Vouchers and the Masters of Invention

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

– Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

This month, 239 years ago, Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.” During this time, revolutionaries of diverse persuasions have cloaked their social movement in these famous words, regardless of whether the world the revolutionaries sought to build up, or to tear down, parallels Henry’s decree. More recently, few social movements have so stirred the American soul than freedom of choice.

The American lexicon for social movements is knee-deep in such semiotics. The upper hand in this ideological game of inventing political meaning rests with the group owning the right message—and at times the right messengers. And the mission of any social movement is summed up best by an aphorism or a one-word slogan.

Such has been the case with the term “vouchers.” Vouchers’ peeks, valleys, twists, and turns have not come from a shifting of the functionality the term defines, but from a shifting of weight in a tug of war: One side says vouchers are used for good, to give those less fortunate a hand up. The other side, that they are used for evil, to keep those less fortunate down.

In this series, I explore three types of vouchers in America, the moods that surround them, and how school choice supporters can restore the “v” word’s virtue among those who once championed it.

Part I: American History of the “V” Word

Part II: Taking Back the “V” Word