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Socialism Is Back
From the January 24, 2010, issue of NR


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Kevin D. Williamson
Socialism’s main defect is the inability of political decision-makers to make rational decisions without the information provided by prices generated by marketplace transactions. The repression associated with socialist regimes is in most cases a reaction to the failure of The Plan. As Mises’s colleague F. A. Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom, central planners frustrated by their inability to mold the economic world to their will inevitably are tempted to run roughshod over the rights and interests of the individuals they purport to serve. Sometimes this takes the relatively innocuous form of high-handed officials in the Canadian public-health service denying a procedure or timely access to care; sometimes it takes one of the diverse forms explored with such horrific vigor by Kim Jong Il. Hayek’s diagnosis, which is widely misunderstood and exaggerated, is not perfect, but he was correct that there is a path that connects the many stops on the road to serfdom. But we need not travel to exotic lands to experience socialism firsthand. Any American public school will do.
Americans have an instinctive understanding of the economic contradictions of collective farming on the Soviet or Maoist models. We understand why socialist enterprises such as Venezuela’s state-run petroleum companies are destined to failure. But we fail to recognize that many of our own systems — using central planning to implement the public provision of non-public goods — are organized along precisely the same lines. The outstanding local example of this is the American public-school system.
 
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While Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian model of compulsory universal education would eventually come to be adopted in the United States, the public provision of schooling in America far precedes the establishment of the country itself, dating back to the Old Deluder Satan Law of colonial times. Early advocates of public education believed that schooling could be used to produce better Christians; later advocates believed that it could be used to produce better human economic inputs. The Prussian approach would be explicitly presented as a component of national economic planning; students would be taught skills that would make them productive workers, national examinations would be used to channel them into suitable jobs, and the whole enterprise would be integrated into a rational plan of economic development. This was the essence of the progressive vision for education. The progressive thinker Calvin Stowes was influential in seeing the Prussian model adopted in the United States. He was explicit in arguing for state ownership of the individual, taking the military as his rhetorical model for the public schools:
If a regard to the public safety makes it right for a government to compel the citizens to do military duty when the country is invaded, the same reason authorizes the government to compel them to provide for the education of their children  . . .  A man has no more right to endanger the state by throwing upon it a family of ignorant and vicious children, than he has to give admission to the spies of an invading army.

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The aim of public education is, and has always been, to make members of the public more standardized and thus better suited for incorporation into The Plan. It is unsurprising that socialists have taken up the cause with verve. President Obama, speaking to an audience of schoolchildren, described in some detail how he expects the schools to produce students who will serve the needs of the state; unsurprisingly, he cast the situation in terms of his own agenda, emphasizing health care, racial discrimination, and job creation:
What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
 
You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
 
We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills, and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that — if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.


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