Monday, April 25, 2011

What is the Moral Purpose of America's Military?

In a recent Forbes column, historian Paul Johnson argues for “The Moral Logic of Interventionism”. He writes:

But if a great nation such as the U.S. believes in freedom, practices democracy, accepts a Judeo-Christian sense of morality as an ideal, honors human rights, and deplores and denounces all the evils of the totalitarian state--imprisonment without trial, torture, suppression of all freedoms and the slaughter of opponents, their womenfolk and children with artillery, tanks and bombers--then that nation cannot allow a dictator, before the eyes of the world, to violate all the principles of justice and humanity if said nation has the means to prevent it.

Which brings us to the second point. President Obama, in the recesses of his curious worldview, may not like the fact, but America is a great power and is likely to remain the only superpower for some time. It has the aircraft and troops, positioned in bases throughout the world, as well as the immensely powerful fleets of aircraft carriers and landing craft, whose operational reach covers thousands of miles, to undertake almost any kind of mission. These forces are provided at huge expense by the American taxpayer and are staffed by thousands of dedicated young American men and women whose express purpose is to protect civilization from barbarism. That, as they see it and have been taught to see it, is precisely what America stands for; it is the principal moral justification for their nation's immense power and riches.

With due respect to Mr. Johnson, I can not imagine a more destructive foreign policy than one based upon the premise that the “express purpose” of America’s military forces “is to protect civilization from barbarism” because “That … is precisely what America stands for; it is the principal moral justification for their nation's immense power and riches.”

As the Founders understood, the purpose of government is to protect its own citizen’s individual rights. By logical extension, the only moral purpose of a nation’s military is to protect those citizens and their property from foreign military threats. Mr. Johnson’s view, however, is a prescription for a continuation of the endless series of no-win welfare wars such as those that this country has become mired in since Korea. It is welfare statism extended globally.

The moral principle underpinning the “America as world policeman” doctrine, as Mr. Johnson correctly states, is Judeo-Christian ethics, which is rooted in altruism. This ethic must be challenged, because it politically translates into rights-violating governmental impositions of unchosen duty on private citizens. The moral justification for America’s riches, including the military power those riches pay for, is that Americans – each to the extent of his individual productive efforts – earned it. Just as no government should ever be empowered to force any American to pay for the satisfaction of his neighbor’s needs, so no government should send its soldiers into sacrificial humanitarian excursions – or force its citizens to pay for it through taxes. America need not justify its achievements through sacrificial service to the world.

The moral principle that should guide America’s foreign policy is rational national self-interest – which is derived from American citizens’ right to live free and in accordance with their own individual rational self-interest (properly understood: see philosopher Ayn Rand’s ethical teachings). America’s military should be confined to cleanly neutralizing and/or destroying objectively demonstrable physical threats to American lives and property wherever they arise, and leave humanitarian efforts such as Libya to those who would voluntarily pay for and/or voluntarily serve in international military or civilian operations.

Finally, one must ask, what are the “human rights” that Mr. Johnson speaks of? Mr. Johnson calls upon the American government to force its citizens who fund and man its military for the purpose of bringing freedom and “democracy” the world over. In other words, morality dictates that we must bring rights to people the world over at the price of the violation of the rights of Americans. What can justify such a contradiction?

There is a concrete lesson here that serves as further proof of an incontrovertible truth: Altruism, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, is incompatible with ”human” – i.e., individual – rights.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Supreme" support for Education Tax Credits

The Supreme Court recently issued a ruling upholding education tax credits. In an April 4, 2011, decision on Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, the court rejected a challenge to an Arizona school choice program.

The Objective Standard blog had this to say on the matter:

Observe that the Court’s ruling in this case “declared that the plaintiffs in the case lack standing to bring the challenge in the first instance because the program is funded by private contributions, not government funds.” As Justice Kennedy put it: “Contributions result from the decisions of private taxpayers regarding their own funds,” thus “Objecting taxpayers know that their fellow citizens, not the state, decide to contribute and in fact make the contribution.” A tax credit, Kennedy elaborated, “is not tantamount to a religious tax or tithe.” To say otherwise “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands.” This is a feature of tax credit programs—not of school voucher programs—a distinction that all advocates of school choice would do well to recognize and respect.

This is the core issue that I wrote about in my TOS piece, Toward a Free Market in Education:
School Vouchers or Tax Credits?

Whereas under a voucher program, tuition money goes from taxpayers to the government for disbursal to government-approved schools, under a properly structured tax credit program, the tuition money never goes to the government. Rather, that money is retained by taxpayers who opt into the program for use on education in the private market.

Though the narrowness of the ruling (5-4) is a little disconcerting, Kennedy's point is crystal clear and very powerful. The distinction between government and private ownership is a crucial one, because if the state has an automatic first claim on the peoples' earnings, then every choice we make on how to spend our money is by permission of the government rather than by right.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal had this to say about the court minority's position:

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent, accusing the majority of creating a "novel distinction" between a tax credit and a government appropriation. "Either way, the government has financed the religious activity," she wrote. "And so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy."

