The Classical Liberal Arguments for School Vouchers

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Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate of school vouchers.  One should not exaggerate how much influence she will have in promoting this cause. The United States Department of Education has little direct authority over K-12 education and it certainly should not be given any more, because education is quintessentially a state and local issue.  But any cabinet position is a bully pulpit, and classical liberals should hope she uses it to create a more favorable climate for state and local voucher initiatives.

The conventional argument for vouchers, itself classically liberal in nature, is that in the long run they are likely to improve human capital, because they will introduce more competition by supplying more private schools for those parents who want to use them. Schools that do better at matching students with the education that is best for them will gain students at the expense of those that do not. Moreover, more competition will lead to more beneficial innovations that will be shared throughout the K-12 educational system. Thus, even if some schools funded by vouchers do not perform well at first, a more competitive system has greater dynamism than a more government controlled system.

While there is much to be said for the human capital argument, yet another classical liberal argument for vouchers is that they promote a free citizenry by creating schools that compete to instill good values and norms in their students.

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Free Association, Not Safe Spaces, on Campus

Many universities are now in the business of creating “safe spaces.” The concept is not well defined but includes establishing actual physical spaces that will be reserved for some group, generally a group that a university defines as a minority. But some of these same universities also impose so-called “all comers policies,” in which no group is permitted to exclude anyone even from its elected offices on the basis of their beliefs. Thus, for instance, Christian groups would have to admit atheists even as potential leaders.

But policies that create safe spaces are in substantial tension with those that require clubs to accept all comers. A group of Christian evangelicals might well believe that it may be more effective in its mission if its members shared its basic beliefs. It might also make its members feel more comfortable discussing them, if  the organization did not have opponents in its midst.  That is not to say that a restrictive charter creates the ideal form of such an organization: some groups of evangelicals might well welcome embrace debate at every turn and benefit from the intense scrutiny of every argument.

One of the virtues of allowing groups to make such decisions is that a community would no doubt get a range of distinctive spaces for speech generated by different trade-offs between mission and openness. Another is that the university would respect many different forms of diversity that bubble up from below rather than just those that conform to its official line on what kind of diversity matters.  Most importantly, a university that is dedicated to creating places where people can feel comfortable, but does not want to be in the business of creating official restrictions on speech in student life should also be pleased with the self-organization of overlapping spheres of debate.

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The Dismal Results of Dirigiste France

Whenever I despair of the intrusiveness of government in the United States, I cheer myself up by looking at France and recognizing how much worse things could be.   President Francois Hollande recently announced he would try to block General Electric bid’s for the energy business of Alstom, a French company. While France itself owns only one percent of the shares of Alstom, Hollande has arrogated to himself the authority to block such  a bid because he does not believe the combination as currently structured is in France’s “strategic interest, “whatever that means. One of President Hollande’s ministers even suggested that GE make a different deal with Alstom, combining the railroad-related divisions of the companies as well.  An independent analyst concluded that the minister’s idea was “ludicrous,” because GE produced diesel engines for freight trains while Alstom was in the passenger rail business.

One must be grateful for the consensus in the United States that executives and shareholders generally make the decisions about mergers and acquisitions under the laws of property and contract. Government discretion to interfere is limited to antitrust and national security considerations. The bailout of GM and the distortion of bankruptcy law was an unfortunate exception, but it was made at the time of the greatest economic crisis since the depression. In contrast, French intervention is common and constant.

The behavior of the hapless Mr. Hollande and his agents show how wise are the limitations in the United States on government fiat in the marketplace. Politicians possess little comprehension of business in general and no understanding of the details that make particular acquisitions succeed or fail. 

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PovertyCure: From Aid to Enterprise


Can the current model of humanitarian aid generated by networks of large philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and Western governments actually alleviate the poverty of the world's Bottom Billion, to quote the title of Paul Collier's book? This podcast with the Acton Institute's Michael Miller, director of the new Poverty Cure Initiative, puts forward a persuasive case rooted in particular communities in Africa and South America that the conditions for prosperity emerge from our free and relational nature as human beings. Accordingly, authentic help to the world's poor must not be driven by the notion that the global poor are the objects…

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Illusions of Control in the Omnicompetent French State

Should there be any limitation on the freedom of public expression, and if so why, how and when imposed? The question has become acute in France where the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has declared his intention of seeking to silence a stand-up comedian, Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, because of his increasingly anti-Semitic tirades. M. Valls, hitherto the most popular minister in President Hollande’s government, has managed to corner himself by an astonishing lack of adroitness, having fallen prey to the illusion of many politicians in a highly centralized state, namely that they can control what happens in society.

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Power Tends to Corrupt

Power Tends to Corrupt

Christopher Lazarski comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his deep inquiry into Lord Acton's attempt to understand the dimensions and nature of liberty as it unfolded in Western history. In this podcast, Lazarski underscores Lord Acton's historical quest to find the conditions of liberty, as well as his formal understanding of what constituted liberty. The conditions of Acton's ordered liberty we can describe as "arbitrary law," national history, and a bottom-up development of positive law. Arbitrary law was Acton's way of describing divine and natural law, which he believed a pillar in support of political liberty because it was law…

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Law, Legislation and Liberty

Friedrich HayekThis Liberty Law Talk is with philosopher Eric Mack on Friedrich Hayek's 1973 magnum opus, Law, Legislation and Liberty. Hayek's significant trilogy distinguishes between law and legislation, considers the appropriate rule of judges within a spontaneous order, observes the difficulties of even defining social justice, and attempts to set forth the principles of a new constitutional order for a free people. This conversation considers at length the major ideas that Hayek advances in his incredible work on the principles of law and just order.

Alexander Hamilton and the Politics of Impatience (From Balancing Trade to a Balanced History): Part III

Wealth of NationsAdam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published the same year as the Declaration of Independence,  and Hamilton was right to perceive a growing appreciation of its basic message among his countrymen. Smith wrote to dispel the errors of mercantilism. Hamilton wrote to keep them current.  In particular, he was fond of Sir James Steuart, who represented Smith’s “chief foil.” Curiously, McCraw buries this in his footnotes at the back of The Founders and Finance. (383/4 n. 4) But McCraw is not at all hesitant to declare Hamilton a “first-class student of both economics and administration.”

Hamilton apparently saw “how everything in the national economy was related to everything else.” And “he saw that in the construction of grand strategy, every move must be coordinated so as to make the whole of public policy exceed the sum of its parts.” Hardly reserved in his applause, McCraw proceeds, “And this is what he proceeded to do as secretary.” (93) But one can take a different view, and in the matter of economic theory, one would be right to do so.

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The 20th Anniversary of Hayek’s Death

This past Friday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Friedrich Hayek.  I can still remember the moment I learned of Hayek’s death, which occurred in my first of teaching. Hayek is by far the most important intellectual influence on me.  When I became persuaded of libertarian or classical liberal ideas, I read widely in the libertarian canon.  While I was greatly influenced by Friedman, Nozick, Mises, and Rand, it was Hayek whose academic work inspired me most to undertake the decision to spend a lifetime learning about such matters.  The first book I read by Hayek, The Constitution of…

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