Religion & Liberty Online

How Property Rights Solve Policy Problems

Whether a problem is a matter of “public policy” or “private-policy” often depends on how we think about property rights, says economist David R. Henderson. Take, for example, the debate about whether evolution or Intelligent Design theory should be taught in schools:

Should schools teach evolution or intelligent design or both? Many people might be tempted to say that the answer depends on which is true: evolution or intelligent design. But what if what one person thinks is true another person thinks is false? Some people are absolutely sure that evolution is true, while others are absolutely sure that intelligent design explains why we we’re here on planet Earth.

But the only reason this appears to be a public-policy problem is that with a prior intervention, governments have made it one. How so? By taxing people, some of whom believe in intelligent design, some of whom believe in evolution, and some of whom don’t know what they believe, to pay for other people’s schooling. In other words, it appears to be a public-policy problem because of a prior violation of people’s right to keep their own property. That’s why there is conflict. People who argue that they shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the teaching of intelligent design have a point. So do those who argue that they shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the teaching of evolution. Thomas Jefferson put it best: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

If the government got out of schooling and let people choose how and where to spend their money on their children’s schools and on other children’s schools (I’m assuming that, consistent with history, many more-affluent people who are free to choose how to spend their money would willingly subsidize the schooling of those who are less affluent5), the problem would go away. Those who want to finance the teaching of evolution would do so; those who want to finance the teaching of intelligent design would do so. The conflict would disappear.

Read more . . .

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).