Arnold Kling  

Libertarians and Public Education

David Henderson on Health Care... Tyler Hits a Home Run...

A reader asks,

Do you believe that it is moral for universities to receive state funds? If so, how would you justify it? As a student that attends a state-funded university, I've had to think about this myself.

I remember that Professor Lester Thurow of MIT said that if you were a Marxist living in a capitalist society it would be ok to get rich. Conversely, if you are a libertarian in a statist society it would be ok to take money from the state.

If you believe in free trade, then you believe in free trade with anyone. My wife once argued that I should join AARP for the discounts, in spite of the fact that I disagree with them. I could use the money I save to donate to organizations that fight AARP's lobbying. That was a rational argument, but I still have not joined AARP.

I don't have a problem with libertarians using state-funded universities.

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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

You have to fight within the system you have. SOmetimes you have to fight against it, sometimes you have to fight to improve it. Sometimes you do the latter to prove that really, we need to do the former.

Here's a little piece I did for the Dallas Morning News:

Mike Moffatt writes:

"If you believe in free trade, then you believe in free trade with anyone."

Don't you guys believe taxation is theft? (I know Tabarrok does)

If so, aren't you basically accepting stolen property?

Arare Litus writes:

"I don't have a problem with libertarians using state-funded universities."

I think that for a "regular libertarian" this "don't fight the tide (but agitate against it and try to change the direction in the future)" attitude is a reasonable, and I would think even moral, position.

But for the strong libertarian? I would like to hear some strong libertarians comment on this. To me, if one claims taxes are EVIL than living off their proceeds is then evil. From actions of strong libertarian professors I actually do not think that they really think taxes are "evil", but instead are "merely" bad - wrong, should be stopped, but not evil.

Here is an analogue:
"If public universities were paid for by literal slavery - say forcing people into sex work and keeping the profits - many would think this evil. One could make a good argument that it was. If however you argued this was evil, and then took the job [of professor] - i.e. existed directly off the proceeds of evil - because it was a good job for you, well - I would not believe your claims that you thought this was evil. I would instead suspect that either you were indifferent to this, relative you want you got..."
From comment section in:

The question revolves around what "evil" means, to most I would think that it brings to mind the worse intentional action that is morally wrong - so wrong that one would want to *distance* oneself from association with it and, if possible, stop it: even to the extent of personally loss and/or risk.

Accepting a sweet job, or other perk, made possible by evil is wrong.

thrill writes:

Perhaps it's a matter of degree, as private universities receive "state" funds too (well, federal) - the student loan program is a subsidy.


"if current assumptions correctly predict future loan performance and economic conditions, the originally estimated gain to the government from FDLP loans made in fiscal years 1994 to 2004 will not materialize, and instead these loans will result in a net cost to the government" (i.e., the taxpayer) - and the economy in 2004 looked a sight better than it does in 2009, making that passage even more prescient

Some unknown voice crying in the wilds has discussed previously how subsidies raise prices:

Floccina writes:

Troy I read your article. William Edwards Deming said that workers should have one unambiguous goal but in your article you seem to put a great importance on the testing function of schools. You say that we need to have high standards for students but as a teacher is not your main job to teach/educate the students that you have as much you as you can? How can you be effective with at the two goals, teaching/educating and testing to insure that standards are kept high? Presumably the reason to keep high standards is to insure that your graduates from your classes are quality people so that consumers of the credentials the give (presumably employers) are ensured of a quality product.

I think that we need a separation of testing and educating. Let the employers figure out for themselves who is qualified. This has added benefit because form many jobs being good at school is not very highly correlated with having talent for that job. In this case lowering standards could actually improve out comes. For example the if strict licensing of doctors means fewer job candidates and employers of doctors are better at separating good doctors from the not so good then schools by making school easier and producing an excess of candidates could raise the quality of those practicing medicine.

liberty writes:

I don't think you actually answered the question.

The question said "Do you believe that it is moral for universities to receive state funds? If so, how would you justify it?"

It did not ask whether it is moral to attend (or teach at) a university that receives the funds, but whether it is moral for universities to receive those funds.

It did not say "accept state funds" so it may simply be asking whether it is moral to fund universities.

