Sunday, September 28, 2008

Public Education

There is widespread agreement that our system of primary and secondary education is in dire need of reform. The most distinctive feature of this system is competition for students and money between public and private institutions. But, unfortunately, the competition is not fair. Usually, private schools are financially supported by a combination of tuition and charitable giving (e.g. parochial schools), while public schools can (at least temporarily) dip into an unlimited source of tax revenue. In Ohio, public schools are funded via a property tax based on the value of one’s home. What is the justification for public education? Ideology states that an educated citizenry is a public good that is best distributed equally via tax-supported, governmentally-operated monopolies. Before we explore the question of whether public schools, in fact, distribute education equally (see next blog), let’s look closer at what they actually distribute. Ideology conveniently obscures the fact that school boards distribute contracts to purchase more tangible commodities such as: classroom buildings, classroom furniture, libraries, books, computers, sports stadiums, and parking lots, and food. They also distribute service contracts for not only faculty, but also an army of support staff: librarians, security officers, nurses, bus drivers, and custodians. The contracts for all of these providers are highly coveted due to their generosity. Ideology states that contracts are based on a transparent, competitive bidding process that balances quality and cost negotiated by impartial, civic-minded superintendents and board members. However, in the real world, school boards have little incentive to engage in hard-nosed bargaining with providers. Moreover, the bidding process is usually less-than transparent and undermined by cronyism. Try to find out exactly how much your local school district actually paid for that new air conditioning unit, desk, social studies textbook, or football helmet. As for hiring personnel, entry into these positions is restricted by governmentally mandated licensure requirements and/or labor union contracts. In order to gain access to the “teaching profession,’ you must earn a state-mandated license, which requires graduation from a public or private college or university with at least a bachelors degree in education. Most of the educational curriculum at colleges and universities is designed by government officials that are sensitive to well-funded lobbyists. For example, the more credit hours required for a degree, the more students have to spend on tuition, which usually means heftier student loans from banks. Teachers unions lobby for more stringent requirements, which tend reduce the pool of potential teachers competing for jobs. Now back to the competition between public and private schools. Unionized urban and suburban teachers usually earn hefty paychecks, generous tax-supported retirement pensions, and health insurance coverage. The largess of public school teachers has little if anything to do with the quality of education. In fact, some dreadful urban school districts (Cincinnati) pay their teachers very generously. But don’t blame the teachers. Teaching is a pretty crappy job. State and local school boards tell them what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. They also lack the authority to discipline unruly students that interrupt their classes. Little wonder that the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers leave the profession within five years of graduation. What I worry about are the few that choose to remain in a profession that is micromanaged by elected school boards.

Equality of Public Education

As stated in my previous blog, one of the basic arguments offered in support of public education is the idea that it provides an equal opportunity for students to secure an education. Is that true or is it propaganda? School boards pay providers of products and services with tax revenue. In Ohio, schools are funded by property taxes. Revenue, therefore, depends on whether you live in a rural, urban, or suburban community. Because suburban property is generally more valuable than either rural or urban property, suburban schools are often extravagantly funded, while urban and rural schools operate on tighter budgets. If governments were really interested in equality of education, you would expect suburban schools to be subsidizing rural and urban schools. However, there is little political support for that kind of redistribution. If you earn a decent income, you have an incentive to purchase a home in suburbia, where property values are higher. If you have young children you also have an incentive to move away from urban cores and rural areas where school funding is much lower. If you are a teacher, you have an incentive to teach in a suburban school where salaries and benefits are usually more generous. Historically, public schools compete with private schools. But private schools cannot compete with generously funded public schools. Therefore, most of the surviving private schools tend to be located in suburban areas where there are dysfunctional public schools. In fact, if you live out in the suburbs, you are more likely to be able to afford to send your kids to private schools or home school. Eventually, the market for urban private schools dries up and parents are stuck with public schools. When suburban public schools decline, parents can send their kids to private schools or homeschool. When suburban schools begin to decline and parents send their kids to private schools, they (along with with parents whose children have already graduated) grow weary of escalating property taxes and vote down levies. This leads to over-crowded suburban schools that that cut back on faculty (usually art and music teachers go first), library services, special education, bus service, and sports etc. Fortunately, those education-minded suburban parents that moved out to the suburbs in pursuit of better schools have options that urban parents do not. But urban parents are not only disappointed in the quality of their new schools, they are left without any private alternatives. The ultimate irony is that Americans tend to equate quality of education with generous funding. Unfortunately, there is little correlation between quality of education and how much the district pays its various providers. But there is a definite correlation between generous funding and tax rates.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Economic Freedom

