Milton Friedman & Conservatives Are Wrong In Education

Tyler Durden's picture

Authored by Jacob Hornberger via The Future of Freedom Foundation,

Once upon a time, some conservatives used to call for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education. Lamentably, conservatives today celebrate when a “free-market advocate” like multimillionaire Betsy DeVos is appointed U.S. Secretary of Education, and they get terribly excited when she speaks at conservative conferences.

Meanwhile, even while conservatives continue to pronounce their allegiance to their favorite mantra — “free enterprise, private property, limited government” — they continue to embrace not only public schooling itself but also their favorite public-schooling fix-it program, school vouchers.

Over the years, conservatives have developed various labels for their voucher program: a “free-market approach to education,” “free enterprise in education,” or “school choice.” They have chosen those labels to make themselves and their supporters feel good about supporting vouchers.

But the labeling has always been false and fraudulent. Vouchers are nothing more than a socialist program, no different in principle from public schooling itself.

The term “free enterprise” means a system in which a private enterprise is free of government control or interference. That’s what distinguishes it from a socialist system, which connotes government control and interference with the enterprise.

A voucher system entails the government taxing people and then using the money to provide vouchers to people, which they can then redeem at government-approved private schools.

Does that sound like a system that is free from government control or interference? In reality, it’s no different in principle from food stamps, farm subsidies, Social Security, or any other welfare-state program. The government is using force to take money from Peter and giving it to Paul. That’s not “free enterprise.” That’s the opposite of free enterprise.

Conservatives say that their voucher system is based on “choice” because the voucher provides recipients with “choices.” But doesn’t the same principle apply to recipients of food stamps, farm subsidies, Social Security, and other socialist programs? Sure, the recipient of the loot has more choices because he has more money at his disposal. But let’s not forget that the person from whom the money was forcibly taken has been deprived of choices. After all, after a robber commits his dirty deed, he too has more choices with the money he has acquired. His victim, on the other hand, has been deprived of choices.

In FFF’s first year of operation, 1990, I wrote an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism,” in which I pointed out that school vouchers were just another socialist scheme, one that was intended to make public schooling work more efficiently.

Imagine my surprise to receive a critique from none other than Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who is the father of the school voucher program. Friedman leveled his critique in a speech he delivered that was entitled “Say No to Intolerance,” in which he took to task such libertarian stalwarts as Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand for adhering to principle.

Interesting enough, Friedman’s speech was recently reprinted in an issue of the Hoover Digest, a premier conservative publication. You can read it here.

Friedman’s critique of my article was nice enough. First pointing out that FFF was doing “good work and making an impact,” he addressed my criticism of vouchers:

But am I a statist, as I have been labeled by a number of libertarians, because some thirty years ago I suggested the use of educational vouchers as a way of easing the transition? Is that, and I quote Hornberger again, “simply a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently”? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you can simply say what the ideal is. This is what I mean by the utopian strand in libertarianism. You can-not simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.

With all due respect to a Nobel Prize winner and a true gentleman, Milton Friedman was wrong on education then, and conservatives who continue to support vouchers are wrong today.

Notice something important, a point that conservatives have long forgotten: Friedman justified vouchers as a way to get rid of public schooling. For him, vouchers were a “transition” device — i.e., a way to get from here to there, with “there” being the end of public schooling.

That’s not what conservatives say today. They justify vouchers by saying that they will improve, not destroy, the public-schooling system. I can’t help but wonder what Friedman would say about that if he were still alive, given that his support of vouchers was based on the notion that it would serve as a way to get rid of public schooling. Would he still support vouchers if he knew that they would save public schooling and make it more efficient?

Why did conservatives end up rejecting Friedman’s justification? They came to the realization that some people would be less likely to support vouchers if they were told that their real purpose was to destroy public schooling. Therefore, to get more people to support vouchers, conservatives shifted Friedman’s justification to the exact opposite of what Friedman was saying. Conservatives began telling people that vouchers, by providing “competition,” would improve the public-schooling system. In fact, voucher proponents today, when pressed, will openly tell people that they are opposed to abolishing public schooling but only want to make it better by providing people with the means (vouchers) to leave the public-schooling system.

