Vouching for Freedom

Friedman’s Principled Pragmatism in Liberating Education from State Administration

For both its originality and its influence on public opinion, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom arguably ranks among the top five anti-big-government books published during the 20th century.  Along with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Huxley’s Brave New World, Friedman’s 1962 classic helped to alert the general public to the dangers of hulking, centralized, paternalistic, “progressive” government.

But as with at least The Road to Serfdom, Friedman’s volume is often criticized by libertarians and free-market conservatives as being insufficiently radical.  Unlike his son David’s 1973 book, The Machinery of Freedom, Milton’s slim tract certainly makes no case for eliminating the state.  Rather, in a few of his most famous chapters, the author of Capitalism and Freedom accepts without much question some of the foundational claims of his “progressive” intellectual opponents.  He does so in order to demonstrate how a leaner – but still very involved – government can operate less-intrusively to better achieve many of the stated goals that Friedman shares with “progressives.”

Perhaps most famously, Friedman agreed that education is a public good – that is, a good that will be undersupplied by the free market and, therefore, one that can be supplied adequately only with some help from government.  Friedman’s contribution here was to explain that optimally supplying the public good “education” requires only government financing of education and not government operation of schools.  By financing schooling through taxpayer-funded vouchers – rather than through the actual building and running of schools – government can ensure that schooling is supplied not only in adequate quantities but also in much higher quality.  The higher quality will result from parents’ greater financial capacity, made possible by vouchers, to withdraw their children from poor schools and enroll them in better schools.

It’s an attractive proposal, especially to a world-class creative thinker who understands the perverse incentives that guide suppliers who are shielded from competition.

Nevertheless, for many libertarians and free-market conservatives, Friedman’s voucher proposal is a perilous concession to collectivism.

One potential problem is that vouchers risk infesting private schools with greater government control over these schools’ curricula, hiring practices, and other affairs.  The fear here is that to attract voucher-funded students, private schools will be required to meet a plethora of government demands in order to establish their eligibility to redeem the vouchers.  Vouchers, therefore, might from the get-go make education even worse than it already is.

A second, libertarian concern is that Friedman’s voucher proposal is grounded in the notion that individual families should not be responsible for paying for their own children’s elementary and secondary schooling.  So even if vouchers improve K-12 schooling today, their use would only further cement in place the widespread but anti-libertarian notion that government ought to be involved somehow in supplying education.  This refusal to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of any government role in education not only gives too much ground to the forces of statism, it also diminishes the prospects of ever achieving total separation of school and state.  And this latter consequence might mean that, judged over an appropriately long time span, vouchers would make education worse that it would be had an uncompromising insistence of total separation of school and state been insisted upon from the start.

The relevance of the first of these objections to vouchers turns on the answer to a fairly narrow empirical question, namely, is the risk that private schools will be destructively corrupted with government mandates really high enough to justify not giving parents greater financial and legal capacity to choose among competing schools?  Friedman obviously believed the answer to be ‘no.’  And he might well have been correct.  (I myself go back and forth on the answer, although I mostly tend to think that Friedman’s assessment here is accurate.  Not least among the reasons why I tend to think that Friedman is correct is the vehemence of teachers’ unions in protesting against vouchers.)

But the second objection to vouchers runs more deeply than does the first.  It involves the generations-old tension of principles versus pragmatism in advocating and crafting public policy.

For many who believe that school and state, like church and state, should be separated as a matter of principle, government financing of schooling through vouchers is no more acceptable than would be government financing of church services through vouchers.  Sure, religion vouchers would result in more competitive churches and more engaging worship services than would government ownership of churches and monopoly supply of their services.  But that outcome would be utterly beside the point: there is no justification whatsoever for the state to be in the religion business in any form or fashion.  Period.

And so when the likes of Milton Friedman – a man justly famous for his deep skepticism of government and his profound commitment to individual liberty – concedes the “progressive” argument that education is a public good that requires government financing, the fear arises that any hope for true separation of school and state is quashed.

But is it?

Friedman himself admitted that separation of school and state is an “ultimate ideal.”[1]  Why, then, did he not press for this more radical and more desirable outcome rather than for an outcome that threatens only to entrench the state even further into K-12 schooling?

Friedman’s assessment was that the prospects for totally separating school and state are so minuscule that holding out for that outcome would be to let the perfect stand in the way of the good.  He also argued that the success of vouchers would promote the ultimate goal of getting government out of schooling altogether.

There is no right or wrong here.  If it’s true that unjustified state intrusions prevent children from being as well-educated as they could otherwise be, and if it’s also true that the best practicable means of improving education is vouchers, then, indeed, why not vouchers?  What libertarian (or other) principle demands that the welfare of indeterminate numbers of children today and tomorrow continue to be sacrificed until and unless the ideal libertarian arrangement is adopted?  Is not some improvement in education better than none?  And is it not possible that the improvements achieved through vouchers will spark movements for further reducing the state’s role in education?

But – on the other hand – if in our attempts to win a little more liberty and efficiency today we pragmatically choose not to man the barricades for ultimate ideals, do we not risk being labeled (however unjustly) as unprincipled compromisers?  And worse: do we not delay, perhaps forever, the prospects of achieving our ultimate ideals?  If at every moment we pragmatically reach only for what is currently achievable rather than for what is in principle most desirable and good, then won’t we lose sight of our ultimate aims?  Won’t our reach become so inadequate and so lazy that we’ll become incapable of ever grasping for genuine, significant change?

I know of no good answers to the above questions.  These questions have been asked countless times in countless contexts without, I think, any universally satisfying answers ever being offered.  There simply is no formula for objectively determining how much political compromise is acceptable as opposed to refusing to compromise in order to reach for more fundamental, “ideal” goals.

The success, however, of libertarian scholars such as Hayek and Friedman at noticeably influencing for the better the terms of both scholarly and policy debates is evidence that some pragmatic concessions to political realities do not necessarily doom the pro-liberty agenda.

Boudreaux blogs with Russell Roberts at www.cafehayek.com and is author of the forthcoming book from Free To Choose Press, Hypocrites & Half-Wits.