Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Bit More on Education Tax Credits

In response to my 8/11/11 post, Education Tax Credits: Taking the Political Offensive, Ari Armstrong posted Another Look at Education Tax Credits. Much of his essay reiterates objections he already voiced against my proposal for universal education tax credits. However, he does make some points that I thought could be answered without being redundant. So, I’ve posted the following comments on his website:


I appreciate your attention to this subject. Most of what you’ve said here I have already answered in my 8/11/11 post, and I refer the reader to that: http://principledperspectives.blogspot.com/2011/08/education-tax-credits-taking-political.html.

But, let me state that we are in complete agreement in regard to principled incrementalism. There is no confusion in my mind about “the relationship between principles and incrementalism”. That was the main point of my recent essay. However, people who agree on basic principles can differ widely on their application to practice – ex. personal accounts within SS.

Yes, they are government-enforced savings. But, what we have today is forced redistribution backed only by hollow promises of old-age benefits, rescindable at any time by congress. At least the taxpayer would have possession of, and a right to, his/her own money, rather than the politicians. I consider SS personal accounts to be a step toward individual rights, especially property rights - preferably without, but even with, basic investment controls. They can be advocated as a step in the phase-out process. Personal SS accounts are consistent with your statement that “tax credits advance individual rights … because at least they expand the individual’s control over his own resources.” Incremental reforms must certainly be anchored to explicitly proclaimed principles, lest we advance statism. On that we agree. As I’ve said before, I have yet to see an education tax credit program that meets the test of (free market) principled incrementalism – certainly not ones advocated by conservatives and Republicans!

This brings me to my “misunderstandings” about your positions. Any assumptions I’ve made are rooted in my analysis of things you wrote. Without going into too many details, let me just say in my defense that, as you acknowledge, your tax credit position is ambiguous. I’m still not clear on exactly where you come down on them. Your strenuous objections in your last piece seemed to preclude any support for tax credits, yet now you say you’d support “a decent tax-credit proposal”. Here we seem to agree again: A properly structured tax credit program would be a step in the right direction. What would a “decent proposal” include, in you view? Otherwise, I think you confuse “misunderstandings” with disagreement, such as on the issue of “inherent controls of tax credits”. If – and I can’t resist repeating myself here - “a universal tax credit program with absolutely no controls is pie-in-the-sky, rationalistic, detached-from-reality, utopian thinking”, then how on earth can anyone believe that “an actual legislature would [ever] institute” the complete separation of education and state?

By the way, what do you mean by “phasing in means testing (with lower taxes)” as one of “many concrete political strategies”?

That last question was not answered, so I still do not know what he has in mind.

That aside, notice that the issue of Social Security has surfaced as another area of disagreement. I’ll address that subject in more detail in a subsequent post.

In the meanwhile, I have a few additional comments. Toward the end, Armstrong writes:

LaFerrara points out that free-market elements of the economy routinely fall under increased political controls, too. But this misses the fundamental difference. In the market segment, the default is that the individual owns his own resources, and the government then overrides his rights for some alleged greater good. With tax credits, the default is that the individual does not own the resources in question, and the government is merely setting limits on how to allocate the government's money. With tax credits, the default and the inexorable condition is control.

I understand his point. But, isn’t this a distinction without a difference? The fundamental issue is not taxes. It is individual rights, with all of the principles that that implies. When a culture’s predominant political value is individual rights, the default is toward greater freedom. When individual rights are not valued, the default is toward steadily increasing government control. Today, most people would probably claim to be for individual rights. Unfortunately, few people have a real understanding of what rights are. Since one can’t value something that one doesn’t understand, “the default and the inexorable condition is control” throughout the economy, not just where tax credits are concerned.

Armstrong concludes:

If you think advocating tax credits will open people's minds to the idea that they actually own their own wealth, then I wish you well in that endeavor. But, in the interim, let's recognize tax credits for what they are: political controls on how people spend their money.

Opening people’s minds is exactly the point of advocating tax credits for the right philosophical reasons. I grant that “in the interim”, and lacking the proper philosophical backing, tax credits can coincide with political controls. But that need not be the case.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Paul Hsieh's Tribute to Steve Jobs

By now most people have heard the news that Steve Jobs has stepped down as Apple CEO. In that regard, I want to call attention to an excellent tribute to him published in the American Thinker. It is by Dr. Paul Hsieh of FIRM (Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine).

In this piece, entitled Thank You, Steve Jobs, Hsieh draws on actual quotes by Jobs from an article in the Wall Street Journal. He concludes with this moving tribute:

So in the spirit of Atlas Shrugged, I'd like to thank you, Steve Jobs, for all the value you've added to my life. I know you did it for yourself, not for me -- and it is for that I thank you.

Why the reference to Atlas Shrugged? Let me first offer the passages Hsieh quotes, and then some.

* “We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

* “This is what customers pay us for–to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Take desktop video editing. I never got one request from someone who wanted to edit movies on his computer. Yet now that people see it, they say, ‘Oh my God, that’s great!’”

