Friedman Promotes Vouchers at Denver Luncheon
by Ari Armstrong, November 8, 2002
"Accountability comes from parental choice. It is the only kind of accountability that's self-enforceable," said Nobel economist Milton Friedman at a luncheon at the Oxford Hotel in Denver November 6. "There is no issue at the moment that's more important, from a moral, economic, and social perspective... than better education."
Friedman laid out the case for free markets in his 1980 book, Free to Choose. That work draws upon Friedman's writings from as far back as 1968, before I was born. It was the first book about free markets I read, back when I was in high school. It changed the course of my intellectual life. It was therefore a great privilege to have that book signed by its author and to hear the great libertarian economist talk about choice in education.
In his introduction, Ed McVaney said Friedman is "truly my lifetime hero... He has shaped my thinking, he is a great, great man." Friedman has other admirers: also in attendance were former Senator Hank Brown, Congressmen Bob Shaffer and Tom Tancredo, former governor Dick Lamm, Jared Polis, John Andrews, Mike Coffman, Bruce Cairns, Don Lee, Nancy Spence, Jon Caldara, and over 100 others. The event was sponsored by the L.E.A.D Foundation and the Friedman Foundation.
"We are a great country, number one in the world, but not in education," Friedman began. A quarter of all students never finish high school, and literacy rates are worse today than they were 100 years ago. And education is still served up the way it was 300 years ago, while other industries have advanced with the times. "It's a monopoly," Friedman said, with the government providing education to about 90% of American students.
"They're called public schools, but that's a misnomer. They're government schools," Friedman noted. In fact many "private" schools are open to the public. Government schools are "very much run and controlled by the teachers' unions."
The U.S. is a leader in higher education, but not in K-12 education. "There's one difference... choice." Sure, the government schools often impose new fads on parents and students, but "they're not subject to competition; they're not what parents want," Friedman continued.
Friedman explained the problem with incentives. When you're spending your own money on yourself, you have good incentives to spend the money wisely. When you're spending money on somebody else, or spending somebody else's money, those incentives are largely lost. Government education offers the worst possible incentives: people spend other people's money on other people.
Even if we admit government should partially fund education, Friedman suggested, there's no reason to ask the government to also administer schools. For example, the government redistributes wealth via food stamps, but it does not take over farms or grocery stores.
Of course, the wealthy do fairly well. They can move to the best school districts and afford double tuition for private schools. Meanwhile, the poor are hurt the most. Unfortunately, the government has hurt poor people in numerous ways, such as by interfering in housing and charity and prohibiting drugs, Friedman noted. Government schools make a bad situation worse. "We've got to have better schooling for people at the lower-income level," Friedman said.
A member from the audience asked about students with learning disabilities. Friedman noted that many students with disabilities are already attending private schools, with the government picking up the tab. Private schools are the "most effective and efficient" institutions for helping special-education children. The argument that students with disabilities would be harmed by vouchers is therefore specious, Friedman suggested. "One thing you can count on is the NEA telling lies," he said.
What about the separation of church and state? Friedman argued that, while religious schools offer most alternatives to the government system today, that's only because private secular schools are pushed out of the market by "free" government schools. Vouchers would open up the market to non-religious competition.
However, Friedman left the underlying tension untouched. From a libertarian perspective, it is fundamentally unjust to force people to pay for the propagation of ideas they find offensive. This is not an argument in favor of tax funding for government schools as opposed to religious schools: it is an argument against government funding of education per se. Some have characterized statism and environmentalism as religions, and certainly both these movements are promoted by government schools. There is no reason why government should promote non-religious doctrines but not religious ones: the government should not promote any doctrine whatsoever.
Friedman did acknowledge the problem libertarians have even with vouchers. "Is a voucher government money? Of course it is," he said. Ultimately, he doesn't want vouchers at all. Instead he wants a "world of lower taxes" in which parents assume the responsibility for educating their own children, with assistance for low-income families. "I'm a little guilty, as it were," he said, of ultimately wanting free markets but promoting vouchers as an intermediary step.
Friedman said there is no real difference between vouchers and tax credits. "I prefer straight-forward, honest vouchers," he said. A tax deduction or tax credit still presumes the government is the rightful controller of the funds. Thus, a tax credit is not morally superior to a voucher from a libertarian perspective.
Critics such as Marshall Fritz of the Separation of School and State Alliance and me argue vouchers are likely to result in more government interference with the 10% of education that is currently provided by the free market. According to this view, vouchers are a step backwards, not a step toward more market education. For more background, see the following articles:
Friedman has been a leader in raising awareness of market education, even if some libertarians disagree with some of his tactics. Friedman is certainly one of the top five champions of free markets and human liberty of the past century. His work has made an enormous difference in the American political climate, and it will be a beacon of liberty far into the future.
Note: Alliance for Choice in Education provides private scholarships to students in Denver. ACE can be reached at 303.886.2958, fax 303.573.7340, 511 16th Street, Suite 300, Denver, 80202.