But it's Justice Kagan and the statist minority who offer the novel -- and dangerous -- approach.

Tax write-offs are very different than subsidies. If a tax deduction were a "subsidy," then virtually every government entity in America already stands in violation of any ban on "subsidizing" churches and other charities by the simple fact that most such enterprises are in many ways "tax free."

Many Americans write off their home mortgage interest. Is this a "direct subsidy" to those homeowners, meaning the government has a financial interest in their house and therefore has a right to inspect the premises without a warrant?

As the Wall Street Journal put it, "no fewer than four Justices seem to believe that all wealth belongs to the government, and then government allows citizens to keep some of it by declining to tax it".

But ownership and the associated rights to use and disposal is not transferred from private individual to government by the simple enactment of a tax. This is true both factually and logically, as the majority opinion attests. The money must actually change hands. Owing a tax and paying a tax are not the same thing, and if legislators establish a tax credit and you take advantage of the opportunity, you are spending your own, not the government's, money. (Of course, the government has no right or legitimate authority to levy education taxes to begin with, according to our American concept of individual rights. And this case highlights the overarching danger of government financing of activities other than that related to its proper function of protecting individual rights. Direct government financing essentially means using private money as a means of control over those who earned it.)

The narrow split among the High Court's justices demonstrates how close we are to another major expansion of government power. But for now, the road is cleared, at least legally, for the enactment of more education tax credits.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Q & A on Free Market Education - 1

In my article, Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits, I put forth a parental school choice plan that would initiate a transition from our predominantly government-run school system to a free market. Inevitably, questions would arise. For example, a correspondent on my blog submitted the following (attached to an unrelated post):

“I understand that you are a supporter of free market education, so if you don't mind I would like to ask you several questions with regards to your perspective”.

I’m not sure whether “Michael” is referring to a fully free market or my tax credit program fully implemented. Actually, it’s not entirely clear whether this correspondent is responding to my article at all, but I will assume that Michael has read it and is familiar with my plan. For an in depth look at a fully free market, see Andrew Bernstein, The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools (Objective Standard, Winter 2010-11, subscription required).

Under your system, who decides what is taught?
Who decides curriculum across the country?

These two questions are related. We’ll start with an examination of who decides these questions under the status quo. Under our collectivized public school system, central planning government officials decide, such as local school boards or State and Federal Departments of Education. However, their decisions are not made in a vacuum. Andrew Bernstein describes the nature of the process:

[G]overnment schools create irresolvable conflicts regarding curricula, textbooks, and teacher training.

In a mixed economy [a mixture of freedom and government controls], such as America’s, competing interest groups vie to gain control of the [political apparatus], seeking to impose their preferred educational standards on the nation’s youth.

Consider just a few of the conflicts arising from the current American system. Some groups want schools to teach creationism; others want them to teach evolution. Some want schools to teach the “virtues” of socialism and the “crimes” of America; others want them to teach the virtues of freedom and the unprecedented accomplishments of America. Some want schools to teach that America is a Christian country; others want them to teach that America is a secular republic. Some want schools to teach the “look-say” or “whole language” method of reading; others want schools to employ phonics.

Such conflicts follow logically from the coercive methods by which government schools are funded, populated, and operated.

By contrast, private schools entail none of these problems.

Under my transitional plan, those hideous conflicts will continue, but only as it relates to the government-run schools. Any parent employing tax credits under my plan would in effect be opting out, and taking responsibility for what and how his child is taught. Likewise, any educator offering private educational services is left free to decide on textbooks, educational philosophy, hours of operation, teacher credentialling, and tenure policies – any matter relating to his chosen educational mission. In similar fashion to the freer sectors of the economy such as automobiles, food, or computers, the customer – in this case the parent – is free to choose from the variety of educational choices offered by educators competing for his business. Both educators and parents are acting freely and non-coercively. Neither can force their ideas on the other, nor can government bureaucrats or any other third party impose theirs on either. Children receive schooling when parents and educators agree on the terms of a voluntarily contract. Educators will thrive or fail based upon their ability to attract enough parents acting upon their own judgement. Any parent who fails to find a school they deem acceptable is free to use his tax credits to homeschool or hire private tutors.

Who decides curriculum? Someone must, and the choice is clear: either a handful of politically pressured government officials with the power to force their ideas on everyone, or millions of individual parents and educators associating voluntarily and acting on their own judgements in a legally protected atmosphere of contractual freedom. Only the second – the free market – is moral, because force is removed from the educational equation.

How do people of one state, or tax bracket even, ensure their kids get the same quality education as the next state?
It costs more to run some states, and some states have more people and expenditures. Who decides?

These two questions are also related, and really deal with multiple aspects. I’ll break it down.

Who is concerned about getting the “same quality…as the next state” in any product or service they purchase with their money? People typically seek out the best product at the best price they can find that fits their budget. In freer markets, the spread of the best quality products are not – or at least are much less -hindered by artificial state barriers. Products that successfully attract consumers in one state can quickly be offered in others as producers seek to expand sales. Likewise, in a free education market, there are no barriers to interstate education commerce, which means that the best educational institutions can offer their services anywhere. Besides, what if the next state’s schools are inferior? In a fully free national education market, those inferior schools would quickly be replaced with better ones, bringing educational standards up to the best levels available elsewhere. Under my plan, better quality private schools would flourish, and the inferior government schools would shrink as they lose students and funding to the voluntary decisions of more and more parents.

