Milton Friedman may have put families first, but he put taxpayers last.
Friedman (1912–2006) was one of the most influential free-market economists of the twentieth century. After receiving his Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University, he worked for the federal government and then taught economics at the University of Chicago for thirty years. In 1976, he received the Nobel Prize in Economics “for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.”
Although Friedman generally argued that most services provided by the government could be better provided by the private sector, he thought that the private sector needed a little help when it came to education. Beginning with his 1955 article “The Role of Government in Education,” and continuing in his immensely popular and successful 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman advocated government-funded vouchers for students to use to pay for education at a school of their parents’ choice. Decades later, Friedman and his wife founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in 1996 (the name was changed to EdChoice in 2016 to honor the Friedman’s desire “to separate their last name from their enduring vision”).
a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our team is driven by the shared mission to advance a K–12 education system where all families, regardless of race, origin or family income, are free to choose a learning environment — public or private, near or far, religious or secular — that works best for their children.
The mission of EdChoice is “to advance educational freedom and choice for all as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.”
Friedman’s recent July 31 birthday was noted by some in the libertarian movement. One writer in particular, Kerry McDonald, in her article “Milton Friedman Put Families First,” said that “on his birthday, it’s worthwhile to remember Milton Friedman’s vision for a pluralistic educational landscape, accessible to all, that places families first.”
made the clear distinction between government-funded education and government-run education. His idea of school vouchers was to provide parents with a sum of public money for their children’s education that they could use at any “approved” educational organization. In this way, school vouchers would work like food stamps, providing public money to feed hungry families but not requiring that families only shop at an assigned, state-run neighborhood grocery store. In his paper, Friedman likened his school voucher program to the G.I. Bill, the post–World War II program that allowed returning veterans to use a certain amount of money per year toward higher education. It publicly funded further education but stopped short of mandating where that education must occur or who could administer it.
In his article on vouchers, Friedman “emphasized ‘the denationalization of education,’ breaking down the government monopoly on compulsory schooling and expanding parental choice in education.” With vouchers, Friedman “saw the potential to secure educational opportunity for all through public funding, while relying to a much greater degree on parental choice, free market innovation, and private administration of education options.”
Building on the work of Friedman, the efforts of “school choice advocates” have resulted in voucher programs “in 15 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, serving over 180,000 students.”
Although McDonald in her article mentions parents, children, families, and students, there is one important group that she neglects to mention: taxpayers.
It is taxpayers who foot the bill so that parents, children, families, and students can have “school choice” — that is, giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children. Taxpayers have no choice in the matter.
In this respect, vouchers are no different from regular funding of public schools. The government forcibly takes money from some people through compulsory taxation and uses it to pay for the education of other people’s children. As McDonald says in another article, “Parents Should Be Free to Choose Safer Schools,” “Vouchers redistribute to families some or all of the taxpayer money allocated to their local school district, allowing parents to use those funds at a private school of their choice.”
But giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children is immoral and unjust.
Aside from putting their children in public schools, parents throughout the United States have many other choices when it comes to the education of their children: parochial schools, Montessori schools, Christian schools, nonsectarian schools, home schooling, online schooling. When it comes to their children, parents right now have school choice just as they have food choice and clothing choice. That some people don’t have the money to pay for their preferred education choice doesn’t justify the government’s forcing someone else to pay for it.
There is nothing so inherently special about education that government should be providing it or paying for it. The education of their children is a service that parents should provide themselves or pay for others to provide just as when they need their car repaired or their lawn mowed.
If the government provided Americans vouchers for haircuts instead of educational services, it would be denounced as an income-transfer program and a subsidy to barbers. Once government vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing vouchers for other services.
Twice in her article, McDonald compares education vouchers to food stamps. What she fails to say, though, is that vouchers are welfare just like food stamps. It is because vouchers are like food stamps that they should be rejected by libertarians.
It is not enough to say that government should not build schools, own schools, operate schools, or regulate schools. Government should not fund anyone’s education — directly or indirectly through vouchers, grants, or loans. Education must be completely separated from the state, at all levels. Nothing has changed since Ludwig von Mises said many years ago in his book Liberalism, “There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.”