Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cleaning up Spotty’s latest mess (School Vouchers)

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:29 AM |  

"Specifically, Sticks is incensed that Spot would accuse him of using minority kids as stalking horses for school voucher plans."
"Incensed" is pretty close to my personal reaction, but my personal reaction is irrelevant, as I pointed out in my previous post. My motives are also irrelevant to the discussion of parental school choice. Spotty’s posts, like the occasional attempts of Bob Moffitt to appear knowledgeable, offer the opportunity to reiterate the fundamental issues at stake -- cleaning up after the dog can be good exercise.

Spotty says "Let's imagine this little scene:" a good word choice, "imagine," a bad attempt at Socratic fisking. My comments in bold.

Spot: Remember, Captain, you’re still under oath.

CF: Yeah, yeah I remember.

Spot: You’re a libertarian, right?

CF: And proud of it!

But let’s make sure we understand what that means. You want to equate libertarians with anarchists, someone that is against all government. And to be fair, there is a lot of that sentiment among libertarians. To say that government is best that governs least does imply that government is best that governs not at all. That’s obviously not true. Today’s libertarian – at least as I use the term – believes that government is best that sticks to those things the government is constitutionally authorized to do. Again, that’s not as simple as pointing to Article 1 Section 8, but that’s a good place to start.

Spot: I’m sure you are. Do libertarians believe in the public interest?

CF: Well, sure! Just not the same way you do. We think it is in the public interest for there to be no public interest. We don’t believe that people can get together collectively to do useful things, except for maybe national defense and the protection of private property rights.

Of course libertarians believe in the public interest, and national defense and protecting property rights (civil courts) are good examples of public goods. What libertarians don’t believe in is public interest at the point of a gun. They beleive first you define a generic public good, and then apply the criteria to specific government actions, not the other way around. Libertarians believe in collective action – what is a political party if not collective action? What they don’t believe in are manufactured collective visions that are the province of whomever is in power forced up on others. A good example of what this means is expressed by the idea that a free society can tolerate pockets of collectivism, but a collective society cannot tolerate any individual freedom. Again, moving away from the anarchist view of libertarianism, libertarians believe that “public goods” should be addressed by the least restrictive (of individual freedom) means.

Spot: We’re all in this by ourselves, right?

CF: Right. And this big invisible magic hand will push each of us in the right direction and it will all come out okay if our faith is strong enough and we just hope for the best. I know that sounds kinda crazy, but that’s what we believe.

“We’re all in this by ourselves” is the straw man used to scare people, and throwing the invisible hand into the discussion is a red herring. But the fish is out of the water, so I’ll deal with it. The notion of the invisible hand – that individual’s acting in their own self interest result in collective benefits to society – is an aggregate concept. It’s the 10,000-foot view, the big picture. It’s based on the idea that no one entity, like government, can possibly have all the immediate information necessary to make marketplace decisions. If you think about it, everything government does is based on a study, a report, analysis, and some decision making process. That methodology can’t possible compete with the immediacy of market fluctuations. By the time government figures out what to do, the situation has changed.

But what about the question “we’re all in this by ourselves”? That is an individual, not an aggregate question. Man is a social animal. He organizes himself – including forming governments – to satisfy his social nature. What libertarians argue is that the smaller the social group, the better it takes care of its own. Helping others expands from the family outward into civil society and up through local governments. Government is the last, not the first resort.

Spot: Will the invisible magic hand give a shove to the neglectful parents who won’t immunize their children or seek medical care for them when they are sick? Will the invisible magic hand stay the hand of a child abuser? Will the invisible magic hand provide for orphans?

CF: It’ll provide for the orphans if they can do useful work.

I’ve already demonstrated the error of addressing individual situations with an aggregate concept. The issues raised here are legitimate questions. Spots wishes to address them from a collective perspective – he and his people know best and they will decide what everyone must do. (Immunization is a good example. From the tone of Spot's remarks, I infer he favors mandatory universal vaccination or at least enough to ensure "herd immunity." If some percentage of the population suffers negative results, that's a necessary "collective" sacrifice.) The libertarian view is addressing whatever public interest is at stake with the concept of the least restrictive means of achieving it.

Spot: Move to strike the answer as non-responsive.

CF: Okay, no, it won’t do any of these things.

Actually, Spot is wrong, but the invisible hand is irrelevant to the discussion he thinks he is having. The real discussion is one of how to provide public goods – of which I believe education is one.

Spot: Thank you Captain. And yet, you believe that privatizing the educational system, will improve educational outcomes? And you want us to believe that little black kids aren’t just stalking horses for your long term plan to destroy public education because it is full of union people?

CF: [chortle] Yes, that’s right.

