Milton Friedman and Conservatives: Wrong on Education, by Jacob G. Hornberger

Education is far to important to give the government any part in it. It should be left to the free choices of parents and students, and the market for education that has heretofore been stifled by the government. From Jacob G. Hornberger at The Future of Freedom Foundation,

Once upon a time, some conservatives used to call for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. Lamentably, conservatives today celebrate when a “free-market advocate” like multimillionaire Betsy DeVos is appointed U.S. Secretary of Education, and they get terribly excited when she speaks at conservative conferences.

Meanwhile, even while conservatives continue to pronounce their allegiance to their favorite mantra — “free enterprise, private property, limited government” — they continue to embrace not only public schooling itself but also their favorite public-schooling fix-it program, school vouchers.

Over the years, conservatives have developed various labels for their voucher program: a “free-market approach to education,” “free enterprise in education,” or “school choice.” They have chosen those labels to make themselves and their supporters feel good about supporting vouchers.

But the labeling has always been false and fraudulent. Vouchers are nothing more than a socialist program, no different in principle from public schooling itself.

The term “free enterprise” means a system in which a private enterprise is free of government control or interference. That’s what distinguishes it from a socialist system, which connotes government control and interference with the enterprise.

A voucher system entails the government taxing people and then using the money to provide vouchers to people, which they can then redeem at government-approved private schools.

Does that sound like a system that is free from government control or interference? In reality, it’s no different in principle from food stamps, farm subsidies, Social Security, or any other welfare-state program. The government is using force to take money from Peter and giving it to Paul. That’s not “free enterprise.” That’s the opposite of free enterprise.

Conservatives say that their voucher system is based on “choice” because the voucher provides recipients with “choices.” But doesn’t the same principle apply to recipients of food stamps, farm subsidies, Social Security, and other socialist programs? Sure, the recipient of the loot has more choices because he has more money at his disposal. But let’s not forget that the person from whom the money was forcibly taken has been deprived of choices. After all, after a robber commits his dirty deed, he too has more choices with the money he has acquired. His victim, on the other hand, has been deprived of choices.

To continue reading: Milton Friedman and Conservatives: Wrong on Education


6 responses to “Milton Friedman and Conservatives: Wrong on Education, by Jacob G. Hornberger

  1. Bob:
    This article served to remind me of an important fact.

    The author is correct, of course, in his recognition that vouchers are yet another socialist prescription. They are such because they already presuppose that all of us possess the “right” to steal from each of us. Thus, in the widest of contexts, they are evil and depend upon the violation of individual rights to “exist” in the first place.

    However, the author, much as do many powerful and influential allies in our fight for freedom, ignore CONTEXT – specifically, the political one in which we all must exist.

    The Left, undaunted in their tireless quest of their tragic and contradictory ideals, NEVER seem to suffer such ignor-ance. For example, in their goal of universal health-care slavery for all, they will nonetheless support something as obscene as Obamacare, which they correctly see as fatally flawed. They do so because they understand that it will likely lead to their envisioned ideal, single-payer.

    From my perspective, the correct context in which the author should have made his argument is in SUPPORT for vouchers – as but a step toward a return to individual rights. Politically, as the quality and quantity of existing education grows more suspect, driven by the very socialism precipitating it, the argument on behalf of vouchers grows increasingly worthy in the minds of increasing numbers of people actually concerned with same. Far less of said citizens will be swayed by totally ending the socialism at the heart of the current system – at least for the present.

    Denouncing Freidman and conservatives because they support vouchers demonstrates an unwillingness to face reality – the reality of the moral system in which our current politics arises. As long as advocates for vouchers remain clear, as did Freidman in his argument in support of vouchers, then we present a cogent and MORALLY-CONSISTENT principle in our arguments.

    Conversely, we on the right seem all too willing to sacrifice the good in quest of the perfect. It is one of the reasons we seem to remain so politically impotent.


