Libertarian Plea to the Left

My Princeton college roommate Brink Lindsey, now of Cato, has been raising a moderate rumpus by arguing that the traditional libertarian-Right coalition is stale and that libertarians should look for allies on the left as well.  He called it liberaltarianism.  Fair enough.   I will take a shot at the same plea.

I will use this map of the teaching of evolution in schools by state as a jumping off point.  I can't validate whether it is accurate or not, so I won't reproduce it here, but let's accept it as a fair representation of the diversity of approach to teaching evolution by state, even if you don't agree with the implicit value judgments embedded in the chart.  I will use it to reflect on two points I have made in the past to try to interest the left in libertarianism.

1.  Building complex machinery of state may feel good at first, when "your guys" are in control, but your opposition, or outright knaves, will eventually co-opt the system. As I wrote here:

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our
regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.
A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right
things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.... 

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

2.  As public school boards come under sway of the Christian Right, the left should learn to embrace school choice, just as the Christian Right did a generation ago.  As I wrote here:

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red
state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced
in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.
My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of
every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.
I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism
nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting
outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist
today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with
$7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be
problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be
spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids,
particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will
revitalize themselves in the face of competition, others will not. It
may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be
the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome,
though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the
Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education,
is a part of the process.

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the
Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that
some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not
agree with, with science you do not necessarily accept, and with values
that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids
can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school
choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your
kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their
kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a
collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle)
indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public
school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for
retaining such indoctrination.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith
high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?
Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school


  1. M. Hodak:

    We had Passover sedar last night with a couple of friends--NY liberals --who couldn't fathom why we had dropped the NY Times in favor of just getting news online. Since we live in Manhattan, I'm used to the dumbfounded look of "What do you mean the Times is biased?" However, I am also used to the fact that the liberalism of this city, although broad and deep, is not anchored to anything more than cultural immersion. NY liberals are liberal because that is all they know. There is no consistent, philosophical grounding to it at all.

    So, when conversation turns to details about a position, like school choice, most liberals, even public school teachers, become remarkably open to the possibility of school vouchers in a discussion like the one in this post, even if they began with a knee-jerk reaction against it. I don't have a percentage, but I think the consequentialist liberals (those who really want better results for the most kids) versus the ideological liberals (true collectivists who just want the "shared public school experience") are better than 50-50.

    Union teachers, I've met a few around here, complain that vouchers and charters will deprive traditional public schools of funding, and their schools are stretched as it is. This is what they've been told forever by their union leaders. But when I ask them if they wouldn't rather teach in a private school where they have much more say in curriculum, standards, etc., they say, "sure, but how many private schools are there?" Well, the whole point of vouchers, of course, is to make possible what is not possible today. When they see that, their opposition melts even faster than that of non-teachers. It has nothing to do with philosophy. It's largely a matter of who has the megaphone to their ear.

  2. Noumenon:

    NY liberals are liberal because that is all they know. There is no consistent, philosophical grounding to it at all.

    Having grown up conservative and moved liberal, I'm often astounded when I meet lifelong liberals (often NY liberals) who have no idea their ideas have ever faced criticism.

    Coyote: nice map. I also liked the Rush lyrics you posted over at Marginal Revolution.

  3. BobH:

    I haven't seen any interest on the left in modifying their positions in order to attract libertarians. Until I do, I will continue to see myself as (uncomfortably) aligned with the right.

    I fear that their current fascination with climate change will make any sort of "liberaltarian" alliance even more unlikely.

  4. ArtD0dger:

    While I’m generally sympathetic to your position, I’m still trying to figure whether vouchers would open up a can of ... well, worms or whoop-ass, depending on your viewpoint. Basically, this could be the beginning of a system of tax-shopping. If I can, in effect, direct my individual tax contributions towards educational programs I like, then what principle prevents me from funding other government functions selectively? Maybe I want all my taxes to go to social programs and none to the pentagon.

    I can think of good and bad outcomes for this process, but one thing is for sure. The law of unintended consequences looms large.

  5. Tim:

    Last fall I heard an interview with Robert Reich (Clinton's Dept of Labor) on NPR regarding school choice. It seems that Bob has come around to the idea of Vouchers. The funny part was that he had to bend over backwards to keep the liberal faith. First, he wanted to give wealthy families less money for vouchers which doesn't make any sense because public schools are spending the same money, rich or poor, per student now. The issue was that he didn't want anyone adding the voucher money to their own money and REALLY getting a good education. Gotta keep things "equal" (equally bad). So I sent Bob an email and suggested that maybe with a twist, the voucher plan could be improved. What if you encouraged competition while at the same time encouraging voucher-holders to look for the BEST possible deal for themselves. I suggested that if the voucher was for, say, 5,000 and the family only spent $2,300 (tuition for my local faith based grade school) the remaining money could be "banked" for them. They would have $2,700 saved (per year) and provided the graduate from high school they would be able to use 75% of the banked money for college or trade school, or else get a check for the cash equivalient of 25% of the banked money. (What an incentive to graduate!) The rest would be returned to the tax payers. Can you guess what Bob said? He said, what if the families go cheap on an education in order to collect a big payout at the end. Well, some families will. But that would be their prerogative, being free and all... Do you think it's individual choice that annoys him??

  6. Anonymous:

    "Do you think it's individual choice that annoys him??"

    Him and liberals in general, yes. I was recently at a liberal dinner gathering / event where they talked on end about their various causes. They derisively quoted some senator (a Democrat, I believe) who said that part of freedom is the choice to purchase the automobile of your choice, even if others don't like it. Their response was, "What about the freedom of poor Africans to live in a world without global warming!?"

    There was no getting through with these people. I heard all about evil multinationals capitalists and so on. At the end of the dinner, I was wrapping up some leftovers, and one of the other attendees was perplexed that I was using two paper towels instead of one (I might have had food all over my car, but it could have worked!).

    One would think that it'd be easier to reason with liberals than conservatives, because liberals aren't bound by divine dogma. Except that liberalism itself has filled that void in their lives, at least for the people I dined with. They'd no sooner stop believing in global warming than a Christian would stop believing in Jesus.

  7. Mesa EconoGuy:

    Modern liberals will never succumb to any libertarian temptation; they simply don’t have it in their makeup. Most of the liberal “agenda,” such as it is, is a list of nanny-state directives that overtly conflict with individual economic and political freedom.

    Now the statist right-wing has jumped on board, so there’s not much of a choice out there.

    Having attended college in a fine (liberal arts) institution in upstate NY, I personally witnessed the perpetual blind spot NY liberals function from, and from which they frustratingly cannot extricate themselves. Many are otherwise bright people, but, literally, they simply don’t get it.

    As for Rush lyrics, I’m the Priest of the Temple of Syrinx here: