I'm coining a phrase), but the problems that Public Choice theory address are the problems resulting from the market failures of representative democracy.

Public Choice Theory is a mathematical variant of the game theoretic "Prisoner's Dilemma" problem of which I am very familiar.

Assuming that the mathematics transfers (and I have no reason to believe that it doesn't), it can be shown that there is no guaranteed solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma problem. By extension, the optimal strategy of how to move from publicly funded education to one that is essentially privately funded without government interference also has no guaranteed solution. That is, there is no path that is guaranteed to generate an optimal solution unless all parties in the political process cooperate.

All parties will not cooperate because each party to the education problem is seeking a different outcome. Each party (the teachers, the politicians, the parents) is seeking economic rent from all the other parties. Therein lies the problem.

Any path through the thicket is fraught with danger. Reasonable people can disagree. Indeed, the terrible truth is that there may not be a way out of this. It may be, as they say in chess, "six moves to checkmate."

Ari is quite correct. "Public Choice cautions us to be wary of how legislation is captured by special interests." This is an old economics result. Special interests are focused. The general welfare is dispersed.

"Shnelvar seems to imagine he could write a voucher proposal just so and have it passed into law exactly as he envisions it."

Tsk, tsk, Ari. You are putting words in my mouth. I am not so naive as to believe that any voucher legislation would be anywhere close to ideal or anywhere close to what I would want written. What I know, though, is that it is very likely to be better than what we have now. Can I guarantee it? Absolutely not.

In terms that a Libertarian can understand, I see the current system as being close to (0,0) on the Nolan chart. That is, the state is exercising both social and economic control of the school system. Anything that comes out of the legislature with vouchers would move us "north". Reason: no matter how the legislature might write the legislation, the consumers of education will have more choice.

Now let me be fair. Ari has more than a small point when he points out that vouchers will force government control on what is now a private system.

Then Ari's logic falls apart: He says, "The libertarian approach to education is to encourage individuals to abandon political education one by one. A small but significant percent of American families now enjoy education essentially free from political control. The job of libertarians is to support the growth of that community. Vouchers threaten to squash it instead."

Right now, 11% of school children are home schooled or in private schools.

Does Ari believe for a moment that as the percentage of school children in non-publicly-funded schools starts to approach twenty or fifty or ninety percent that the NEA will not absolutely demand state regulation of private schools just like the government demands state regulation of (private, hah!) airline security inspection services? Is it too much to imagine that as their grip is loosened on the purse strings of education that they will demand (and get) that teachers and teaching be "federalized"?

Of course they will.

No, Ari, I've thought about the public choice problems and have come to a conclusion different than yours.

Your path, Ari, is simply too slow. As I see it, if we go down your path for another generation then the opportunity for either vouchers or private education will be lost. The publicly funded school systems are teaching - explicitly or implicitly - that profits are evil. Work out the logic, Ari, and realize that if profits are evil then so is choice.

Our opponents just delight in restricting choice. Vouchers expand available choices.

Libertarians generally rejoice when it comes to expanding choices. Yes, Ari, I know that vouchers expand choice at the expense of other freedoms (e.g. taxes and regulation).

We are already in a state of people being taxed to education other people's children. We are already in a state where 89% of the parents have almost no choice in their children's education (precisely because they are being taxed heavily).

Vouchers may be a way out.


Ari Armstrong Replies (September 6)

Shnelvar claims "[v]ouchers may be a way out" and lead to a situation "better than what we have now." But he doesn't offer any evidence or logic to support this prediction. On the other hand, the available evidence and logic I know of supports the view that vouchers will be corrupted and used to expand state control over now-private education.

Shnelvar claims that, as more people move to truly private education (homeschooling and market schools), the NEA will try harder to stifle and control market education. True, but the constituency that favors market education will also be more powerful and more able to fight the socialists. But the dangers to market education do not somehow justify vouchers! The NEA will easily be able to control now-market education if all or even many homeschoolers and private schoolers go on the government dole via vouchers.

Shnelvar argues, "Vouchers expand available choices." So what? The grain of truth to Shnelvar's argument is that the free market generally provides vastly more choices than a socialized market. For instance, if all of education were converted to a market system, parents, students, and teachers would create a rich system of education of many kinds of philosophies and styles.

But more choices per se is not necessarily better. Here's a simple example to illustrate the point. Let's say a tyrant offers one choice: "You can work as my slave." Then the tyrant expands the choices available: "You can work as a slave, or be executed by hanging." Our choices have doubled: from one to two! Does the tyrant somehow become more praiseworthy?

Here's another example. Let's say the tyrant offers, "You may either work as a slave in the fields, or work as a slave in my castle." Then, feeling generous, the tyrant makes a new proposition: "Today, you may either be lashed 1000 times, executed by hanging, or burned alive at the stake." Our choices have increased by 50%, from two to three! Joy!

In terms of education, today we have three basic choices. We can homeschool, select a market school, or pick a government-run school. In the short run, vouchers offer a new choice to parents: they may now go on education welfare via vouchers. Under vouchers, parents are "free to choose" socialism. That's not a good thing. But in the long run, vouchers threaten to convert all homeschools and market schools to government-run schools, thus reducing our real choices from three down to one.

As Fritz aptly puts the matter, "Americans are not so much faced with a shortage of choice; rather, we are faced with a shortage of responsibility" (http://www.sepschool.org/essays/fritz/red_pajamas.html).

Shnelvar claims my plan is "too slow." Well, I'd rather take the slow road to freedom that the fast road to socialism. Besides, as Fritz argues, at some point the change is likely to come abruptly, like the fall of the Berlin wall.

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