ON RIGHTS AND MARKETS. Paul Krugman in today's New York Times gives us the conservative case against expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): to let the markets reign, and then strikes it down in a very clever way:

Suppose, for a moment, that the Heritage Foundation were to put out a press release attacking the liberal view that even children whose parents could afford to send them to private school should be entitled to free government-run education.

They'd have a point: many American families with middle-class incomes do send their kids to school at public expense, so taxpayers without school-age children subsidize families that do. And the effect is to displace the private sector: if public schools weren't available, many families would pay for private schools instead.

So let's end this un-American system and make education what it should be -- a matter of individual responsibility and private enterprise. Oh, and we shouldn't have any government mandates that force children to get educated, either. As a Republican presidential candidate might say, the future of America's education system lies in free-market solutions, not socialist models.

O.K., in case you're wondering, I haven't lost my mind, I'm drawing an analogy. The real Heritage press release, titled "The Middle-Class Welfare Kid Next Door," is an attack on proposals to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Such an expansion, says Heritage, will "displace private insurance with government-sponsored health care coverage."

Krugman draws a neat parallel between the opposition to health insurance for all children and education for all children. For are both of these not necessary for the equality of opportunity that even conservatives support?

It's a nice argument, though only one among several that could be used to support public funding of education or health care. But my impression is that many conservatives are actually not that happy with universal public education and would get rid of it if that were politically feasible. Indeed, the voucher plans that conservatives support could be seen as the first tentative step in the privatization of basic education: First move from public provision of the facilities to just providing money for private choices. Then, over time, that money can be reduced and finally stopped altogether.

Whether this is actually in the plans is unclear. But so is the whole conservative adherence to the ideal of equal opportunity.

--J. Goodrich