In an era in which many statists are doing their best to assure themselves and others that they are not socialists, this might be a good time to visit one of the most deeply entrenched and popular socialistic programs in our time — state-supported colleges and universities.
State-supported colleges and universities receive their revenues in two ways: voluntarily (e.g., through tuitions and donations) and coercively (i.e., through taxation). From a moral perspective, the difference between these two forms of funding is the difference between day and night.
Let’s assume that a college receives no state funding and that it relies entirely on voluntary support. Through tuitions and donations, it is able to raise $10 million per year. Each year it spends the full amount of the money it receives.
One day, the school president decides that he would like to expand operations by $3 million a year. During its annual fundraising drive, the school does its best to raise $3 million in additional donations.
However, while the school is able to raise its usual $10 million, it is unable to convince people to donate the extra $3 million. The school will have to shelve its expansion plans.
But then the college president gets an idea. He exclaims to the college board of trustees: “The donors are wrong. They should easily see how important our expansion plans are. They should have said yes when we asked them to donate the extra $3 million to us. Why don’t we go to the state legislature and ask it to use the coercive power of the state to levy a tax on our donors that raises the $3 million we need, and then give the money to us?”
A libertarian on the board objects: “Wait a minute. Where is the morality in that? When we approached these people and asked them to donate the extra money to us, they refused, which is their right. After all, it’s their money. How can we morally justify forcibly taking the $3 million from them? If we did it privately, we’d be stealing. How is it different in principle if we use the state to accomplish the same end?”
The college president responds, “The difference is that we live in a democracy, a political system in which the majority rules. If the majority of the people, as reflected by their elected representatives, vote to take those people’s money from them and give it to us, that’s what democracy is all about. If those people don’t like it, they can elect other representatives to public office.”
The libertarian responds: “But fundamental rights are not subject to majority vote. We wouldn’t countenance forcing people to go to church even if the majority supported such a law. Why should we countenance what amounts to the stealing of other people’s money simply because the majority has approved it?”
State-supported colleges and universities say that they couldn’t survive without state funding. That might or might not be true. But is that any moral justification for forcibly taking people’s money from them to fund school operations? If a business can’t survive in a free and voluntary marketplace, then why shouldn’t it go under? When people decline to support it, that’s because they choose to spend, donate, or invest their funds elsewhere. Why should they be forced to fund an operation that they have chosen not to support?
In an era in which government spending and debt at all levels continues to soar, one of the best ways to reduce spending and borrowing would be to eliminate all government funding of colleges and universities. It would not only be the fiscally responsible thing to do. It would also be the moral thing to do.