Rachel Davison writes:

I struggled with this question but I was always more concerned about my own action: taking government loans as part of my financial aid. I ultimately justified it by reminding myself that if it weren't for the state subsidies and loans, higher education would not be so expensive and there would be more alternative payment structures, fellowships, apprenticeships and the like.

That said, I don't think it is okay to "accept money from the state" without being critical about it. You should, wherever possible, act on your convictions.

I work in non-profits, a notoriously state-funded sector. But I have vowed to never work for an organization that accepts federal funds. I have had three internships and two jobs, and have kept to that conviction. As Ghandi said, you have to "be the change you wish to see in the world."

Floccina writes:

BTW some Anabaptists will take no state funds at all nor use government schools because as pacifists they do like how taxes are collected.

Less Antman writes:

If it is immoral to take government money, then anyone who knowingly takes money from someone who takes government money is also acting immorally. In fact, anyone taking Federal Reserve Notes KNOWS they originated with the government, regardless of how many hands they went through on their way to the current holder. We're all receivers of stolen or counterfeit money.

So I think the argument that consistent libertarians shouldn't take government money proves too much. Because money is fungible, there is no way to find the "rightful owner," and it certainly doesn't seem moral to leave the money with the government to be used for more initiation of force.

My view is that we are each responsible for our own acts of force, so a teacher at a public school is blameless, but a narcotics officer is not, since they are personally using force. Of course, private contractors using force (Blackwater) are responsible for their violence.

Since the government isn't the rightful owner of tax money, I'd rather see it homesteaded by someone acting peacefully. In fact, I would like to see the entire budget of the Federal government consumed by expenditures for actions that are not themselves violent, so as to starve the military-industrial complex, the regulators, and the drug warriors of resources.

So I want universities to grab for every tax dollar they can get, except to fund activities which would be immoral regardless of the manner of funding.

Brian writes:

I am a grain farmer, and though I oppose farm subsidy programs (publicly, and for many years,) I accept the money.

My primary justification for this is that in a fungible commodity market, about 100% of the subsidy gets bid into the cost of production, mostly into land costs. (This also serves as a pretty good argument on why the subsidies are stupid.)

It's like taking a tax deduction or credit in spite of your disdain for the underlying policy objective.

I suppose one benefit of becoming a social democrat would be to never have to struggle with this particular form of hypocrisy.

Arare Litus writes:

"My view is that we are each responsible for our own acts of force, so a teacher at a public school is blameless, but a narcotics officer is not, since they are personally using force."

The teacher, with essentially 100% tax funded life, had *no* responsibility?

That attitude is like someone who thinks "factory meat" is wrong saying "I don't kill the animal myself, so it is okay to eat it" and in general the attitude that libertarians should live with things as they are is similar to someone against factory farming of animals saying "well, our society is so structured - it is basically impossible to completely stop using animal products, so I will succeed in the system as it is - (to waiter, "medium rare please") - and I'll talk about how bad this is, you know, to change things some day...".

That "no responsibility, no trade-off" is acceptable if one thinks things are somewhat minor and acceptable, but should change to be better, but if one really thinks some actions and status quo is evil, evil - really think about this - then it is not acceptable at all.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

I tend to think of it more as reclaiming stolen property. But YMMV. At any rate, steal a bit less, and that's one less hazard we all have to face.

Arare Litus writes:

"I tend to think of it more as reclaiming stolen property"

100% of your lively hood? That is more than reclaiming, that is profiting.

Since you have Nazi in your handle, and Sheep as well, I'll bring this in (I'm surprised it wasn't already!): would it be okay to take a dream job with the Nazi regime, and essentially ignore (and actually legitimize the regime through your acceptance) the actions being taken? (the analogue is somewhat of a cheap shot - but the use of "evil" by strong libertarians indicates that they are making the connection, there may be levels of evil but the use of the label suggests the same class of issue). We look down at "sheep" in our society as they do not take a stand against what is wrong - they instead self justify their actions and munch on the nice green grass.

Are strong libertarian profs sheep?

filbert writes:

Is it immoral to use government-built roads?

Is it any wonder why libertarianism remains a fringe political philosophy?

The two questions are, imho, intimately related.

