All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

Whose Choice? Whose Responsibility?

School Vouchers Are Flawed

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has given the school-voucher movement a shot in the arm by declaring that tax-funded school choice does not violate the separation of church and state. I always thought the argument that it does violate the separation was wrong. Vouchers would be given directly to parents, and they would decide where to redeem them. As the court said, school choice certainly would not be a government program intended to further religion.

That said, I hasten to add that the soundness of the court ruling is entirely distinct from the merits, or lack thereof, of the voucher plan itself. We have enough experience to know that when government subsidizes something, it attaches conditions. I find it hard to believe that a large-scale voucher plan will not include a long list of rules with which private schools will have to comply before parents can take their vouchers there. Some intrepid private educators will thumb their noses at the authorities and forgo vouchered customers, but most will not. Those schools will then lose their independence. One effect will be to undermine religious schools, as happened in Europe with government subsidies. The Wisconsin ruling says that under a voucher plan, religious schools would have to allow students to opt out of religious instruction.

Vouchers will undermine something else. As others have pointed out, parents who today know what it means to write a tuition check for their children’s education would be relieved of some of that responsibility under a voucher plan. That would be a tragedy, because the main libertarian goal in education should be to promote freedom through parental responsibility. Public education creates irresponsible parents precisely because it removes responsibility from them. The parents of 12 percent of school-aged children have refused to relinquish that responsibility, and consequently, they are exercising their freedom. Vouchers would be a blow to those parents. We can’t countenance that.

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The eminent economist Israel Kirzner opens this issue with an important article on why economic education is crucial to everyone’s well-being. The article is drawn from the first John Anthony Krogdahl Memorial Lecture, which Kirzner delivered at FEE last March. Aside from passing along many insights about the nature of economics, Kirzner also resolves a paradox about his great teacher, Ludwig von Mises, namely, how he could be a passionate “value-free” scientist.

In our latest reprint commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard E. Read, FEE’s founder and long-time president tells freedom’s friends how they can best work “On Behalf of the Ideal.”

James Payne was wondering why anyone would travel to some unromantic spot and pay good money to sit through a day-long seminar on employment law. Then, recalling how much government dominates employer-employee relations, it all made sense.

And speaking of employer-employee relations, it’s well known that a business owner can be found guilty of race or sex discrimination against job applicants purely on the basis of statistics. The issue is none of the government’s business, of course, writes Robert Levy, but even if it were, the idea that discrimination can be demonstrated statistically is ludicrous.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has turned out to be the nightmare its critics predicted. But according to George Leef, we ain’t seen nothing yet. ADA, meet ADD.

Does the International Monetary Fund promote free markets? Can the IMF resolve the economic crisis in Asia? If you answer yes to that question, Ian Vásquez has some news for you.

Classical liberals are well acquainted with Richard Cobden and John Bright, the brilliant intellectual-activists who spearheaded Britain’s nineteenth-century free-trade movement. Now John Chodes introduces the forgotten English free-trade pioneer Andrew Ure.

Lots of people talk about the failure of public schooling these days. Twenty-five years ago, that wasn’t true—with a few exceptions. In his introduction to the new edition of The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling, edited by the late William F. Rickenbacker, David Boaz says he finds arguments that are as timely as ever.

Fine-art auctions don’t usually upset people. Sotheby’s isn’t routinely picketed by art preservationists. So why do many folks worry about privatizing environmentally “sensitive” lands? Can’t see the connection? Bernie Jackson explains.

Corporate downsizing, to hear the media tell it, represented the death of the American dream, the end of hope. A few facts were left out of the reporting. Christopher Lee fills in the blanks.

Official America is so concerned about how little we save that they called a national summit to discuss the matter. Too bad they weren’t concerned enough to carry out the few pro-freedom suggestions made here by Peter Leeson.

Wendy McElroy delves into the archives of forgotten classical liberals to tell the story of Gertrude B. Kelly, a nineteenth-century writer and activist-physician who favored free markets, educational liberty, and individual rights, even for women.

Andrew Kleit looks at what Robert Bork has to say about the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Microsoft and declares “It Just Ain’t So.”

Lawrence Reed exposes the urban-sprawl myth. Doug Bandow, writing from Belgrade, tells why economic sanctions don’t work. Dwight Lee explains the two most-used words in economics: supply and demand. Mark Skousen continues his discussion of the new interest in gold money. And Walter Williams argues that fairness is in the process not the results.

Our book reviewers consider such subjects as conquest and cultures, American heroes, law in cyberspace, anti-federalism, the endless energy crisis, and murder of an Idaho governor early this century.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.