(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
Critics of school choice frequently argue that schools are a “public good” that requires public control via democratic institutions (i.e., school boards and state legislatures). Proponents of choice generally respond that school board elections are too easily captured by special interests, that private schools tend to do a better job of inculcating civic knowledge and values, and that school choice better respects the high value our society places on freedom and pluralism.
In a recent blog post, law professor Ilya Somin argues that if we understand democracy more broadly as “people having a say in the decisions that affect their lives” rather than mere majoritarianism (“one person/one vote”), as some modern democratic theorists argue, then school choice is also more democratic:
Much depends on exactly what it means for people “to have a say in the decisions that affected their lives.” If it merely means having some minimal opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, then African-Americans in 1950s Topeka had enough “say” to qualify. After all, they, like whites, could vote in local elections that decided who would get to direct education policy. True, they rarely actually prevailed on issues related to segregation. But repeated defeats are a standard part of the political process, especially for unpopular minorities.
Blacks living in Topeka under segregation had the right to vote, but how much of a “say” did they really have over the public policies affecting their lives? Somin continues:
But perhaps “having a say” means more than just the right to participate, but actually requires people to have a substantial likelihood of influencing the outcome. In that sense, blacks in Topeka obviously did not enjoy true “democracy.” But their painful situation was just an extreme case of a standard feature of electoral processes. In all but the smallest and most local elections, the individual voter has only an infinitesimal chance of actually influencing the result, about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential election, for example. A small minority of citizens have influence that goes well beyond the ability to cast a vote – politicians, influential activists, pundits, powerful bureaucrats, important campaign donors, and so on. But the overwhelming majority do not.
If having a say means having substantial influence over the content of public policy, most of us almost never have a genuine say. Obviously, most voters are not as dissatisfied with the resulting policies as African-Americans in the 1950s had reason to be. But that is largely because their preferences and interests happen to line up more closely with the dominant political majority, not because they actually have more than infinitesimal influence.
Perhaps you “have a say” if enough other voters share your preferences that the government is forced to follow them. But in that event, the government is still enacting your preferred policies only because powerful political forces advocate for them, not because you have any significant influence of your own. In the same way, a person who agrees with the king’s views might be said to “have a say” in the policies of an absolute monarchy. And if, as Glickman suggests, the goal is to give “all people” a say (emphasis added), then any electoral process will necessary leave many people out. There are almost always substantial minorities who strongly oppose the status quo, but have little prospect of changing it.
In short, in a majoritarian system — even one that has significant protections for minorities — you only “have a say” when a significant number of other people agree with you (either to enact your preferred policy or at least to affect whatever policy is ultimately enacted against your will).
The powerlessness of the individual voter is one of the reasons why many libertarians favor making fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by “voting with your feet.” When making choices in the market and civil society, ordinary people generally have much greater ability to make decisive choices than at the ballot box. When you decide what products to buy, which civil society organizations to join, or where you want to live, you generally have a far greater than 1 in 60 million chance of affecting the outcome. Whether or not it is more “democratic” than ballot box voting, foot voting gives individuals greater opportunity to exercise meaningful choice.
Taking the “having a say” standard seriously also entails cutting back on the powers of government bureaucracies. The latter wield vast power over many important aspects of people’s lives, often without much constraint from either foot voting or ballot box voting.
In other words, for people to truly “have a say,” then we must shift the locus of control away from politicians and bureaucrats toward individuals and families.
If having a meaningful say is the relevant criterion, it also turns out that […] school choice […] is more “democratic” than conventional public schools. In the case of the latter, most individual parents have very limited ability to influence the content of the public education available to their children. They can only do so in the rare case where they can exercise decisive influence over education policy, or by moving to a different school district. By contrast, school choice enables them to choose from a wide range of different options, both public and private. And they can do so without having to either move or develop sufficient political clout to change government policy.
If we truly want the most disenfranchised and powerless among us to have a say over their own lives, we should favor an education system that empowers them to make choices about where and how their children are educated. It’s the democratic thing to do.