Libertarians are champions of economic freedom. But exactly what does that mean? Economic freedom is usually defended within a rights-based moral framework: that is, a moral argument based on interlocking rights and duties. Hence, if economic freedom is a right, that right confers a duty upon others not to interfere with the exercise of that right. All rights are enforced by either legality (government), morality (culture), or both. Economic freedom refers to the right of individual and collective buyers and sellers to forge contracts with one another based on mutual self-interest, without governmental interference. If buyers and sellers own their own bodies, then they own the fruits of their labor. As an ideal, economic freedom is usually associated with contracts forged based on perfect information, perfect freedom, and perfect competition. In the real world, perfection is elusive, therefore, some libertarians argue that government must monitor and enforce laws against false advertising, theft, and/or collusion. Others prefer to allow the free market enforce those ideals. If you defend economic freedom as a right, you must accept the corresponding duty to NOT INTERFERE in voluntary transactions between individuals unless those contracts violate the rights of third parties: that is, harm other non-consenting persons or their property. This means that government may not interfere with the forging of contracts involving harmless immoralities. Economic exchanges that involve products and services regarded by third parties as immoral, but harmless, must be regulated by morality (blame) but not legality (fines or prison). Therefore, morally suspect transactions between consenting adults ranging from the sale of pornography to the sale of liquor on Sunday can be regulated by culture, but not by government. In a society based on economic freedom, individuals must remain free to engage in the exchange of goods and service without outside interference, unless convincing arguments are presented that indicate involuntary harm is being inflicted on third parties. Therefore, libertarians prefer to allow public debate over these issues and thereby allow critics to convince individuals to not engage in these harmlessly immoral activities, but critics cannot simply employ the coercive power of government to usurp our economic freedom. One of the more recent assaults on economic freedom is a proposed law in Ohio that will set limits on how much interest "payday lenders" can charge buyers, which will in effect drive these sellers out of Ohio. (a topic for a future blog?)

Freedom's Philosopher

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is another important strand of libertarian thought. But what does that really mean? For a start, lets admit that freedom often has something to do with alternatives or options: the more options that are "open," the more freedom. Under monopolistic conditions freedom consists in either accepting that one option or not. (Sometimes you can't even decline that offer!) When you reject a monopolistic offer, there is usually another option or substitute. If monopolies limit freedom, then libertarians must do everything they can to expand options and limit monopolies. But some monopolies are inevitable and necessary. When one offerer earns a monopoly by offering a superior product or service, and (fairly) drives out all other competitiors then, that's natural and OK. Natural monopolies, however, are shortlived as long as entry and exit to that competition remains open. When other potential offerers see the profits rolling in to a monopoly, they will invariably seek a piece of the action. Problems arise when monopolies are sustained by the coercive power of government and not by competitive acumen. Artificial monopolies are created, when government limits competitive entry (or exit). Free from the yoke of competition, these monopolies tend to offer inferior products and services. In the United States we are flooded with artificial monopolies: public utilities, U.S. Mail, police and fire departments, etc. My view is that in a free society, freedom of religion requires governmental neutrality; that is, allow alternative religions to enter and exit the religion market unimpeded by government. That way, if you are not satisfied with your current religion you can find one that more closely suits your spiritual needs. In a society that offers a variety of religions, including atheism, we all have more religious freedom. However, if any one religion repels enough of its followers, it will eventually go out of business. Under monopolistic (or oligapolistic) conditions, governments use the coercive power of government to prop up one religion (or its beliefs) at the expense of its competitors. This is exactly what happens in theocracies where governments allow one single religion (Saudi Arabia); and in atheocracies where governmenents disallow all or most religions (China). The United States Government interferes with the religion market in two main ways: legal moralism (passing laws that regulate harmless immoralities favored by one particular religion); and tax policy (by offering some religions non-profit tax status). Of the two methods, legal moralism is the most subtle and the most pernicious. In direct democracies, lobbyists are responsible for most instances of legal moralism. For example, say a powerful group of church leaders get together to pass a local ordinance against Sunday liquor sales (Blue Laws). Next year, a coalition of groups that oppose that ordinance pay a lobbying firm to get it overturned. But this only inspires the tea totalers to lobby more effectively next time around. So the problem with legal moralism in a direct democracy is that the time, effort and resources expended on forcing the entire community to comply with it's own moral views, could have been expended more efficiently monitoring and enforcing compliance within their own flock: "If we catch you purchasing liquor on Sunday we will kick you out of our church!" And of course, if you do not want to abide by this particular moral rule, you can always become a Roman Catholic. We have no religious prohibitions against drinking, or gambling (another future blog?). Have you ever attended one of our festivals?

