Nationalize Education and Other Libertarian Ideas
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A LIBERTARIAN: A PERSONAL INTERPRETATION
Broadway Books, 1997, xiii + 178 pgs.
Unless you agree with Emerson that a foolish consistency is the
hobgoblin of small minds, you will find little in this ill-
thought-out book to like. Ostensibly a brief introduction to
libertarianism, Murray's book fuses contradictory principles in
an unstable amalgam. The result, disclosed in the work's
lengthiest section, "How It Would Work," is warmed-over statism.
Our author begins auspiciously. He tells us that "each person
owns himself" (p. 6). Accordingly, it "is wrong for me to use
force against you, because it violates your right to the control
of your person.... In a free society individuals may not initiate
the use of force against any other individual or group" (p. 6).
Not even the strictest libertarian could object: these sentences
might have come right from Rothbard. (Oddly, Rothbard's name
appears only once: he is among those important libertarians "I
haven't even mentioned" [p. 172].)
Trouble enters the scene almost at once. Murray thinks it a
proper function of government to supply public goods. These he
first characterizes in the way standard in economics: they cannot
be provided selectively to individuals and consumption of the
good by one person does not prevent others from consuming as
well. Our author recognizes that the "strictest libertarians"
dissent from his view that government should supply these goods.
But he thinks it within the bounds of classical liberalism to
allow government to provide them.
Murray's point may readily be granted. Some classical liberals,
e.g., Hayek and Friedman, do indeed support a public goods
rationale for governments to act. But our author passes by the
difficulty that stares him in the face. According to the
principles he has set forward, government lacks any justification
for coercing individuals to pay for public goods. To take money
from someone against his will, even to provide a good with the
magical properties of nonexclusivity and jointness of
consumption, contradicts self-ownership. Either an exchange is
voluntary or it is not. Tertium non datur.
My criticism should not be misunderstood. I have not assumed that
"pure" libertarianism is true and on that basis cast Murray into
outer darkness for heresy. Rather, I have here confined myself to
noting a contradiction. Contrary to Murray, you cannot get
anywhere in political philosophy by tacking on to the principle
of non-coercion a view at odds with it.
A sympathizer with Murray has endeavored to come to our author's
aid. (Murray himself stands unaware of his predicament.) His
commitment to self-ownership and non-aggression is no more than a
"rule of thumb": thus he can consistently support voluntary
exchange overall but allow a few exceptions. This "solution,"
though, generates a problem of its own.
On what basis does one make exceptions to the rule of thumb? Are
we to presume some utilitarian framework, in which recognition of
self-ownership usually, but not invariably, promotes welfare? We
are not told. Besides, the suggested rescue has no support in
Unfortunately, Murray's confusions have by no means ended. He
acknowledges that appeal to public goods can mask massive
government intervention. To limit the danger from this score, he
suggests three test questions to help stop the "slippery slope"
to government control of the economy: "Is the good something that
cannot be provided by individuals on their own? Am I asking my
neighbor to pay for a government service that he doesn't want? Am
I asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that
benefits me, or people whom I favor, more than it benefits him"
(p. 13, emphasis omitted)?
These questions strike me as excellent. But Murray regrettably
fails to notice that no public good passes their scrutiny. The
standard argument for governmental provision of public goods
claims that the market undersupplies them, not that it cannot
supply the goods at all. Where is Murray's argument for even a
single case of a good the market cannot supply? And what does
Murray mean by "individuals on their own"? Does this include
voluntary agreements to pay for public goods? If it does, Murray
has given us no reason to think that these agreements must be
supplemented by government action. If the phrase does not include
these agreements, why not?
Murray's second and third questions pose even more serious
problems for public goods. They succeed entirely in stopping the
"slippery slope" to intervention: but is Murray willing to pay
the price? Every instance of compulsory taxation compels someone
to pay for a government service he does not want. And what public
good benefits even all those who want it equally? Had Murray
devoted even the slightest attention to what his questions imply,
he would have seen that his whole discussion is pointless. He
allows the government to provide public goods under conditions
that cannot be satisfied.
