At Reason.com I argue that libertarians are wrong to look back at some point in the past for a golden age of liberty, and especially wrong to write paeans to the gloriously free 19th century without mentioning the little matter of 19 percent of Americans being held in chains.
For many libertarians, "the road to serfdom" is not just the title of a great book but also the window through which they see the world. We’re losing our freedom, year after year, they think....
Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country's history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.
But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.
I note that "I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery," and I name a couple of examples. When we talk about how free Americans were in the 19th century, we should remember that many millions of Americans look back on those years and say
"My ancestors didn't have the right to worship in their own way. My ancestors didn't have the right to keep and bear arms. My ancestors didn't have the protection of centuries-old legal procedures. My ancestors sure as heck didn't have the right to keep what they produced, or to pursue an occupation of their choice, or to enter into mutually beneficial trades. In fact, my ancestors didn't even have the minimal right of 'the absence of physical constraint.'"
Read the whole thing.
Postscript: In late-breaking news after the Reason article was written, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R-VA) has issued a proclamation declaring April "Confederate History Month." As politicians often do with news they're not really publicizing, McDonnell posted the proclamation on his website Friday, but no one noticed until Tuesday. The proclamation urges Virginians to "understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War" but does not mention slavery. Virginia's last Republican governor, in issuing a proclamation remembering the Civil War, had at least acknowledged reality: "The practice of slavery was an affront to man's natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians . . . Had there been no slavery, there would have been no war." Amazingly, he was criticized for that simple and obvious statement, as was I when I quoted it a few years back.
In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a narrow decision today that avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 5 requires any change in election administration in certain states and counties—mostly but not exclusively in the South—to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. As I wrote earlier, this is a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.
The ruling correctly allows a small utility district (and other political subdivisions) to seek relief—known as a “bailout”—from the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s onerous pre-clearance requirements. There is simply no reason for jurisdictions that have, at worst, gone decades without any voter intimidation or disenfranchisement—where the Act succeeded in stamping out or preventing racial discrimination—to continue to go before the Department of Justice for the most innocuous changes in state and municipal election procedures.
Here, for example, an electoral district that wasn’t even created until 1987 wants to move its polling locations from private garages to public schools, for ease of voting. Since Congress amended the Act in 1982, only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have been able to come out from under the thumb of federal oversight. Congress clearly never intended it to be so difficult to escape having to seek federal approval for such minor changes in election procedure.
This is one “bailout” that actually saves taxpayer money and makes common sense.
Unfortunately, the constitutionality of the Act’s Section 5—in the absence of the “exceptional conditions” the Court cited in 1966 as justifying “extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system”—remains in doubt. While it is a close call whether the Court need resolve that issue to dispose of the NAMUDNO case, Section 5’s validity as a matter of constitutional law and public policy is assuredly not a close call.
As Chief Justice Roberts notes in his majority opinion: “The evil that § 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”
Indeed, blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are exceedingly rare. Minority candidates run for and hold office at unprecedented rates—particularly in the South. The racial gap in voter registration—the primary concern of the VRA—is higher nationwide than it is in the covered states; in some covered states, blacks register and vote at higher rates than whites.
As Justice Thomas says in his partial dissent: “Admitting that a prophylactic law as broad as § 5 is no longer constitutionally justified based on current evidence of discrimination is not a sign of defeat. It is an acknowledgement of victory.”
A tax credit bill was recently proposed in South Carolina to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The previous installments are here and here. The final installment is here.
Rev. Joe Darby
We agree on something, Andrew -- you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire. Dangerous buildings can, however, be expeditiously made excellent and secure while occupied and before they catch fire, as was the case with the first church I pastored - all it took was will and commitment. The chronic inequities in public education can be expeditiously addressed with will and commitment. The most shameful thing about my state’s five year fight for scholarships and tax credits is that our legislators have spent time, energy and resources debating privatization, but haven’t taken a single step toward improving public education. They’ve simply chosen to argue over the merits of a new house while the old, still occupied house deteriorates.
