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


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Kevin D. Williamson
Obama here is describing a right of eminent domain over the lives of American children, without putting it quite in those words. Obama may be a radical of some sort, but that speech could have been given as easily by George W. Bush or Mitt Romney, and its assumptions would have been precisely the same: The public provision of educational services is understood today, and has long been understood, as a component of national economic planning. (Just don’t ask whether it works!)
It would be difficult to find in the United States any profession so dedicated to socialism as that of educators, and difficult to find any argument for socialism as popular as the cause of public education. When some parents objected to the broadcast of the Obama speech quoted above into all the nation’s government-run schools, on the grounds that it constituted political indoctrination, they were roundly mocked by the Left. One diarist at the left-wing website Daily Kos, noting that some of Obama’s critics had described his platform as a “socialist agenda,” wrote, “If your kids are in public school, they’re already living that agenda.” To make his point especially clear, he headlined the post, “Public Schools Are Socialist.” Likewise, writing in a forum for the New York Times, Emory University history professor Patrick Allitt cited public schools as evidence that “millions of Americans . . . are ardent supporters of socialism.” “It’s odd,” he wrote, “that so many critics of [the Obama] administration should use ‘socialism’ as a devil word.” Devil word: Perhaps he’s never heard of the Old Deluder Satan Law.
 
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This is a common trope on the left: “Socialism” sounds scary, but we’re really talking about things like public schools and public highways. Education blogger Jerry Webster, writing at About.com, headlined his post on nationalizing teacher-pay decisions “Give Socialism a Chance.” Writing in the arts and humanities journal Helium, Daniel Reneau asks, “Like public schools? . . . Then say, ‘Thank you, socialism!’” Other writers on the left have similarly argued that the popularity of the public schools suggests that Americans are more comfortable with socialism than they let on.
 
As indeed they are. The public schools constitute one of the most popular instantiations of socialism in American life, though Social Security and government-funded transportation systems no doubt rank nearly as high. But popular with whom? Certainly the educators and administrators who run the system are largely pleased with it, as they should be; the noncompetitive nature of government-run education provides them with salaries and benefits far exceeding what they plausibly could earn in the private sector. Some parents and property owners are very happy with the public schools as well. The well-off and well-connected tend to enjoy reasonably good public schools, which help sustain high residential real-estate values in the largely suburban communities that host them. But other Americans are much less pleased with their government schools, particularly the poor, non-whites, and those living in inner cities. Black families, in particular, consistently rate their government schools as performing poorly, and their subjective impressions are borne out by empirical data. The public schools are not a random or inexplicable failure. They are a classical socialist failure, with massively misallocated resources, an ensconced bureaucratic class, and a needlessly impoverished client class.

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Public schools fail for the same reason that all socialist enterprises fail: lack of information. In marketplace transactions, prices communicate critical information about who is producing what, who is consuming what, and what it is that producers and consumers want and need. This information is always local and contingent and is otherwise impossible to aggregate. This is not a new argument: Socialism’s real intellectual death-blow was dealt in 1920 by Mises based on the relatively dry and technical question of the use and nature of prices in an economy.


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