Millions of people love Apple computers and wouldn’t be caught using a PC. By contrast, there are many millions of PC users who feel the same way about Apple computers. Many men like double-breasted suits, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in one. Some people swear by Cadillac cars, but my favorite is Mercedes-Benz.
Despite these strongly held preferences, there’s no conflict. We never see Apple computer lovers picketing firms that serve PC lovers. Mercedes-Benz lovers don’t battle Cadillac lovers. In free markets, people with strong differences in preferences get along and often are good friends. The reason is simple. If you like double-breasted suits and I like single-breasted suits, we get what we want.
Contrast the harmony that emerges when there’s market allocation with the discord when there’s government allocation. For example, some parents want their children to say a morning prayer in school. Other parents are offended by that idea. Both parents have a right to their tastes, but these parental differences have given rise to conflict.
Why is there conflict? The answer is simple. Schools are run by government. Thus, there are going to be either prayers in school or no prayers in school. That means parents who want their children to say prayers in school will have to enter into conflict with parents who do not want prayers in school. The stakes are high. If one parent wins, it comes at the expense of another parent. The losing parents have their preferences ignored. Or they must send their children to a private school that has morning prayers and pay that school’s tuition plus property taxes to support a public school for which they have little use.
The liberty-oriented solution to the school prayer issue is simple. We should acknowledge the fact that though there is public financing of primary and secondary education, it doesn’t follow that there should be public production of education. Just as there is public financing of M1 Abrams main battle tanks and F/A-18 fighter jets, it in no way follows that there should be government production of those weapons. They are produced privately. There’s no government tank and fighter jet factory.
The same principle should apply to education. If state and local authorities annually spend $15,000 per student, they could simply give each parent a voucher of that amount that could only be used for education. That way, the parent would be free to choose. If you wanted to send your children to a school that does not have morning prayers, you would be free to do so. And I could send my children to a school that does. As a result, you and I would not have to fight. We could be friends, play tennis and have a beer or two together.
Free market allocation is conflict-reducing, whereas government allocation enhances the potential for conflict. But I’m all too afraid that most Americans want to be able to impose their preferences on others. Their vision doesn’t differ from one that says, “I don’t want my children to say morning prayers, and I’m going to force you to live by my preferences.” The issue of prayers in school is just a minor example of people’s taste for tyranny.
Think of the conflict that would arise if the government decreed that factories will produce either double-breasted or single-breasted suits or that there will be either Cadillacs or Mercedes-Benzes built or that there will be either Apple computers or PCs built. Can you imagine how otherwise-peaceable people would be forced into conflict with one another? Government allocation is mostly a zero-sum game, in which one person’s win necessarily means another person’s loss. The great ignored and overlooked feature of market allocation is that it is what game theorists call a positive-sum game. In positive-sum games, you get what you want, say an Apple computer, and I get what I want – a PC, in this case. My win does not come at your expense, and your win doesn’t come at my expense. And just as importantly, we can be friends.
The writer is a professor of economics at George Mason University.