Friedman’s Principled Pragmatism in Liberating Education from State Administration
For both its originality and its influence on public opinion, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom arguably ranks among the top five anti-big-government books published during the 20th century. Along with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Huxley’s Brave New World, Friedman’s 1962 classic helped to alert the general public to the dangers of hulking, centralized, paternalistic, “progressive” government.
But as with at least The Road to Serfdom, Friedman’s volume is often criticized by libertarians and free-market conservatives as being insufficiently radical. Unlike his son David’s 1973 book, The Machinery of Freedom, Milton’s slim tract certainly makes no case for eliminating the state. Rather, in a few of his most famous chapters, the author of Capitalism and Freedom accepts without much question some of the foundational claims of his “progressive” intellectual opponents. He does so in order to demonstrate how a leaner – but still very involved – government can operate less-intrusively to better achieve many of the stated goals that Friedman shares with “progressives.”
Perhaps most famously, Friedman agreed that education is a public good – that is, a good that will be undersupplied by the free market and, therefore, one that can be supplied adequately only with some help from government. Friedman’s contribution here was to explain that optimally supplying the public good “education” requires only government financing of education and not government operation of schools. By financing schooling through taxpayer-funded vouchers – rather than through the actual building and running of schools – government can ensure that schooling is supplied not only in adequate quantities but also in much higher quality. The higher quality will result from parents’ greater financial capacity, made possible by vouchers, to withdraw their children from poor schools and enroll them in better schools.
It’s an attractive proposal, especially to a world-class creative thinker who understands the perverse incentives that guide suppliers who are shielded from competition.
Nevertheless, for many libertarians and free-market conservatives, Friedman’s voucher proposal is a perilous concession to collectivism.