Monday, July 16, 2012

An Open Letter to Katie B. On Education Funding

A recent Independence Day discussion on the social website “Pinterest” included the issue of tax funding of education. Speaking in support of taxpayer financing, Katie B  posted this:

You pay every day for someone else's education. I have no children and I pay for your children's and your grand-children's education every day and I am absolutely happy to do it. I want the children of America to grow up kind, intelligent, well informed, Non-Ethnocentric adults and when they do I want them to go on to college (which we should all want to pay for) so that we have enough doctors, dentists, nurses, school teachers, mechanics, (plus all of the artsy professions) to continue to build and support a wonderful nation. How much college will you hope your caretaker has had when you are 90, in a nursing home, and they are putting a needle in your arm?

I’m not a Pinterest member, and in any event word limits preclude a proper response on that site, so I decided to answer her through this open letter.

Dear Katie B,

There is no disputing that education is vital. I take moral issue with your means of payment.

Wouldn't you agree that every individual has a fundamental right to think and act on his/her own judgment? After all, isn’t the primary purpose of education to equip the child to do just that?  You said yourself that you want “intelligent, well-informed, Non-Ethnocentric adults.” That’s a partial description of an individualist; one capable of acting on his own judgment. Shouldn’t he be free to do so?

It logically follows—would you not agree?—that as an adult, he should be free to spend his earned money as he pleases, in pursuit of his own rational self-interest. When there is no government involvement in education—i.e., in a free market in education—you would be free to charitably pay for the education of other people’s children voluntarily. No one has ever suggested that you should be forbidden to do so.

Is it moral, then, for you to forbid others the same consideration? Is it fair to stop others from doing with their money what they choose? Another person may want to spend his money on healthcare; saving for a house or retirement; their own or their children’s needs; a vacation or hobby; other philanthropic causes; or a myriad of other things. If you believe that paying directly for other’s education is in your interest, shouldn’t others have the same freedom to advance their values and interests? What if people disagree with you: e.g., I believe it is ridiculous to say every child should go to college. Why should I be forced to foster what I believe to be such a destructive and wasteful course of action; to blindly “encourage” college upon young people? Don’t I have a right to my opinions, and the corresponding right to act on them as I see fit? It is simply immoral for you to say otherwise, if your commitment to “kindness” means anything. You should consider whether the parents and grandparents really want your kind of payment—government control of their children’s and grandchildren’s education.

Of course, educational philanthropy can be a worthy addition to your goals. In a free market, there would be more of it, because without the burden of education taxes, the private sector would have more money to spend, since private individuals are ultimately the ones that fund all of these taxes to begin with. The only difference would be that the people who earned the money would decide how it is spent, rather than government bureaucrats.

Of course, in a free market, your task would be a bit harder. You would have to take responsibility for how you spend your charitable education dollars, rather than blindly hand it over to government officials. You would need to be “well informed.” You would have to decide whose education to support, and whether they are worthy. You’d have to judge what type of educational curriculum, philosophy, methods, and teacher credentialing you approve of.

It’s easy to simply allow the state to seize your money, then sit back and pat yourself on the back for how great you are to the “children of America.” Did it ever occur to you that the government schools you support are in many respects destructive to children in the eyes of many, me included? Do you care? Maybe you don’t want to bother with such considerations. But those of us who do have a fundamental right to refuse to support schools we disapprove of. The liberty to make moral choices is an inalienable individual right. Educational philanthropy—like all charity—is properly a voluntary individual choice.

Voluntary charity aside, in a free market there is a sense in which “you pay every day for someone else’s education”: every time you buy something in the market. When you go to the doctor, you pay for his education through his fees. The same is true of any other profession or trade—including that nursing home caretaker with the needle. When you buy any product, from a computer to a car to a pencil, you are paying for the education of all of the people who made the production of those goods possible, through the price of the product. And when you receive a wage or salary, what is it your employer is paying you for?—in large part, your education.

The money a person earns is the reward for his education, to the extent that his education contributes to his skill. Why should anyone be forced to pay for any person’s education up front, rather than as and when he needs it via voluntary trade in the market? Morally, aside from your own children, you owe no one any more than voluntary market payment, and no one owes you the educational means to a livelihood; i.e., to making money.

Besides charity, there are other voluntary free market ways in which young people could be relieved of the burden of financing their own post-secondary education. Employers have a powerful incentive to build a productive workforce. In a free market, many employers undoubtedly would—and even in today’s system, often do—pay for the education and training, including college courses, of promising employees, as a matter of self-interest. And don’t forget, without education taxes, the private sector would have more money to spend, since private individuals and businesses are ultimately the ones that pay all of these taxes to begin with. The only difference would be that the people who earned the money would decide how it is spent, rather than government bureaucrats. But again, to be moral, it must be voluntary for all concerned.

There are only three moral ways to pay for education: in the market, voluntarily through philanthropy or employment agreements, or pay for it yourself. Any method that depends on force is morally corrupt. Why is it good to be forced to meet other people’s educational needs, but not be responsible for your own? Why is it better for government officials to make educational decisions with your money, but not yourself?

The basic issue of education funding is moral. It is simply wrong to inject force into human relationships. Since you do, Katie B., you forfeit any credibility regarding your professed desire for “a wonderful nation.” The only proper way for people to deal with one another—and the only basis for such a nation—is voluntary persuasion and agreement. Force is the opposite of peaceful coexistence. Each of us has a right to choose, pursue, earn, and protect our own goals and values without coercive interference by others. Tax funded education violates those most basic of individual rights and principles, because a tax is purely an act of force.

These are the moral considerations you evade, Katie B. Consequently, your “children of America” and “wonderful nation” clichés ring hollow. Bromides won’t hide your disregard for the rights of others. You should exhibit some of the “kindness” you claim to want to instill in children. If you really care about quality affordable education—which would be the result in a free market, as economics 101 demonstrates—you’d join those of us who want to get government out of education. And if you truly want to earn the moral high ground, you’ll want to renounce force as a means of dealing with your fellow man.

Mike LaFerrara

Related Reading:

Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits

Separation of Church (or Education) and State

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