How Not To Increase Liberty in America

You have to wonder whether National Review was being deliberately ironic when it called a feature in its Dec. 19 issue (celebrating the mag’s 50th anniversary), “How to Increase Liberty in America.” NR‘s ten bright ideas included Robert Bork demanding censorship, David Frum calling for national ID cards, and Myron Magnet quoting Rousseau (yes, Rousseau) in making a case for less citizen oversight of the police. “It would be a boon to liberty if actvists stopped — and officials ignored [can you ignore something that’s stopped? — DM] — the cries of racism that still handcuff police in many U.S. cities.” I have to agree with that last point: civic watchdogs shouldn’t cry racism, they should draw attention to the fact that citizens of all colors can be mistreated by police.

Even many of NR‘s less overtly anti-liberty recommendations turn out to be horrendous on a closer examination. Take Clint Bolick’s touting of “school choice,” by which he chiefly means vouchers. Many otherwise sound conservatives support school vouchers because they see them as an attack on the public schools and the teachers unions. But vouchers are as much a welfare-state measure as Social Security or the G.I. Bill. Parents already have educational choice — they’re free to send their children to private schools or to homeschool. The only sense in which they don’t have a choice is that some of them cannot afford the cost in dollars for private schooling or the cost in time of home schooling. Is it government’s business to expand “choice” by redistributing income? One might just as reasonably say that Americans don’t have automotive choice because most of us cannot afford Porsches. But the conservative and Beltway libertarian view seems to be that welfare is not welfare if it’s given to the middle class.

(As an aside, I’ve begun to wonder just why it is that the quasi-libertarian advocates of school choice prefer vouchers over tax deducations — after all, if you want parents to be able to afford to send their children to private schools more easily, you can achieve that end without redistribution simply by letting them deduct the full cost of tuition from their taxes. That wouldn’t work for low-income families, though; are vouchers supporters, then, really altrusitic libertarians and Republicans? I don’t believe it; more likely, the “we’re doing it for the poor” argument is just a way to assuage the consciences of middle-class parents who might otherwise feel guilty about spending other people’s money.)

One other notable thing about Bolick’s mini-article is that his rhetoric ascends to such heights of hyperbole that he winds up saying things that are patently false. “Slowly the system is evoling into one in which the government’s main role is funding education, instead of monopolizing its delivery,” he writes. Does government monopolize education in a country where parents can homeschool their children or send them to private academies?

NR‘s wish list includes several other items that are much better — Jacob Sullum on ending the drug war, Stephen Moore on limiting federal spending. And Arthur Laffer writing against Gerrymandering, though even Laffer remarks in passing “the more choices — economic or any other kind — you have, the freer you really are.” On the contrary: as the school-choice discussion suggets, it’s all too easy to trample on freedom in the name of choice, and sometimes being freer means having fewer choices.

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