* “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

* “The problem with the Internet startup craze isn’t that too many people are starting companies; it’s that too many people aren’t sticking with it. That’s somewhat understandable, because there are many moments that are filled with despair and agony, when you have to fire people and cancel things and deal with very difficult situations. That’s when you find out who you are and what your values are.

“So when these people sell out, even though they get fabulously rich, they’re gypping themselves out of one of the potentially most rewarding experiences of their unfolding lives. Without it, they may never know their values or how to keep their newfound wealth in perspective.”

* “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

* “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Do you recognize a particular sense of life? Hsieh cites Steve Wozniak, Job’s Apple co-founder, from TNW:

Despite times when Apple was in financial and structural turmoil, Wozniak believes Jobs’ speed of thought and endless drive helped the company move forward, believing that he may have adopted the ethos of the hard working, never failing Hank Reardon in Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.

“Steve was very fast thinking and wanted to do things, I wanted to build things. I think Atlas Shrugged was one of his guides in life”

Ayn Rand is getting a lot of attention these days, primarily for her politics but increasingly for her radical new moral theories. But what gets lost in the shuffle is that Rand considered her body of ideas “A Philosophy for Living on Earth”. That philosophy, Objectivism, is first and foremost a set of principles to guide the individual in the pursuit of a flourishing life of his own.

It is not surprising then that Steve Jobs could have been inspired by one of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes. It is also not surprising that so many millions have benefited from his work. As Hsieh implicitly points out in his closing statement, people pursuing their own dreams for their own benefit is the source of general well-being.

But Objectivism is not just a philosophy for productive giants. It is a philosophy for everyone.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Does Freedom Equal "The Wild West"?

As I wrote about in June, New Jersey imposes no regulatory requirements on its homeschoolers. (The state does have a legal requirement that homeschooled children receive an education "equivalent" to that available in the public schools. But the requirement is "empty": It has no enforcement mechanism backing it up.) 

But, triggered by a horrendous physical neglect case resulting in the death of a child, a chorus of calls have arisen to rescind that regulatory exemption. As I reported back then, the physical abuse case is merely a rationalization for curriculum controls. New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has been leading the charge, beginning with its June 1st editorial.

The charge continued with a major July 10, 2011 piece entitled New Jersey home schooling: The Wild West of education by Julie O'Connor. Dropping any reference to the abuse case, O’Connor takes aim at a narrow range of ideas taught by some homeschoolers that she deems unacceptable. The ideas were lifted from the Conservapedia of Andrew Schlafly. Conservapedia’s purpose is to present a narrow conservative Christian viewpoint on a range of topics. The entire article focuses on Schlafly and the ideas he promotes for his homeschool followers and, based on this, O'Connor calls for legislative action to impose state-approved educational standards.

I left these comments:

Zemack July 10, 2011 at 12:17PM

The key question is: Who gets to force their educational ideas on others? It’s not Schlafly. It’s the government, through curriculum, teacher credentialing, [educational] philosophy, and so on.

The fact that some of the ideas homeschoolers teach are garbage is not the issue. Plenty of garbage is peddled in the public schools as well; ex. Environmentalism. But that is not the fundamental issue, either.

The real danger is in the coercive nature of government-run schools. No one should be forced to financially support ideas they oppose. It is not private homeschoolers who demand that. No one should be forced to pay for the education of other people’s children. It is not private homeschoolers who demand that. No one should be empowered to impose his or her educational ideas on others. It is not homeschoolers who demand that power.

One of the goals of creating clear, agreed-upon curriculum standards is to protect kids against people who have extreme ideological positions,” Harvard professor Robert Schwartz declares. “Agreed upon” – by whom? Whose “curriculum standards” are to be imposed? Who is to be the final arbiter of what constitutes such vague, undefinable criteria as “extreme ideological positions”? Who determines what ideas are “radical”? What of people who disagree? Shouldn't they be free to pursue their own children’s education according to their own judgement? Advocates of state control say no – that would be “The Wild West of education” – the usual type of charge leveled against a fully free society. By that standard, this country’s founding principles of individual rights, free markets, and limited rights-protecting government is an “extreme ideological position”. John Dewey, the father of Progressive Education – the dominant public school philosophy – believed that the purpose of the schools is to prepare children not for a life as reasoning independent adults but to prepare them for authoritarian rule (“social adjustment”). But that’s not “extreme”, right?

For the record, I am not a proponent of homeschooling per se, but of freedom and individual rights in education. I am not a Christian, but an atheist. I defend the rights of homeschoolers because I defend rights, period. I believe that education and state should be walled off from each other in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of church and state. Rather than expand government controls, the government’s role in education should be steadily scaled back through such programs as school choice through universal education tax credits. Then the Schlaflys and Schwartzes can pursue their own educational agendas with neither having the power to impose theirs on each other or anyone else. Others will instead be free to choose among those and other’s ideas according to what they believe is best for their children.

