It stands to reason that conservatives would support school vouchers. That’s because conservatives, even while using pro-freedom lingo, support reforming, not dismantling, the welfare-warfare state way of life.
But what’s with libertarians who support school vouchers? Why do they support what is clearly an anti-libertarian program?
The core principle of libertarianism is what is called the non-aggression principle. It holds that it is morally wrong for anyone to initiate force against someone else. When someone declares himself a libertarian, he implicitly or explicitly is saying that he will never support the initiation of force against another person.
Yet, that is precisely what school vouchers entail — the initiation of force against others. To collect the money that is used to fund the vouchers, the state initiates force against people in the form of tax collection.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, there is nothing voluntary about taxation. The state uses force or the threat of force to collect taxes. If someone refuses to pay his taxes, the state forces him into jail and forcibly takes his property away from him. If the victim fights back with deadly force, the state will kill him.
Thus, the state initiates force against people to collect taxes and then uses the money to fund the vouchers. It would be difficult to find a better example of a clear violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle than that.
As I wrote in the September 1990 issue of FFF’s monthly journal, school vouchers are just another “futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently.” Conservatives and conservative-oriented libertarians love couching this socialist reform plan as “pro-freedom” because, they say, it gives “choices” to the recipients of the vouchers. In fact, conservatives and conservative-oriented libertarians often refer to the voucher system as “school choice.”
But let’s be honest: The thief who steals someone’s money also now has “choices,” in the same way that the voucher recipient does. Every libertarian would agree that the thief is not behaving in a libertarian manner. But neither are the recipients of the school vouchers. They are both using money that has been forcibly taken from others. The fact that it is the state, rather than a private thief, that is initiating the force doesn’t change the nature of what it is occurring.
After I published that article in 1990, which was FFF’s first year of existence, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman criticized my article in a speech that was later printed as an article entitled “Say No to Intolerance.” While Friedman agreed with me that the real goal is to separate school and state, he argued that school vouchers were the way to achieve that goal.
It is an argument that some conservative-oriented libertarians have used ever since to rationalize their support of school vouchers. They call it a “transition” device because, they claim, it will ultimately lead to education freedom. In doing so, however, they ignore two important things: (1) They are supporting a violation of the non-aggression principle throughout the period of time of the “transition,” and (2) School vouchers do not transition to the abolition of public schooling; instead they do the exact opposite — they more deeply embed the state in the education arena.
Imagine that there are private schools in a city. All of them are independent of state control. The school-voucher system goes into effect and all the private schools agree to accept the school vouchers. Since the state regulates that which it subsidizes, those private schools now come under the control of the state. That’s not “transitioning” to ending state involvement in education; instead, it’s increasing it.
Moreover, the receipt of school vouchers will mean an increase in the number of students attending those private schools. That means the construction of new school buildings, the purchase of more textbooks, and the hiring of more teachers and administrators. What are the chances that such schools will, down the line, suddenly start opposing the receipt of their voucher dole? The chance is virtually nonexistent. The voucher program will help ensure the permanent disappearance of totally independent private schools.
Thus, it’s not a coincidence that 30 years after the adoption of school vouchers in Milwaukee, the program has never “transitioned” to the dismantling of the state’s educational system. That’s 30 continuous years of violating the non-aggression principle that is the core principle of libertarianism!
Most conservatives and even some conservative-oriented libertarians have finally acknowledged the validity of the point I made 32 years ago. They have come to accept that vouchers are nothing more than a reform plan to make public schooling work more efficiently. In fact, that is one of the arguments they now use to justify vouchers — not that they will bring an end to public schooling but rather that they will improve it through “choice” and “competition.”
There is only one way to achieve educational liberty, That way is the repeal of compulsory-attendance laws, the abolition of school taxes, the selling off of the school buildings and the end of state involvement in education. Let’s leave statist reform programs to conservatives. Let us libertarians continue raising the standard for genuine liberty by continuing to make the case for the separation of school and state, just as our ancestors did in the area of religion