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Friedman v. Rockwell

Mises Daily: Tuesday, December 01, 1998 by

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Chronicles
December 1998
Polemics & Exchanges

Freedom and School Vouchers

Milton Friedman:

Lew Rockwell ("Flies in the Ointment," September) and I have the same ultimate objective: "an educational market in which parents are responsible for paying for their own children's education." We agree also on "the twin evils of public education: involuntary funding and compulsory education." In our ideal (libertarian) world, government would play no role in schooling--neither compelling schooling nor funding schooling. Parental responsibility and the free market would reign supreme.

Where we disagree--and disagree strongly--is on how to get from where we are to where we would like to be. His answer is to "get the federal government out of education. Decentralize all funding and decision-making to the states, and then to the local level. Scale down school districts to the neighborhood level, as they were in the 19th century. As for private schools, . . . oppose any restrictions whatsoever."

So far, we agree. Every one of those steps is highly desirable. However, whereas he believes that the "push for vouchers is . . . a distraction" from this agenda, I believe that it is the most effective way to promote it. A system of universal vouchers, available to all parents and usable at any school, secular or religious, non-profit or for-profit, would lead to the development of a private enterprise educational industry that would be part of a political coalition powerful enough to counter the influence of the current educational establishment: the public school bureaucracy and the teachers' unions, by far the most powerful and left-leaning special interest group in the country. Effective competition would also bring to schooling the kind of improvements in quality and availability that we have enjoyed in almost every other aspect of our life in which private enterprise has prevailed. Government aside, there is no other major area in our life that is as technologically backward as schooling. We teach now as Socrates taught 2500 years ago.

Proposition 174 in California was indeed, as Rockwell says, "a model piece of voucher legislation backed by all the usual suspects." But it "crashed and burned at the polls" not for the reasons Rockwell claims but because of the well-financed opposition of the vested educational interest--notably the teachers unions. In the spring of 1993, every poll showed a large majority of voters in favor of the voucher initiative. But then the special interest opponents went into high gear, first using dirty tricks to invalidate petitions sponsoring the initiative, then spending three or four times as much as the proponents could raise on television, radio, and print attacks on the initiative, attacks in which truth took a back seat.

Rockwell chooses to discuss not the kind of universal voucher plan that I suggested more than 40 years ago but the extremely limited plan adopted in Milwaukee. But that is an entering wedge, not a final outcome. It has already been expanded once--from 1.5 percent of students in the Milwaukee public school system to 15 percent--and pressure is mounting to expand it further. I agree with a statement that Wilbur Cohen, former secretary of HEW under President Johnson, made in a 1972 debate with me on Security: "A program that deals only with the poor will end up being a poor program." Vouchers will not end up being a program only for the poor. That is foreshadowed in the movement in several states for using tax credits rather than vouchers as a way to empower parents, as well as in the announced goals of the various groups that are seeking to foster parental choice (including the foundation that my wife and I have set up: the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for promoting parental choice).

Rockwell says that "Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for private school." But since the voucher amounts to only a fraction of the total amount that the state now spends on each child in public school, and that amount need not be spent for children who leave public schools, vouchers restricted to children in public schools represent a shrinkage, not an expansion, in the welfare state. On the other hand, the comparison with food stamps is apt, but Rockwell does not carry it through. He maintains that vouchers will inevitably lead to tighter government controls on private schools. Have food stamps led to such controls on grocery stores? Government power to regulate private schools does not derive from government financing of schools but from compulsory education, which requires the government to specify the type of education that satisfies the requirement.

Referring to the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court verdict on the constitutionality of the Wisconsin voucher law, Rockwell writes: "Those who actually read the decision will find that in order to receive vouchers, religious schools will have to surrender all control over admissions and gut any doctrinal teaching." I have read the decision--all 68 pages--and have found no such thing. It is Rockwell's gloss on certain provisions of the Wisconsin law that were restated by the judges in explaining the basis for their decision--a gloss with which I differ and which refers to provisions confined to Wisconsin. One thing that I do find in the decision is the statement that "Enforcement of these minimal standards will require the State Superintendent to monitor the quality of secular education at the sectarian schools participating in the plan. But this oversight already exists. In the course of his existing duties, the Superintendent currently monitors the quality of education at all sectarian private schools."

