Part 1 | Part 2
In 1990, the first year of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s existence, I wrote an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism” (www.fff.org/explore-freedom/article/letting-socialism) in which I criticized the idea of school vouchers. I pointed out that vouchers were simply another socialist program in which government forcibly takes money from one group of people and gives it to another group of people, in order to the fund their children’s education in private schools.
Milton Friedman read my article and addressed it in a speech entitled “Say No to Intolerance,” which was later reprinted in Liberty magazine. It can be read here: www.hoover.org/research/friedman-freedom. In his speech, Friedman criticized the principled, uncompromising approach to liberty taken by people such as Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, … and me!
Needless to say, given that Mises and Rand are intellectual heroes of mine and have played a big role in my development as a libertarian, it was quite an honor to be included with them in Friedman’s critique. It was also a big honor for me when Friedman told the audience that FFF “is doing good work and is making an impact.”
Friedman acknowledged the central point in my article — that with its compulsory-attendance laws, school taxes, and government teachers, textbooks, and curriculum, public schooling is the model of a socialist institution. He agreed that a free society necessarily entails a separation of school and state.
He maintained, however, that the way to achieve educational liberty was through the use of school vouchers. Vouchers, he said, were a transitional device from the status quo to the end of state involvement in education.
That is where Friedman went wrong. Vouchers were always going to do the exact opposite from what Friedman maintained. Vouchers were always going to embed the state even more deeply in education.
Consider, for example, a private school. Before accepting vouchers, its operations are semi-independent of state control. The only control the state would have, would be with respect to the renewal of its license every few years. Once the voucher program goes into effect, however, the school is suddenly hit with a big influx of students with vouchers. The school expands its operations owing to the sudden increase in demand. It borrows $5 million to finance construction of new classrooms, the hiring of new teachers and administrators, and the purchase of additional textbooks.
What are the chances that that particular school is going to become an advocate of educational liberty, which would necessarily bring an end to the voucher program? No chance at all. After all, the school has a $5 million loan hanging over its head. It’s not about to begin advocating a system in which it could lose its new influx of voucher-funded customers. Friedman’s point that vouchers would lead to a system of no-vouchers was always contrary to logic and reason. Moreover, by receiving vouchers, the private school now comes under more control by the state.
Friedman missed the most important point: that if libertarians want a system of educational liberty, then the best thing to do is to make the case for educational liberty. Instead of using a socialist program — vouchers, which take money from Peter and give it to Paul — as a way to achieve educational liberty, libertarians should just keep standing fast and making the case to people for why the state should not be involved in education at all.
Is that more difficult than making the case for vouchers? Of course it is. Advocating vouchers keeps the state’s educational system intact, which makes people more comfortable in accepting the voucher proposal. Separating school and state gets rid of public schooling entirely, which is obviously a much more difficult sell for people.
Now, to Friedman’s credit, he did maintain that educational liberty was the goal. He was simply mistaken in believing that vouchers were the means to achieve that goal. But it wasn’t long before voucher proponents figured out that getting people to accept vouchers was more difficult if they disclosed that vouchers would lead to their desired goal of dismantling the public-schooling system. So voucher proponents just stopped disclosing that vouchers were intended to serve as a transition device that would lead to the demise of public schooling. In fact, the situation got even worse than that, to the point that today voucher proponents tell people that vouchers are a way to improve the public-school system through “choice” and “competition.”
Thus, as with Social Security and Medicare, libertarian proponents of vouchers have effectively given up any hope of achieving a society with educational liberty. They have decided to devote their lives to being reformers of the welfare state, advocating “libertarian-oriented public-policy prescriptions” as a way to make life on the serfdom plantation more palatable.
“Moving in the right direction”
During the 29-year history of The Future of Freedom Foundation, I have periodically received comments from people suggesting that FFF soften its approach in order to gain more acceptance, credibility, and support. Their point has been that if we took more-moderate positions, people would be less threatened by radical change and more apt to embrace and support us. Moreover, they have argued, what matters is that we move in the right direction.
I have always rejected those suggestions. For one thing, there is no reason to believe that reform proposals will necessarily make life better for the serfs on the welfare-state plantation. They might, but then again they might not. History has shown that when a socialist system is reformed, the result is often a bigger crisis. As we have seen with vouchers and state control over education, the result can be worse with the adoption of the reform.