Libertarians need to worry a lot more about constructing arguments that are persuasive to large swaths of the general public, and a lot less about how many angels might dance on the head of a pin.

Jim writes:

If accepting funds is morally evil per se, then so would accepting goods or services in kind be as well. This leaves all of us committing innumerable evils every day, as we drive on government roads, shower with water provided by government utilities, or take our kids to play in a government park.

Dirtyrottenvarmint writes:

What are really odd are the so-called private universities which receive hundreds of millions of dollars of direct government funding, not to mention indirect funding (such as NEA grants to professors).

Kovacs writes:

The fact of the matter is that everyone is robbed by the State. The only moral thing to do, in my view, is to take back in benefits the proportion that was stolen from you, no more, no less. While this is arguably hard to calculate, it’s undeniably better that a libertarian (who opposes the government service in question and would work towards its repeal) benefit over a statist (who would have no moral qualms about perpetuating the institutionalized coercion). See Walter Block on this:

Zdeno writes:

You guys and your moral hand-wringing... This is why the Left has been steadily advancing it's cause at your expense for the past 80 years. If the state is (as most of you seem to believe) nothing more legitimate than a group of stationary bandits, coercing wealth and obedience out of it's victims, than we should have absolutely no moral qualms whatsoever about draining its funds for our own personal gain.

Arnold, join the AARP and extract whatever benefits you can. It helps you, and hurts them.

Kovacs, put away your calculator. Take back whatever you can, and if that puts you over your limit, so be it. I'll take a bank error in your favour over the alternative.

And to the rest of you losing sleep at night over whether to accept student loans, use the highway or whatever. Cool it. Remember we are talking about a fundamentally criminal organization here, one that is run by men unconstrained by the niceties of moral tenets. If libertarians continue to let such morals guide their actions in their war against the Alinskyite left, they will continue to experience their present level of success.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go spraypaint "who is John Galt?" on some public highways.


Matt C writes:

I'm willing to compromise my principles to some extent. I've worked (and still do sometimes) for organizations I think are useless-to-bad.

I think for most people, if you are willing to follow the money for a step or two, it would be very difficult to live without taking money that is somehow tainted from the state or state privileges.

I don't think twice about taking advantage of state subsidized or state run services. Again, you'd have to go live in a cave to not do so.

There are still things I won't do and don't do, though. I wouldn't give money to AARP. That organization is going to destroy the U.S.A. I'm pleased you've chosen not to help fund their mission, despite the tempting discounts. :)

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Arare Litus: no sheep for you, young man. Come back, one year.

Also whatever ZDeno just said, mostly. Libertarians, who I am obviously not one of, are figures of fun for just the reasons he outlines. Doesn't mean there isn't something endearingly earnest about them, but come on.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

As to this:

Remember we are talking about a fundamentally criminal organization here, one that is run by men unconstrained by the niceties of moral tenets.

That's observably wrong. Your basic average GS-12 is not a criminal. Your basic average staff sergeant isn't, either. At a bit more senior level you might ponder the example of our own El Presidente. I would say he is a fair representative of the technocratic, permanent-government class, the sort of person whose ambition is to help guide policy, and who considers himself qualified to do so (more than any of us rabble, of course. but that's just hauteur, and snootiness isn't a crime.) El Prez is manifestly not unconcerned with moral principle, and you're going to oppose him it won't do to simply label him an amoral criminal, however strongly you may feel the need to separate your views from his.

Jim writes:

Walter Block has written extensively and insightfully on this topic.

As I commented above, refusing to accept government funds in order to avoid moral culpability for government aggression in acquiring the funds quickly leads to absurdity. Instead we should realize that it's OK to accept government funds just as and to the same extent that it's OK to reclaim stolen property from any other type of criminal.

Arnold's example of choosing whether to join AARP raises a second issue; is it morally permissible to actively support an organization that will use your support to lobby for further government aggression? Clearly not, as we've now gone from accepting government funds as a way of reclaiming previously stolen property to actively conspiring to commit future acts of theft.

Arare Litus writes:

"You guys and your moral hand-wringing..."

