I was watching a school voucher debate on an old episode of the The Firing Line. One of the opponents of moving to the voucher system made an interesting point. It’s a point I have heard quite often actually, but one I have never put much thought into. It goes like this: switching to a voucher system would be a huge boon to the relatively affluent set that already attends private school. And this is true of course. The rich who already go to private school would keep their private school, but now have it paid through public benefits instead of their incomes. The poor on the other hand who go to public school would receive no net benefit from the voucher because in the status quo they are already not paying for school.
This is a distributive argument. Relative to the status quo, a voucher system actually makes society as a whole more unequal. What struck me is how this argument — which is being offered by the left-wing partisan of public schools — totally mirrors my arguments about higher education funding. In the status quo, those who attend college, even public schools, skew rich. At the margin, price may have something to do with that, but price is way down the list of reasons for this class divide in higher education. These rich students stand to gain the most from free higher education. They pay more than poor students do because of price discrimination, and so providing a full subsidy would involve directing considerably more money to the rich than the poor relative to the status quo system of financing higher education.
That is, there are more rich kids and they pay higher amounts. So a full student subsidy of higher education would direct more money to the rich individually and as a class than it would the poor individually or as a class.
I bring this up because while this seems to be an acceptable left-wing criticism of moving to school vouchering (and I think it is), I have found myself met mostly with skepticism for making basically the same criticism of moving to free higher education. I realize the voucher people have other criticisms as well: neoliberalism and alienation and commodification and so on. The usual suspects. But what about this specific argument. Is this specific distributive argument about vouchering a good one or not? And if it is, then does that also mean my distributive argument about nominally leftist thoughts on higher education funding is also a good one?
It would seem like they go together. Either you think the distributive argument against vouchering and free higher education are both good. Or you think they are both bad. Yet I’ve spoken to people who think it is good in the first case, but bad in the latter. So goes issue-by-issue coalition politics, I guess.