Almost 30 years after Friedman leveled his critique at me, there is not one instance of where his system of school vouchers have served as a “transition” to educational liberty. Time has confirmed the point I pointed out almost three decades ago — that school vouchers, no matter how they are labeled, are nothing more than a socialistic program designed to make socialism (i.e., public schooling) work more efficiently.

Friedman and conservatives have been proven wrong on education. There is only one solution to the educational morass in which Americans find themselves: Separate school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. Repeal all school compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes and sell off the school buildings. End all government involvement in education, including licensing of schools.

Establish a total free-market educational system.

*  *  *

For more information on this issue, see FFF’s award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families by Sheldon Richman.

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NoDebt's picture

Great idea.  Now go sell it to the teachers unions.  You see the problem.

You want a "pretty damned good" fix?  Make unions illegal in any organization funded by public dollars.  Will it fix everything?  No.  Will it fix half of everything?  Yes.


Jethro's picture

Wait until their pension obligations gut the sector.  Tick tock.

Åristotle's picture

If you desire education and not indoctrination then eliminating the laws of confiscation and removing the ability to profit from being involved with public offices are prerequisite. Good skill with that!

ScratInTheHat's picture

The best thing you can do for your children is to never let them see the inside of a public school as a student!

spag's picture

yay, free market schools coz free market healthcare works so well!


i love goldman buggering me on a daily basis

Stuck on Zero's picture

Milton Friedman was right in one way. When asked about job training programs he replied that: "the only good job training program is a job."

Common_Law's picture

So, the plan is to give private schools government money and still call them private? 

Cynicles II's picture

No silly, that's the Federal Reserve. Kind of.

Teja's picture

Completely scrap socialist state school systems! Brilliant idea. There are some countries in the world which implemented this, and they are hugely successful. Free education systems popped up, home schooling, religious groups offering excellent education. Now these countries are amongst the richest in the world, at least spiritually.

Examples? Look at Afghanistan or Somalia. Countries leading the world in education.

roddy6667's picture

I think that the reading comprehension skills on ZH have sunk to a level where you need a /sarc in a huge font.

Kidbuck's picture

I went to an excellent automotive mechanic job training program in a public high school. This being said, there is no reason this program couldn't have been conducted as well at a private votec. Even with my certificate for two years of automotive training I wasn't necessarily anymore qualified to work on cars than the kids that took jobs at gas stations and worked their way into the profession. I lacked job experience but I knew theory. The gas station kids often lacked important theory and thus often cut corners making inferior, even dangerous repairs. The bottom line is that for many blue collar jobs a certain amount of classroom work is necessary but it only gets your foot in the door. The best companies I worked for provided many weeks of job specific automotive training every year. By the time a good mechanic has been on the job, for say 4 years, he will have read more books and solved more problems than the average college graduate.

NiggaPleeze's picture


The thing "conservatives" don't realize that by natural law everyone owns everything and everyone owns nothing.  It is the state that assignes property ownership and protects it.

If the State protects Ted Turner's gazillion acres in the Midwest that he owns, and prevents me from "trespassing", the State has also taken by force from me and given to Ted Turner.

Ted Turner did not create that land.  That land was given to us by God/Big bang.  He is monopolizing it.  Now if Ted were to use his skills and build a house on that land, with his own hands, he has a stronger argument.  But the land?  HE DIDN'T MAKE IT.  Indeed most of the truly wealthy in the world have made absolutely nothing, they have stolen or inherited stolen land.

The problem conservatives face is their notion that whatever someone manages to acquire by force, fraud, crime, luck, or any other manner, should be granted to him by the State forever.  That is a predicate that has no foundation in logic, natural law, religion or justice.  It's just a made-up "charm" by the have-nots who want to continue to monopolize their ill-gotten gains from everyone else.

A great argument against inheritance of wealth/power (vis-a-vis pesonal items):  John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

Inherited wealth/power is no different from monarchy and nobility.

Teja's picture

The notion of rich conservatives is that they OWN the state.

roddy6667's picture

All laws and rights are man made.

HRClinton's picture

My education got topped off when I started reading ZH 6 years ago.

It's messed me up, some family members would argue.   ;-)  ;-)

MozartIII's picture

Give it enough time and the teachers unions will eat their own. See Argentina for example, screwed their own with joy.

