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Vouchers and Visions of Freedom: A Fictional History

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One hundred and fifty years ago, in 2009, shortly after the inauguration of Hillary Clinton as the first woman president of the United States, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress reached a consensus concerning the moral decay of American society. Corruption and unethical behavior in both private and public life had become pervasive. In the Senate and the House of Representatives, members of both parties stepped forward to denounce the decline of virtue and common decency in every corner of social life. The two parties disagreed about the causes for this growth of an immoral society, but both insisted that “something had go be done.” Their mutual fervor in calling for “action” was reinforced by public opinion polls that showed that a large majority of the American people wanted the government to “do something.”

The Republicans, firmly believing in the incentive system, proposed that those American taxpayers who were recorded to have attended church with their families at least half the Sundays during the year be permitted to deduct from their income tax 110 percent of every dollar they contributed to churches and charities. Those who failed to meet this church-attendance requirement would be allowed to deduct only 75 percent of their charitable giving from their taxes.

The Democrats insisted that relying on a tax-incentive mechanism was both uncertain in its effects and inherently immoral in itself, since it depended upon the motive of greed and financial self-interest. Instead, President Hillary Clinton, in an address before the two houses of Congress, quoted her two-term Democratic predecessor in the White House, Al Gore, who during his own run for the presidency in 2000 had said, “The Constitution is a living and breathing document … intended by our founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people” and that it was important not be “locked into a rigid interpretation of the Constitution.”

President Hillary “Give ‘Em Hell” Clinton called for a more flexible interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. She said that in reading “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” one had to take a “progressive” understanding of what the Founding Fathers meant when they said “make no law.” The American people certainly did not want the federal government to establish a new religion; but there was nothing in a “forward-looking” reading of the Constitution that would prevent a government-church partnership in which the federal government mandated compulsory church attendance. In turn the federal government would regulate those religious faiths participating with the federal authorities to guarantee that the various theological doctrines would not contain any “hate messages,” while at the same time respecting a rainbow coalition of religious diversity.

Which churches individual families would be assigned to attend for moral education and spiritual guidance was to be based on an intricate and politically sensitive affirmative action program based on ethnicity, race, sexual preference, gender-orientation, and prior family connections to various denominations and faiths. For agnostics and atheists, Hillary Clinton proposed mandatory nondenominational meetings during which the attendees would have their “consciousness raised” through teachings and reflections on man’s place in and responsibilities for our common environmental village, the planet earth. Mandatory church attendance would be financed through compulsory giving at each church equal to 10 percent of family members’ joint income.

With a sizable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Hillary Clinton’s proposal easily passed over the objections of the Republicans who wanted people to be able to choose the church they would be forced to attend. During the eight years of the Gore administration four new liberal members had been added to the Supreme Court, ensuring that the mandatory church attendance legislation would be found to be Constitutional when it finally came before the highest court of the land. But even the dissenting, more conservative minority on the Court had merely argued against some of the details of the law.

For a long time most people supported the idea of mandatory church attendance. It seemed to be instilling a common set of values and moral guidelines for everyone in American society. And most important, it had to be viewed positively for “the children.” Parents just could not be trusted to provide the essential and minimal training in ethics and moral conduct necessary for all boys and girls to properly develop their personal self-esteem and collective sense of responsibility for the greater common good.

But around 2110, a growing unease began to emerge in American society about the mandatory church-attendance system. In spite of the best efforts and numerous federally sponsored blue-ribbon commissions assigned to reevaluate the common moral content of the various religious faiths and denominations operating through federal legislation, the moral character of the younger generation seemed not much better than in 2010. Indeed, many argued that in some ways the youth of America were even more ethically illiterate than in the darkest days of that backward 20th century before enlightened government had taken a hand in helping to ensure the moral education of the American people. In 2050, the government’s Gross National Moral Character (GNMC) index had stood at 115 (2010 = 100). But in 2110, even with periodic revisions of the components in the GNMC index, it stood at 103.

Furthermore, the tax burden of mandatory church attendance had been going up and up. From the original compulsory 10 percent of family income, it had now gone up to 25 percent. As the government-measured moral character of the American people either remained stagnant or actually declined, the case had been made that there was a need for more church teachers, larger building facilities, and more user-friendly and interesting computer games for the little children to utilize in learning the socially desirable moral values. Federal spending out of general revenues had gone up as well, to assist local police in doing random sweeps of people’s homes while they were at Sunday church services to unearth antisocial and ethically undesirable literature and devices in their possession.

At the same time, tensions had increased among the parishioners at their assigned churches. Disputes had developed about church prayers, Sunday sermons, and the Sunday school lessons for the children. Groups fought over control of their assigned churches, since they were not allowed to attend a different church; each group took the attitude that if they didn’t control their church’s activities and doctrines some other group of the parishioners would. As a result, the fights often became heated and even violent during church meetings.