Over the years, some people have also said to me that our principled positions are “utopian.” Why advocate something that cannot be achieved, they have asked. Why not be more practical and advocate something that is achievable, such as reduction in income taxes, a school-voucher program, or mandatory retirement accounts in lieu of Social Security, or even support the election or appointment of “libertarian-leaning” conservatives to electoral positions, regulatory commissions, or central-planning agencies?
But they are wrong. As I have repeatedly emphasized ever since FFF’s inception, there was once a small society in history that was based on the principle of limited government and in which there was no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, income taxes, public schooling, immigration controls, gun control, welfare, farm subsidies, foreign aid, CIA, NSA, Pentagon, military-industrial complex, foreign wars, assassinations, torture, indefinite detention, or secret surveillance and in which there was little regulation and few trade restrictions.
Interesting enough, when I have pointed out to people that that small society was the United States of America, there have been libertarian reformers who have gone on the attack against me. They have said that by pointing out those particular attributes of 19th-century America, I am extolling a period of time as a libertarian paradise when, in fact, there were slavery, tariffs, government-business partnerships, the Sherman Antitrust Act, denial of women’s right to vote, and violations of libertarian principles.
My libertarian reform critics have always missed the point. I have never maintained that the 19th century was a perfectly libertarian society. In fact, I have always tried to be careful to point out that it wasn’t. My only point has been to show that it is possible to achieve a society that doesn’t have Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, income taxation, and all the other things listed above. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if people in history have in fact achieved such a society, it can’t be considered utopian or impossible to achieve by a subsequent society.
I suspect that the real reason that libertarian reformers have gone on the attack against me whenever I point this out is that they don’t want people to realize that there has been a society that achieved those things. If people figure out that libertarian principles are, in fact, achievable, then how do the libertarian reformers justify public-policy prescriptions that are nothing more than schemes to maintain and reform the welfare-state status quo, notwithstanding their couching their arguments in such “free-enterprise” terms as “choice,” “competition,” or “libertarian-oriented.”
Permit me to provide another example: immigration. The libertarian position on immigration is open borders. That’s because when a person crosses a political border, he is not violating anyone’s rights. For example, every day countless Marylanders cross the Potomac River to enter Virginia, where I live. We don’t know how many do so because the government doesn’t keep count. They might be coming to “steal jobs,” buy and sell things, including drugs, or even to murder, rape, and steal. Regardless, simply by crossing the Potomac they have violated no one’s rights.
There are conservative-oriented libertarians who, for whatever reason, honestly favor a system of immigration controls. They have come into the libertarian movement from the conservative movement and have simply been unable to let go of this particular conservative baggage. Fair enough. Sometimes understanding libertarian principles and their application is a progressive process.
But there are other libertarians who know full well that open immigration is, in fact, the libertarian position. Yet, those libertarians, who know better, have deliberately surrendered their libertarian principles by accepting America’s system of immigration controls. They have settled for making the case for showing that more immigration is good and, therefore, that the government should let in more immigrants.
Why would libertarians do that? For the same reason that libertarian reformers have thrown in the towel on Social Security, Medicare, regulation, and public schooling. It’s too difficult to get people to accept them. They want to be credible. They want to be respected. They want to be liked. And so they have settled for becoming reformers of the welfare-warfare state way of life rather than advocates of liberty.
Are they right? Is the achievement of liberty really impossible?
No, they are wrong, and the genuinely free society is achievable. Is it easy to achieve? Of course not! If freedom were easy to achieve, most societies in history would have achieved it. It is an extremely difficult task. But being difficult is not the same thing as being impossible. And after all, if there was one group in history who got close to achieving it, it is entirely possible for another group in society to achieve what they accomplished and surpass it.
What does that take? An adherence to principle! In order to garner a sufficient number of people to reach the critical mass that brings a monumental shift in society toward freedom, it is necessary for people to hear the principled case for freedom. They have to hear why freedom necessarily entails a society in which infringements on freedom are dismantled, abolished, or repealed. They need to hear why a society in which there is no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, foreign aid, income taxation, public schooling, drug laws, immigration controls, assassinations, foreign wars, or national-security state is a free society, a moral society, and a just society. If all that people hear is the case for reform, then it becomes a virtual certainty that they will never consider the case for freedom.
All over the world, people are mired in statist darkness. But there is one light that is shining through that darkness. That light is libertarianism. If that light is extinguished, then the hope for freedom disappears. By continuing to adhere to libertarian principle, the light becomes ever brighter, enabling libertarians to lead the world to the highest reaches of freedom ever seen by mankind.
This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.