Imported Values

"America's Economic Refugees" (Nov.) shows the benefits immigrants bring into this country through their hard work at the grass-roots level, where true entrepreneurship is born as a matter of survival. But I was quoted as if I was underestimating the issue of exploitation. The plight of the immigrant is undeniable, and it is also undeniable that immigrants are exploited in many instances—not only by employers but also by the media, politicians, providers of goods and services, and private as well as governmental institutions.

Immigrants do bring a strong value system to our society. Among Hispanics, the rate of divorce is a lot lower than that of the general population, and the extended family is strong. Eighty-three percent of the Hispanic households in California are the classic family units that serve as a foundation for stability, compared to 64 percent among non-Hispanic whites. Where we fail the immigrants is in not allowing them to maintain a strong sense of identity and self-worth. The present immigrant bashing is an example of denying their value as human beings, and I do not know many people who can fight, much less survive, such reactionary bombardment.

We must provide them with the opportunity of educating themselves, so they can have the freedom to choose which jobs they would like to take. We must allow them to come into the mainstream, so we may benefit from their value system—family cohesiveness, integrity, respect for others, loyalty, love for their kin. We must signal to them that it is OK to be who they are and that they do not have to choose between one culture and another, that there can be a choice of taking what is best from each culture. There is a lot to be learned from them, and in learning from them we can use their value system to return this country to greatness.

José de Jesús Legaspi
Montebello, CA

School Duel

From the viewpoint of libertarians, the school-voucher initiative ("Getting an Education," Nov.) was a fabulous success in one important sense. With the help of a huge number of pro-voucher volunteers, it took only $800,000 to put the initiative on the ballot. But it cost the California Teachers Association, arguably the most anti-taxpayer labor union in the state, $12.6 million to defeat it. All told, 95 percent of the $16.9 million spent against Proposition 174 came from the five government-school labor unions.

Normally the CTA uses its captive dues for advancing new socialist programs and funding big-government candidates. But in this election the CTA was desperately fighting to hold on to its empire—the failing public-school monopoly.

Advocates of limited government should put a voucher initiative on the ballot every year—just to drain the coffers of the CTA and its allied labor unions. Offhand, I can't think of a more cost-effective way to deplete the campaign funding of some of our worst elected officials.

Pat Wright
Chair, Libertarian Party of San Diego
San Diego, CA

Tim Ferguson takes the position that another worthwhile concept has fallen on hard times because it wasn't sold right. Is it possible that it wasn't the selling job that was at fault, that the basic concept of vouchers is seriously flawed?

The elitist concept of vouchers is simply one more example of the grand old American tradition of running away from our problems. When the farmland in the East gets worn out, we simply load the family in the wagon and head west, where the land's free and the soil is still fertile.

Universal "free" education is one of the features of our governmental system that sets us apart from the rest of the world as a desirable place to live and grow. A voucher system would be a giant step toward dismantling that system. If we have decided as a nation that we no longer can afford universal, tax-supported education, let's vote it out gracefully. Let's not cop out by picking it to death.

Earl Gates
Decatur, IL

I am appalled and bewildered to find so-called libertarians and conservatives backing another government subsidy in the form of school vouchers and calling it "choice." Sure, all citizens would benefit from a good education, but what about clothing, food, health care? Why don't we ask the government to send us a voucher so we can use it for "choice" in physicians? How about food coupons so we can have "choice" in food? Why not housing chits so we can have a "choice" in neighborhoods? Why don't we just send all our money to the government, and they can send us back a coupon book? That will really increase our choices!

Maggie Kohls
Des Plaines, IL

Common Understanding

Loren Lomasky's review of my The Spirit of Community (Nov.) suggests that it is not up to my usual social-science standards. He is quite correct, but this is like suggesting that a novel does not rhyme. The book is studded with cartoons and has no footnotes or statistics; it is written to appeal to my fellow citizens and avoids scholastic vocabulary.

Lomasky, though, raises a critical issue that deserves additional discussion whether or not one acknowledges the surprisingly wide appeal of the communitarian message to our fellow citizens. He suggests that the distinction between interests that "are deemed 'public' and those that are merely private" is ill-defined and does not hold up in practice.

