Why Mislead Readers about Milton Friedman and Segregation?Roundup
tags: Milton Friedman, segregation, school choice, libertarianism
Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University.
Not long ago I published the results of my research on the backstory of Milton Friedman’s discussion of education in his Capitalism and Freedom. The title of my INET Working Paper summed up my findings: “How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education.” Drawing on the private papers of Friedman and other primary sources, the paper started with the obvious: that as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 outlawing segregation in public education, southern political leaders began scheming to evade it and maintain racist education systems.
My paper was clear that we do not know exactly how much Milton Friedman knew of these plans when he wrote the 1955 case for vouchers that spawned today’s “school choice” movement. But we know for sure that, to promote his views, he decided to exploit the southern campaign. Documenting his take up and work with segregationists makes up the bulk of my paper. I also showed that Friedman’s correspondence with an economist colleague who was troubled by his stance revealed that his soothing reassurances that making parents responsible for paying for the education of their children might somehow enhance quality or even reduce segregation in some indefinite long run only scratched the surface of what he really thought. For in a twist reminiscent of some eugenics campaigns through the ages, he wrote that if parents were forced to assume the entire burden of paying for the education of their children, poor people would decide to have fewer of them.
One would think that today the facts about the long struggle of southern white leaders to preserve segregation are so well known that simple fact-checking would suffice to rule out attempts to whitewash their efforts. And that efforts to exculpate economists and policy advisers who worked with them would collapse out of sheer shame.
But on October 18th an author in the Wall St. Journal set out to defend Friedman and rebut my INET study. Written by Phillip W. Magness, the attempted rebuttal bore the title “School Choice’s Antiracist History,” and carried the summary line that “Vouchers Sped up Integration, While Teachers Unions Fought to Preserve Segregation.”
That assertion could not stand up to even a quick internet search of reputable online Virginia history sites such as this one or this one. But here we are. Because the Wall St. Journal is such a prominent venue, and because Magness’s piece is such a teachable example of how unwilling libertarians have been to reckon with their cause’s long history of working against civil rights reform, I think it is worth exploring just how perverse the whole set of claims Magness advances really is. I also want to invite other libertarians to come to terms with his conduct, and finally accept their past so that they can learn from it.
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