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The Classical Liberal Arguments for School Vouchers

Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate of school vouchers.  One should not exaggerate how much influence she will have in promoting this cause. The United States Department of Education has little direct authority over K-12 education and it certainly should not be given any more, because education is quintessentially a state and local issue.  But any cabinet position is a bully pulpit, and classical liberals should hope she uses it to create a more favorable climate for state and local voucher initiatives.

The conventional argument for vouchers, itself classically liberal in nature, is that in the long run they are likely to improve human capital, because they will introduce more competition by supplying more private schools for those parents who want to use them. Schools that do better at matching students with the education that is best for them will gain students at the expense of those that do not. Moreover, more competition will lead to more beneficial innovations that will be shared throughout the K-12 educational system. Thus, even if some schools funded by vouchers do not perform well at first, a more competitive system has greater dynamism than a more government controlled system.

While there is much to be said for the human capital argument, yet another classical liberal argument for vouchers is that they promote a free citizenry by creating schools that compete to instill good values and norms in their students.A healthy competition of religious and secular ideas relating to education and indeed the good life, like other forms of competition, provides a decentralized route to social progress that is better than top-down control.

The contrasting view that the government should decide the moral and social orthodoxy of education rests on primacy of the state over the individual.  Under this view, the state has the responsibility of creating the proper citizens of tomorrow—those who have the right views about the environment, diversity, or any other cynosure of contemporary politics.

The roots of this view are not the classical liberal tradition that founded America, but in the more statist tradition of continental European philosophers.  As I observed in an essay a decade ago, it was Rousseau in Discourse on Political Economy who attacked private education, because it would simply transmit to children the “prejudices” that their fathers gained in the course of their private associations. Rousseau is brutally explicit about his preference for the state over the family in education: “It is a matter of greater importance to the state than to the fathers, for in the natural course of things, the father’s death soon robs him of the natural fruits of this education, but the homeland still feels its effects. The state remains and the family dies out.” For Rousseau, education by the state is necessary to guarantee the primacy of the general will: “If students are steeped in the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will . . . they will never will anything but what society wills.”

In contrast, classical liberals think that appropriate social norms are best discovered through a more spontaneous order. They have confidence that good values and social norms are more likely to arise as parents choose schools that have the best chance of making their children more valuable members of civil society.  It is true that the civil society with the best incentives for good conduct is that shaped by the limited government of the kind that our Constitution bequeathed us. Thus, vouchers would undoubtedly work best as part of more general movement of constitutional restoration.

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