It is standard practice for statists to narrow the focus to a handful of concrete instances of (allegedly) bad behavior in order to steer the discussion away from a broader context. For example, is the absorption by the child of a few objectively demonstrable factual falsities necessarily indicative of a bad education? That question is not answered in this article. Thus, the premise implied in this article is that education is merely about the memorization of specific facts. But, the more important question is: Is the child getting proper mind training? In other words, is the child learning how to understand and integrate the knowledge he is receiving, for instance? A proper education will equip the child with the ability to re-evaluate the knowledge he has received – to think independently - as and when he chooses, whether as an older child or as an adult. Religious dogma does often defy common sense. But plenty of religious people lead intellectually healthy lives, despite holding some erroneous “facts” in their brains. There is more to education than a few bad bits of knowledge.

I also want to focus on O’Connor’s “Wild West” analogy, alluded to in my article commentary, because it really offers a peak into the statist mindset. The Wild West conjures up images of a nearly lawless frontier town, where women and children scurry for cover while routine disputes get settled amid raging gun battles. Force is the name of the game in the Wild West, and law is the ingredient that is missing from the equation. What is the proper purpose of laws? To protect the citizens from the criminals who initiate the use of force.

So think about this for a minute. In New Jersey in 2011, the issue is again force and law. Only now, their relationship will have been inverted if Julie O’Connor gets her way. We’re not talking about the use of force by private citizens against other private citizens. We’re talking about government assuming the role of the criminal in the Wild West, and initiating force against private citizens. What is the enemy? The free flow of ideas.

But it actually gets worse. We live in a mixed economy, where government’s role as an individual rights-protector as envisioned by the signers of the Declaration of Independence has been seriously fractured. America is a long way from its original conception as a constitutionally limited republic. It is more accurate to refer to ours as a system of democratic statism. The government has the power, but its power is at the pleasure of whatever competing special interest pressure groups hold sway over government’s regulatory apparatus at any given moment. Since O’Connor holds that only government-approved ideas may be taught to children, then it follows that those ideas must be determined by the “recognized educational experts” of the political factions that hold immediate sway.

In other words, in the very same– though more “civilized” – Wild West fashion, permissible educational ideas are determined by legislative or bureaucratic fiat arising from the winners of the “democratic” battle over whose ideas may be forced upon all others. Such is the nature of government-run public education. Precisely this kind of battle is currently being fought at the state level in Texas, and such battles happen regularly around the country. And the winners of these battles may not always be to O’Connor’s liking. O’Connor should consider that Andrew Schlafly or other like-minded activists are the “recognized educational experts” behind the Creationist Texas factions fighting to impose “a misguided curriculum that defies science and, well, common sense”. And they may win.

It is largely to escape from ideas that they disagree with but that are forced upon them that so many parents choose private education, including homeschooling. Yet O’Connor and other statists are not content to live-and-let-live. O’Connor throws around terms like “Wild West” and “Free-for-all” to describe freedom of judgement for homeschoolers in the crucial field of educational ideas, and wants to stamp it out in New Jersey. To make her case, she smuggles in the premise that freedom is anarchy and government controls the only antidote, by means of inverting the Wild West analogy. But by inverting the premises of force vs. voluntary choice, and then choosing the side of force, she in fact is adopting the very methods of that lawless frontier town – attempting to settle differences with some homeschooling parents by force rather than persuasion.

Freedom does not mean anarchy. It means the absence from forcible interference from others. It requires a government of laws designed to protect that freedom. Anarchy and statism are two sides of the same coin, and freedom is the only antidote to both.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Education Tax Credits: Taking the Political Offensive

85-90% of America’s K-12 education is government-run. Can a complete separation of education and state be achieved through incremental free market reforms directed over time at the heart of that institution? Or, are such efforts doomed by the intermediate threat of statist inroads into the private school sector, leaving the public school sector essentially off limits to major political challenge unless and until the ideal of free market education can be achieved in a single sweeping transformation?

I addressed those questions in an LTE response in the Summer 2011 issue of The Objective Standard. In light of a recent critique of education tax credits, however, an elaboration of my position is warranted.

Earlier this year, Ari Armstrong leaned in favor of an education tax credit plan shaped in line with a proposal I laid out in the Spring 2011 issue of The Objective Standard. In a more recent essay, he moved in the opposite direction. Though acknowledging that “There might be other good reasons for promoting universal tax credits for education,” Armstrong contends that tax credits nevertheless “will not eliminate government controls over education spending”. Thus tax credits, including my plan, must be rejected. Instead, he promoted a much more subdued reform agenda.

I believe his focus was right the first time. Can there be risks to the private school sector in pursuing tax credits? Yes, but so are there risks in a defensive political strategy, as I will show. The right course of action must be determined within the broad context of the political dynamics of our heavily regulated mixed economy.

I contend that an aggressive incremental approach toward greater and greater educational freedom is not only viable but the only realistic strategy in an economy as mixed – i.e., as government-dominated - as ours, and that free market forces can successfully apply that strategy against the public school sector. Armstrong, unfortunately, seems content to stop well short of taking the political offensive. But this approach is very likely self-defeating, because a mixed economy doesn’t stand still: Beneath the seemingly chaotic surface turmoil, a mixed economy is essentially a tug of war between statism and freedom. There is no fixed status quo between these two absolutes.

