Education and Naive Libertarianism

A grade six classroom awaits students at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, September 14, 2020. (Nathan Denette/Reuters)

Charlie Cooke is a friend and a treasured colleague, but I am finding it a little difficult to launch the next volley in the conversation about education policy, because I don’t think Charlie has really written a response to my piece.

Instead, Charlie has offered up some simple-minded applause lines (“There is nothing wrong with the Department of Education that could not be solved with a tactical nuclear strike”) that do not address the substance of my argument and that are based on an unmerited metaphysical certitude that the U.S. government simply cannot produce or implement useful education policy. The United States is not an especially well-governed country, and I do not expect it to achieve the level of bureaucratic competence that we might expect of a Denmark or a Switzerland, but it has from time to time shown itself able to develop and implement policy in a programmatic way. It isn’t Norway, but it isn’t Pakistan, either.

That the United States could address in a meaningful way the complex issue of education simply by shuttering a federal department and patting itself on the back for a job well done is precisely the kind of thinking that has made today’s Republican Party the intellectual powerhouse we all know and admire so deeply. If I were in the market for that kind of thing . . . I think I have a number for Rick Perry around here somewhere.

The U.S. government has a rich and complex relationship with education, especially with institutions of higher education. That means it has to make decisions about what sorts of things it will fund, encourage, or, at certain extremes, even allow. There are better and worse ways to make those decisions. Pretending that these issues can simply be ignored out of existence is the worst kind of naïve libertarianism.

For example, China’s rising eminence as a funder of and collaborator in research around the world, including in partnership with such important U.S. allies as the United Kingdom, presents real questions and challenges for the U.S. government — challenges that are not going to be resolved by saying, “Let the free market take care of it.” I am a big, big fan of letting the free market take care of economic questions, but there are non-economic questions in play, too.

Whether there exists something called “the Department of Education” or whether these endeavors are organized in some other way, the policymaking and implementation are not going to be carried out by Smurfs, wizards, or libertarian unicorns with rainbows for manes. You could make education policy in the Department of Defense (one of the few federal departments that conservatives broadly trust), or you could make it at Treasury or Commerce or hand it off to the Federal Reserve, in which case you simply will have created an education department in disguise. The basic issues — and the need for positive engagement with them — do not go away, for the same reason that you can’t cause an earthquake by shaking a desktop globe.

Dissolving the DOE as it exists might be a useful or even necessary administrative measure, but it would hardly render the underlying issues resolved. And conservatives are going to need something more than nuke-the-DOE banalities to deal with those issues if conservativism is to be something more than a rhetoric and a countercultural posture — something more than words about words.

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