Finally, some people began to form private church structures outside the government’s legal religious institutional framework. Even while being forced to attend their assigned church on Sunday and paying a 25 percent tax on family income to do so, small groups of people holding different philosophical or theological views pooled their money together, built private churches outside the governmental structure, and met on some other day of the week. And some people began to home-church their children in religious values and ethical standards, organizing and sharing lesson plans and catechisms among themselves.

In a few years research evidence about these private alternatives seemed to suggest that young people who were taught religious and ethical values at private churches or at home were more honest, trustworthy, reliable, hardworking, and respectful of others than the much larger number of young people learning their moral lessons at the government mandatory churches. The government-approved churches and denominations began to criticize and denounce the private churches and parents teaching moral values at home. They argued that these private alternatives were outside any proper regulatory supervision, with no way of knowing what dangerous, bigoted, intolerant, or “cultist” ideas might be spreading among some of America’s youth. Only a common religious training and experience for all of America’s people through the government mandatory church system could ensure the preservation of a proper, unified moral standard for the country as a whole. Politicians of both major parties promised to maintain and improve the quality of the mandatory church attendance system (even though Internet webnews reports suggested that many of these same politicians were sending their own children to private churches for religious training).

The proponents or sympathizers of these private religious alternatives, however, were reluctant or unwilling to challenge the very idea of government involvement in religious and moral educational affairs. The few who talked about “freedom” and an older, strict interpretation of the Constitution were ignored or accused of being “extremists” out of step with modern America. Instead, a case was made for “church choice,” not through a repeal of government-mandated church attendance and funding, but through the implementation of “church vouchers.”

For example, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, Barry Gecker, delivered a lecture entitled “Competition” at the Tradition Foundation in Eleanor Roosevelt, D.C. (known as Washington, D.C., before its name was changed during President Hillary Clinton’s second term in 2014). Professor Gecker argued,

Families with children attending government-mandated churches have become increasingly dismayed by the declining quality of religious and ethical education despite the large growth in expenditures per student. They have become more vocal about the need for greater church choice and competition that would force government-mandated church administrators to offer a more suitable and effective religious training to their children. Parents have put pressure on politicians to resist priests’ and ministers’ unions and their allies who want to preserve the status quo….

In response to this pressure, church choice and church competition have multiplied during the past decade…. Rich families bypass the mandatory church system to send their children to good private churches that operate in a competitive environment…. Unfortunately, poor rural and inner-city families cannot afford private churches…. They are victims of weak mandatory churches…. Vouchers are the best way to bring the innovations and competition of the private sector into a government-mandated church system…. All types of private churches should be eligible to compete for parishioners with vouchers.

Proposals were made for charter churches as well. Charter churches were operated out of the formal government-mandated church system, as experimental alternatives in religious training. They were funded by transferring the parishioners’ 25 percent mandatory attendance tax to the charter church. The charter church priests, ministers, and rabbis had to be certified and licensed (just as those at the government-mandated churches) and the moral and theological curriculum was approved by and operated within the general mandatory church guidelines and rules established by the U.S. Department of Moral Conduct and Diversity Sensitivity.

After a long debate and several court challenges, a system of church vouchers was finally passed by the U.S. Congress in 2115. The legislation still required mandatory church attendance and religious training for every American, but now individuals and families could attend the church and denomination of their own choice, carrying with them a voucher equal to 25 percent of their personal or family income. For the next few years the church voucher system grew with amazing speed. People shifted to churches more in tune with their own personal beliefs, values, and religious faiths. Competing for parishioner tax dollars, churches had to demonstrate the quality of their theological teachings and the success in conveying moral values and ethical codes of conduct to parishioners’ children. The variety and number of churches increased significantly.

But for every existing or new church gaining additional parishioners, some established church lost attendees. Previously established charter churches now faced new competition, also. The administrators and officials of older government-mandated churches and charter churches complained that their existence was threatened by the loss of members and tax dollars. Their ability to serve the important and essential religious needs of their remaining parishioners was being undermined. No longer ensured a membership on the basis of affirmative action attendance assignment, they argued that they were facing religious genocide at the hands of those too bigoted and intolerant to spend their mandatory church taxes in their denominations. They publicly insisted that they needed to be guaranteed minimal funding directly from the government to preserve theological diversity in American society. They lobbied for and successfully passed an increase in the mandatory church tax to 30 percent, with the 5 percent increase transferred to them to maintain religious balance in the society.