Perhaps, though, Murray has an escape. My attempt to trap Murray
in contradiction rests on an unstated assumption. I took him to
mean that a good that fails any of his three questions ought not
to be supplied by the government. But perhaps he does not mean
this. He may mean only that negative responses to his queries
count against the public provision of the good: they do not at
once block it. If he means this, though, he has given us no
usable criteria. How much do negative answers count? He does not
tell us. He leaves us in confusion and the slippery slope remains
As my readers will know, I cannot leave a bad thing alone.
Murray, not one to disappoint, gets worse. He includes education
as a public good the government is to supply. "An activity may
legitimately be treated as a public good when individuals are
called on to do things that benefit the whole community. For
example, a democracy cannot function without an educated
electorate. The cost of providing an educated electorate should
be spread over all those who benefit, which means initially
everyone who lives in a democracy" (pp. 11 12).
In Wolfgang Pauli's phrase, this is so bad it's not even wrong.
Individuals themselves benefit economically from education, since
education correlates positively with income. To the extent that
individuals gain benefits from the education that they themselves
(or their families) finance, education is not a public good. At
most, Murray's argument applies to extra benefits from having an
educated electorate than those individuals themselves secure from
But has Murray shown that these benefits mandate a greater supply
of education than the market supplies? He makes not the slightest
attempt to do so. Even if an educated electorate is desirable, it
does not follow that the more education, the better. Would
democracy (conceding for the moment that this is good) benefit if
everyone had a doctorate? Given the existence of limits, then,
why not assume that the benefits of education for democracy arise
in sufficient quantity as a side effect of individual spending?
Oddly enough, Murray himself at one point recognizes the issue:
"Education is a public good insofar as an educated electorate is
essential for a democracy to function. But that doesn't
necessarily mean that public financing is needed. Some extremely
high proportion of children would be educated even if the
government got out of the education business altogether. As this
proportion approaches 100 percent, the public good justification
goes to zero. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that the
proportion would be close to 100 percent" (p. 95).
I cannot offhand recall another case in which an author has so
thoroughly demolished his own argument. Murray, faced with
disaster, presses bravely on: "But we cannot know precisely what
proportion of children would go to school, and the prospect of
any children at all without access to education is troubling" (p.
96). And so education is a public good, requiring government
provision. And if you don't follow that "logic," you are no doubt
a dread libertarian "purist."
And Murray's argument stands vulnerable at another point. Why is
an educated electorate needed for a democracy? A democracy
governs by majority vote: it is not a requirement of that system
that the voters be educated.
The response to this objection is obvious. No doubt the formal
requirements of democracy may be fulfilled by an ignorant
electorate; but for a democracy to run well, its citizens must be
able to deliberate in an informed way on political issues.
Lacking education, they cannot do so.
This reply serves only to expose a more fundamental misconception
in Murray's account. Why, in a libertarian society, do we need a
democracy that runs well in the sense just described? To debate
important political issues in a society, there must be important
political issues. But just what libertarianism does is to
evacuate the political sphere, leaving all essential matters to
the voluntary acts of individuals. A libertarian society does not
require an educated electorate or even, I would hazard, an
electorate at all. Murray wishes inconsistently to fuse
libertarianism with an opposed political system.
Murray's mistake is no mere theoretical lapse. Because he thinks
education a public good, he calls for massive government spending
on its behalf: "My own preference is to end all state financing.
Parents of every school-age child would be given a chit worth a
certain sum of money that they could take to any school they
wanted.... How big should the voucher be? About $3,000 a year
seems right, though the amount is open to discussion" (p. 96).
