This is the fourth post in our series on the Voucher Left.
The hope to secure school choice for lower-income parents has invoked many justifications beside free market theory. These broader conceptions of choice, however, have failed to secure serious consideration in political discourse about choice.
Devout marketeers often forego, or even oppose, reliance upon these would-be friendly pictures of the effects of choice. They are seen as obscuring, even corrupting, free-market dogma: let individual taste determine what is the good. Personal preference itself becomes the goal: the market is the end instead of the instrument. Those who would argue in the name of more particular outcomes are “voucher left.”
I will pursue this hurtful confusion about goals, but I will also recall that its mischief has been aggravated by sheer bad luck — surprises that have undermined and long delayed what was in the 1970’s a promising political career for choice for all families. I will describe some of these odd events and their part in the long frustration of that cause. Note that I am myself a veteran centrist (“left”?) in this cause and critics on either side are welcome to correct my description of the philosophical clashes. My personal recollections of bad luck, however, seem beyond such attack (except as whining, which of course they are).
Subsidized parental school choice, a concept from the 18th and 19th centuries, was revived in the 1950s as what seemed to Milton Friedman an obvious instance of economic libertarianism. A full school market with vouchers for all would be an extension of freedom for both provider and consumer, allowing the parent an instrument with which to define the good life. That freedom should be virtually plenary; this is simply good economics, hence public policy. To say more in its justification (test scores perhaps excepted) would stray from school choice’s image as itself determining the good. Do I exaggerate? Not much in respect of the hard-core “voucher right;” choice justifies itself. To say much more risks government defining its limits for you. So, at least, was the libertarian mood music that gained volume beginning in the ‘70s. Marketeers had yet to appreciate that full freedom for the school provider might not be the same liberating experience for the consumer.
Friedman and company added to the ideological confusion, seeming never to note that subsidized school choice is quite unlike other markets in respect to the value of freedom itself. Indeed, it could be deemed freedom’s opposite. For the assignment of the child to the school — if an act of freedom in any sense — is the “freedom” of the adult authority, whether parent or state. It is the freedom of one person holding office to tell another person what he will or will not do. Thus, would-be champions of “choice” are, more accurately, champions of a particular locus of power. We begin to see that, while there are many justifications for parental authority — and market talk helps to a point — this is not a pure case of liberty. The debate rather is about which of two masters will pick Mary’s teacher to act both in her “best interest” and that of society. And, all claims about who is the best decider must face up to both aspects of parental choice — freedom and power.
A second sort of bogeyman began gradually to make his appearance.