Notice how the political “center” keeps moving Left over time. Why is that? By its very nature, mixed economy politics is a game of compromise. And in almost any political compromise, one side scores a net gain, the other a loss. For generations, the predominant winners in the game of compromise have been the statists. But that is not because mixed economy politics inherently favors statism. The reason is that the Left/socialists have always cleaved uncompromisingly to their altruist/collectivist principles, enabling them to make political compromises that nevertheless always moved the ball toward their socialist goal line. On the other hand, the Right/capitalist side largely lacked the philosophical firepower that their case depended upon, leading to political meekness and retreat. A good example of this process in action is the recent healthcare debate, where Obama compromised by “caving” on the “public option”, yet through ObamaCare still scored significant progress toward his goal of universal healthcare. Thus, our mixed economy almost always seems to move away from freedom (For more on this, see my “Extremists vs. the Moderates: Why the Left Keeps Winning, and the Right has been Powerless to Stop It”.)

This dynamic mixed economy pattern can be turned to our favor. As Armstrong emphasizes, “we cannot move closer to that [free market] ideal without advocating the fundamental principles of liberty and individual rights.” We already understand these principles, which our case depends upon. So, to reverse the historic drift toward statism, we can and must take the offensive not just ideologically but also politically. My plan moves us from almost complete statism in education to a mixed system, featuring much expanded freedom. Once in place, it is simply not a given that statism must have the upper hand – until and unless we concede the statists’ premises. Armstrong states that “In a very real sense, the government continues to claim ownership of the funds in question [which is] money … not fundamentally owned by the person who earns it [!].” But that is precisely the political premise that our side can and must turn on its head (See my LTE response in the Summer 2011 issue of TOS). In a very real sense, statism is a government claim to every dollar earned, none of which is held to be fundamentally owned by the person who earned it. Just listen to the Leftists whose political rhetoric is saturated with the premise that every dollar retained by the private sector is in effect a “tax credit” against the government’s automatic claim to that money. Just what premise underpins politicians’ calls to “invest” in education, clean energy, and so on. When it is said that “we” or “society” must solve this or that social ill, what is implied? Statist politicians can and do claim ownership in a variety of ways, but we should never concede the premise of ownership apart from the principle of actual possession of the funds in question.

Armstrong contends that “The fundamental weakness of [my program is that] the government continues to forcibly transfer people's money to education.” That “fundamental weakness”, however, is inherent in this country’s educational system as it currently stands. As a transitional program, the temporary preservation of the taxing powers of the state is a vital component of my proposal. Armstrong worries that “tax credits further entrench the principle that government may force people to spend their earnings on other people's education.” I disagree. Once the choice of how their education dollars can be spent is relegated to the taxpayer, we will be closer to the day when it will be politically feasible to question why he or she must be forced to pay any government-mandated sum. The redistribution principle, already fully entrenched, can only be weakened under tax credits, in my view. This may be debatable but in any event it’s a risk worth taking. Given the political realities of the current system that guarantees every child a K-12 education – in theory if not in practice - this country currently will not stand still for any privatization plan that is perceived to leave any child without a financial means to an education. This will be true for the foreseeable future. Retaining the educational guarantee to each child is not a submission to the statist premises, but recognition of current political realities and, importantly, a nod to the practical and moral imperative to allow time for the development of a private school sector large enough to absorb the tremendous demand that will be unleashed by the ending of public education. If, as a transitional program, retaining some lingering statism for a time is a flaw, then all incremental “free market reforms” across the board are invalidated. Out the window go personal accounts within Social Security: out go Health Savings Accounts: out goes a flat-rate income tax; out go charter schools; out go any political proposals intended to bring greater freedom and fairness from an individual rights perspective, short of sudden and complete laissez-faire; Out, in other words, go free market forces from the political arena.

On the issue of the possible misuse of tax credits, the most deplorable cases have always served as a rationalization for statism. It is precisely in the face of the most despicable practitioners of any given right that freedom’s champions must take their most formidable stand. This is an issue not merely of educational freedom but of freedom, period. Statists don’t need tax credits to justify intrusive laws; just one high-profile despicable case will do– see my post A “Regulation-Free Zone for Home-Schooling Families” Comes Under Attack in NJ”. Here, a single horrific child abuse case involving alleged homeschooling parents has brought a chorus of calls for homeschool registration and curriculum controls where none now exist. After a similar case eight years ago, homeschool forces fought ferociously to kill proposed regulatory legislation. “You would have thought I had suggested the end of the world as we know it,” lamented the legislation’s sponsor after withdrawing her bill. Homeschool liberty’s forces wouldn’t accept guilt-by-association then, and shouldn’t now.

