Saturday, November 19, 2011

school vouchers and the separation of church and state

I was surprised to find that some atheist activists get riled up over school vouchers. Hemant Mehta lays the issue out:
There’s one main reason church/state separation advocates don’t support school vouchers: It would allow parents to send their kids to religious schools on the taxpayer dime. (Want a second reason? The private schools also wouldn’t be held to the same accountability standards as the public schools.)
Separation of church and state means that tax money cannot be used to fund one particular faith (or an “atheist school,” whatever that is) over another.
I think this is misguided. My libertarian instincts nudge me to view voucher programs favorably, because it seems to preserve the most choice for families, given mandatory, publicly funded education. Maybe I'm wrong on this, but I'd like to set that aside the policy merits for now. Do publicly funded school vouchers violate the separation of church and state?

I think the answer is no. Okay, under a school voucher regime, public money indeed finds itself going into the coffers of religious institutions operating schools. But the state is in no way respecting the establishment of any one religion over another, or over non-religion. In principle, the state is essentially doing nothing other than giving each student a backpack full of money and telling them to go get educated with it. It would be a different story if every student was given a voucher and only religious schools were on offer, but that isn't the case.

Imagine a church that decided to operate something like a health maintenance organization. And suppose, for the sake of argument, that the federal government decided to mandate the private purchase of health insurance but also subsidized that purchase. Would that also be violating the separation of church and state?

Is the Earned Income Tax Credit a violation of the Establishment Clause because some people are going to tithe or pay for vacation bible school with their tax rebates?

I suspect most atheists are opposed to school vouchers because most atheists are liberals and the school voucher idea is a darling of conservatives and libertarians. And that's fair enough. But the argument from church/state separation is weak at best, and it should not be a priority for atheist activists.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

never a better time to vote Republican

I would love to see civil libertarian Democrats mount a primary challenge to Obama in 2012 and have argued for as much previously. Conor Friedersdorf inspired the post behind that link and he's now offered a twist to the idea: Democrats and independents who are concerned about civil liberties should register as Republicans and vote in the Republican primary.

To get it out of the way first, this will not happen for the same reason that no primary challenge will materialize. If there were enough voters out there hot and bothered enough over civil liberties to make a convincing primary challenge, then we would probably already have more civil libertarians in positions of power.

That said, this is a clever idea. The absolute worst that can happen is that the least dissatisfying of all the Republicans wins, and there is no danger of destabilizing the Democratic party (for those who think that is a bad thing). As Friedersdorf argues, there's really only an upside here:
At this point, Obama is effectively going to run unopposed in the Democratic primary. He'll be the general election candidate regardless. A protest movement that used the GOP primary as its vehicle would, at worst, fizzle out with no real effect. If it succeeded in getting Johnson even a bit more attention, there would be two voices, Johnson and Ron Paul, speaking out in favor of shrinking the military, ending the drug war, and protecting civil liberties; they'd give voice to an actual marginalized constituency on the right that the left should want to see better represented; in the unlikely event that elevating Johnson succeeded wildly, and he won the GOP nomination, the left would have dodged the possibility of President Perry or Cain; Obama would be no less likely to win the general election; and to do so, he'd be forced to move toward the civil libertarians on issues like drugs, war, and homeland security policies, rather than moving right. Much the same logic applies to Roemer. Elevating him would inject into the campaign more talk about the capture of government by various moneyed special interests.
This has an advantage over mounting a primary challenge in that there's no need to start from scratch. Candidates have already surfaced in the Republican primary who are well to the left of Obama in civil liberties. The hardest part is already done!

One disadvantage that Friedersdorf doesn't mention is that there are more races next November than just the presidential race. Voters have the most sway in local elections. If a Democrat switches to Republican on a pie-in-the-sky attempt to sway a national election, then she may lose the chance to vote in a Democrats-only race closer to home. Of course, no one's vote is going to make a difference, one's party identification can remain secret, and there's nothing to stop a RINO (really!) from campaigning for their favorite Democrats.

My favorite aspect of this stratagem is that if it became a habit, if enough people regularly switched parties every election cycle, then that would represent a real assault on the two party duopoly, which would benefit everyone.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

a conservative argument for immigration

Last week Matt Yglesias suggestively alluded to a "national greatness" case for more immigration. This, or at least a more generally conservative case for increased immigration is something I've wanted to write for a while. My own passion for removing barriers to migration come from the more bleeding heart libertarian concerns of 1) greater personal liberty for migrants and natives who would like to peacefully interact with those migrants and 2) the trillions of dollars of potential poverty alleviation. So take this in the spirit of a semi-Ideological Turing test, if you will. I say "semi" because I'm just offering different arguments for a policy I do support, but still, I want to get the motivations roughly right.

Yglesias presents this map of world population density, noting that India and China have a lot of people and they're getting richer all the time. That means that in a short while their economies will dwarf that of the United States. To wax Hegelian, this means India and China will dominate the world historical stage; the story of world history will be the stories of India and China, for better or worse. This is the national greatness case for greater immigration: keep birth rates at or above the replacement rate and throw open the gates to increase the number of Americans. A nation of one billion Americans, with our head start in technology and productivity, can balance the rising powers in the east. We can then extend (what we like to think of as) our historically benevolent influence on world affairs well into the foreseeable future.

The skeptical conservative might balk at this, suggesting that opening up the gates to a bunch of Chinese is not a good way to curb China's relative influence in the world. I suppose conquest of a democratic state through immigration is possible, but it is hardly a plausible in the light of America's history. America has had for long stretches effectively open borders, and in every case incoming immigrant communities have assimilated--learned English and adopted American institutions and culture in just a couple generations. The conservative spin I suggest is this: immigration is a way of making more Americans. Few people worry now about the fate of the Republic in the hands of swarms of Italians or Irish or Germans or Japanese now. This isn't because those populations were successfully got rid of; it is because they are Americans now. For the sake of the paranoid conservative, an open immigration policy can be combined with stricter assimilation requirements as well.

In principle this applies to Europe as well. While EU enlargement isn't big on anyone's agenda at the moment, one can view admission of new nations into the EU as a way of wrapping those nations within the customs and institutions of the Europe. My impression is that much of the opposition to allowing, say, Turkey into the EU comes from fears that teeming Muslim Turks will threaten the liberal, secular society the western European nations have fashioned for themselves. But, as in the case of US immigration (or for that matter a North American economic union), the current EU nations have a better bargaining position and are more likely to make Turkey more secular and more liberal than vice versa.