From the Founder: Between the Ideal and the Possible

The ultimate goal of our efforts can be started simply: reduce the role of government in order to increase individual freedom. The tough part is agreeing on the specifics. What’s the size and scope of government that’s desirable? By what means do we get there? What is the right balance between accepting the need for incremental change and advocating for core principles?

First we must establish a vision of limited government, but we have to do so recognizing the electorate will ultimately decide to what extent they’ll accept that vision.

Therefore we must devise messages that are convincing to the majority of citizens and find distribution channels that reach millions. The millions on which we focus are students who are still forming their vision of a just world. 

The second challenge relates to the first. People are naturally “conservative” in their behavior; once they’ve formed an opinion they are resistant to change. Bring them a radically new insight and they are likely to refuse to give it any consideration. But with young people, this isn’t always the case.

Consider two aspects of Milton Friedman’s thought: his definition of the limited role of government and his advocacy of school choice. He thought government had only three functions: 

“The basic functions can be listed very simply. They are, first of all, to prevent one man from coercing another- the internal police function. They are, second, providing for external defense. These two are really part of the same: to prevent coercion- to prevent coercion from within, to prevent coercion from without, and beyond this to promote voluntary cooperation among people by defining the terms under which we are going to cooperate together and by adjudicating disputes.” 

Providing education was not included, yet Friedman did not join Marshall Fritz’s effort to abolish compulsory state-funded education. He agreed with Marshall in principle and applauded him for outlining the arguments in favor of taking education out of the hands of government, but he thought to push for immediate repeal of tax-supported education was a push too far.

Instead Friedman conceived the concept of school choice, leaving compulsory education in place. He felt that it was unrealistic to expect to counter 150 years of entrenched government control of education in one stroke. So he devised an approach that would lead to competition between private and government schools, resulting in improved outcomes- thus setting the stage for future repeal of tax based school funding.

We grapple with this kind of decision every day. Whether developing material for our prime audience of 6 -26 year olds or public TV viewers, we must decide how far we can take them on the path to awareness of the power of free markets, the effectiveness of market-based solutions to public policy problems, and the increased well-being from reducing government’s role in our lives.

I am saddened when I hear someone accuse Friedman of being a statist because he put forth ideas for incremental change. We need to constrain our tendency to demonize those who opt for less than complete and immediate realization of ideal. We need both; those who set forth a vision of the ideal society and those who can formulate the steps that can get us closer to it.