Wouldn’t Armstrong applaud the efforts to keep NJ’s homeschool sector unregulated? If so, that would contradict his position on tax credits. The very same type of arguments that he and TOS correspondents Plafker and McKendree make against my program are being leveled against NJ’s unregulated homeschool sector, and can be and are leveled against a fully free market as well. If the potential for abusive instances disqualify unconditional tax credits, shouldn’t a few instances of actual abuse also justify homeschool regulation in NJ? And if not, wouldn’t fighting to “protect and expand the liberties of homeschoolers” include not just stopping NJ’s proposed regulations but also fighting for the right of homeschoolers’ to spend their education dollars toward their homeschooling efforts?

Likewise, Armstrong’s charge of “rampant corruption a totally uncontrolled [?] tax credit system would promote” could double as an argument against free markets. Where does one see “rampant corruption” in people spending their own money in a manner of their own choosing – the basic premise of a free market – as they would under my plan? In a free market, wouldn’t there also be children whose educational needs will be neglected? If my plan is a political “fantasy” based upon this logic, then what does that say about the political possibilities of an actual free market? Once again, objections raised against my program are no different than those hurled by statists against a free market. If rampant corruption and widespread educational neglect would be the hallmark of my program, then the same must be said of a fully free market; which, after all, means “totally uncontrolled”. And if that were true, then free markets would not work.

In response to the argument that under my plan some will make bad or immoral choices, the proper response is: What about those who make good choices? Freedom will never mean universal rationality: It simply means free.

Perhaps a better way to understand my intent is to put it this way: As I’ve said, my essential purpose is to empower parents to in effect “opt out” of the public school system so as to separate education and state one child at a time. Thus the same arguments—the same principles—that underpin the case for full separation are applicable to each individual taxpayer participating in my program. A key difference between my plan and the one Armstrong laid out in his February essay is that he allows that government must establish limits on how tax credits can be spent, not just on how much can be spent on each child and by each taxpayer. He writes:

Note that our proposal does not really give the taxpayer full choice over his or her resources. Even our plan falls short of the standard of individual rights and free markets, for it requires people to direct a portion of their resources to schools. Real liberty means people can spend their earnings however they wish, whether for schools, medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas.

But why must it “fall short” at all? If, to revisit a previous point, the proper standard is individual rights and free markets, then does not succumbing to the premise of the government’s continuing “claim [to] ownership of the funds in question” constitute a contradiction of his own standard? Under his plan, as under mine, the taxpayer is spending his own money. “Each taxpayer pays a certain amount for education through various taxes. Whatever that amount is, the taxpayer should be able to decide where that money goes.” Why attach government conditions if “each individual has the right to control his own earnings, and…should be able to fund any school he wishes, or no school at all.” By his original concession to government regulation, Armstrong paved the way to the next logical step – “rethinking” his own plan based upon threats to the private sector; threats that his own concessions allowed in.

My plan links all education tax credits to the sponsorship of a child’s education. It also limits how much can be allocated to each child and the total amount the taxpayer can claim in credits, based upon the current public cost of educating that child and on how much the taxpayer pays in education taxes. The purpose of these restrictions is to maintain our current national commitment to finance the education of every child – which is an intermediate-term political and practical necessity, as I’ve said. Beyond that, the government is out of the picture for the very reasons Armstrong articulates it should be. If a parent has allowable credits of $10,000 and can properly educate his child for $6000, he is free to use the remaining $4000 for “medical research, a new business, or a trip to the Bahamas”. And why not? He has pulled his child from the public schools, relieving the government of that responsibility. He could, of course, send that $4000 to the public schools. But how is giving the government that undeserved windfall justified, but the taxpayer claiming it for non-education expenses “corrupt”? Once he pulls his child from the government schools, why shouldn’t that parent be free precisely “to control his own earnings”. I see no reason to grant the politicians any regulatory concessions or automatic claims to that parent’s money once a child has been moved to the private sector. (This feature of my program has the added benefit of injecting an element of price discipline into the private sector. By allowing that parent to use any unused credits for other purposes, he has an incentive to seek the most cost-effective education he can find. Without it, he will not much care whether his child’s private tuition is $6000 or $9999, since any “savings” gets turned over to the government schools.)

Furthermore, even after a fully free market is established, the debate over government’s role in education – and thus the threat of government controls - will still be with us. The issue is broad and deep. Armstrong accepts that “in a truly free market … parents who do not provide their children with a basic education, as with parents who do not provide adequate nutrition, may be charged with child abuse.” If so, then another “salient point” to keep in mind is that the government must define “basic education” - i.e. there must be “government guidance” – and the government must then implement a way to enforce parental compliance (standardized testing, perhaps?). So again, even in a fully free market, we run into the same fundamental problem as Armstrong fears under tax credits – the potential for an opening wedge of statism.

