Why libertarians are so awkward with regard to CRT in schools.
And arguably most other "what should we do/teach/regulate" type questions.
The debate about the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools has been getting increasingly heated in the past year. Parents have had unusual access to seeing what teachers have been professing due to lockdown driven remote learning, and do not much like what they see. Whether we call it CRT or Successor Ideology as coined by Wesley Yang, which I rather like, the notion that most or all of Western civilization is evil and needs to be overturned, white people are inherently oppressors who inherited the sins of their forbearers (whether or not those forbearers actually committed sins against other races), and generally that the entire edifice of Western enlightenment culture is designed towards the ends of white supremacy which is why whites like it so much and other races do poorly. (Oh, and Asians… Asians do really well under white supremacy apparently. Nigerians too. Lots of Indians as well. White supremacy as defined by CRT is apparently a pretty big tent.) Successor Ideology includes the intersectionality groups as well, pretty much summing up the underlying philosophical foundations of the hard left.
Anyway, definitional arguments aside, lots of parents on the moderate to right wing side of the political spectrum are trying to get teaching of CRT banned in schools, with moderate success. Many of the red states have legislatures sympathetic to the move, and are attempting to draft legislation to control what is taught. Those definitional arguments are starting to raise their ugly head here, as usually the hardest part of passing legislation against something is defining just what it is you are making illegal. I expect “I know it when I see it” is going to come into play heavily here.
Libertarians, meanwhile, occupying their standard niche on the sidelines are strangely uncertain about the whole process. (Arnold Kling’s recent blog post on CRT served as a venting point for these frustrations.) Being charitable, although most all libertarians would agree that CRT is about the worst ideology since Marxism (Cultural Marxism is often a synonym for CRT), there is a lot of disagreement about whether it should be allowed to be taught in public schools, whether it is reasonable to ban it as speech, what happens when the legislature starts trying to ham handedly legislate what must be taught, etc.
In general, most libertarian commentators tend to side step the issue and say “See, this is why monopolistic public schools are awful and we should have private schools!” Those charging that this rather fails to address the problem, given that:
most states have very low likelihood of moving to something like full school choice with vouchers
teachers’ unions are very powerful and simply marinated in this ideology
something needs to be done soon because our kids are only in school for 12 years and are being indoctrinated more and more by the day
…well, they have a point.
If you haven’t got a hammer but desperately need to bludgeon the hell out of a nail, you must improvise and adapt to overcome.
I am rather sympathetic to the libertarian position here, and I have a Hammer, so let me try to explain the problem that libertarians have but don’t seem to grasp well. Especially because I think it gets to the root of why libertarians struggle to navigate the the gap between being left and right, and thus can’t advance good policy.
(What? No, I am the best at being humble… why do you ask?)
The first principle that gets libertarians hung up is freedom of speech, expression, and the marketplace of ideas. Combined with the strong prior of not forcing other people to do what you want and rather making use of exit to leave a bad situation, this leads many to say “Let teachers do what they think is best, and if you don’t like it, just go somewhere else.” That works really well when you are talking about where to shop, work, and to an extent, live, but it doesn’t work well when you can be forced to pay for the services, e.g. when the government owns the shops and the schools. Add in a teachers’ union that has a monopoly on instruction on top of a public school system that taxes you whether your kids attend the school or not, and “just move schools” is pretty weak tea, along with “just find a private school that doesn’t teach CRT and spend a bunch of money on top of what you already are taxed to go there.”
The problem here is one of monopoly supported by coercion, as is so usually the case. And libertarians are right: It will always be the case so long as the state runs one school system with the power to make you pay for the school whether you want to go it or not, with the arbitrary power to limit the creation of private schools, and the state often limits homeschooling on top of that. In other words, Conservatives complaining about government schools not working the way they want is stupid: they were never going to work. The very nature of political power and coercive monopoly means that the schools were going to be taken over by some ideology to indoctrinate the children in that ideology. It just wasn’t yours, sorry. Better luck coercing people into your ideology next time.
But… no one should be coerced into paying for the indoctrination of youth into an ideology they don’t agree with. Especially when the ideology at hand is, well, bat shit insane. And in most states the choice isn’t between CRT and privatized schooling, or even CRT and vouchers plus charter schools. It is basically CRT or trying to ban CRT short term. Given the available options, one is either in favor of short term allowing CRT indoctrination or attempting to stem it.
The trouble for libertarians here is that this falls into what Prof Dan Klein terms a conflict of direct vs overall liberty. (See Prof Klein’s video on the subject here. Hey, I filmed that! All quality issues are mine, I am afraid.) The idea is that sometimes you have to limit some personal or direct liberty to enhance the overall liberty of the society. Perhaps I should ideally have the right to own a gun and fire it into the air willy nilly as I see fit, so long as I don’t hurt anyone. Yet, if I live in a fairly densely packed area, I am likely to accidentally injure someone. Since it will be really hard to track me down as the offender if that occurs and enforce justice upon me, we might all agree that it is better to have a rule against firing guns into the sky in general because although it limits some liberty it probably gains us more liberty over all.
In the schools case, although direct liberty is being eroded by legislatures banning the teaching of certain topics in public schools, overall liberty might well be enhanced by making indoctrination into ideologies more difficult. Particularly CRT style ideologies. I am not super confident that such legislative efforts will work, but at least having a legal framework to refer to will help parents push back against it at the local level. Maybe.
And so, yes, the key problem here that needs to be addressed is that government controlled schools as they exist in many states (no school choice, funded by taxation without the money following the student, monopolistic teachers’ unions, and private schools facing regulatory hurdles keeping them out of the market) will always be targets for political control. The power of indoctrination disguised as education is too great for any political faction to let slide, and so there will always be large groups of people unhappy with how the schools are being used so long as there are ideological differences in the populace. Disentangle schooling from politics and you are home free.
Carving the cancer of politics from schooling is not the work of a year, however, or probably even a decade in the United States. Education is not something the government, whether state or federal, is going to let go of anytime soon, and so we must treat the symptoms while we prepare capacity to address the cancer itself.
To that end, I think those concerned with liberty need to back policies that will at least short term enhance overall liberty, particularly those that challenge Successor Ideologies’ hold on political power. Liberty of the individual is itself the enemy of the Successor Ideologies, and we would do well to remember that. All the while, we should be reminding moderates in both camps that the reason we have these big ugly fights over school curriculum is precisely because we have one government school system that affords very little option for exit, and that school system will always be a target for those wishing to spread ideologies one finds offensive. Only a more open order of schooling of whatever flavor will help eliminate that problem, one that allows parents to choose the school they feel best suits their children. Otherwise it is only a matter of time till restrictions on what can be taught are used against those who supported them.