Why Would a Libertarian Want School Choice? Suppose Canned Peaches…

NEAL MCCLUSKEY, CATO INSTITUTE

Peter Greene, an affable defender of public schooling and critic of most things “reformy,” is nonplussed: How could libertarians argue that religious freedom requires school choice? Writes Greene about “Libby folks”—presumably libertarians and not fans of canned fruit—“you have, of course, always been free to send your child to a religious school. What’s new here is the argument that the government should pay for it.” He goes on, “Libbys are saying that citizens should be taxed so that their children can practice their religion,” which doesn’t seem like a very libertarian thing to do.

I agree. It isn’t. Except for one thing with which Greene never seriously grapples: this is in a status quo in which everyone is taxed to support government schools, schools that, by law, must be secular. In other words, a system in which religious people are inherently second-class citizens. When Greene writes that he is “puzzled” because right-wingers “didn’t want to pay for anyone’s health care, why would they want to pay for their education,” the answer is that we are already paying for their education, only right now via one-size-fits all government schooling.

Of course, public schools cannot be explicitly religious for a good reason: we absolutely do not want government elevating one religion over another. We don’t want an explicitly Methodist government, because that renders all other people unequal to Methodists under the law. But by exactly the same token, when government elevates secularism—especially in shaping minds—over religion, it renders religious people unequal under the law.

At the risk of trivializing how important religion is to many people, it is not hard to understand the inescapable problems that public schooling has with diversity and equality. Perhaps a direct Libby metaphor will help: Suppose government forces everyone to pay for canned peaches, because nutrition is crucial for the body politic and everyone has to be treated equally. That’s great for people who love canned peaches above all other foods, but what about people who prefer canned grapes, or fruit salad, or filet mignon, or naan? Tough–only the canned peach crowd is going to be fully satisfied, making them more equal than others. And that’s just the start of the problem. Much more to the religious point, what about people who are allergic to peaches–people whom peaches actually hurt. Tough for them, too. They must pay for what hurts them, and if they need something else they’ll just have to buy it themselves.

Grappling with this problem, by the way, is not “new,” as Greene asserts. It goes at least as far back as Roman Catholics in the 1840s, who often rightly saw the de facto Protestant public schools as hostile to them, and argued that money should follow Catholic children to Catholic schools (alas, Greene is not the only one to forget that).

Greene, at one point, kind of even acknowledges the problem of public schools being unable to treat religious people equally, though it is ensconced in a dig at vouchers. He concedes that public schools do not always meet the ideal of religious neutrality, but argues that a voucher system doesn’t even try, all but ensuring that some amount of your taxes will end up in a school that teaches things you don’t like.

The problem here is largely one of scale. For one thing, public schools do not just occasionally fail at religious neutrality, they cannot be neutral. Neutrality itself precludes offering religious explanations as true for anything, while non-religious explanations are never legally off limits. For another thing, when everyone must pay for one system of government schools, all of their money goes to it, no matter how many things it does—bathroom policiessex educationvaledictory speech rules—they find unacceptable. Of course, some people will agree with what a district does more than others—some will even be among the rulers of the system—and they will be more equal. For religious people whose beliefs are excluded, the odds of equal satisfaction are especially long (though where religious groups are politically powerful they may still end up imposing their will).

With choice, all of these decisions are dispersed. Yes, some of a taxpayer’s money might go to schools with policies they dislike, but those dollars will be directed by the individual decisions of myriad families, and go to highly diverse educators and options. That means far more people will be able to get education consistent with their beliefs and values than in public schooling.

That said, as at least a few Libbys have long argued, while vouchers are far more just than government taking your money and deciding what will be put into all kids’ heads with it, they do compel taxpayers to fund beliefs and values they may not share. Which is why, along with a desire to minimize government interference in religion and schools, about which Green rightly warns, Cato education folks have long favored tax credits over vouchers, both for personal use, and for donations to groups that give scholarship to students. And Cato folks have not just championed tax credits, but systems in which donors are free to choose among scholarship-granting organizations that may uphold specific values, including religious, or may focus on non-religious education such as Montessori schooling, or science instruction, or myriad other things. Indeed, much of our focus has been on religion, but that is largely because religion gets special legal protection in the Constitution, and special legal exclusion from public schools. But our work has ultimately been about all people having the freedom to choose for countless reasons. In service of this, Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map catalogues thousands of values- and identity-based conflicts to illustrate the inherently conflictual, zero-sum nature of public schooling, and most of these are not about religion but other forms of diversity. Want more Mexican-American history? No, unity. Want to wear clothes that express yourself? Sorry, inappropriate. Want to read about what you see as systemic injustice? What about views of police?

All things equal, most “Libbys” probably do not want taxpayer money going to religion. But all things are not equal: taxpayers are forced to pay for government schools, which by their monolithic nature cannot serve everyone equally. In light of that reality, school choice is a huge step toward the basic freedom and equality that libertarians champion.


Used with the permission of the Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0