Enough nit-picking, with one exception. "The idea of vouchers," Rockwell writes, "originated on the neoconservative right with Milton Friedman"--a litmus test for me of Rockwell's reliability. I am not now and never have been a "neoconservative"--or any other kind of conservative. I am and have been for more than half a century a classical liberal or, in modern parlance, a limited-government libertarian. But I value as allies on particular issues persons of any persuasion, including those whom Rockwell labels "big-government libertarians" (an oxymoronic species I have never personally encountered), "equality activists of all stripes," as well as libertarians and conservatives of all varieties.

Let me end on a positive note. There is enough left of our federalist system so that different educational reforms will be enacted in different jurisdictions. At the moment, Milwaukee and Cleveland are the two main public voucher experiments. There is also a wide ranging movement of private voucher experiments. Arizona is in the forefront of charter school innovation. Minnesota is leading on tax credits and deductions. Other experiments are bubbling around the nation. We shall see whether my optimism or Rockwell's pessimism is justified.

I first suggested educational vouchers as a means to implement parental choice and improve our educational system more than 40 years ago, and I have been closely connected with the movement ever since. Until recent years, every attempt to introduce such a system--in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, California--has been defeated by the well-financed opposition of the vested educational interests, notably the teachers unions. For the first time, the vested interest are being defeated here and there and are on the defensive. I believe there is a real chance for a breakthrough that will lead to an unrestricted voucher system generating major improvements in the quality of education and setting us on the road to getting government out of the classroom. It is tragic that, just as the first blades of grass are breaking their way through the concrete opposition of the vested educational interests, believers in human freedom should seek to stamp them out in the name of a utopian vision.

Milton Friedman
Stanford, CA

____________________________________

Lew Rockwell responds:

Many thanks to Professor Friedman for his thoughtful reply. I'm especially pleased that he accepts my analogy with the famously corrupt food-stamp program.

First, grocery stores rank among the most heavily regulated (and unionized) of retailers, and only by adhering to government dictates can they redeem the stamps. Church-based soup kitchens may not (nor should they aspire to).

Second, food stamps don't help the poor; they only make them more dependent on government, a point I would need to explain in the Nation, but not in Chronicles.

Third, the lobbying force behind food stamps is not the poor but the agricultural industry, which government intervention has transformed from independent farmers into a grasping special interest. The prospect of school vouchers has done this to the private-school industry as well.

Fourth, it is surely more important to keep government out of the classroom than the grocery store. School vouchers are a welcome mat for Leviathan.

Regarding the Wisconsin court decision, the words cited by Professor Friedman are perfunctory and contradicted by the clear language of the legislation in question: voucher-taking schools must have random admissions and must not integrate religion into their curricula.

Finally, I didn't address Professor Friedman's idealized voucher program because I wanted to stick to real-world examples, and propose real-world alternatives. Utopian is a good word to describe those who think government can fund private schools without wrecking them and bankrupting us.

I can't put it better than Professor Friedman himself did in Free To Choose, in a discussion of food stamps and other forms of public assistance:

"The relief rolls grow despite growing affluence. A vast bureaucracy is largely devoted to shuffling papers rather than to serving people. Once people get on relief, it is hard to get off. The country is increasingly divided into two classes of citizens, one receiving relief and the other paying for it. Those on relief have little incentive to earn income.... Public anger is repeatedly stirred by widespread corruption and cheating.... The waste is distressing, but it is the least of the evils of the paternalistic programs that have grown to such massive size. Their major evil is their effect on the fabric of our society. They weaken the family; reduce the incentive to work, save, and innovate; reduce the accumulation of capital; and limit our freedom. These are the fundamental standards by which they should be judged."

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Auburn, Alabama

For another take on vouchers, see Carl Horowitz's article in The Free Market