These older mandated churches and charter churches were joined by social critics and “experts” in the intellectual community specializing in religious affairs who warned that church voucher dollars were going to religious organizations lacking any regulatory oversight. They argued that these vouchers were still tax dollars and the government had the responsibility to guarantee the quality and content of the religious and moral training supplied by all churches receiving income from the government. They pointed to private churches teaching “bizarre” or “out of the mainstream” theological doctrines. These experts and social critics appeared before Congressional committees highlighting cases of “fly-by-night” private churches and various financial frauds committed with church vouchers. There just had to be laws and regulations to prevent these things, they insisted, for the good of the moral character of the people of America.

When the public opinion polls showed that 57 percent of registered voters agreed with the need to regulate all churches receiving voucher dollars, the Congress acted. In 2120, all alternative, private churches receiving vouchers were placed under federal regulation. All priests, ministers, and rabbis, and catechism and ethics instructors at these churches had to be certified and licensed by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Moral Conduct and Diversity Sensitivity was authorized to approve and oversee the theological and ethical doctrines taught at all churches receiving voucher income. Churches practicing “questionable” doctrines were threatened with a loss of their voucher eligibility, unless they modified their teachings to conform to government guidelines.

Many churches facing this dilemma denounced the federal regulations as a violation of religious freedom, but the vast majority finally buckled under the government’s rules after realizing that their very existence would be in doubt without the voucher dollars. A few tried to go it on their own without voucher income, but because of the inability of many churchgoers to pay both their mandatory church tax and a voluntary tithing to the church of their personal choice, most of these defiant private churches went bankrupt. The few that survived operated on the fringe, with only a small handful successful and able to offer their parishioners a true freedom of religious choice.

An outward appearance of religious diversity continued to prevail because of the church voucher system, but at its heart it was the government that determined the range of the alternatives for religious practice. In the name of making citizens moral and better human beings, the government had succeeded in strangling the possibility for a real market in religious ideas and theological teachings. Even worse, the system had now continued so long, and enough generations had lived under government moral tutelage, that it had come to be taken for granted that it was the duty of the government to guarantee the moral and ethical training of the people.

Whether it was through direct and compulsory assignment to a church or parishioner option in a voucher system, the underlying assumption was that it was the duty of government to dictate and determine the nature and content of the ethical, moral, and religious values and beliefs held by the citizenry of the United States. The most fundamental of matters of freedom of conscience were considered “affairs of state.”

But in the 2140s, the growing degeneracy of moral and ethical conduct in American society once again became a dominant issue. Even advocates of the compulsory church system began to wonder whether the government really had the ability through its regulatory powers to “legislate morality.” Strangely, after being long neglected by publishers, books on early American history were at the top of the bestseller lists. People seemed to have a new fascination and interest in the founding of the United States and the ideas of freedom that inspired the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. The opinion pages of the webnewspapers (hardcopy newspapers having died out in the 2030s), were often filled with discussions about the meaning of freedom and America having somehow lost its way in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the presidential election of 2152, a candidate appeared on the scene who seemed to capture this rising current and rebirth in American society. After winning the election, he addressed the issue of freedom of choice in his inaugural address in front of the Capitol Building in January 2153:

My fellow Americans, I have just taken an oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. During the long campaign last year leading to this moment, I did not attempt to hide or soften my views in the hope of winning your support. I spoke directly and honestly about what I saw as the problems and challenges facing our great nation in the remainder of the 22nd century. I explained that the America we now lived in was very different from the America imagined and hoped for by those courageous Americans who signed the Declaration of Independence almost 400 years ago.

The Constitution I have sworn to defend is the Constitution of our Founding Fathers, a Constitution grounded in the fundamental idea and ideal of the freedom of the individual. How far we have strayed from their noble vision and dream! Let me quote the words of a long-forgotten 20th-century defender of freedom, a Swiss-American, named William Rappard, who was a clear and principled voiced against the tide of government control 200 hundred years ago. He spoke the following words in the city of Philadelphia in 1937:

The founders of your Constitution were essentially animated by the desire to free the individual from the control of the state. I believe you went further in that direction than anyone had ever gone in the past. And your present Constitution bears the trace of this intransigent, almost ruthless, desire of the individual to free himself from the authority of the state…. I do not think that anyone who has seriously studied the origin of the Constitution of the United States will deny that it is an essentially individualistic document, inspired by the suspicion that the state is always, and always tends to be, dictatorial…. In the latter half of the 19th century and up to the present day, the individual, having emancipated himself from the state and having subjugated the state to his will, has furthermore demanded of the state that it serve his material needs. Thereby he has complicated the machinery of the state to such a degree that he has again fallen under subjugation to it and has been threatened with losing control over it…. The individual demanding that the state provide him with every security has thereby jeopardized his possession of that freedom for which his ancestors fought and bled.

