Vouchers Yes, Vouchers No

The Autumn issue of City Journal, a highly-regarded public policy quarterly published by the free-market Manhattan Institute, contained a fascinating conflict of visions.

One short article by Sol Stern reiterated much of the standard case for educational vouchers, a mainstay of most free-market think tanks and conservative educational reformers. The piece correctly focused on growing number of prominent individuals and organizations on liberal end of the spectrum who have recently moved toward vouchers, notably including the New Republic, ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, and (to some extent) even the news coverage of the New York Times.

These political developments are all true and noteworthy.

But that same issue also contained a far longer and more detailed article by Howard Husock, Director of Case Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School and City Journal Contributing Editor. This article presented the devastating empirical case AGAINST vouchers, albeit housing vouchers.

Husock demonstrates how Republican leaders, naively infatuated with the “magic of the marketplace” established a gigantic housing voucher program which has never been successful and which has actually brought to ruin much of the private housing market impacted by it. Despite this manifest failure, the program has survived and grown, shielded by numerous politically powerful voucher-profiteers.

Although housing and education are admittedly different sectors of the economy, the ideological justifications for the two voucher systems appear eerily similar, and one is hard-pressed to explain why the perverse incentive structures that doomed one would not doom the other as well. In fact, I suspect that a far stronger theoretical case could be made against voucherization of education than against voucherization of housing.

The obvious contrast between these two articles— one rhetorical and boldly optimistic, the other empirical and sadly pessimistic—led me to submit the letter to the editor below, which is published in the current issue of City Journal.

During the 1980s, conservatives rightly pointed out the devastating real-life consequences of so many bold and sweeping policies enacted by well- intentioned liberals during the 1960s and 1970s. I hope that sincere conservatives will consider these critiques when, with the best of intentions, they now advocate a bold and sweeping privatization of our public school system.

P.S.  I write these words today in California, where a bold and sweeping 1996 privatization/deregulation of the electricity market—passed with the unanimous support of every single Democratic and Republican officeholder—has now caused rolling blackouts throughout the state and a possible doubling of electricity prices. Ideas have consequences, and radical ideas have radical consequences, less often for good than for ill.

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