Freedom's Philosopher

Friday, September 5, 2008

Gay Marriage

The question of Gay Marriage provides another important litmus test for libertarian theory. Let's admit that the issue hinges almost entirely on one's beliefs about the Nature of the institution of marriage. As a Roman Catholic, I believe that marriage is a religious ceremony, a sacrament, and a great excuse to get your family and friends together for a party. As a libertarian Roman Catholic, I believe it is essentially a three-way promise (or contract) between a husband, wife, and God. It is also a highly efficient way to raise children. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have ruled that Gay Marriage is contrary to church doctrine. As a philosopher, I do not find the logic presented in support of this view to be very compelling, therefore, like many other Catholics, I tend to disagree with the hierarchy. I also disagree with the church on a few other issues too. But I remain a Roman Catholic because I still agree with most of what it says and does, and because the church has not excommunicated me for disagreeing. (Actually, the church is very tolerant of dissenters like myself.) In other words, I am a Catholic because I choose to be one, and because the church chooses to allow me to remain a member. No one forces me to remain a Catholic and no one forces the Church to keep me: entry and exit are open! But most importantly, the government has nothing to do with those decisions. Now, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons marriage is now, not only a private religious institution, but also a sociopolitical institution embedded in legality; hence the proverbial "marriage license!" Today marriage has become an institution that governments use to redistribute resources. The best examples are laws that govern inheritance, health insurance, child support, taxation, even college loans. The issue here is how much coercive power are you willing to grant government to use marital status as an instrument of redistribution of resources? Given that libertarians are against government redistribution in general, most libertarians prefer to treat civil marriage as a contract between couples that settles questions concerning disposition of property and children in the case of death or dissolution of that contract. We call these contracts civil unions. In this sense, I believe individuals ought to be able to freely enter into these legal agreements regardless of their sexual preference. In fact, given the current state of the economy we can expect a lot more gay and straight co-habitation. Those individuals ought to be able to forge legal contracts with one another too! As for marriage as a religious institution, churches ought to be able to enforce their own rules. Some religious denominations are supportive of gay marriage, others do not. If you are gay, the Roman Catholic Church currently won't allow you to marry someone of the same sex. But you can always find a church that will marry you. Or, you can get together with other gay Catholics and try to convince the hierarchy that their reasoning is flawed. Who knows, someday the Pope might change his mind. As the situation stands in the United States, marriage is both a religious and a civil institution. Most of us libertarians would prefer to separate those two functions. We certainly do not need the government to dictate religious doctrine, or even moral doctrine (see my earlier blog on legal moralism). Religious tolerance and governmental neutrality are cornerstones of libertarian doctrine. Finally, it is important to note that in the United States the institution of marriage is on the rocks. Why? All libertarians (without exception!) agree that government is the primary culprit. One obvious factor is a welfare policy that encourages the the avoidance or dissolution of marriages as a precondition for receiving welfare. More on that later. . .

Freedom's Philosopher

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Legal Moralism

One sure measure of your committment to libertarian principles can be found in your stance on legal moralism. In earlier blogs I suggested that libertarians argue that government interference in one's right to exercise personal liberty must be limited by the harm principle; that is, harm to a person or a person's property. Defenders of legal moralism argue that governments also have an unfettered right to enforce harmless immoralities. Unfortunately, all governments use the coercive power of government to prevent individuals from engaging in various harmless activities that are considered to be immoral. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is both immoral and illegal for women to appear in public without a veil. (In fact, in many Muslim countries virtually every act that is immoral is also illegal.) Based on libertarian principles, it would be impossible to justify monitoring and enforcing this law because wearing a veil is obviously a harmless self-regarding act. Muslim men might be offended by seeing an unveiled woman in public, but being offended and being harmed are far from identical. On the other hand, libertarians would also argue that if the citizens of Saudi Arabia wish to live in a theocracy with a legal code steeped in legal moralism, it's their business. If Saudi Arabia suddenly decided to adopt a libertarian form of government, they could still monitor and enforce the veil as a matter of morality. Moreover, the veil would be perfectly acceptable as long as women freely consent to wearing it as a precondition for remaining within the Muslim faith. Muslims, however, could excommunicate violaters. But, as it stands, if you do not want to wear your veil in public in Saudi Arabia, you could be fined, inprisoned, or punished physically. If you want to go veilless in public your only recourse would be to emigrate to another country. Now Saudi Arabia does not have a monopoly on legal moralism. We have more than our fair share. Take for example our laws against polygamy, breast feeding in public, laws that forbid purchasing alcohol on Sunday, and most recently laws that forbid gay marriage (worthy of a future blog?). In these cases there is no reasonable connection with the harm principle. They are simply laws that enforce morality according to one specific religious tradition. Unfortunately, once we abandon the harm principle as a bulwark against the unfettered growth of legality, personal liberty and morality can be quickly eroded. Fortunately, most governments cannot afford to monitor and enforce legal moralism with any degree of efficiency: black markets take over. However, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is very efficient at monitoring and enforcing its vast criminal code steeped in legal moralism. I think most libertarians agree that we must try to maintain a clear line of demarcation between morality and legality. Once we allow government to control harmless immorality, we are well on our way to the ROAD TO SERFDOM. If you think I'm irrationally concerned with the contagion of legal moralism check out

