Writes Milton Friedman in The New York Times: "School vouchers
can push elementary and secondary education out of the 19th century and into
the 21st by introducing market competition on a broad scale, just as
competition has made progress possible in every other area of economic and
Fires back letter writer Dennis C. Buss: "Free marketeers like
Mr. Friedman may delight in the prospect of competition working 'its magic.'
But the Supreme Court's benighted decision on vouchers actually poses a
threat to the shared civic values and democratic social cohesiveness that
American public schools advance."
A classic argument is restarting itself on fronts hither and
yon. It is about markets and how much elbowroom they deserve in a land of
liberty. A lot? A little? Who decides? And who measures the results?
The voucher question is one front. Another is the question of
fraud and cover-ups on Wall Street; still another, free trade. It seems we,
as a people, want freedom; we just can't figure out how much is good for us.
We thought for a time in the late '80s and '90s we had a pretty good line on
it. Well, here we go again.
The "magic of the marketplace," in Ronald Reagan's phrase, is
the wizardry Milton Friedman delights in and Dennis Buss recoils from.
The central attribute of this magic is its uncontrollability.
Once you set the marketplace to work, it will discard, create, reinvent,
reshape. Friedmanites can't wait to see how it all comes out. Bussians are
sure they know already. What's more, they don't like what they know. They
like things pretty much as they are. They would probably, if pressed, agree
with old Lord Falkland: "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary
not to change." When they walk, you can hear the high-buttoned shoes squeak.
The marketplace is famously disruptive, and plenty of people,
not unreasonably, resist disruption. With some, in politics, it is more than
a case of dislike; it is a case of desire to control and channel and guide.
This instinct flourishes in Washington just now. Many liberals (clearly not
of the classical laissez-faire variety) want to regulate the health-care
industry and tell the pharmaceutical industry what it can charge. They want
to "protect" American industry with tariffs. They want government to oversee
the way companies keep their books. On one hand, they acknowledge the
failures and problems of many public schools; on the other hand, they like
the notion that government ought to make the policy for schools that
supposedly bind us together cozily. Vouchers, so this argument goes, would
cause such ties to loosen and "social cohesiveness" to slack off.
The magic of the marketplace is, for the likes of these critics,
a kind of black art that requires close watching, with garlic wreath and
crucifix in hand. Marketplace critics want to control outcomes -- which in
human terms is understandable. Less understandable is where they get all
that confidence in the outcomes they set out to engineer. It is not as
though the public schools, especially those in the inner cities, were going
great guns. As Justice David Souter observed, dissenting from the 5-4
decision upholding Cleveland's voucher program, "The record indicates that
the schools are failing to serve their objective ... If there were an excuse
for giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause, it would probably apply
Thanks to Souter's minority status on the question, we can
expect to see vouchers prove or disprove themselves. We might recall
meanwhile our recent celebration of that incalculable dice toss, the
Declaration of Independence. Control outcomes? Americans couldn't even
control food and ammunition supplies for their troops in the field. Still,
it worked. The marketplace -- and those battlefields where notions of
cohesiveness flew into the air like sparks -- won the day for freedom and
It just might happen again.