This week conservatives are celebrating national “School Choice Week.” According to the website of this celebration, “School choice means giving parents access to the best K-12 education options for their children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.” The “school choice” concept, of course, encompasses “school vouchers,” a program that conservatives have long supported.
This school-choice celebration provides a valuable lesson in how the school voucher program — and, to a larger extent, the entire reform-oriented segment within the libertarian movement — has adversely impacted the libertarian movement.
The libertarian philosophy
Libertarianism is a pure, consistent philosophy of liberty. Its core principle is the non-aggression principle, which holds that the initiation of force is morally wrong. Thus, libertarianism condemns actions like murder, rape, theft, burglary, and fraud. One of the purposes of government is to prosecute and punish people who initiate force against others.
Libertarianism holds that so long as a person’s actions do not involve the initiation of force or fraud, he should be free to engage in it. The action might be irresponsible, immoral, destructive, or unhealthy but so long as it is peaceful, the government has no business prohibiting, regulating, or punishing it.
Thus, in a genuinely free society a person is free to live his life any way he chooses, so long as his conduct is peaceful and non-fraudulent. For example, a person is free to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth and decide for himself what to do with it. In a free society, there is no mandatory or coerced charity, like with Social Security and Medicare. In a free society, all charity is voluntary.
A genuinely free person is also free to read whatever he wants. It’s his business. He’s also free to go to church, or not. It’s his choice. It’s none of the government’s business.
In fact, that’s what genuine “choice” is all about — the right to choose your own way in life, so long as you don’t initiate force against others.
Educational liberty vs public schooling
In the area of education, the only genuine libertarian position is one in which there is a separation of school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. Education is a purely peaceful activity. People have the fundamental, God-given right to determine the best educational vehicle for their children, just as they have the correlative right to determine the best religious (or non-religious) path for their children.
Public schooling, or what can more accurately be labeled government schooling, involves the initiation of force in two ways — compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes.
Under compulsory-attendance laws, the state forces parents to subject their children to the state’s educational system, which encompasses public schools, charter schools, private schools (which have to be licensed by the state), homeschooling (which oftentimes requires testing by the state), and school vouchers.
Under school taxes, the state taxes people and uses the money to fund the state’s school system. As most everyone knows, there is nothing voluntary about taxes. Refuse to pay and they’ll throw you in jail and take your money and property.
This most popular of these “choices” among conservatives is school vouchers. Like public schooling, the school-choice program is based on taxation. Money is taken from people, including those who don’t have children, and given to poorer people to enable them to attend private schools. Conservatives call this “care and compassion.”
Given the initiation of force that undergirds the public school system and school vouchers, there is no way that one can reconcile these two programs with libertarianism.
Many years ago, however, conservatives began leaving the conservative movement and coming into the libertarian movement. The problem though was that many of them could not leave all of their conservative baggage behind. A principle example of this phenomenon is school vouchers. Conservative-oriented libertarians came into the libertarian movement and began advocating school vouchers, notwithstanding the fact that the program obviously violated libertarian or freedom principles.
Even worse, these conservative-oriented libertarians began telling people that school vouchers were actually consistent with libertarianism because they gave voucher recipients “choice” when it comes to schooling. “Choice,” they argued is good thing and, therefore, libertarian in nature.
But of course a thief has “choices” too, once he has stolen someone’s money. Does that make thievery a good thing under libertarianism? Of course not. And the same principle applies to schools vouchers, just as it applies to public schooling in general. People have the natural, God-given right to decide the question of education for themselves. It is none of the state’s business, just it isn’t the business of the state what religion people choose.
Now, it would be one thing if these conservative-oriented libertarians were to clarify in their articles, books, speeches, conferences, and websites that the only genuine libertarian position on education is the non-involvement of the government in education and, therefore, that school vouchers are a conservative, not libertarian, position.
Alas, that’s not what these conservative-oriented libertarians do, They inevitably present school vouchers as a libertarian position, one based on “choice,” and tell people that when they support school vouchers they are “advancing freedom.”
In the early days of the school-school-voucher movement, conservative-oriented libertarians justified their support of the program by saying that it was a “gradual” way to achieve the libertarian goal of educational liberty. That was nonsense, however, given that vouchers placed private schools on the public dole while, at the same time, extended government control over private schools. Moreover, their claim made it look like libertarianism supported the initiation of force during the period of the “gradualism,” which was usually estimated to last at least 20-30 years. Finally, the voucher proponents today, wanting to garner support for their statist program, actually now say that their program will improve (i.e., not end) the state’s public-school system through “choice” and “competition.”
Of course, this is not the only area in which this conservative-oriented reform mindset has take hold over the past few decades. Conservatives who have come into the libertarian movement have also brought conservative baggage in such areas as healthcare (“health savings accounts”), Social Security (“privatization”), immigration, trade, foreign policy, regulation, the military, the CIA, and the NSA.
A conservative-libertarian mush
In the process, in the eyes of the general public and the mainstream press, libertarianism has come to mean nothing more than a great big conservative-libertarian mush. This is often reflected by the mainstream media’s describing libertarian think tanks as “conservative” or “conservative-oriented.”
Over the years, the conservative-oriented libertarians have oftentimes responded by saying, “Oh, our movement shouldn’t be about who is more libertarian or more hard-core.” That’s true. But our movement is about liberty. And in order to achieve liberty, people have to know what genuine liberty is — i.e., the elimination, not the reform, of infringements on liberty. That necessarily entails the restoration of the libertarian brand, a brand that is based on pure principles of freedom.