Thus in Murray's "classical liberal" world, the federal
government engages in redistribution on a scale that dwarfs the
What if the subsidy fails to achieve its goal? What if citizens
remain insufficiently educated for democracy? Murray is
undaunted: "If $3,000 turned out to be too low to achieve the
desired effects, it could be increased. The nation currently
spends about $6,000 a year on each pupil attending the public
system, giving considerable room to fine-tune the size of the
voucher without increasing total spending on schools" (p. 97). If
enormous federal spending does not work, the solution is obvious:
more federal spending. How libertarian!
I am not sure why Murray claims that total spending will not
increase. Under his system, local communities could add even
further to the tax burden: "The locality could augment the school
budget with tax dollars, spending as much money per pupil as it
wished" (p. 96).
I know what suspicious readers are thinking. With my customary
unfairness, I have concentrated on Murray's weakest area. The
accusation is, of course, true. But education does not stand
alone: our author offers evidence elsewhere that his
"libertarianism" is bogus.
Environmental issues are not, in Murray's world, to be left to
the free market, under a system of well-defined property rights.
Why not? You guessed it public goods. "The transaction costs of
solving the problem [of air pollution] through common law become
so high that the tort solution no longer works.... The protection
of the clean air has become an authentic public good, and under
these circumstances government legitimately acts as a forum for
deciding how clean is clean enough and for crafting legislation
to produce the desired result" (p. 115).
Murray once again jumps too fast from public goods to government
intervention. Has he heard of market solutions to public goods
problems? What has happened to Ronald Coase? Had our author paid
attention to Rothbard, he could not have so readily cast aside
the common-law approach. Once more our supposed libertarian
author has labeled a statist proposal libertarian.
But I risk being unfair to Mr. Murray once more. His deviations
from the free market by no means stem entirely from his misguided
embrace of public goods. "Natural monopolies represent a reason
why something not technically a public good may justify
government action" (p. 14). Murray recognizes, commendably, that
natural monopolies do not require such action: they only allow it
as an alternative. Sadly, he neglects to tell us why the
existence of a single seller generates a problem. Is it that the
monopolist may charge a monopoly price? Murray does not inform
us: we are apparently supposed to see immediately that a single
seller creates trouble. I fear that Murray's mind races too fast
for me: I should like the steps of his argument set out.
Further, Murray leaves unmentioned a crucial area. As Randolph
Bourne long ago noted, "war is the health of the state," and
military buildups have often undermined free societies. Murray
says nothing about foreign policy. Does he support a non-
interventionist position, or may the non-aggression principle be
cast aside in the name of "defense"? He does not tell us.
Again the charge of unfairness may be pressed against me. Murray
favors the abolition of a host of government programs and
regulations, not least among them Social Security and Medicare.
Does he not deserve credit for his boldness? Instead, I have
damned him as a statist.
The indictment does not lack substance, but I cannot think that
Murray's support for free-market measures contributes much to the
cause. His principal mode of argument relies on "trendlines." He
examines the statistical trend in problems that government is
alleged to have helped solve. In each case, he claims, government
has had either little effect or an effect in the wrong direction.
"Among trendlines involving social indicators crime, the family,
community, education, welfare deterioration has been the rule and
improvement is the exception. Among trendlines involving safety
and health by far the most common result is...nothing. Whatever
was happening before the government got involved continued to
happen after the government got involved" (p. 50).
But, contrary to Murray's apparent assumption, statistical
evidence does not speak for itself. It demands interpretation
using theory. Would the trend toward reduction in poverty have
gone on without Johnson's War on Poverty? The drawing of a chart
does not suffice to show this: perhaps the trend would have
changed without the War. I hasten to add that I do not endorse
the War on Poverty, but to refute it one needs to do more than
draw a picture.
As in his earlier tome, In Pursuit, Murray harps on the
ineffectiveness of the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit in
saving lives. Why does he do so? This is no libertarian issue:
roads ought to be made private, but their owners would remain
free to impose safety regulations as they wish. Why, given the
existence of public roads, can the government not do likewise?
But Murray's comments on the highway fatality statistics
nevertheless are valuable. You see? I'm not unfair to him at all.