Indeed, the most complex constitutional and legal challenges for advocates of individual rights revolve around children. Parents certainly have a moral obligation to properly educate their children. Failing to do so certainly constitutes neglect if not outright abuse. Government, in its proper role as a rights-protector, certainly has a role to play in regards to children, whose rights are in effect held “in trust” by the parents. This role is clear-cut in regards to physical abuse. But enforcing an educational obligation by law is problematic, to say the least. Granting government the power to prosecute parents who neglect their children’s educational needs is, in the abstract, a proper function. And drawing a legal line or “wall” between that function and keeping government’s nose out of private education may be feasible. However I’m not at all convinced that it’s possible. So, until it can be shown otherwise, I’ve taken the position – no government say in any child’s private education. (I grappled with this issue for a long time, and only recently did I arrive at my current position. I owe an intellectual debt to TOS’s Craig Biddle for pointing me toward an understanding of the basic contradiction involved in granting government any say in education while struggling to achieve a free market in that field.) The broader point of this is to demonstrate once again that the risks inherent in any reform that retains, for a time, compulsory education taxation do not melt away even if those taxes are repealed and we achieve a fully free market. The debate over the proper role of government, and how that role translates into law, is ever present, and statists will always seek to levy controls on the private sector, just as they have levied an avalanche of mandates on private health insurance. If “tax credits will not eliminate government controls over education spending”, then neither will a free market, if “parents who [in the opinion of government officials] do not provide their children with a basic education … may be charged with child abuse”.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” and it always will be.

Yes, the risks are there. But, consider this very possible scenario. Suppose my plan were to be enacted, but with certain conditions attached by statists; ex. a minimal requirement to teach “the three Rs”, the “basic education” that Armstrong believes government should enforce in a free market. Given the realities of mixed economy politics, that could very well happen, or worse, even over our objections. One never knows how new laws will emerge from the legislative meat grinder. In that case, the odds would still be on the side of free marketeers. For starters, the very fact of my plan’s enactment will have implied strong public support for free market principles – i.e. a large degree of success in educating the public on principles of liberty. This, in turn, would imply a political consensus against serious government intrusion into school governance, limiting the statists’ power. This, coupled with the logic of the program, would leave principled free marketeers with the upper hand and the statists on the defensive – a reverse of the current mixed economy pattern alluded to above. The risk of government interference in the private market would be very manageable. And to the extent that children are moved into the private school sector, we will see an immediate reduction in government involvement in education.

As to the political viability of the program, the lack thereof at any given moment is not a valid argument against an idea. But it must be considered if one wants to make political headway. If “there is simply no way a law such as [mine] would ever pass”, then it is a free market that is truly a “fantasy”.

Armstrong argues that “real education reform” means to “protect and expand the liberties of homeschoolers and private schools, … check runaway spending on government education and seek to disempower the teachers' unions.” Can this really be called reform? These types of initiatives - along with charter schools, NJ’s new Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, and others like them – do not lack merit, within the existing context of government-run schools. But where does real structural reform begin, if we so restrict our political activism? Where does “the standard of individual rights and free markets” come in? Where exactly is “the movement toward true freedom in education” (Emphasis added)? Real education reform, I argue, must be broad and targeted at school taxes – i.e. the government’s hammerlock on education. Significant progress even on Armstrong’s restrained checklist of “real education reform” will remain a steep uphill struggle until control of education dollars is taken out of the hands of government. Absent that, the growth and freedom of the private education sector will remain peripheral and stunted – at best - under the suffocating blanket of the unchallenged status quo, and the tax-fueled power of the teacher’s union will remain largely intact.

We cannot ignore the realities and dynamics of mixed economy politics. We will never get to a free market if we don’t go on offense – indeed, we may well backslide if our strategy is merely to hold the line - and we will never get there all at once. The Alliance for the Separation of School and State outlines how parents and other private institutions could adequately fund the schools once a free market is established. But, how do we get from here to there? We need a strong conduit to bring our educational efforts into the political arena. It’s one thing to say, “each individual has the right to control his own earnings”, and quite another when you can add “and here is my plan to begin to make that happen”. We must be willing to take calculated risks and put forth practical ideas that may be politically challenging today, and then focus our ideological and educational efforts on bringing the public to us. A tax credit program affords the invaluable tool of concretization of the abstract case for free markets. Just two decades ago, school choice was a political pipe dream … a “fantasy” in Armstrong’s terms. Today it is in the cultural “mainstream”. In our era of rampaging statism, education is one area that the political winds are at the backs of free market champions.

We need to think hard about this issue. We must do more than tinker around the edges. I opened with a series of questions. My answers are embodied in my proposal. My final questions to critics: What do we do about that 85-90%? If not school choice through tax credits, then what? If not now, then when?

Mike LaFerrara


As Armstrong mentioned in his essay, The Alliance for the Separation of School and State opposes both vouchers and tax credits. If the omission from my article of that fact conveyed the implication that they would be supportive of my program, it was strictly unintentional. I was well aware of their position, and I obviously disagree with them.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Constitutional Distortions: Free Speech vs. Freedom of Speech

When we refer to “free”, what do we mean? In economics, free means to receive some man-made value without cost or payment; i.e., paid for by someone else (nothing that requires productive effort is actually free). In the political realm, however, “free” means freedom of action in a social context; i.e., in the absence of physical compulsion, threats, interference, or coercion from other human beings.

