Politics & Policy

Utopia’s Jailers

Building the wall, Berlin 1961.
From public schools to health care, the intent is to constrain people and prevent them from opting out.

Necessity drives invention. In the field of military innovation, all sorts of inventions — the Maginot line, the flame fougasse, trench warfare, the Vickers machine gun — were rooted in the same urgent necessity: keeping Germans out. War is evil and ugly, but Europe experienced a worse horror when that necessity was inverted, and the totalitarian movement that controlled half of the continent decided it needed a way to keep Germans in. And so utopia’s jailers built the Berlin Wall and any number of similar fortifications. The ideologue may say that a wall is a wall is a wall, but in the case of a wall, intent matters: A society with barriers to keep out invaders is protected; a society with barriers to prevent exit is imprisoned.

HBO has a series called Togetherness, a comedy about foundering middle-aged hipsters in Los Angeles, which has turned its attention to the issue of charter schools, and the writers have committed the unforgivable cultural sin of being not entirely hostile to the prospect. The ritual denunciations are under way.

Joshua Liebner, who lives in Eagle Rock, the Los Angeles neighborhood in which the show is set, is among those shouting “J’accuse!” in HBO’s direction, abominating the “white privilege and entitlement and, yes, racism and classism” that surely must be motivating charter-school families who have the audacity to go about “defining what constitutes ‘good’ for them,” and acting on it, as though they were in charge of their own lives and responsible for their own children. “Charter-school dogma has made it to the Big Time,” Liebner complains.

On behalf of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to HBO.

Charter schools are public schools, albeit public schools that are given the teensiest bit of regulatory relief. Some do very well, some don’t. When families are given attractive options and — this must be emphasized — given a choice, their demand frequently dwarfs the supply of charter alternatives. This is perceived by progressives as an all-out assault on the traditional government-school monopoly, its unaccountable administrators, and its insulated unions. And in an important sense, it is.

And therefore, as the Left sees things, it must be stopped. People cannot be permitted a choice, because, being captive to the “white privilege and entitlement and, yes, racism and classism . . . defining what constitutes ‘good’ for them,” they will choose the wrong things. So charter schools must be held illegitimate and, if possible, stopped.

There are worse threats, of course. Real school choice would give parents the ability to opt entirely out of the government-school monopoly, which of course gives the Left night terrors. What progressive policy might put an end to that?

“Let’s ban private schools,” Gawker cheerily suggests. Writing in that esteemed journal, John Cook argues that “there’s a simple solution to the public-schools crisis.” If people make choices that complicate the Left’s agenda, then ban those choices: “Make Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama’s children go to public schools,” Cook writes. “From a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America’s wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake.”

The Left’s heart is still in East Berlin: If people want to leave your utopia and have the means to do so, then build a wall. If they climb over the wall — as millions of low-income parents with children in private schools (very commonly Catholic schools) do — then build a higher wall. If they keep climbing – and they will — then there are always alternatives.

Homeschooling? That’s basically a crime against humanity so far as our so-called liberal friends are concerned.

But then, standing in the schoolhouse door when the poor, the black, and the brown want to enter is an ancient tradition for Democrats.

It isn’t just education, of course. In much of Canada, private health insurance is effectively banned. The existence of private insurance is a very strong indicator that there are some people who are not entirely pleased with Canada’s single-payer system. (Monopolies rarely have happy customers.) So they opt out, at least in part, exercising the right of exit that is the most fundamental of civil rights. This is an affront to progressive values. Solution? Ban private health insurance.

Of course, that’s Canada, and we conservatives know instinctively to sneer at Canada. (Except . . . ) But try opting out of Social Security or Medicare and see how long it takes for Uncle Stupid to put you in prison as a tax evader. Those metaphorical prison walls are almost always political veneers for actual prison walls.

It’s a funny old world when being “pro-choice” means that people who object to abortion will be forced at gunpoint to pay for them. But that’s progressivism: a purportedly secular movement with a whole lot of “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not.”

There are two ways to organize a polity. You can have a society in which people are empowered to make their own decisions when it comes to their lives and livelihoods, their health care, and their children’s educations. Or you can have the alternative: an endless series of Checkpoint Charlies.

The Democrats haven’t got that Pink Floyd song quite right — in their version, the chorus goes: “You don’t need no education.”

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

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