The_Dude's picture

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough. 


Getting to a perfect system immediately is a non-starter.  Vouchers are a good first step..

Mazzy's picture

Exactly.  Acorns don't become Oak trees overnight.  You have to let the seed germinate first.

You will never convince someone to see your point of view if you are at opposite extremes.  The first step is to convince them that some halfway point is reasonable.  Let them take a baby step.  Then convince them that the next step is a great idea.  If you try to say that your "extreme" (say, from their vantage point) position is correct and you are inflexible, they will go right back to their original corner.


jcaz's picture

Yes, that's exactly how this country was founded- you're citing the famous "Pussy Principal".......

Your view is typical of the non-confrontational Leftist, who wishes to avoid conflict while undermining others- it's Centralism, no matter how you try to paint it, and Centralism always fails.

Show us a winning example of your strategy- other than cuckholding, of course........

Kidbuck's picture

Instead of vouchers, tax credits for any private education I buy, would be a good first step to eliminating public education. Starve the beast. Also, give me tax credits for opting out of the MIC. I'll buy a rifle and protect myself and family from the foreign invaders. To complete the trifecta, put a bounty, dead or alive, on illegal aliens.

Jethro's picture

Scrap it all.  Subsidies of every stripe.  Sure, it might be inconvenient for a while, but pricing and services will sort themselves out. 

nmewn's picture

I'm sorta with The_Dude, its going to require pruning back until there's nothing left but a stump that dies without any leaves or branches. 

The Prussian system (adopted by domestic socialists & statists) is to ingrained in the culture. 

Jethro's picture

You read some John Taylor Gatto?  

A Sentinel's picture

Bottom line is: given a choice,a high proportion of parents (though far fewer than you'd think) would use vouchers to create distance between their kids and the indoctrination over education publics. Resulting attrition kills the teacher unions faster and teacher pension funds die. Gov will try every manner of theft first,but once it's clear that teachers are a historical (not future) force, they'll let 'em starve.

MoreFreedom's picture

While I agree it would be better to separate school and state, vouchers are a good way to first crack the government school monopoly, and secondly put government schools out of business.  Government always is using force against people, and as a result, never runs any business as well as private companies.  Let's leave it to where the use of force must be used, because someone else already used force against someone else (and to collect taxes as well). 

NoDebt's picture

But..... (and this is where my head explodes) you're petitioning the government to give you less government interference.  I'm not trying to trash your idea I'm just trying to see if, perhaps, you might take a step back and look at this from a broader perspective.  It's like the hens asking the fox not to eat them quite so much.

Let me give you an example to illustrate:  In the early 90s what we now call "Obamacare" was a REPUBLICAN IDEA and it was considered a kinda-sorta "conservative" solution to healthcare.  It looks a little like free market, it smells a little like free market but, ultimately, it's just another walled garden built, run and maintained by government that they tried to make SEEM like it's a "free market" solution. 

That's why Mitt Romney (a Republican) implemented it in Massachusetts.  Not a Democrat- a Republican governor did it.  It SEEMED like the thing to do at the time, I guess.  But asking government to give you a government-simulated free market solution is ultimately just changing the label on the same product (and doubling the price).

ThanksChump's picture

What makes you think Romney is a Republican? The jersey he stole?

pparalegal's picture

No government funded agency should be allowed to unionize. When they do you get what we have.

Jethro's picture

Or allowing people on government assitence to vote.

balz's picture

You can't force free people not to get together. I don't think unions are the problem. The problem is the state don't want to make people think; it wants people to comply with social rules, etc.

Kidbuck's picture

No you can't stop them from forming unions but there is no reason public officials have to negotiate with unions. Put no strike clauses in public employee contracts and fire anyone who doesn't like their terms of employment. Unions only help the sub-standard employee anyhow.

TheVigilant1's picture

This post stinks of socialist talking points and is not based in reality, WTF is it doing on zerohedge ?

GeezerGeek's picture

This post makes me long for the old days when we could render a judgement about the value of articles on ZH. I would rate this a '1'. Friedman, DeVos and others have suggested ways to provide a degree of freedom without calling for the impossible, which is getting all levels of government out of education. That may be a Republican issue, but certainly isn't a 'conservative' one.