I commend your zeal in gathering and noting studies, but like Biblical Scriptures, scholarly studies can be carefully chosen, subjectively interpreted and tactically presented to gain one’s desired result. At the end of the day, studies on the success of privatization and its impact on public schools are a "wash" -- each of us can find support for our positions.
I remain convinced that privatization in South Carolina would not benefit low income families. Struggling parents who could claim tax credits would still have to pay tuition "up front," and those tax credits would not cover the tuition for most quality private schools in South Carolina. Scholarships might help, but they aren’t guaranteed. I recently learned, however, of another troubling alternative beyond the proposed law from a parent in a state where privatization is a reality. She wrote me a letter telling how she received mailings touting private schools, noting that only bad parents leave their children in public schools, and offering to put her in touch with helpful tuition lenders. She took the bait, and is now in greater debt because of predatory lenders who preyed on a mother who simply wanted the best for her child.
You also said, based on expenditures in Charleston, that we’re already adequately funding our public schools -- although Charleston is now facing a $10 million shortfall for the coming school year. Look beyond Charleston, Andrew, for South Carolina’s public schools are funded with a mix of state and local revenue. We have excellent schools along our state’s urban, businesses rich, predominately white and politically conservative I-85 corridor. The I-95 corridor, however, is rural, has a limited tax base, is predominately African-American, is politically progressive to liberal, and is bordered by some of the most underfunded and needy schools in our nation.
The I-95 corridor, however, was the site of a recent blessing. A mid-western businessman was so touched by the story of the J.V. Martin School in Dillon, SC, that he donated new desks and equipment to the school and paid for their installation and for campus painting. His voluntary and genuine generosity is a reminder that businesses with conscience and good motives don’t have to wait for statutory privatization to make a difference -- they can make a difference in the public schools right now.
You also noted that resourceful parents have found ways to augment government funds for their children in private schools for things like providing transportation and buying uniforms. I’m not surprised by that, because good parents will go to great lengths for their children’s well being. They’ve been doing so for years -- without public funds going to private schools. I can testify to that, because my wife and I did so when our sons were young and we were struggling parents, but I’ll save that story for my last installment in our dialogue.
The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.
You've cited two historical examples to suggest that school choice might hurt kids who remain in public schools. But as I noted last time, the evidence from actual choice programs shows that doesn't happen.
Still, let's take a closer look at the historical record. Public schools discriminated against and segregated black children for more than a century. Worse yet, an 1850 Massachusetts supreme court ruling upholding segregation in public schools was a key precedent cited by the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Jim Crow laws rested, in part, on a legacy of racist public schools.
It was common in the 19th century for public schools to require reading of the Protestant King James version of the Bible, and Catholic children who refused were sometimes whipped or beaten for the offense. Such punishments were upheld by the Maine supreme court.
And while it is true that some racist whites tried to use private schools to flee integration, their more common tactic was to move to areas where the public schools remained overwhelmingly white. As I wrote in Market Education, "during the height of white flight... total private school enrollment actually decreased by 17 percent (public enrollment also decreased, but only by 3 percent)."
Public schools today may be somewhat more racially integrated than private schools in the earliest grades, but private schools are more integrated at the end of high school -- no doubt in part because public school dropout rates for black students are astronomical. Private schools have repeatedly been shown to significantly raise graduation rates over those found in public schools, even after controlling for other factors, especially for minority children. And when it comes to truly meaningful, voluntary integration -- the peers kids choose to sit with in school lunchrooms -- private schools are significantly more integrated than public schools.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was seeking support for school choice among community leaders in the rural south. At one home, the man asked my friend: "So, black kids would be able to attend private schools like the one my kids go to?" My friend answered yes. "And they'd be prepared for the same kinds of jobs as my kids?" Again, my friend said yes. "Well now, I don't think I can support that," was the man's reply.
That was an uncommon reaction, but it offers a glimpse into the mind of the modern racist. They see the upward mobility offered by school choice as a threat.
