How Milton Friedman Aided and Abetted Segregationists in His Quest to Privatize Public Education

Yves here. It should come as no surprise the Milton Friedman was willing to get in bed with just about anyone to advance his libertarian anarchist agenda. This post shows how Friedman, even in the era when his economic theories didn’t have much of a following, was nevertheless able to do real harm, here by backing school voucher schemes designed to preserve school segregation after Brown v. the Board of Education.

By Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy, Duke University. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

The year 2021 has proved a landmark for the “school choice” cause as Republican control of a majority of state legislatures combined with pandemic learning disruptions to set the stage for multiple victories. Seven U.S. states have created new “school choice” programs and eleven others have expanded current programs, with laws that authorize taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling, provide tax credits, and authorize educational savings accounts to invite parents to abandon public schools.

“School choice” sounds like it offers options. But my new INET Working Papershows that the whole concept, as first implemented in the U.S. South in the mid-1950s in defiance of Brown v. Board of Education, aimed to block the choice of equal, integrated education for Black families. Further, Milton Friedman, soon to become the best-known neoliberal economist in the world, abetted the push for private schooling that states in the U.S. South used to evade the reach of the ruling, which only applied to public schools. So, too, did other libertarians endorse the segregationist tool, including founders of the cause that today avidly pushes private schooling. Among them were Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Robert Lefevre, Isabel Patterson, Felix Morley, Henry Regnery, trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and the William Volker Fund, which helped underwrite the American wing of the Mont Pelerin Society, the nerve center of neoliberalism.

Friedman and his allies saw in the backlash to the desegregation decree an opportunity they could leverage to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources. Whatever their personal beliefs about race and racism, they helped Jim Crow survive in America by providing ostensibly race-neutral arguments for tax subsidies to the private schools sought by white supremacists. Indeed, to achieve court-proof vouchers, leading defenders of segregation learned from the libertarians that the best strategy was to abandon overtly racist rationales and embrace both an anti-government stance and a positive rubric of liberty, competition, and market choice.

Friedman published his first manifesto for “educational freedom” in 1955—just as conservative white leaders in Virginia were inciting a regionwide strategy of “massive resistance” to the mandate to desegregate public schooling. The success of massive resistance hinged on state provision of school vouchers to parents who otherwise would concede to desegregated schooling. Virginia and other states maintained the vouchers until 1968. That was when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a Virginia-based case, outlawed them as intentionally discriminatory. Yet Milton Friedman held up that purposefully discriminatory Virginia plan as a model for schooling everywhere in Capitalism and Freedom, now translated into eighteen languages, “Whether the school is integrated or not,” he wrote, should have no bearing on eligibility for the vouchers.

Black Virginians opposed these vouchers with near unanimity. Oliver Hill, the NAACP attorney who had co-led Virginia’s piece of the litigation folded into Brown, put the principle in an apt axiom: “No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense.”

In contrast, libertarian thought leaders and the neoliberal cause’s main funder at the time saw no problem with tax subsidies to segregation academies, even in states that denied voting rights to the African Americans harmed by the policy. While Friedman and most of his neoliberal collaborators made their case for privatization in race-neutral language and may not personally have been driven by racial animus, they had no scruples about exploiting white supremacy to move their otherwise unsaleable policy agenda. This history reveals how Milton Friedman and his allies provided aid and comfort to those who presided over a racial dictatorship in the Jim Crow South, an apartheid-like regime that stayed in power through state-sponsored repression, employer retaliation, and private violence.

The collaboration between neoliberal intellectuals and segregationists involved opportunism on both parts, to be sure. But what made it work was the overlap in their values and views of government. Each placed a premium on the liberty of those who had long profited from racial capitalism and sought to shield it from government action on the part of Americans, Black and white, committed to democratic values. At a moment when at least some whites in the South were prepared to accept a more equitable society, neoliberals lined up with the beneficiaries of the old order. Not surprisingly, the outcome was not freedom, but the entrenchment of structural racism.

And the sad fact of the matter is that improving education was never the true reason for free-market fundamentalists’ embrace of vouchers. As Friedman signaled in that first 1955 manifesto and argued for over a half century, school “choice” was a way station on the route to radical privatization. The vouchers were a tactic. The strategy they served was to stick parents with the full cost of their children’s schooling and the labor of finding and arranging it.

“In my ideal world, government would not be responsible for providing education any more than it is for providing food and clothing,” Friedman repeated in 2004 what he had long maintained. “Private charity would be more than ample to assure that there were schools available for every child.” He was as frank in addressing a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) four months before his death in 2006. Said Friedman: “the ideal way [to give parents control of their children’s education] would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.” In the real world, this would be engineered inequality so staggering that it would make today’s inequities look modest by comparison.

