Getting Off the Roof for Marijuana and School Choice


This would have been an extremely busy week in my world even with five days to spread it out, and we only had four.  Lacking the mental space to take on a detailed topic and not wanting to leave another publishing slot empty, I thought I’d spend a few words on an image that’s come to mind a couple of times in the last week.

Hard-core conservatives (perhaps existing only theoretically, at this point) might be said to have a no-jump policy, thinking society ought to move only in careful steps.  One problem with this view is that jumping can be healthy and productive.  Sometimes it’s necessary.  Another problem, a more-libertarian one, is that we should not presume to have the right to stop other people from jumping, and if enough of them do it, they bring us along for the ride.

But context matters.  It’s one thing to jump when you’re firmly on the ground.  It’s another thing to jump when you’re standing on a slanted roof.

This sort of contextual no-jump policy should apply to a broad variety of topics, the most current of which is the legalization of marijuana.  Our society is not well.  We’ve eroded the family and watched other social supports fall away.  Drug abuse and overdoses are considered to be at crisis proportions, and various mental illnesses proliferate.

Through this messy culture is a firm rail making the recreational use of marijuana illegal.  To be sure, people go over and under the rail with great ease, and on principled grounds, we can most certainly argue that the rod is inappropriate.  It’s there, though, and our society has developed around its presence.  Taking it away all at once is reckless.

So, let’s get down off the roof, and then you can jump.  Let’s rebuild our society so that we have more implicit protections via our families and communities, and then removing the no-drugs rail will not be so risky.

The concept came up in a somewhat different way while I was having a discussion with some folks about school choice and the obligations of society.  My view is that we should take a step away from seeing our obligation as the funding of a specific educational system (a network of school districts guided by state and, recently, federal agencies) and instead see it as the funding of education generally, allowing for increased school choice.  A libertarian in the group objected that taking money by force to fund anybody’s education is a form of theft, because he never opted into that “social contract.”

As a theoretical matter, he might have a point, but we are where we are.  He was born into the contract, and he can’t disclaim the parts that impose an obligation on him while continuing to enjoy the benefits of living in a society that privileges education.  Moreover, that society has led people to structure their lives around presumed rights of access.

So, let’s get down off the roof.  If we’re standing on the firm ground of a society that genuinely sees education as an individual responsibility and that is structured around more-local funding and decision making, more families will be willing to bear the responsibility of their own children’s education.  The “social contract” of living in a community that gives government some responsibility for education will be much more explicit… and much more avoidable.

In this contentious, divisive era, we can see more clearly than at any other time during my lifetime how quickly we all back into our corners and demand an ideal.  Let’s get down off the roof.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    “the recreational use of marijuana illegal”
    Let’s begin by recalling that there was a time when Marijuana, and many other drugs, were perfectly legal. I am sure we all know the name “Coca-Cola” derived from the cocaine content. In any case, my knowledge of history does not include the country falling to pieces over legal marijuana.

    I am much reminded of the end of “Prohibition” which resulted in all kinds of laws regulating the sale of alcohol. I do not know what evil all of those regulations stemmed. They did create an entirely new set of potential criminal violations. I have about 400 feet of frontage on a well travelled street, when cleaning it the number of “nip” bottles I pick up is mind boggling. I don’t think all of the laws/regulations are having the desired effect.

    Look at nearby Massachusetts. They are attempting all sorts of regulations. Only allowing marijuana stores in industrial areas, etc., etc. I think we are seeing government at work, much like the end of Prohibition. The government had power, and now it is being taken away. They refuse to let it go.

    This does not mean I do not favor some laws. “Operating under the influence” should be dealt with harshly. On the other hand, perhaps we should develop a means of testing for marijuana intoxication before we legalize it. “Don’t Bogart the joint my friend”.

  • Joe Smith

    if enough of them do it, they bring us along for the ride.

    Well, that phrase captures where RI is regarding marijuana. We are not an island; with the legalization in MA and likely CT, this state will see an import of the social costs. Therefore, the state might as well capture methods to internalize those negative externalities / social costs by legalization and appropriate (devil is in the details as CO/WA have experienced) taxation and regulation.

    A libertarian in the group objected that taking money by force to fund anybody’s education is a form of theft, because he never opted into that “social contract.

    Yes..but that person definitely benefits from having everyone else with at least the educational opportunities (you can only lead a horse to water..) to function in society in a manner. Friedman put it better:

    “A stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some common set of values. Education can contribute to both. In consequence, the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of the society”

    So compulsory education might be part of the social contract – of course the “how much” is very much debatable. But given there is a positive externality, the private market approach is not going to produce the socially optimal level of basic education. Of course, that’s not a reason for government to operate schools – merely subsidize the amount to correct the difference between the private and social benefits.

    But you then circle back to your point on “if enough of us do it.” We’ve built a network of public schools mixed with homeschools and private schools. If we were starting from scratch, perhaps a subsidy system might have been better. However, given how far we’ve jumped, it becomes problematic to simply think a jump to a subsidy/voucher system will solve all the ills. Adding charter schools has merely created a parallel system without the requisite destruction/replacement of the original schools and no or little controls on shutting down underachievers or limiting enrollment to the most disadvantaged/attending the worst performing original schools.

    I’m sure every public school Supts would have no issue with giving away some $15K voucher if they could hand select the recipients – but would a LaSalle or Bishop Hendricken be those schools if they had to take voucher students without their own admission criteria? If not, it’s not really a true private market as the producers are still price discriminating through signalling mechanisms and frankly then your merely subsidizing choice for a group that either could afford it anyway (since vouchers would not be anywhere near the PPE) or are far from the least disadvantaged. I grant you it might help some for sure, but I don’t think private schools would accept the ‘have to take you if you want a seat” voucher program.