On Socialized Education

In such economically tough and politically charged times as these, imagine the hue and cry that would erupt if the Federal government enacted a program where every tax-paying citizen in the land was levied a fee, so that a very small number of young people could receive a 100% free education at one of the Nation’s most elite colleges, including tuition, room, board, healthcare costs and a clothing allowance. The taxpayers would have no direct say in who received such an educational opportunity, with that decision being left instead to incumbent members of Congress and unelected representatives of several Executive agencies, each of whom would receive an annual number of chits to dispense as they wished to students they found worthy. Some of the chits might be used to send underprivileged young people to the free college, perhaps using racial quotas to create an ethnically diverse student body. Other chits might be used to reward the children of high-powered campaign donors.

Now, let’s take this scenario even further into the realm of the politically offensive. Imagine if, upon graduating from this hypothetical elite college, the selected few students would be guaranteed immediate employment via appointments to management positions within large, national organizations, supervising men and women who may be twice or three times their age, and who have spent their entire professional careers within their organization. The chosen ones would have their salaries, room, board and healthcare costs paid and guaranteed for a minimum of five years, all on the taxpayers’ dime, because the Government would declare it to be in the best interest of everyone in the Nation to have these selected few elites educated and employed at Federal expense. And if these entitled few managed to perform even adequately in their taxpayer subsidized jobs, they could continue to rise up the management ladder for twenty years, at which point they would be able to retire with full pensions and lifetime healthcare benefits, all on the Government’s tab, happily living off other taxpayers’ sweat equity for the remaining 40 or so years of their naturally forecasted lifespans.

Would you consider that to be a “socialized” education and job-subsidy program of the most heinous variety? Would it make your hackles rise to ponder such an unjust reallocation of the taxpayers’ hard-earned incomes to support such a parasitic elite? Would you curse the government that dreamed up such an entitlement program? Would you support candidates who would pledge to rescind such programs as soon as they were elected?

This is more than an academic question to me, since the hypothetical scenario described above is actually exactly how I received my own college education at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis a quarter-century ago. It’s the model under which Navy, West Point and the Air Force Academy operated long before I entered the service, and continue to operate all these years since I left it. And I don’t consider that to be “socialism” in the way that word is widely bandied about today. I see it, instead, as a function of policy decisions made by our duly elected officials, under the rule of law, to consider the education of the Nation’s military officer corps to be of benefit to the Nation as a whole, and a recognition that it could not effectively be paid for individually by all of its participants.

I trained in airplanes, submarines, tanks, helicopters and surface ships during my time at Annapolis. I couldn’t have afforded any of them without taxpayer subsidy, nor could anybody else. If the Nation benefited from me (and others) having the chance to undergo that training, then the citizens of the Nation can and should reasonably be expected to pay for it, one way or the other. That’s not “socialism” to me. That’s a tangible manifestation of the basic social contract that is required when we, as a people, assent to have an organized government lead us under the rule of law. In order to consent to be governed as a group, we must cede some individual rights and resources to the government, or else we really have no government, and are, instead, merely a collection of individuals who happen to live together, lawlessly, in the same geographic space. In such circumstances, might generally makes right, and the weak suffer and perish. View any number of failed states around the world today (e.g. Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, etc.) for a demonstration of where that approach gets you.

Much of the burning political debate today hinges on how far the social contract that binds us should extend. Let’s consider hot-button item number one: healthcare. In the same way that I couldn’t afford my own airplanes and ships, most citizens in the United States today also couldn’t afford their own dialysis machines, electroencephalograms, heart-lung machines, prosthetic limbs or magnetic resonance imaging machines. The questions before us, ultimately, are whether the taxpayers who don’t need such equipment, and the physical and human infrastructure that supports it, have an obligation to contribute to those costs as part of the Nation’s social contract, and, if they do, in what way should those costs be collected and allocated? Those are tough questions, sure, but they are answerable through open-minded debate, discussion and dialog, and with a reasonable recognition that the answers achieved will not please all of the Nation’s citizens.

So injecting the fraught word “socialism” over and over again in the midst of such dialog isn’t really helpful, ultimately, just as claiming an infallible position based on spurious research isn’t helpful, and dismissing people who disagree with you as having “drunk the Kool Aid” isn’t helpful. As I have written before, for my own small part, and in my own small way, I would encourage people to embrace our better angels as we wrestle through such divisive times as these, and seek conversation over confrontation, and reasoned language over inflammatory sloganeering and veiled insults.

That’s an approach I learned as a result of my “socialized” education. Thank you all for paying for it.

About J. Eric Smith
Writer, Speaker, Trainer, Planner, Manager.

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