That is what today’s libertarian billionaire backers of vouchers, with Charles G. Koch in the lead, are keeping from the unsuspecting parents on whom the cause relies for electoral success, now Black and Latino as well as white. Vouchers, like freedom, are a horse to ride somewhere. The destination would shock most people, but soon it could be too late to reverse course.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    Yves Smith: Thanks for this. The article is an indictment of the whole Chicago School of Economics on a level with all of that help that they give to Chile, too.

    No wonder I often sense that I am living in a new baroque era: ‘Said Friedman: “the ideal way [to give parents control of their children’s education] would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.”’ Yep, let’s head back to 1690, when the music was grand and most people lived in various degrees of poverty and misery.

    For economists like Friedman, though, no tactic is too bad if it furthers their “theories.” Ask the Russians about those glorious days of Yeltsin and Western consultants.

    I also note this: “Vouchers, like freedom, are a horse to ride somewhere.” I will add a corollary that may indeed be the result of years and years of neoliberal propaganda: “Vaccine resistance (not skepticism), like freedom, or posing as freedom, is a horse to ride somewhere.” Examining the current mega-vax-o-kerfuffle, I’d say that the lack of commitment to the care and needs of the community stems from the same source.

    And I won’t even go into the public schools and how they are now a baby-sitting service and viral hotspot, neglected, disdained, and collapsing.

  2. KLG

    Many of my friends from “back home” who are in the group Hillary would joyously call Deplorables now refer to the strong public schools we attended as “government schools.” Our public high school was established in the 18th century. Milton Friedman’s work is done, and I can’t see how it can be undone. But I’m working on it ;-)

  3. Deuce Traveler

    Your Hated Libertarian Lurker here,

    There are different types of Libertarians, just like there are different types of Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and so forth. If the Koch brothers were Libertarians, then they fall under the Anarcho-Capitalist type of Libertarians. Vice had a decent enough argument that when both were alive, the Koch brothers claims to be Libertarians was questionable, considering how their money is used for social programs and to push for war:

    Unfortunately, I can attest that much of today’s available Libertarian material is funded by the Koch family via the Cato Institute. A lot of this material pushes the false claim that corporations would regulate themselves if left to their own devices and that corporations are always more efficient than other structures. Milton Friedman is indeed seen as a high priest of economic theory by the Cato Institute.

    There are other types of Libertarians out there, however, and we are not all anarcho-capitalists (secret corporatists). The individual liberty is of course a core of the political system, as long as one’s liberty does not negatively impact the rights of another. We do not support foreign interventions and foreign war. We do have a free food movement that opposes corporate control of agriculture and encourages the distribution of non-GMO seeds. Many of us also are anti-IP. I myself believe that the all IP should be made public domain 20 years after a creator’s death, so that maybe my grandchildren can read a book published today in their schools instead of being forced to read the Great Gatsby or anything else published before Mickey Mouse was established.

    Anyway, I can go on and on, but there’s a decent wiki on debates within the philosophy:

    Unfortunately, like the Democratic Party and Republican Party, corporate money has had a negative impact on the Libertarian Party. I don’t believe the Green Party has been so bought off, but lately they seem to have had their own set of issues that really damaged their visibility in the last election cycle.

    1. Kirk Seidenbecker

      Except that libertarianism as a movement was founded by corporate shills, Milton Friedman being a pioneer. He was busted in 1950 by the Buchannan Committee for illegal lobbying (back when there were at least whiffs of accountability)…

      “ The purpose of the FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) — and libertarianism, as it was originally created — was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations.”

  4. Jeff N

    The author shouldn’t call them “vouchers”, but “coupons.” They are only useful to non-poor people that can afford private school. They can’t be used by poor students to attend a private school for free.

  5. vegeholic

    This as well as much other enlightening history of the “libertarian” movement are laid out in her masterful book: “democracy in chains”. I highly recommend that you drop everything and read this book.

  6. Questa Nota

    There are some non-racial themes in the public/private, voucher and home-schooling debates. One of those is local control, or at least input, into curriculum, irrespective of school or district racial makeup. There is enough discussion in various forms of media to reflect the frustration of parents around the country over what they view as marginalization of their roles beyond being taxpayers. Insert your favorite hot topic here, from XYZ in the classroom to 123 in the library to decline in favorite electives or whatever. There are plenty of those to go around, including some with an updated taxation-without-representation flavor.

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