I think most libertarians are "soft" in the sense that they are like the vegetarian who thinks that factory farms are bad: they will change their behaviour somewhat, consider what is a reasonable sacrifice & stand and what is empty fighting the tide for no reason, and make a stand at a line that they consider to be a moral threshold. In the same way simply living in our society means you are killing animals, even if you are some extremo vegemite, you are living off taxes. But that doesn't mean it is futile to consider where your line is. Perhaps, as you become "stronger", in belief you have to switch to tofu (or turn down an academic job and work for a think tank), but to start attacking farmers and people with leather wallets is futile (and insane), just like not using a road would be.

In general these types of questions is both fun and interesting - and cuts to the heart of what we mean by being human, morality, ability to judge others, etc. Should Nazi prison guards be prosecuted now? Were they not simply trying to live in a flawed system? Should Bush & gang be prosecuted for bringing in torture and removing the ability of America to even pretend to be a moral beacon? How about people who lived with the status quo in slave times? Etc.

To me becoming a strong liberatarian prof is pretty much like a "strong vegan" ordering rare steak daily, because it is so damn delicious and it gives them the strength to battle those evil animal killers.

I'm interested in this question, as I don't really believe "extreme" libertarians when they talk about taxes being "evil" - their words and actions are way too disjoint, and I would like to see them either defend their actions, change their words to be less hyperbolic - and thus counterproductive, or do something else in order to demonstrate that they really think what they say.

Bryan? - do you think taxes are "evil"?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

If the mafia that you paid protection money to offered to put you kids through college, would you accept the money?

H writes:

Is it immoral to use state services? Of course it is. And paying taxes is even more immoral because it helps the state. The more you work, the better it is for the state. That leaves us with only one logical choice: going Galt.

Ben writes:

Imagine you lived in a communist country, and the options were accept food from the state or die. As few would choose to starve, I think accepting state funds can be reasonable if the state makes it necessary (e.g. tuition fees caps in this country (UK).

Michael Kolczynski writes:

I refuse government subsidies on my education. I don't even take subsidized loans.

How else can you escape the claim that you couldn't do it without state assistance?

I've worked full time since I was 16 to pay for my schooling. And my loan balance is such I could fully pay it off if I move a little money around in a few accounts.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Someone else doesn't like AARP? My wife was eligible several years ago, but she despises their political positions. I say, join them, get their newsletters, then when you write to your senator or representative, you can say, "Although I am a member of AARP, I would like you to know that not all of us agree with their position with regard to X."

For me, peace in the home is more important. No AARP for me.

James writes:

The demands for faux purity here could stand to be clearer.

When a libertarian uses tax funded resources, this is analogous to a situation where a man is extorted to buy cookies and upon seeing that he has no better means of recourse against the extortionist, he eats the cookies. Does eating the cookies constitute hypocrisy or consent to further extortion?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I believe the "tax rebate stimulus" is close to a waste of time, will be spent on Chinese imports, or paying off debt.

Do I believe it is moral for me to get my rebate?


Trust me, they will be spending your money whether you get your bene's or not. And the 1% "conscientious objectors" to "free" money will make no difference whatsoever.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Government takes so much of our hard-earned money that many people are caught between a rock and a hard place. Would we prefer to pay for private schools and avoid all government programs? Yes, of course. But we find ourselves cornered into taking the money, because with every yearly property/school tax increase, we are left with one less week's salary. It's also made worse by the fact that you have to make approximately 1/3 more than what your property/school taxes actually are, because you're getting slammed for income taxes, FICA and God only knows what else before you are even handed your paycheck.

So, the answer is to take back only as much as we've given in.

Troy Camplin writes:

The point of the article isn't the students per se, but the educational system that is creating students who are as I describe. I'm not sure where you're getting a position on testing from the article, though. I think the standardized tests are a disaster. They are designed so that a student at the low end of average on the IQ scale taught by a mediocre teacher can pass -- but we act as though the test were a goal unto itself. We should be teaching in such a way that the test will take care of itself, without any preparation for it at all.

Arare Litus writes:

"I believe the "tax rebate stimulus" is close to a waste of time, will be spent on Chinese imports, or paying off debt."

Getting your taxes back, helping poor hard working Chinese in mutual exchange and profit, and paying off debts - hardly a waste of time, sounds like a prudent and wonderful world to me!

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