    • Dave,

      While Freidman may have looked at vouchers as half-way house to full privatization, like the author, I think many contemporary propopnents look at vouchers as one and done. They are quite comfortable with vouchers as a means of making public schools more “efficient” via state funding of competitors…and that’s it. It is the same impulse that animates many conservatives and Republicans to support one or two percentage point decreases in marginal tax rates, slowing the rate of growth of government spending, including perhaps defense spending (but not actually cutting anything), and revising rather than repealing Obamacare…and that’s it. Neither you nor I have enough years left to wait for these baby steps towards freedom from people with no real commitment to freedom. At this rate we’ll never get close to the real thing. Vouchers have been on the table for at least 40 years and have only been implemented in fits and starts. It’s why I support collapse, devolution, decentralization, secession, and revolution if need be. Ultimately, they are the only ways either of us will see even a semblance of freedom in our lifetimes.


  2. My nagging concern, my friend, with what you believe is the only actual “solution,” is that we may in such a dissolution, owing to the culture’s current acceptance of “morality,” likely get much more (worse!) than our desired goal of freedom.

    While I am in no way an advocate of the practical in the absence of the moral, we must always be cognizant and accepting of Rand’s assertion of one’s primary responsibility: to seek, recognize, and deal with, REALITY.

    It is why it is always of utmost importance to not let one’s POLITICAL recognition of said reality, to cause one to fail to assure the context of one’s MORAL recognition of it.

    I support vouchers because they move the ball toward freedom, NOT because they are the answer. They are only the answer IN CONTEXT – the context of the moral/political evil in which we live and must prevail.

    I recognize the validity of your point, but it does not cause me to abdicate my responsibility of “moving the ball” toward freedom. If I thought such movement of the ball might hinder the ultimate goal, I would just as assuredly fumble it!


    • 2 questions.

      Do vouchers move the ball toward freedom at all? As Hornberger points out, they are simply another government program in which Peter is robbed for the sake of Paul so Paul can pay for his children’s attendance at a government approved school. In other words, it’s another redistributive welfare state program, like food stamps, with a regulatory kicker. Just as with food stamps, recipients have a choice of what they’ll buy. However, that can’t obscure the fact that many taxpayers who will get no benefit from vouchers are picking up the tab for those who receive them. It might be hailed as an increase in freedom if food stamp recipients could buy the few things they currently can’t, but so what? There will be a marginal increase in freedom for recipients of educational vouchers, but again as Hornberger points out, won’t that not be overriden by political relief and PR that something has been done, and treated as an end in itself? Few voucher proponents will say, “Let’s keep going to full privatization.” If that’s correct, the movement of the ball is so minuscule as to be imperceptible, especially if it satisfies the moderate masses and further relegates the concept of full educational freedom to the intellectual fringes. There may be no movement at all.

      Say vouchers fulfill the intent of their proponents and make public schools better, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Former Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan made the monopoly, fiat money, banking cartel Federal Reserve “better” by most lights, getting himself on the cover of popular magazines and what not. After the stock market crash 30 years and a day ago, he flooded the system with liquidity and thereby launched successively greater liquidity injections that blew up successively larger bubbles that eventually popped and required still more liquidity. If one makes an inherently wrong idea like public education or central banking “better,” is one helping or hindering the cause of freedom? I think I know how John Galt, who turned down the job of czar of the entire economy, would answer. Rand’s shruggers shrugged not just because it would bring down the system, but because the system itself was evil and they would no longer support it. Greenspan was such a good Federal Reserve chairman that we might have been better off with someone more “incompetent,” however you define that in the contex of central banking, for that might have spurred either a reduction in the central bank’s powers or its elimination.

      In your first comment you bring up Obamacare. I agree that many of its proponents knew it would fail and would use that failure as an excuse for single payer. How many of its opponents are now making the argument for full medical and medical insurance choice in a free market for those services? Zero, but isn’t that the argument that should be made to counter the single-payer proponents and their specious propaganda? I will submit that relying on people who don’t believe in freedom to advance the cause of freedom, no matter the optics for something like vouchers, is a mug’s game that hasn’t stopped the growth of the government and its power–at the expense of individual liberty–one bit for at least the last 100 years. In many cases it’s hastened that growth, contrary to the intentions of those who hailed incremental measures as steps towards freedom.


      • Your points are all very well taken, but there’s a supremely important point against vouchers that hasn’t been made in either the OP or (except en passant) in the comments to date: He who pays the piper calls the tune. However pernicious the effects of State financing on the cost efficiency of education, they pale compared to the effects of State control over the content of education, and any notion that vouchers will eliminate or even meaningfully reduce that control is, to say it as politely as possible, delusional.


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