Clearly, there are two separate meanings. When taken together, you get a free, laissez-faire capitalist society: Politically, you may not be forced, from which follows that economically what is received free is only through voluntary means, such as a business promotional, a gift, or charity. Put another way, economic freedom – which means essentially a recognition and protection of property rights – presupposes political freedom. To destroy one, is to destroy the other.

A collectivist tyranny dare not enslave a country by an outright confiscation of its values, material or moral. It has to be done by a process of internal corruption. Just as in the material realm the plundering of a country’s wealth is accomplished by inflating the currency—so today one may witness the process of inflation being applied to the realm of rights. The process entails such a growth of newly promulgated “rights” that people do not notice the fact that the meaning of the concept is being reversed. Just as bad money drives out good money, so these “printing-press rights” negate authentic rights.

The “gimmick” was the switch of the concept of rights from the political to the economic realm. (Emphasis added.)

Ayn Rand’s astute observation is relevant in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling on an Arizona law instituting public financing of legislative candidates. Since property rights, as philosopher Ayn Rand has observed, “are, in fact, political rights” because the acquisition of private property stems from the freedom of action inherent in the concept of political freedom - in this case, the freedom of production and trade – the “gimmick” will undermine both. Fortunately, the Arizona law was struck down. The decision did leave in place the basic legal legitimacy of public financing of political campaigns. My focus here is on the reasoning behind the decision on the Arizona law, both pro and con, and how they relate to the issue of rights discussed above.

The Arizona law was struck down because it was based upon a “printing-press right”; an alleged “right of reply”. In short, a candidate lacking the financial wherewithal to counter an opponent is automatically granted government funds for his campaign. The government-funding spigot is basically open-ended. (The law does place a financial limit of three times the “base amount” – the candidate’s initial public grant. But the number of candidates eligible is unlimited. This is relevant to the majority’s reasoning, as we shall see. Anyway, once the escalation principle is established, the politicians will inevitably “escalate” their limits through revisions in the law.) This is clearly a violation of others’ property rights; of taxpayers who must be forcibly obliged to provide the politician with a forum he himself could not or would not supply. This, of course, is nothing new. Our entire welfare state is based on this kind of redistribution of wealth. The NY Times gives a brief overview of the law that was struck down:

[The] Arizona law…provided escalating matching funds to candidates who accept public financing.

The majority said the law violated the First Amendment rights of candidates who raise private money. Such candidates, the majority said, may be reluctant to spend money to speak if they know that it will give rise to counterspeech paid for by the government.

The [Arizona law] gave public money to candidates who agreed to limit their personal spending to $500, participate in at least one debate and return unspent money. Such candidates received initial grants and then more money based on the amounts spent by privately financed opponents and by independent groups supporting them. (Emphasis added.)

Notice the italicized phrase. So, the law is an open-ended assault on the taxpayers based solely on any number of political candidates’ inability or unwillingness to raise money voluntarily. Rutgers Professor Frank Askin whines in the NJ Star-Ledger that the law is needed to provide “the wherewithal for additional speech (a right of reply?) by a candidate, who is being drowned out by an opponent who refused public money”. But as one correspondent put it:

The issue is really one of allocating public money to a candidate. The whole premise for arguing for this law goes back to the basic redistribution mantra. If a privately funded candidate makes a stronger case and gets more funding, why should the public have to jump in with their money to support the less popular candidate? It is one argument to give basic "seed money" to a candidate, it is quite another to keep upping the ante to stay competitive with the privately funded candidate. The real issue is, once again, income redistribution rather than free speech. (Posted by estowisdom, July 01, 2011 at 8:06AM)

Another was more succinct, zeroing in on what may motivate Leftists; the “drowning out” of privately funded free speech:

This law presented numerous scenarios in which a privately funded candidate would be burdened by spending over the initial limit ($21,000 in Askin’s example) To cite a few: in a race with numerous candidates the private candidates’ extra spending would trigger matching funds to all other candidates but not himself. Thus, the private candidate would be releasing 3 or 4 times his expenditure to his opponents. The matching program also kicked in if an independent group funded ads against the publicly funded candidates (again the private candidate received nothing); the matching program kicked in if an independent group-who by definition is out of the control of the candidate- runs an ad for the private candidate. Beyond theoretical scenarios, the District Court heard evidence of witnesses who testified they didn’t run ads for fear of triggering matching funds. (Posted by Jeff, July 02, 2011 at 11:35AM )

This is what Chief Justice Roberts was referring to when he said “Laws like Arizona’s matching funds provision…inhibit robust and wide-open political debate”.

The Left has always disdained private property rights. But now, if the minority had gotten its way, the ongoing destruction of property rights would have found its way into the political arena. It’s a good demonstration of Ayn Rand’s crucial observation that “Without property rights, no other rights can be practiced.”

It is only on the basis of property rights that the sphere and application of individual rights can be defined in any given social situation. Without property rights, there is no way to solve or to avoid a hopeless chaos of clashing views, interests, demands, desires, and whims.

The right to agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree—and thus keeps the road open to man’s most valuable attribute (valuable personally, socially, and objectively): the creative mind.

