Last week John Kerry was off on a cross-country ballot-buying trip, stopping at a number of college campuses. Vote for me, he said to students, and I will reward you with a new government program that will provide–in exchange for a period of national service–a $4,000 tuition subsidy to each program participant, to be raised through the tax system, and therefore from others’ financial resources.
Unfortunately, there are two serious problems with this shameless vote-purchasing scheme: It is harmful to a free society, and it will not deliver the promised results.
The ills of this proposal (aside from its blatant corruption, that is) are legion, but one is especially noteworthy: A healthy society is sustained by free individuals working at their chosen tasks and callings, not by those who reluctantly sign up for some government program of social do-goodism. The young mother raising a decent child; the teacher revising his lesson plans; the shopkeeper pursuing the American dream and passing it on to the kids he hires for after-school work; the minister communicating God’s message of love to his congregation; the captain of industry signing off on plans for a new tech-savvy production line–all these and many others do more to stimulate the comfort, wealth, and progress that an advanced civilization depends on than some junior intern mired in “social work.” (The brave members of our military, of course, are in a separate category altogether, and have their own programs of well-deserved post-service aid.)
In a free society, “national service” is what most adults do on a daily basis. The Left would like us all to believe that government work is the only true labor for the common good, but such thought further demonstrates the poverty of the collectivist imagination.
And what of the practical problems of the Kerry plan? The senator has been making much of rising college tuition, which in his worldview partially cancels out the beneficial effects of the Bush tax cuts. Kerry fails to understand that tuition subsidies do not exist in a vacuum: As government subsidies grow, colleges seek to put the entire increase to improving their own bottom lines, leaving the student with just as much, or more, to pay. We know this to be true: Otherwise, why would the mailboxes of all college alumni overflow with plaintive appeals to bail dear old alma mater out of incipient poverty? Despite expanding endowments and rising tuitions, college monetary demands are never fulfilled–for there is always some new, wonderful, progressive program that needs funding.
The rise in college tuition and fees will come stealthily, like a cat burglar in the night, trying to appropriate the new education subsidies without anyone noticing. The costs will increase steadily over a period of a few years; they will be accompanied by much talk of excellence, and distinctiveness, and the need for competitive advantage; they will be illustrated with brochure snapshots of photogenic students engaged in serious work with distinguished-looking faculty, and adorned with glowing accounts of innovative programs in this and that, to be financed by foundation matching grants–and, of course, presidential fundraising tours to keep the loyal alums in close contact with campus developments. Then, after an election cycle or so, we will hear again how truly insufficient a niggardly public is in providing the needed funds for a student population thirsting for knowledge. We have seen these sorts of programs before, and have seen that it is difficult–if not impossible–for government subsidies, in a competitive environment, successfully to reach their intended targets.
If Kerry were serious about transforming higher education, he would propose a program for colleges resembling what the Left wants for health care: a nationalization of product delivery; price controls on services; mandated and standardized programs and curricula; open access to education for all; industry-wide unionized wages and benefits for faculty (as in Australia), where the valued first-year physicist is paid the same as the dime-a-dozen assistant professor of sociology; and an end to college competition for students and public funds.
Then we would see the true color of faculty devotion to the egalitarian worldview they preach in their classrooms. And perhaps, having moved from this success with the universities, Kerry could turn to his Skull and Bones brethren and do the same favor for the lawyers. The public fallout from two such successes might not be all bad: It should, if nothing else, guarantee Republican victories for the next century.
–William C. Dennis is a freelance writer and consultant living in McLean, Virginia.