We have asked too much from government because we have failed to understand that government has nothing to give. It can only take from some to give to others or it can take and merely destroy what others have produced. The government can give us neither material comfort nor spiritual balance nor a moral compass. It can, however, destroy all three. In America we have come close to losing all three. Once government took increasing charge for many of our material needs we weakened our individual capacities for self-responsibility. But how could we hope to retain our spiritual balance when we no longer had to weigh, evaluate, and act upon our own decisions as to what are the really important things in life and how we should give purpose to our own lives? And how could we hope to maintain any moral compasses within ourselves when the need to make choices about our lives had been given by us to the government?

So we turned to government to restore our moral sense. We thought that government-mandated church attendance and indoctrination would make us ethical men and women. And when that failed, we turned to “church choice” through a voucher system. But that, too, turned out to be a wrong path, because it soon became entangled in pressure-group politics and additional government regulations that abrogated the very goal of religious choice and moral development.

We should have seen what this had to lead to from the attempts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to establish educational vouchers as a substitute for compulsory, monopoly government schooling. At that time, it was taken for granted that government had to guarantee everyone a basic education. But the monopoly government school system had become the plaything of vested interests in the educational bureaucracy and ideological elites and various pressure groups who all wished to control the molding of the young people of America. At the same time, the quality of public education sank further and further, until finally people began to search for alternatives in the private sector. School choice became the rallying cry of a growing number of parents everywhere in America.

But instead of challenging the assumption that government at any level should be involved in the educating and schooling of the young people of America, friends of freedom chose to propose school vouchers. Let parents spend the tax dollars representing the per-pupil expense of public education at any school of their choice. Thus, the principle of government’s responsibility to see to it that everyone went to school for a certain number of years would be maintained and the dollar-value of the voucher would see to it that some government-determined minimum was spent on every child that went through the schooling process.

It is true that some of the proponents of the school voucher system would whisper in your ear that they really wished that government could be gotten out of the schooling business altogether, but it was “politically impossible” even to suggest such a thing. In their hushed voices they would say that their goal was to use vouchers to get people used to choice in education and to create a network of private, educational alternatives that would get people ready for the idea of freedom in education. Vouchers were merely a steppingstone, they said in an even lower whisper, for the final goal of full privatization of education in America. But it was not to be said out loud because it would undermine any move toward a less government-controlled educational system. People had to be tricked into wanting educational freedom one secret step at a time.

We all know what happened when school voucher systems began to be applied in a growing number of states in the first decade of the 21st century. Their very success led their opponents to argue that with the voucher dollars from government should come government controls over teacher certification and course curricula. And slowly but surely the private educational system in America came under government regulation, just as the charter schools had been from their beginning. And what began as a well-intentioned idea ended up strangling the network of private schools, as well. The same sequence of events occurred in government’s intrusion in educating for morality through mandatory church attendance and the church voucher system beginning with President Hillary Clinton’s administration in 2009.

Here we stand midway through the 22nd century. It is time to admit the false scent we have followed for the last 200 years. There is only one real reform and that reform is repeal. In a free society it is not the responsibility of the government to guarantee education, morality, or the material comforts of life. What is a “proper” education for the people of the United States? I stand before you as the man who has just taken the oath of office to the presidency of the United States, the highest political position in our country. And I tell, I don’t know the answer to that question. Only each one of us, in his own circumstances, within his own families, can make that decision for himself and his children. There is no right answer for everyone.

The advantage of leaving education completely in the private sector is that it will tend to supply as many answers to that question as there are demanders searching for answers and for which they are willing to pay. In the very process of exploring various answers to this question new possibilities will be imagined, while at the same time some methods tried or goals sought will be found less successful or attractive than originally hoped for. And that will begin the open-ended, competitive process of educational improvement and excellence once more.

Nor should we fear for those whose financial circumstances are less comfortable than our own. Before the middle of the 21st century, when the tax bite for the average American became 87 percent of earned income with a marginal tax rate of 92 percent, the people of the United States had generously given tens of billions of dollars for charitable causes of all sorts. Must we really fear that when taxes are lowered parallel with the repeal of each government program, redistributive scheme, and regulatory agency that the American people will not once again manifest that generosity that was one of the hallmarks of a freer America?

But most important, in repealing all federal educational programs and pushing for the abolition of all compulsory schooling laws at the local and state levels we will have removed the greatest danger to freedom of thought: political manipulation of knowledge to mold the minds of future generations of Americans. No longer will compulsory attendance laws and government-mandated curricula determine the “politically correct” ways of thinking, believing, and accepting things in those young, impressionable minds.

So my fellow Americans, I want to assure you that tomorrow, my first full day as president of the United States, I will submit to the Congress legislation for the immediate repeal of all federal laws, controls, and regulations over schooling, religion, and morality. And with this step we start our journey to restore and expand upon the vision of a free society that was promised and hoped for in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).