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Friedman v. Rockwell

December 1, 1998

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December 1998
Polemics & Exchanges

Freedom and School Vouchers

Milton Friedman:

Lew Rockwell ("Flies in the Ointment," September) and I have the same
ultimate objective: "an educational market in which parents are responsible
for paying for their own children's education." We agree also on "the twin
evils of public education: involuntary funding and compulsory education."
In our ideal (libertarian) world, government would play no role in
schooling--neither compelling schooling nor funding schooling. Parental
responsibility and the free market would reign supreme.

Where we disagree--and disagree strongly--is on how to get from where we are
to where we would like to be. His answer is to "get the federal government
out of education. Decentralize all funding and decision-making to the
states, and then to the local level. Scale down school districts to the
neighborhood level, as they were in the 19th century. As for private
schools, . . . oppose any restrictions whatsoever."

So far, we agree. Every one of those steps is highly desirable. However,
whereas he believes that the "push for vouchers is . . . a distraction" from
this agenda, I believe that it is the most effective way to promote it. A
system of universal vouchers, available to all parents and usable at any
school, secular or religious, non-profit or for-profit, would lead to the
development of a private enterprise educational industry that would be part
of a political coalition powerful enough to counter the influence of the
current educational establishment: the public school bureaucracy and the
teachers' unions, by far the most powerful and left-leaning special interest
group in the country. Effective competition would also bring to schooling
the kind of improvements in quality and availability that we have enjoyed in
almost every other aspect of our life in which private enterprise has
prevailed. Government aside, there is no other major area in our life that
is as technologically backward as schooling. We teach now as Socrates
taught 2500 years ago.

Proposition 174 in California was indeed, as Rockwell says, "a model piece
of voucher legislation backed by all the usual suspects." But it "crashed
and burned at the polls" not for the reasons Rockwell claims but because of
the well-financed opposition of the vested educational interest--notably the
teachers unions. In the spring of 1993, every poll showed a large majority
of voters in favor of the voucher initiative. But then the special interest opponents went into high gear, first using dirty tricks to invalidate
petitions sponsoring the initiative, then spending three or four times as
much as the proponents could raise on television, radio, and print attacks
on the initiative, attacks in which truth took a back seat.

Rockwell chooses to discuss not the kind of universal voucher plan that I
suggested more than 40 years ago but the extremely limited plan adopted in
Milwaukee. But that is an entering wedge, not a final outcome. It has
already been expanded once--from 1.5 percent of students in the Milwaukee
public school system to 15 percent--and pressure is mounting to expand it
further. I agree with a statement that Wilbur Cohen, former secretary of
HEW under President Johnson, made in a 1972 debate with me on Security: "A
program that deals only with the poor will end up being a poor program."
Vouchers will not end up being a program only for the poor. That is
foreshadowed in the movement in several states for using tax credits rather
than vouchers as a way to empower parents, as well as in the announced goals
of the various groups that are seeking to foster parental choice (including
the foundation that my wife and I have set up: the Milton and Rose D.
Friedman Foundation for promoting parental choice).

Rockwell says that "Vouchers represent not a shrinkage of this welfare state
but an expansion, the equivalent of food stamps for private school." But
since the voucher amounts to only a fraction of the total amount that the
state now spends on each child in public school, and that amount need not be
spent for children who leave public schools, vouchers restricted to children
in public schools represent a shrinkage, not an expansion, in the welfare
state. On the other hand, the comparison with food stamps is apt, but
Rockwell does not carry it through. He maintains that vouchers will
inevitably lead to tighter government controls on private schools. Have
food stamps led to such controls on grocery stores? Government power to
regulate private schools does not derive from government financing of
schools but from compulsory education, which requires the government to
specify the type of education that satisfies the requirement.

Referring to the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court verdict on the
constitutionality of the Wisconsin voucher law, Rockwell writes: "Those who
actually read the decision will find that in order to receive vouchers,
religious schools will have to surrender all control over admissions and gut
any doctrinal teaching." I have read the decision--all 68 pages--and have
found no such thing. It is Rockwell's gloss on certain provisions of the
Wisconsin law that were restated by the judges in explaining the basis for
their decision--a gloss with which I differ and which refers to provisions
confined to Wisconsin. One thing that I do find in the decision is the
statement that "Enforcement of these minimal standards will require the
State Superintendent to monitor the quality of secular education at the sectarian schools participating in the plan. But this oversight already
exists. In the course of his existing duties, the Superintendent currently
monitors the quality of education at all sectarian private schools."