And there's no need to make dubious analogies to the banking industry to understand how markets work in education. We can simply look at real education markets in action. Consider the new book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People are Educating Themselves. From the shanty towns and fishing villages of Africa, to the slums of India, to the rural farming villages of China, the poor are already abandoning public schools that have failed them and setting up their own private schools. These entrepreneurial schools outperform the local public schools at a tiny fraction of the cost, and the parents love them.
The higher labor costs in this country put private schooling out of reach of many poor families, but an education tax credit bill would change that.
You asked why we can’t fix the public schools before offering parents such a choice. The answer is simple: the way you "fix" a monopoly like public schooling is to inject consumer choice and competition. In other words, school choice IS the solution. We can’t fix public education without it.
Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.
I write this from the Bar Members' line waiting to be let into the Supreme Court courtroom for the final argument of the term.
Today the Court hears Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 ("NAMUDNO") v. Holder. This is a challenge to the controversial Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires, among other things, any change in election administration in certain states and counties to be "precleared" by the Department of Justice in Washington. This is, of course, a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states' massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.
In 1965, Congress included Section 5 -- which would otherwise be an unconstitutional infringement on peoples' right to run their own elections locally -- as a temporary remedy to an emergency situation. The section has been amended and extended several times (e.g., to add linguistic minorities, Pacific Islanders, etc.), most recently in 2006. But in this last renewal, Congress, despite introducing more than 15,000 pages into the record, failed to even allege the existence of the type of systemic voting discrimination as existed in the 1960s -- because, of course, it doesn't exist any more, and other parts of the VRA exist to cover specific discriminatory incidents.
Accordingly, a small utility district in Austin, Texas, contests Section 5's continuing validity (if it cannot escape the section's clutches via a confusing and little-used "bailout" provision). Specifically, NAMUDNO wants to change the location of its polling station to a public garage (from a less convenient location) -- a move that obviously lacks discriminatory intent, and showcases the minutiae that the DOJ now has to micromanage.
Cato legal scholars support NAMUDNO's challenge because, barring the widespread systemic unconstitutional actions of the Civil Rights Era, Section 5 violates our most basic principles of self-government and federalism, and is emblematic of governmental overreach.
The South Carolina NAACP is among the most strident opponents of a new education tax credit proposal in that state that would make it easier for families -- especially poor families -- to choose private schools for their kids.
But the NAACP's national platform states that:
The NAACP is a leading advocate of equal access to quality education. In an effort to promote and ensure education opportunities for minority youth, the NAACP offers the following national scholarships: Earl G. Graves Scholarship, Agnes Jones Scholarship, .... These awards help eliminate financial difficulties that may hinder students’ education goals.
Doesn't that put the SC NAACP's position into clear conflict with its parent organization? Actually, no. I deleted the qualifier "higher" before the word "education" in the block quote above. The NAACP strongly supports scholarships for poor kids to attend private schools, so long as the kids are over 18 or so.
A few years ago I debated this bizarre inconsistency with a very candid and pleasant NAACP representative, and his response boiled down to this: "I lived through the Jim Crow South and I don't trust a bunch of white Republicans to have our best interests in mind." Fair enough. We shouldn't trust politicians of any stripe to have the public's interests in mind on any issue. We should instead look at what actually works best both here and around the world, and do that.
From the largest shanty town in Africa, to the slums of Hyderabad, India, to the remote rural villages of in-land China, the poor are already choosing private schools in vast numbers. And those schools are significantly outperforming their public sector counterparts at a fraction of the cost. Their stories are told in The Beautiful Tree, a compelling new narrative non-fiction book by scholar and world-traveler James Tooley. Cato is launching the book at noon on April 15th at our DC headquarters. I hope someone from the NAACP will attend.
Oh, and in case it matters to anyone, the lead advocate of SC's tax credit school choice program is state senator Robert Ford, an African American Democrat. For some reason the NAACP still opposes it.