I also object to the way education is conflated with the first amendment ban on Congress trying to establish any particular religion to the exclusion of others. Education is not even mentioned in the Constitution. Religion is, but that 'wall' of which the author spoke is a unidirectional one at best, at least in intent. Nowadays we see plenty of government interference in the way people exercise their religious 'liberties'. Apples and oranges in my opinion.

Proctologist's picture

The true conservatives today, if they were republican, all are dead and buried. DeVos is a RHINO. Rand Paul is the only conservative left in the illustrious US “Senate”. The Roman Senate and Jefferson all roll in their respective graves.

I shell out almost $800 a month for private school... so don’t get me wrong vouchers would be nice.... but it’s ignorant to believe that the feds or your state gov. won’t provide them with a lot of strings attached.

On the other hand, you’ll never get .gov out of education, that’s a pipe dream.

adanata's picture


Seriously...?  Rand, Rand, the Banker's man. If you're looking for ANYONE in politics to "lead" you... or be honest with you... you.are.dreaming.

Mazzy's picture

The voucher is the carrot.

We aren't allowed to see the stick yet.

And once vouchers are implemented, none of the private schools will want to lose out on that gravy train: poisoned carrots or not.

A Sentinel's picture

Excellent insight! That's how they took over curriculum at Catholic schools: Accept this money but follow these rules.

A Sentinel's picture

Local government (especially) is peopled with retarded monkeys. They especially don't understand economics. Tell them it's good for their masters and they'll never be the wiser. .... maybe.

e_goldstein's picture
Milton Friedman & Conservatives Are Wrong In Education

Jason Hornberger must be a victim of the public school system. 


MayIMommaDogFace2theBananaPatch's picture

IMHO -- Friedman makes his point crisp and clear; his additional observation of a "utopian strand in libertarianism" resonants with me. 

Libertarian thinking resonates with me as well, I just feel that strict idealism is for NOT for grown-ups.

herkomilchen's picture

Spot on, well-written article.  Vouchers for education are like food stamps.  Still theft from productive people to fund them.  Still forces recipients to allocate resources in a way that some faceless, nameless government committee decrees to be best for them.

How about letting people use their own vouchers.  Vouchers they earn though their own work.  Vouchers they can utilize to obtain whatever form of education serves their children's individual needs the most.  Vouchers known as "cash."

AUD's picture

I've thought the same thing about healthcare & superannuation. The only problem is that cash itself is under the control of the government.

Interesting that your post shoud get downvoted on ZH.

ThanksChump's picture

ZH has leeches on its scrotum.

We know their names. Some of them are probably Soros pros, or with a tri-letter agency.

And, some are the RINOs.

Future_Cannibal's picture

Every time I brought up school taxes to my neighbor I instantly pissed him off. He'd say, " I ain't got no damn kids, why do I have to pay for this garbage?"

The children here get called back out of recess with police sirens. I kid you not. That is sick. School is just the first stage of prison conditioning and a babysitting cloak for child abuse.  

shizzledizzle's picture

I don't know much but I do know that we haven't had "free market capitalism" for a long, long time. I would say at very least since 71, but it really goes back further. I gotta say though, it's remarkable that they have convinced a populace that is getting broke over like a shotgun every fucking day that they MUST take care of the people doing the fucking or the world will end. 

I do have a little optimism though. People as a whole seem to be getting wise to the game, albeit at a slow pace but it is progress. I think that people waking up is what is keeping the Fed up at night. They seem to have a understanding that even the people who don't have seen through their bullshit and it won't be the same next go around... 

Interesting times for sure. Take the time to talk to those that will listen. Walk away from those who want to stay in the warm comfort of the status quo. I like Bitcoin even though I am not vested, I like the principal. I just think that folks understimate the lengths that they will go to. Good luck to those holding though. 

libertyanyday's picture

BTC , LIKE everything else mankind can mess with , will end up hacked, counerfeited and ruined..................its not the inventory , its the stock boy.

koan's picture

And watch religious schools pop up and dominate, trading the state ideology for the religious ideology.
That's where I want my kid taught at a Muslim madrasa or Christian cult school. /sarcasm.

libertyanyday's picture

religous christian schools have to teach the state required courses...............they just have a lot more focus than the public school system