Enough nit-picking, with one exception. "The idea of vouchers," Rockwell
writes, "originated on the neoconservative right with Milton Friedman"--a
litmus test for me of Rockwell's reliability. I am not now and never have
been a "neoconservative"--or any other kind of conservative. I am and have
been for more than half a century a classical liberal or, in modern
parlance, a limited-government libertarian. But I value as allies on
particular issues persons of any persuasion, including those whom Rockwell
labels "big-government libertarians" (an oxymoronic species I have never
personally encountered), "equality activists of all stripes," as well as
libertarians and conservatives of all varieties.

Let me end on a positive note. There is enough left of our federalist
system so that different educational reforms will be enacted in different
jurisdictions. At the moment, Milwaukee and Cleveland are the two main
public voucher experiments. There is also a wide ranging movement of
private voucher experiments. Arizona is in the forefront of charter school
innovation. Minnesota is leading on tax credits and deductions. Other
experiments are bubbling around the nation. We shall see whether my
optimism or Rockwell's pessimism is justified.

I first suggested educational vouchers as a means to implement parental
choice and improve our educational system more than 40 years ago, and I have
been closely connected with the movement ever since. Until recent years,
every attempt to introduce such a system--in New Hampshire, Connecticut,
Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, California--has been defeated by the
well-financed opposition of the vested educational interests, notably the
teachers unions. For the first time, the vested interest are being defeated
here and there and are on the defensive. I believe there is a real chance
for a breakthrough that will lead to an unrestricted voucher system
generating major improvements in the quality of education and setting us on
the road to getting government out of the classroom. It is tragic that,
just as the first blades of grass are breaking their way through the
concrete opposition of the vested educational interests, believers in human
freedom should seek to stamp them out in the name of a utopian vision.

Milton Friedman
Stanford, CA


Lew Rockwell responds:

Many thanks to Professor Friedman for his thoughtful reply. I'm especially
pleased that he accepts my analogy with the famously corrupt food-stamp

First, grocery stores rank among the most heavily regulated (and unionized)
of retailers, and only by adhering to government dictates can they redeem
the stamps. Church-based soup kitchens may not (nor should they aspire to).

Second, food stamps don't help the poor; they only make them more dependent
on government, a point I would need to explain in the Nation, but not in

Third, the lobbying force behind food stamps is not the poor but the
agricultural industry, which government intervention has transformed from
independent farmers into a grasping special interest. The prospect of school
vouchers has done this to the private-school industry as well.

Fourth, it is surely more important to keep government out of the classroom
than the grocery store. School vouchers are a welcome mat for Leviathan.

Regarding the Wisconsin court decision, the words cited by Professor
Friedman are perfunctory and contradicted by the clear language of the
legislation in question: voucher-taking schools must have random admissions
and must not integrate religion into their curricula.

Finally, I didn't address Professor Friedman's idealized voucher program
because I wanted to stick to real-world examples, and propose real-world
alternatives. Utopian is a good word to describe those who think government
can fund private schools without wrecking them and bankrupting us.

I can't put it better than Professor Friedman himself did in Free To Choose,
in a discussion of food stamps and other forms of public assistance:

"The relief rolls grow despite growing affluence. A vast bureaucracy is
largely devoted to shuffling papers rather than to serving people. Once
people get on relief, it is hard to get off. The country is increasingly
divided into two classes of citizens, one receiving relief and the other
paying for it. Those on relief have little incentive to earn income....
Public anger is repeatedly stirred by widespread corruption and cheating....
The waste is distressing, but it is the least of the evils of the
paternalistic programs that have grown to such massive size. Their major
evil is their effect on the fabric of our society. They weaken the family;
reduce the incentive to work, save, and innovate; reduce the accumulation of
capital; and limit our freedom. These are the fundamental standards by which they should be judged."

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
Auburn, Alabama

For another take on vouchers, see Carl Horowitz's article in The Free Market

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