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The Libertarian Case Against Vouchers


During FFF’s first year of existence — 1990, one of our major donors requested me to write an op-ed favoring school vouchers, which he planned to send to newspapers in his home state. I explained to him that neither I nor FFF could ever publish such an article. He said that if I refused to write the article, he would cease contributing to FFF. He was true to his word. He never donated to FFF again.

School vouchers have long been a popular education reform vehicle for conservatives and even some libertarians. They call school vouchers “choice” or a “market-oriented” educational reform plan. While voucher proponents long ago claimed that their plan would “gradually” lead to educational freedom, most of them now make their case for vouchers by claiming that they are a way to improve the public-school system through “competition.”

Actually though, school vouchers are nothing more than another socialistic scheme, one based on the same immoral principles on which public (i.e., government) schooling is based. Moreover, they not only do not lead to a genuinely free society but instead, by embedding the state even more deeply into our lives, do the opposite.

We begin with a simple moral principle: It’s wrong to take what doesn’t belong to you. Or to put it another way, it’s wrong to steal.

Suppose I break into your house and steal $10,000 in cash and personal belongings. I use the money to fund a child’s education in a private school.

Would that be morally justified? We all know it wouldn’t be. It is ingrained in all of us that stealing is wrong, even when the money provides “choice” to the robber.

That’s one of the fundamental moral objections that libertarians have always raised with respect to not only public schooling but to the entire welfare-state way of life. We have always held that forcibly taking money from a person to whom it belongs and giving it to someone else can never be morally justified, not even when it’s the government (or the majority) doing the taking and the giving. If it’s morally wrong for a robber to take your money to fund a child’s education, it’s just as morally wrong for the state to take your money to fund a child’s education.

Voucher schemes are based on the same immoral principle on which public schooling is based. Public schooling involves the government’s taking of money from people to whom it belongs in order to use it to fund the state’s schooling of people who have children. By the same token, vouchers are based on the government’s taking of money from people in order to fund the costs of private schooling for a select number of people’s children.

Immorality is immorality. Wrongdoing is wrongdoing.

It’s one thing for conservatives to advance schemes that are based on immoral principles. But it’s quite another thing for libertarians to do so. Libertarians have always stood for moral principles. That’s the distinguishing characteristic between libertarianism and conservatism. How can anyone have respect for a philosophy that stands for moral principles but advocates schemes that are based on immoral principles?

Moreover, school vouchers don’t “gradually” lead to educational liberty, as voucher proponent Milton Friedman suggested 25 years ago in an article criticizing me for criticizing vouchers. Instead, they lead in the opposite direction — toward more state involvement in education.

Once a private school begins accepting vouchers, the result is no different from any other welfare recipient. The voucher recipient will inevitably become dependent on its dole. With the added infusion of voucher money, the school’s operations will expand — additional buildings, more teachers, administrators, and textbooks, expanded parking lots, and more.

What are the chances that the school is suddenly going to say, “Well, gradualism time is over. It’s time to end our vouchers.”

No chance at all! Instead, the voucher recipient will fight tooth and nail to maintain the continuation of its voucher dole.

Indeed, what are the chances that conservative or libertarian voucher proponents will ever say, “The period of gradualism is over. It’s now time to terminate the voucher scheme”? The chances are nil. After going to all the trouble of getting vouchers adopted, voucher proponents are not about to want to antagonize everyone by calling for their termination.

Thus, vouchers become a never-ever game — never leading to educational liberty and ever leading to more state control over the minds of more children. It’s not a coincidence that 25 years after vouchers were adopted in Milwaukee, they are still in existence and that voucher proponents are not saying, “Gradualism time is over. It’s time to end the vouchers.”

What are the chances that schools that receive vouchers from the state are going to develop independent mindsets among their students — mindsets that are different from those of conformity, regimentation, and deference to authority that are inculcated into children in the government schools? The chances are not very good at all because the school that’s on the dole doesn’t want to antagonize the entity that is providing the dole. He who pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.

Moreover, voucher proponents don’t cause people to question the very idea of government involvement in education. How can we ever achieve a free society if libertarians aren’t causing people to question illegitimate governmental apparatuses and instead coming up with reform schemes that keep such apparatuses intact? Indeed, why would we expect people who aren’t well-versed in free markets to embrace a genuine free market in education if libertarians aren’t willing to do so?

What is educational liberty? As I stated in my article “Letting Go of Socialism” (the article that Milton Friedman criticized) in the September 1990 issue of our monthly journal Future of Freedom (then called Freedom Daily), educational liberty is based on the complete separation of school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. That means repealing all school compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes. It means selling off the school buildings and laying off all the government’s school personnel. It means an end to all state involvement in education (including vouchers).

That means a genuine free market in education, not a “free-market oriented” voucher scheme that is really nothing more than warmed-over socialism. Educational liberty would place educational decisions in the hands of families, where it belongs, just the same as decisions regarding religion. And it would provide entrepreneurs the freedom to compete in the provision of educational services to consumers.

The free market produces the best of everything. It would do the same with education. More important, educational liberty would be a gigantic step toward restoring fundamental moral principles to our land.

Those are the reasons why I refused to grant that donor’s request to write a pro-voucher op-ed 25 years ago. It’s why I still refuse to write such an article.



This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.