My blog post yesterday, “School Vouchers Are Anti-Libertarian,” stirred up quite a number of critical comments on Twitter.
There were three major points that the critics made, which, they maintained, was why libertarians should support them: (1) School vouchers improve the overall educational system; (2) School vouchers move us in the direction of educational liberty; and (3) Vouchers give parents “choices” on where to send their children to school.
Most of the comments, however, failed to address the critical issue raised in my article: School vouchers violate the libertarian non-aggression principle and, therefore, are anti-libertarian.
In other words, even if the critics are right — that is, even if school vouchers represented an incremental improvement in the state’s education system, even if they constituted a “gradual transition” toward educational liberty, and even if they helped some parents send their children to a private school, the central problem would still remains: School vouchers violate the core principle of the libertarian philosophy, which is the non-aggression principle. Given such, they are undeniably anti-libertarian.
The non-aggression principle holds that it is illegitimate to initiate force against another person. There is no question but that school vouchers do that. Since vouchers are based on collecting taxes from A in order to give money to B, they necessarily involve the initiation of force, given that the collection of taxes are based on the initiation of force.
In the early days of the libertarian movement, the non-aggression principle was of the utmost importance to libertarians. Libertarians recognized it as the central principle in the libertarian philosophy.
Over the years and decades, however, disgruntled conservatives began flooding into the libertarian movement. For them, the non-aggression principle was irrelevant or only of secondary importance. For them, what mattered was whether political programs made the welfare-warfare warfare state more efficient, tended to make things “better,” or “gradually transitioned” society in the direction of a free society.
That reform-oriented mindset ultimately became the dominant mindset within the libertarian movement. Thus, the support of school vouchers became a popular position within the libertarian movement because vouchers were perceived to make the situation “better” or they were considered to be a program that would lead to educational liberty — i.e., the end of all governmental involvement in education or they gave parents “choice.”
However, lost in all this was the most important factor within libertarianism: the non-aggression principle. Libertarians were being persuaded, on practical or pragmatic grounds, to endorse programs that violated the core principle of their philosophy. The non-aggression principle became of secondary importance or, even worse, of no importance whatsoever. What became important was whether a program made things “better” or whether it “gradually” moved society in a libertarian direction.
Over the years, one of the popular mantras of reform-oriented libertarians became, “The purist libertarians are just trying to show that they are more libertarian than the rest of us.” That critique came up in yesterday’s tweets. But that was never the case. What the purist libertarians were simply pointing out was that the reform-oriented libertarians were supporting programs that violated the libertarian non-aggression principle — i.e., programs that were anti-libertarian precisely because they violated the core principle of libertarianism. In other words, the reform-oriented libertarians were advocating reform, not freedom, because their reforms inevitably left infringements on liberty intact.
The result has been that the libertarian philosophy has, over the years and decades, become a conservative-libertarian mush consisting of both libertarian and anti-libertarian programs, a mush that leaves everyone confused over what exactly it is that libertarians stand for. Is it any surprise that the mainstream media sometimes refers to reform-oriented libertarian organizations as “conservative” or that many people have concluded that libertarianism is just an offshoot of the conservative movement?
Consider 19th-century slavery. Suppose there was a large libertarian movement back then in the state of Alabama. Conservative-oriented or reform-oriented libertarians say: “We will never abolish slavery. It’s in the Constitution. Most people will never go along with abolition. We’ve got to be practical and pragmatic. We’ve got to promote and support such reform measures as fewer lashings, reduced working hours, better food and healthcare, and better work conditions.” Some conservative-oriented libertarians even come up with a plantation voucher program that gives slaves “choice” with respect to which plantation they choose to work on.
Yes, it’s true that such reforms would constitute an improvement in the lives of the slaves. They might even be said to move in the direction of freedom, although I would challenge that assumption. But what cannot be denied is that those reform measures would violate the libertarian non-aggression principle because they would still be based on the initiation of force. As such, the reform measures, including plantation vouchers, would be anti-libertarian.
The only real libertarian position would be to advocate for the abolition of slavery — i.e., freedom. It wouldn’t be a question of purist libertarians simply trying to show that they are more libertarian than conservative-oriented libertarians. Instead, it would simply be advocating liberty.
I say that libertarians should restore the libertarian non-aggression principle to its central position in the libertarian philosophy. If a program violates the non-aggression principle, then I say that libertarians should not support it, even if it arguably constitutes an incremental improvement or it arguably “gradually” moves us in a libertarian direction or it gives some parents “choice” on where to send their children to school. I say: Let’s leave anti-libertarian reform, incrementalism, and gradualism, including the advocacy of school vouchers, to the conservatives. Let us libertarians be the ones who advance liberty.