Between two versions of libertarian ideology, I think, many in the U.S. have committed to the wrong one: childish Ayn Rand libertarianism instead of the child-like (idealistic) Henry David Thoreau libertarianism found in the opening of his “Civil Disobedience”:
I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient….
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
While I find the rugged individualism and self-defeating as well as heartless selfishness of Rand libertarianism ethically repulsive, the tension offered in Thoreau’s quest for no government strikes me as a practical mechanism for maintaining democracy against the threat of totalitarianism.
And it is at his “better government” call that I think we can look to something such as the roads and highways in the U.S. for a template.
While we may quibble over road conditions near our homes or on our commute to work, I think we must all acknowledge in the U.S. that the publicly funded infrastructure is foundational for market success in the nation. As well, while we have depended on the political system to approve and fund those roads, highways, and bridges, we have not then turned over the design and construction of that system to politicians, but to engineers and construction experts.
That distinct line, however, has not been nearly as sacred in public education, where political leaders and appointees have far too much direct influence not only on the funding but also on the actually policy—the result being that we have far less to be proud of from our public schools than our public highway/road system—the former still much further from achieving the original intent than the latter.
I was reminded of all this once the social media frenzy began about President Barack Obama’s plan to “mak[e] two years of community college free for students,” as reported in Politico. That news prompted #FreeCommunityCollege on Twitter as well.
Against the Obama administration’s abysmal record on public education, this plan certainly sounds encouraging, but the media and public response highlights a serious problem beyond the usual concern about clamoring to score partisan political points: Obama’s plan if approved would create fully publicly funded and no-tuition community college, not free community college.
As well, this plan is a pale version of what Germany has recently re-embraced, as explained by Barbara Kehm:
From this semester, all higher education will be free for both Germans and international students at universities across the country, after Lower Saxony became the final state to abolish tuition fees….
It’s important to be aware of two things when it comes to understanding how German higher education is funded and how the country got to this point. First, Germany is a federal country with 16 autonomous states responsible for education, higher education and cultural affairs. Second, the German higher education system – consisting of 379 higher education institutions with about 2.4m students – is a public system which is publicly funded. There are a number of small private institutions but they enroll less than 5% of the total student body.
This is not a matter of mere semantics, but the German commitment and Obama’s community college proposal are about not charging students (a user fee similar to toll highways in the U.S.), but instead making a social commitment to fully publicly fund all or some of any person’s higher education (an education version of our public highway system).
“Free” is not only factually inaccurate, but the implication detracts from the exact concept that needs our support now more than ever: “publicly funded” is a necessary and rightful commitment by a people that builds the foundation upon which all else exists—life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness as well as the glorified free market in the U.S.
To return to my example above, try building your company yourself without the publicly funded roads and highways, without the publicly funded judicial system, just to start. Yes, our publicly funded institutions in the U.S. have many problems and flaws, but the one aspect about them that isn’t flawed is that they are publicly funded.
While I am deeply skeptical of our partisan political system masquerading as democracy in the U.S., I certainly join those cheering Obama’s plan for no-tuition community college; however, my guarded optimism has strings attached, requiring that this proposal is the first step toward addressing several issues related to education:
- Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the wake of dismantling K-12 public education, which is the ugly legacy of the Obama administration. The era of accountability-based education reform must end immediately, and then a new era of fully funding and supporting universal public education must begin—one that rejects market forces and political overstep.
- Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the wake of the massive debt being incurred by college students in the U.S. The existing debt must be addressed (eradicated where possible), and then a system that greatly lessens college-related debt must be established while we work toward a model of universal no-tuition higher education.
- Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the context of a depressed job market in which recent college graduates do not find full-time, stable work that matches their degrees. A college degree and enormous debt with no prospect of work is a nightmare, but a college degree without debt and no prospect of work isn’t much better. We must recognize that education policy cannot be separated from work policy.
- Two years of no-tuition community college means little in the context of the harsh reality that educational attainment does not lessen the powerful and corrupting influence of racism and classism in the U.S. The cultural myth that education is the great equalizer is currently a false promise. Blacks with some college have about the same employment prospects as white high school drop-outs, and educational attainment is valuable within ones race, but doesn’t erase inequities among races.
Instead of rushing to promote misleading hastags or to prop up a political candidate along partisan lines, we should see Obama’s proposal for no-tuition community college as an opportunity to “make known what kind of government would command [our] respect,” to emphasize the essential nature of publicly funded institutions that constitute “better government.”