Suppose 100 percent of libertarians called for a reform, rather than a dismantling, of the welfare-warfare state way of life under which Americans today live. What would be the chances of achieving the free society — that is, one in which a welfare-warfare state apparatus is no longer grafted onto our federal governmental system?
The chances would be virtually nil. That’s because no one would be spreading the idea of abolition. Everyone would be talking about reform.
Even if the idea of abolition were raised from time to time, nonlibertarians would inevitably say to themselves, “Why do we want to consider abolition when libertarians themselves don’t call for abolition?” After all, if those who have studied the market process decline to call for a free-market way of life, why would we expect others to do so?
Now, let’s turn it around. Suppose 100 percent of libertarians are calling for abolition, not reform, of the welfare-warfare state apparatus. While that doesn’t guarantee that people will join us to achieve the free society, it definitely increases the odds of success. That’s because an increasing number of people would be hearing the case for a genuinely free society rather than the case for simply reforming the tyranny of the status quo. A certain percentage of those people who hear the abolitionist message are apt to be attracted to it, thereby increasing the ranks of libertarians.
I subscribe to what I call the critical-mass theory for achieving freedom. I believe that when the number of people favoring abolition reaches a critical mass, the country will experience a monumental shift toward freedom, much as that which brought the Berlin Wall crashing down. Moreover, I’m convinced that that critical mass can be significantly less than a majority of people in society.
In fact, we sometimes see this phenomenon in corporations in which a tiny minority of employees wish to shift the philosophy of the firm. They start out with one or two, grow to three or four, and continue to find people within the firm who are initially receptive toward the change and then grow passionate and enthusiastic about it. Oftentimes they reach a critical mass that is significantly less than a majority of the work force, and suddenly the philosophy of the firm shifts.
I believe that the same principle applies to achieving freedom in society. We don’t have to convince most Americans of the virtues of a free society; we just need to arrive at a critical mass of people who want a free society — a critical mass that can be much less than a majority.
If I’m right, then that necessarily means that the more libertarians there are making the pure, principled case for liberty, the greater are the odds for achieving liberty. Conversely, the larger the number of libertarians making the case for reform, rather than abolition, the more difficult it is to achieve liberty.
Education and vouchers
Let’s examine some well-known examples where the abolition-reform debate manifests itself, beginning with the critically important area of education.
Every libertarian agrees that the government has no legitimate role in the area of education, any more than it has in religion. Public (i.e., government) schooling is an absolute disaster, especially considering what it does to children’s minds. Through its system of regimentation, it produces a mindset of conformity and obedience to authority and destroys the love for learning that naturally exists in every child. At the core of the system is coercion — mandatory-attendance laws and school taxes. Public schooling could easily be called an army-lite education.
So what’s the solution to this educational morass? The solution is to separate school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. Repeal school compulsory-attendance laws and abolish school taxes. End all governmental involvement in education. Achieve a totally free market in education, one in which consumers are sovereign and entrepreneurs are vying for their business in a voluntary, consensual environment.
Unfortunately, however, many libertarians have instead settled for reform. That’s what school vouchers are all about. Vouchers enable people to use government-funded certificates to cover tuition expenses in private schools. Voucher proponents justify their position by saying that at least this program helps a certain number of people to escape the ravages of public schooling.
Yet, consider the way that vouchers are funded — through the compulsory method of taxation. The state forcibly takes money from people, many of whom don’t have children, and gives it to people in the form of a school voucher. How is that different from taxing everyone to pay for the schooling of those who have children?
In other words, by endorsing vouchers, libertarians necessarily abandon one of the most powerful arguments against public schooling — that it’s morally wrong for the state to take money from people to whom it rightly belongs in order to give it to people to whom it does not belong.
Moreover, vouchers expand the number of people who have mindsets of dependency. Once a family begins receiving vouchers, it cannot imagine life without them.
Finally, notice that making the case for vouchers is quite a bit different from making the case for separating school and state. While the voucher proponent, like the freedom advocate, points to the disastrous consequences of public schools, he doesn’t induce people to question the role of the state in education. He doesn’t talk about the immorality and destructiveness of mandatory-attendance laws and school taxes and the virtues of a genuine free market — that is, a market that is free from government involvement or interference. Instead, his articles and speeches revolve around the merits of school vouchers, which necessarily leave the public schooling system intact while removing some students from it.
Now let’s go back to a previous example. Suppose 100 percent of libertarians are calling for school vouchers. What would be the chances of achieving educational liberty? Virtually nil. After all, if libertarians lack faith in educational freedom, why would we expect other people to have faith in a free market in education?
Conversely, if 100 percent of libertarians are calling for educational liberty, then the odds of achieving it increase. More people are likely to see that libertarians have faith in the free-market process and some of them will want to understand the reasoning for such faith.
During FFF’s first year of operation, I wrote an essay for our monthly journal, which at that time was called Freedom Daily, entitled “Letting Go of Socialism,” which pointed out that school vouchers were nothing more than a way to reform the state’s socialist educational system. I said that the only solution to the education morass was a separation of school and state.
