education

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist who’s running for president, plans to introduce a bill to make college tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Details on how the Sanders plan would work are sparse; he’s not expected to introduce the actual legislation until Tuesday. And while free tuition might be hard to imagine in the United States, when you look abroad, it’s not just a pipe dream: many European countries have these types of plans in place right now.

Germany made headlines in the fall when it abolished tuition fees for its public colleges. Tuition is cheaper in Canada than in the US. “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people,” Sanders said in a statement about the forthcoming plan. “They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.” [vox.com 5/18/15]

Why shouldn’t college be “free”? College is a good thing, right? It’s an important value. Therefore, everyone should have it.

Gee, why didn’t we think of this sooner? And why not make everything free?

The fiscal conservative argument against this will be: How are we going to pay for it?

This is an important question. But it’s not the most important question. The most important questions are:

Who is going to pay for it? And why should they have to pay for it?

“Well, we are our brother’s keepers,” as Obama (and Sanders) say. Of course education has to be paid for by the government, they insist. It’s the moral thing that any civilized people will do, Western Europe and Canada already do this, we’re the only Westernized democracy that doesn’t do it, blah, blah, blah.

Obama might not go so far as Sanders in his proposal. But he probably likes Sanders’ proposal, and probably considers it the ideal. So too, I bet, do a lot of Republicans.

It’s fascinating. Almost nobody would think this way on the real, day-to-day life level. Almost nobody would dream of petitioning a court, and hiring a lawyer, to force some well-off (or better-off) neighbor or colleague at work to pay for your kid’s college, or your new car, or your new wardrobe. You wouldn’t say, “This neighbor of mine has more money than I do. He’s one of the super-rich. I see the car he drives. I know he eats at nice restaurants. So I’m hiring a lawyer to get me some of the money myself to pay for my son’s college. It’s only fair.”

On the individual level, this would strike most people — even today — as insane and unjust. Yet this is precisely what we permit and encourage our politicians to do, every single day of the week. Sanders is merely more consistent and explicit about it.

Whenever you make anything free, this eliminates its value. If there’s no possibility of losing something, or if you’re guaranteed access to something no matter what, then it loses its importance.

A value, as Ayn Rand defined it, is something which one seeks to “gain and/or keep.” It’s an astute and accurate definition. Once some external agent makes sure you no longer have to gain or keep something, it loses its very value, by the definition of value itself.

Consider a value other than education: Automobiles. If automobiles became free tomorrow, then nobody would appreciate or value an automobile like many people do today. For one thing, the government would be making all of the automobiles. They would all look, perform and run about the same. There would be nothing special about automobiles.

Perhaps the government would permit private entities to continue to create other models, like BMW or Mercedes or sports cars; but those would be more expensive than ever, and people like Bernie Sanders would run around screaming, “It’s not fair!” and attempting to outlaw the private option (or making everyone entitled to a BMW.)

Nobody, not even socialist Bernie Sanders, is (yet) proposing nationalization and socialization of the auto industry. Auto bailouts and subsidies aside, cars are not a freebie provided to everyone by the government. This would probably strike even most Obama-supporting and Hillary-supporting left-leaning Democrats as absurd. Yet on Sanders’ premises, and on their own premises about health care and education, it would make total sense. If something is good, valuable, necessary, and important for life and even survival — why shouldn’t it be a right? If education, food and health care are a right, then why not automobiles, clothing, houses, and much else?

Most countries with free tuition have higher tax rates than the US, and in some cases a much more centrally controlled higher education system. That makes it easier for the national government to dictate higher education policy.

There it is. He who pays the bill controls the content. Here’s what many socialist/fascist intellectuals and politicians are after.

If you can’t outlaw freedom of thought outright, the next best thing is to pay for all education that takes place. That way, you end up with just about the same thing as a dictatorship would achieve in the absence of a First Amendment.

Government likes the idea of providing “free” education. Politicians and bureaucrats get the credit for being generous and magnanimous. No, they’re not the ones providing the “free” education; they’re the ones with the guns. If you consider guns an accomplishment, then why are you so impressed by education?

Education involves the volitional use of one’s mind in a disciplined and organized way. It’s a noble endeavor, by any rational standard. There’s nothing noble or sophisticated about pointing a gun (or a fine, or a government jail) at someone and saying, “Pay up;” coercion is not an accomplishment at all.

Ironically, government manipulation of the student loan marketplace and subsidies to colleges have driven up demand, thus inflating costs to higher than what they would otherwise be. In plain English this means that by providing huge sums of money to state schools (and programs in many private schools), government encourages more people to go to college than would otherwise be the case. Highly motivated and capable students end up in college, as do unmotivated or not so capable people, or people whose talents would better be developed in contexts other than college (e.g. trade school, real life business activity, etc.)

Government force does not lead to high quality education. It leads to expensive and mediocre education. Is anyone prepared to argue that public schools represent a success story of enlightenment and excellence? Under Sanders’ plan, government will do for higher education what it did for grade school and high school education: reduce its value.