Freedom's Philosopher

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Harm Principle

John Stuart Mill's classic work ON LIBERTY provides most of libertarianism's theoretical foundation. One of Mill's most enduring contributions was his articulation of the boundary between between personal liberty and governmental interference. Mill basically argued we ought to be able to do whatever we want, as long as we do not harm others. But the so-called "harm principle" can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on what you mean by "harm." Mill's followers often use the term "self-regarding acts" and "other-regarding acts" to draw that boundary. Other regarding acts violate either the non-aggression axiom or property rights, while self-regarding acts do not. Unfortunately, Americans today have expanded the non-aggression axiom to cover miniscule harms, vague harms (psychological harms), and improbable harms. Our culture has expanded the non-aggression axiom to include a growing number of verbal harms; that is offensive verbiage. Mill argued that we can say whatever we want, short of falsely yelling "FIRE!' in a crowded theater. What he had in mind there is that the word FIRE could lead to a stampede for the exits, which could physically harm many of the theater patrons. We might expand that notion to include deliberately spreading false rumors about others, which damage the reputation. Of course, if it's true, then that's something else. Most recently, there has been a tendency to censor words that are highly likely to elicit physical retribution from the victim: so called "fighting words." The problem with expanding the non-aggression axiom to cover "fighting words" is that the tendency to react violently to words is culturally bound; that is, if we teach children to "punch out" anyone that calls them an offensive name (usually an ethnic slur), then we can expect an increase in aggressive behavior. Mill would have argued that we need to teach our children to have "thick skins" and to respond to verbal assaults verbally. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!" We have also become overly generous in restricting other-regarding behavior in the context of property rights. Real libertarians argue that all rights are negative rights, which means that others (individuals and government) have a duty to NOT interfere with an individual's pursuit of private property via the transfer of property between individuals. The duty to not interfere is NOT the same as a duty to provide. Therefore, no one has a positive right to have anything apart from a mutually agreed upon contract. Therefore, I do not harm beggers by not giving them money. It is, after all, my money. On the other hand, if I choose to put a couple of dollars in a hat, that's OK too. But I do not have a duty to do it, and he does not have a right to expect it from me. Hence, I do not harm others by refusing to assist. So a good way to interpret the harm principle is to say that: "You can do whatever you'd like, as long as you do not violate the property rights of others, including the right of self-ownership.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Private Language Fraud

When was the last time you read your health insurance or homeowner's insurance policy? Do you really know what you are getting? How about your automobile lease or mortgage agreement? Information asymmetry is one of the more nettlesome problems facing libertarian theory. In an ideal world there is symmetry between the information possessed by buyers and sellers; that is, both know exactly what they are getting out of the contract. When there is transparency in contracts, both buyers and sellers are usually satisfied. However, in the real world both buyers and sellers often conceal critical information from each other, and thereby gain a competitive advantage. For now, let's focus on information asymetry in favor of the seller. It's classic form is probably false advertising, where the seller induces the buyer to make a purchase by providing false information. Some instances of fraud in the inducement are easily decoded as simple theft: "I ordered a Mercedes and the car dealer delivered a Ford.!" The most difficult offers to decode can be found in those industries that have developed their own private languages: most notably, insurance, medicine, and law. Convoluted language obfuscates contracts and gives an unfair advantage to the sellers. Of course, if you do not know anything about these private languages you can pay someone to decode their contracts for you. But that's not always possible nor is it very efficient. A few libertarians are willing to allow government to enforce a degree of transparency in contracts and use the coercive power of government to force lawyers, physicians, and insurance salesmen to speak English. Others, argue that the free market will eventually weed out fraud in the inducement, as buyers become aware of these deceptive practices and competing companies offer transparency as an alternative. One of the problems with the free market solution is that we tend to grow acculturated to accept information asymmetry in certain domains. Many of us have been led to believe that the language of law, medicine, and/or insurance is unavoidably complex and therefore we must must simply TRUST our lawyers, physicians, and insurance agents. However, institutionalized gullability undermines the efficiency of markets and is very difficult to correct once it takes root. Therefore, in the final analysis we cannot forget the libertarian motto: "Buyer Beware." However, reliance on "Buyer Beware" is difficult in country plagued by functional illiteracy. If you can't read a newspaper you certainly can't read your health insurance policy.

Freedom's Philosopher