My tax credit plan is most practical at the state level, at least in the short term. Multiple states that adopt tax credits modeled after my plan can form reciprocal agreements so a taxpayer in one state can fund the education of a child of another participating state, if they like. The fact that differing levels of funding or population exist is irrelevant, because under my plan the ETL (Education Tax Liability) and AAC (Average Attendance Cost) governs. For a detailed explanation of how these limits apply, see my article.

As to the issue of different tax brackets, under my plan, there is no tax-subsidized private education. A taxpayer can claim tax credits only up to the limit of his education tax liability. They can only control the money they would otherwise have sent to the government as K-12 taxes – i.e., their own money. Beyond that, they must rely on other income or private philanthropic education scholarships or grants.

Who decides? Ultimately, whether under my plan or a fully free market, those who earned the money in the first place do.

Where does the money come from to start these schools?

Where does the money come from to start any private business? It comes from private investment capital; i.e., savings. Investment capital is not the problem in education. What’s missing is a viable market for private schools. My plan will begin to restore that market, which is currently suppressed by force of the compulsory public school establishment. Empowering taxpayers to take control of their education dollars would unleash an explosion of demand for private educational services and act as a magnet for profit-motivated investors and philanthropists alike.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Understanding Education Tax Credits

Following my comments posted to Bob Braun's NJ Star-Ledger article and published here on 3/26/11, N.J. vouchers would wrongly use taxes for schools with religious affiliations, two correspondents posted rebuttals to my comments. Here are their rebuttals and my posted responses:

Really? February 12, 2011 at 1:17AM

Maybe I am completely mistaken - but the corporations get to "donate" the scholarship funds and then get a complete tax write off on those funds. If I donate $100 to something and there is a tax law that says I can completely get my money back when I do my I really donating $100? No, I am simply playing some crappy political game.

If I donate that $100, and my money goes to some kid for a scholarship to a private school, my private money went to that private school...ok fine. But when I do my taxes, and get to claim that I donated that the private (possibly religious) school, and get all of my $100 back...who just gave me my money back? Oh yeah - the State of NJ. And by the state of NJ, I mean the tax payer of NJ. I'm sorry - it really isn't too hard to put 2 and 2 together here. Just because my money went in one end (to the private school) and came out the other (in the form of a tax refund) , doesn't mean I can't figure out where the money actually came from...the tax payer. What do I care? I just got my $100 back and I get to feel good about myself!

Really? You are falling for this crap?

zemack February 12, 2011 at 3:58PM


Facts aren't "crap". Who is "the tax payer"? It's you. You earned the $100. You spent it. At tax time, you're not getting it "back". You're simply not sending it to the government. No other taxpayer is involved. In the case of education tax credits, money spent on education doesn't change. What changes is who decides how it is spent. In you're example, you - the one who earned the hundred bucks to begin with - decides, rather than some government bureaucrat.

What complicates the issue is that, even with tax credits, compulsory taxation still underpins the system. This creates the illusion that the state owns your money, and that any reduction in your tax burden is a gift from the state, paid for out of other people's taxes. But, as long as your money goes toward the intended purpose - in this case education - you are not getting anything from the state or other taxpayers. You are simply gaining greater freedom to act upon your own judgement, with your own money - an unalienable individual right that has too long been neglected.

seestraight February 11, 2011 at 8:09PM

Without public education the country becomes like some third world country. Most people go through public education. Better to have millions ignorant than half-decently educated? I think not.--Not for us allYou want to eliminate it? or only pay for it if they teach what you personally think they should? What should we do poll every taxpayer and if they dont like this or that, they dont have to pay? Do that every year? Every course? Every semester? Every teacher? Get real. We need public education to compete with the world and to have our country-- the whole country do well. 25 educated kids and 100,000 ignorant? No skills? Yea-- that house will stand, but not for long.

zemack February 12, 2011 at 4:02PM


"What should we do poll every taxpayer and if they dont like this or that, they dont have to pay? Do that every year? Every course? Every semester? Every teacher?"

Yes, except that there would be no need for a poll. In a free market, everyone would be free to act upon their own individual judgement in regard to education. Parents and educators would be free to contract voluntarily with each other - the parents in pursuit of the best education that meets the needs of their own children and their own wallets, and educators competing for their business based upon educational philosophy, price, and overall quality.

I agree, without education "the country becomes like some third world country". What we shouldn't have is government-run schools. But your basic premise that without compulsory "public education" only 25 out of every 100,000 kids would be educated implies that almost no parent values education. But, if so few in the country valued education, then no school system would work, whether government-run or private. Your argument is self-refuting and absurd on its face.

Education is a supreme value. Almost everyone agrees. That's why we need to get government out of the business of financing and running the schools.