Only extreme libertarians would deny the merit of such a category as the common good and put the concept of a public in quotation marks. Others regularly acknowledge that the free market will not attend (or not sufficiently) to some goods—basic research, for instance. Because the yield of basic research is available to one and all, those who heed only private interests will rationally free-ride. Yet it is in the interest of all (as well as of those not yet born) for basic research to take place. A libertarian may well warn against unnecessarily inflating this category, watch carefully that it is not used to impose more commonality than is absolutely necessary, but to deny that there is such a category seems indefensible.

Can we tell in practice what is what? One criterion is who benefits. If the Sierra Club is fighting for untrampled ski slopes for its members, it is acting as a special-interest group. If it is acting to preserve clean drinking water for one and all, it is acting on behalf of the public. Please do not throw out the communitarian baby with the liberal bath water.

Amitai Etzioni
Founder, Communitarian Network
Washington, DC

Another Tax Revolt

Steven Hayward's article on Proposition 13 ("Pushing the Limit," Nov.) dealt well with many of the issues surrounding spending by big government. It gave short shrift, however, to the inequities created by granting continuing tax benefits to old folks like me. Just next door is a fine young family that pays some four times the property tax that I pay for property of similar market value. Even bigger benefits accrue to owners of properties like apartment houses and large businesses that have not changed hands since Prop. 13 passed. This is the basis for still another tax revolt waiting in the wings.

How to fix it? Assess all property at its market value and cut the tax rate to keep revenue steady. Require a two-thirds vote to change the tax rate. Key any automatic increases to the rates of inflation and population change. Finally, as Mr. Hayward ably argues, put a cap on state spending.

George Amberg
El Cerrito, CA

Fetal Position

In "The Killing Grounds" (Nov.), Richard A. Epstein writes: "If a person does not know whether he or she will be in the position of the woman seeking the abortion or the fetus that will be aborted, what rule of decision would that person choose to maximize the welfare of both?" Mr. Epstein assumes that the mother and the fetus are on the same level. A fetus is not a person and should not be given the same rights as a person.

Later on Mr. Epstein asserts that a fetus will become a person without further intervention and assistance of others. In reality, it's not until the 24th week of development that a fetus's lungs develop enough so that it can breathe on its own, without the help of its mother. Premature babies born after exactly 23 weeks have a 10-percent chance of surviving. Premature babies born after exactly 24 weeks have a 50-percent chance of surviving. If an abortion is performed before 24 weeks of a pregnancy, it's legal. Otherwise, the legality is questionable.

Seth Allen
Alexandria, VA

Only people make choices. Fetuses do not, and a non-oppressive government does not deny citizens the right of choice. Abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are very personal choices of the people involved. They only become issues in the minds of those who would manipulate the government to impose their wishes on others.

Milton E. Bennett
Irving, TX

Mr. Epstein replies: Seth Allen and Milton Bennett raise the familiar position that a fetus is not a person and is thus entitled to no weight in any well-ordered political system dedicated to the rights of persons alone. That argument, however, proceeds far too swiftly for its own good, for it does not tell us what the fetus is and what rights and duties, if any, should be attached to the fetal status. If we regarded the fetus as a clump of undifferentiated cells, then abortion would be no more problematic that cutting off a hangnail. Why, then, so heated a debate for a generation? And if the fetus is not just another clump of cells, then it must occupy at the very least some intermediate position between the hangnail and the full person. If so, then it is far from obvious that its interests are always trumped by the claims of a mother whose abortion could be for reasons as serious as protection of her own life or as frivolous as her desire to look good in next summer's swimsuit. Mr. Allen is wrong to assume that the critical question is when the fetus becomes viable. The question is when its interests start to count, for which the Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance approach is as good as any, since it reminds us all to consider our own vulnerability at the formative stages of our lives. Likewise, Mr. Bennett is wrong to frame the issue as simply one of liberty, given the harm to another living thing, with some, if not all, of the attributes of a person. In sum, both Mr. Allen and Mr. Bennett make a Dworkin-like mistake by assuming that abortion tracks the euthanasia question on all relevant dimensions. Unfortunately, the abortion issue is much tougher and will never be solved by making convenient assumptions about life and living creatures that are false to nature and false to the moral debate.