The violation of property rights is not the only danger; not by a long shot. Two other related threats aimed directly at the heart of a free society are evident. The “right to disagree”, a fundamental human right, gets smashed by this law. First, taxpayers – including those advocating, through their privately funded campaigns, the ideas that triggered the “right to reply” – are forced to support ideas with which they disagree. This is immoral at its core, and contradicts the very premise of freedom of speech, the press, assembly; the entire First Amendment. If the expression of one’s beliefs automatically triggers a government-mandated obligation to fund others’ means of expressing opposition, then one’s own expression is not free. Freedom of speech means simply that one may not stop others from speaking out against one. Others are always free to fund the expression of their own ideas, whether individually, or through activist groups or political candidates. But according to the Left, the “right to reply” morphs into “the right to reply at others’ expense”: a printing-press “right” negates an authentic right.

Second, the Arizona law opens the door to censorship. Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan said the Arizona law advanced First Amendment values. “What the law does — all the law does — is fund more speech,” she wrote. But as the history of the welfare state has overwhelmingly proven, the government will and must set the terms for the use of every check it cuts and doles out. When the government pays for the expression of ideas, it implicitly holds the power to determine which and whose ideas get funded. When statists declare that “all” they want to do is “fund” this or that, don’t believe it. Government financing is government control. We see it in government-financed healthcare; and education; and in highway funds dispersed to the states. A government check always comes with strings attached. Chief Justice Roberts zeroed in on the crucial essence of the issue. Quoting from the Times article:

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that its main purpose was to level the playing field for political speech, which several earlier decisions have said is an improper goal.

“It is not legitimate for the government to attempt to equalize electoral opportunities in this manner,” he wrote. “And such basic intrusion by the government into the debate over who should govern goes to the heart of First Amendment values.” (Emphasis added.)

Chickens are coming home to roost for the Left on this. The Left has always claimed to be supporters of the First Amendment, while simultaneously claiming the right to redistribute private property. That contradictory stance could not and can not hold. Here we see the climax of that contradiction coming to the fore in the form of the court’s minority opinion. The Left’s welfare-state destruction of property rights has led directly to their concerted attack on the First Amendment that they claim to cherish.

This case was decided 5-4. How disturbingly close we are to a major blow against freedom of speech is evident in the very narrow margin of the decision.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is there Really No “I” in Teamwork?

Though not interested in football, this article caught my attention; or rather, was brought to my attention through a private Objectivist activist e-mail community. The title of the article, Even now, there is no ‘I' in hall-bound Clendon Thomas, cuts right to the heart of what’s wrong with the world – the devaluation of individual ability, and of the individual as such.

Jenni Carlson writes about a luncheon held in honor of a great All-American football star, Clendon Thomas, who had been chosen for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. The 400-person luncheon was insisted upon by his friends, and held, over the objections of Thomson, whose character, it is said, is marked by “His deep humility”.

Even standing at the podium at a luncheon honoring him was tough for Thomas.

“This is an awkward moment for me,” he admitted. “I will go to New York in December (for the induction ceremony), and I will receive a token of appreciation for something that we accomplished together.”

He glanced around the room.

“We know there's no I on a football team.”

How many times have we heard athletes talk like that? Hundreds? Thousands? But really, how often have we believed that the words were genuine?

Thomas was.

In response, I left this commentary:

As a plumber working in the construction field, I can tell you that no building can ever be completed unless every individual - from the architect to the engineer to the material supplier to the construction manager to the supervisor to the general foreman to the foreman to the tradesman to anyone else involved - does his job, with all that that implies. Building a building, like any other cooperative human undertaking, is a team effort based upon the effort of a whole series of “I”s, each of whom acquired his knowledge and skills by personal choice and effort, and is driven by his own self-motivation, self-discipline, and self-interest.

Without the “I”, there can be no teamwork. This is a metaphysical fact, because the individual is the basic unit of humanity. The degradation of the individual leads to the false dichotomy between individualism and teamwork, which leads to the sad spectacle of a great achiever deflating his own achievement. Rather, Thomas has every right to feel and exhibit pride that he played his particular position well enough to earn his place in the Hall of Fame, even as he pays due recognition to his teammates.

In any event, congrats to Mr. Thomas.

There is an inherent contradiction in any manifestation of collectivism - which is based on the ethics of altruism; the doctrine that holds that the measure of the moral worth of any person consists solely in putting others above self. Clendon Thomas’ “humility” highlights it. If the primary source of Thomas’ achievement lies with his teammates, then it follows that the primary source of each of their achievements lies not in their individual abilities but in other teammates. If what’s true for Thomas is true for each member of the team, then what is the source of the team’s national titles of 1955 and 1956? This circular logic leads to the bizarre conclusion that great teams require no individual excellence; that the team’s metaphysically autonomous human components are of no consequence; that nobody on the team can claim the right to say, “I achieved this”. A team achievement without individual achievement is a contradiction in terms.

Without the “I”, there can be no teamwork, because there could be no team.