Imagine my surprise when Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman criticized my position in a speech that was later reprinted in Liberty magazine under the title, “Say No to Intolerance.” Here is what Friedman stated in part:
In the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily, for September 1990 — again, a group that is doing good work and is making an impact — Jacob Hornberger wrote, “What is the answer to socialism in public schools? Freedom.” Correct. But how do we get from here to there? Is that somebody else’s problem? Is that a purely practical problem that we can dismiss? The ultimate goal we would like to get to is a society in which people are responsible for themselves and for their children’s schooling. And in which you do not have a governmental system. But am I a statist, as I have been labeled by a number of libertarians, because some thirty years ago I suggested the use of educational vouchers as a way of easing the transition? Is that, and I quote Hornberger again, “simply a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently”? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you can simply say what the ideal is. This is what I mean by the utopian strand in libertarianism. You cannot simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.
Notice something important here: Friedman is saying that, yes, educational liberty — i.e., no more state involvement in education — is the goal. He suggests, though, that vouchers are the way to achieve that goal.
But are they? That raises a question that has long been a subject of controversy and debate within the libertarian movement — the legitimacy of “gradualist” methods for achieving the free society.
In the 1990s, I served three terms on the platform committee of the national Libertarian Party. One of the contentious issues was whether the LP platform should endorse “gradualism.” I was opposed to the proposition. For one thing, as I pointed out in part one of this essay, gradualism necessarily entails a period of time in which wrongdoing is being countenanced. It was incumbent on the libertarian, I argued, to stand for an immediate termination of wrongdoing, even if it was politically unlikely that that would suddenly happen.
But what I didn’t question was the practical argument for gradualism — the one that Friedman was making with respect to vouchers. That is, I didn’t question that gradualist proposals would gradually lead us to freedom. I simply questioned the morality of endorsing wrongdoing during the period of the gradualism.
After 25 years of reflection on the matter, I now realize how wrong I was. The fact is that gradualism is not gradualism. The fact is that vouchers and many other so-called gradualist methods for achieving freedom are nothing more than statist reform proposals, albeit ones endorsed by libertarians and “free-market conservatives.” Even worse, by entrenching the state more deeply into areas it should not be involved in, “gradualist” methods don’t gradually lead to freedom; they instead obstruct and impede it.
Schools vouchers provide a perfect example. Let’s assume that the state decides to adopt a voucher program entailing $10 million in vouchers. It taxes the citizenry that amount and distributes the vouchers to select families. The families take the vouchers to, say, three private schools in town. Suddenly, those three schools are faced with a shortage of classrooms, teachers, and books. No problem. Each of them now has $3.3 million, compliments of the state’s vouchers. They use that money to construct new school buildings, hire new teachers, and purchase additional textbooks. The next year and every year after that, the schools continue to receive the vouchers and plan for the continued receipt of them.
At the end of five years, let’s say that libertarian voucher proponents say, “Okay, everyone, time’s up! Our voucher program was intended to gradually bring about the end of all state involvement in education. Five years is a sufficiently long time for such gradualism. Time to terminate the voucher program and to separate school and state.”
What are the chances that those three schools are going to enthusiastically join such libertarians? The chances are virtually nonexistent. That’s because they, like the families who receive the vouchers, have grown as dependent on the voucher dole as the public-schooling establishment has become on school taxes. They are not about to call for the end of their dole.
In fact, voucher recipients are likely to lash out at the libertarian proponents of vouchers for failing to disclose to people that their ultimate aim with vouchers was to end government involvement in education. You see, voucher proponents learned a long time ago that they could not, as a practical matter, publicly state what Friedman stated in his speech — that school vouchers are a gradualist means of bringing about an end to government involvement in education. They found that if they disclosed that, it was more difficult to induce people to accept their voucher proposals.
Thus, voucher proponents decided to remain silent about their ultimate goal. In fact, many of them got so embroiled trying to get vouchers accepted that they themselves lost sight of what their ultimate goal was. Over time, their arguments for vouchers became couched simply in terms of helping children get into private schools, not as a way to get the public-school system dismantled. In fact, in one of the real perversities that arise from the compromise of principle, today many voucher proponents use as one of their main arguments that the program will improve the public-schooling system through “competition.” Every time I see that argument for vouchers, I can’t help but wonder whether Milton Friedman is turning over in his grave.
Twenty-four years ago, the city of Milwaukee adopted a school voucher program. Despite the passage of almost a quarter-century, it is clear that the city’s school voucher program has not gradually led to the separation of school and state. After all, even the most ardent proponent of gradualism would have to concede that 24 years is more than enough time to constitute “gradual.”
Yet, certainly none of the Milwaukee schools that have been receiving the vouchers is calling for the end of vouchers and the end of governmental involvement in education.
Moreover, I don’t know of any libertarian voucher proponents who are now telling the people of Milwaukee that the time for vouchers to bring about the end of all government involvement in education has arrived. Instead, libertarian voucher proponents are trying their best to expand vouchers to other parts of the country, thereby making the state even more entrenched into education. That’s not advancing freedom. That’s expanding statism.
As I stated in my 1990 essay “Letting Go of Socialism,” vouchers are nothing more than a statist reform plan, one that happens to be endorsed by reform libertarians and by “free-market conservatives” under the rubric of “choice” or “privatization.” The fact is that school vouchers are no different in principle from libertarian and conservative reform plans for Social Security, Medicare, the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, and other aspects of the welfare-warfare state, as we shall see in part 4 of this essay.
This article was originally published in the July 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.