For someone that claims a legal mind, that is a convoluted jump of logic. As I’ve pointed out numerous times, my motives, have nothing to do with the basic question of given where we are today, what is the most immediate step we can take to improve education of specific children. Spot seems more interested in debating what I think about black children – which has absolutely no impact on their education one way or another.

Spot: Thank you. I have no further questions at this time. The witness is subject to recall.

There it is, boys and girls. Is Captain Fishsticks a credible witness on his concern for inner-city school children? Of course not. He doesn’t give a rat’s arse for them; he’s just interested in another way to put pressure on public schools to try to kill them. Take away as much revenue as you can, bleed them white and watch them die.

Oh no, says Sticks! Rep. Buesgens’ plan is only for low income kids. But, it’s just the camel’s nose under the tent. Pretty soon you’ve got the whole camel! The strategy of the vouchers crowd is to whittle away at publics schools, making them die from a thousand cuts. The inner-city schools are the most vulnerable, so that’s where to start. If you read the comments to Sticks’ post and the two Spot posts linked above, you will see that’s the agenda for a lot of the people who agree with Sticks.

Let’s sort out what Spotty believes from his rhetoric. His first paragraph reiterates his belief that my motives bear on the logic of the argument – or for that matter the motives of some people leaving comments. He reinforces that notion with the camel’s nose under the tent analogy.

That’s the rhetoric; here are the facts and the questions left unanswered.

Under a voucher program, money associated with students leaving district schools would be lost to the district only after a transition period during which the district would receive money for students it was no longer responsible to educate. Vouchers would be limited and voluntary. If the district school were doing a good job for a student, why would he or she choose to leave? If a substantial number of students applied to leave, why wouldn’t the school try to improve? If the school can’t improve, why should it survive? Spot says inner-city schools are most vulnerable – why? Might it be because they are not meeting the needs of inner-city families?

Here are the logical inferences.

Spot assumes that public schools cannot improve if students accept vouchers (which provide transition dollars). Under the current system, if a student leaves the district under open enrollment or for a private school, the district gets no transition dollars. Therefore, the real danger of vouchers is they provide the motivation and opportunity for students to seek a better education than the public school is providing (they might also motivate the family to seek a better private school than one they might have otherwise considered). It is choice that Spot cannot tolerate; kids must be kept in failing schools, not for their sake, but for the sake of the system.

The really disgusting and manipulative thing, one that really requires the stones, is that Sticks’ crowd is enlisting the support of inner-city parents who have endured decades of neglect of their public schools. It is shameless chicanery.

Excuse me, but the “Sticks crowd” is a Johnny-come-lately to the school choice movement. Spot is expressing the subtle form of liberal racism that implies people of color are not capable of accomplishing anything without beneficent white help. The school choice movement is not a white, conservative creation. Inner city black leaders that were frustrated by the failure of public schools, by-in-large Democrats, did the heavy lifting. Go back, read the early literature or the stuff written in 2004 around the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – primarily the voices of the black community. They initiated the “collective action” to do something for their kids and their communities.

Sticks say private school vouchers are also a way for the state to save money. Exactly. Why spend, say $8,000 or more per year on an inner-city kid when you can toss ‘em a $3500 voucher instead, especially when you can make his parents feels fortunate to get it! Is that a good libertarian value, or what!

More rhetoric. The point is neither saving money, which vouchers do, nor that parents feel grateful, which they do. The point is does the individual child receiving a voucher have a better opportunity at an education? Does choice give the child that opportunity? Behind Spot’s rhetoric is the fundamental belief that choice hurts the system, therefore, choice is bad. Some (most?) parents (or just parents of color?) are incapable of making wise educational choices for their children, therefore ALL parents must be denied that opportunity (except parents that can afford the choice, and they must be criticized for making it). Therefore, choice is bad.

Spot says the answer – the only equitable and legal answer – is to stick it out with the public schools and make them better. That runs contrary to Stick’s nature.

That’s fine. But the consequence of that course is that the education of some kids must be sacrificed while the system fixes itself. Yes, that runs contrary to my nature.

Oh, almost forgot! Sticks has been very quiet lately. Just a post of his columns and a couple of other little posts for weeks now. Why? Spot thinks it is because Fishsticks has got a new gig. Why doesn’t someone ask him what it is?

Asking a question must be something that requires collective action. Why else would Spot delegate it.
As I posted before, Spotty is one of those tar baby posters that it doesn’t pay to pay to punch too often because, as his posts demonstrate, discussion is not the goal. Responding to Spotty is like responding to Moffitt, sometimes there is value in pointing out the lack or intellectual substance in non-responsive arguments and taking the opportunity to lay out both the facts and the fundamental principles at stake. Once that is done, so is my work here. There are other "gigs" to pursue.