Some people are libertarians out of pure idealism. “It’s about, you know, freedom, man, and the great wide American range of the open market. I just want to ride into the West and make something of myself, and I don’t want government to do it for me.”
I totally respect that.
What I don’t respect are people who, as a default, assume that anything government puts its hands on will be dreadful, cumbersome, awful for the end user, and inefficient.
Here is a simple counterexample: Forbes magazine — not exactly the kind of publication members of the American Communist Party hand out at the union hall — just rated West Point, a.k.a. the United States Military Academy, the best college in America.
Forbes, being a business magazine, factored the cost to the student quite heavily into the rankings — in other words, West Point is a better school than Harvard, in part, because it doesn’t cost the student anything to go there. (Cadets in fact receive a small stipend.) This may rankle insulated status-hounds who think it’s perfectly okay for a 22-year-old to start life $100,000 in debt and holding a diploma in Experimental Poetry from “a small liberal arts school,” but those people are exactly why the American university system could stand to be slapped in the face.
(Full disclosure: I got out of school $35,000 in debt and holding a B.A. in Experimental Video Art. Know where I could get a job with that degree? In the Army.)
West Point is top of the list for academic reasons as well — Forbes lists among its selection criteria “the number of national and global awards won by students and faculty; students’ satisfaction with their instructors… and postgraduate vocational success as measured by a recent graduate’s average salary and alumni achievement.”
But strictly speaking, West Point isn’t an academic instution at all; it’s an instructional school. And this difference is all-important.
There’s nothing wrong with research institutions, of course. In the sciences they’re indispensable, and in the humanities, they’re, well… fun, I guess! But there’s a whole world of people out there who are never actually going to take up a position in the Ivory Tower — is it really necessary for those people to spend $200,000 and start life horrifically in debt for the privilege of proximity to a few Nobel Laureates and the right to wear a name-brand alumni sweatshirt?
As James Forest, an instructor in terrorism studies at the Academy, points out:
If you really look at Brown University or Boston College or Stanford, their number one mission is likely not to teach. It’s to bring research dollars to the campus… to write the next book that will get them on CNN…. Pressure to be that kind of new academic star isn’t there [at West Point].
And because every cadet knows what his or her first job will be upon graduation, very few West Point alums are pressured into the Graduate School/Part-Time Instructor Scam Of Credit Rating Doom. When they go on to earn their advanced degrees, West Point cadets are likely to study fairly practical things, like political science, international relations, and regional cultures and languages, and frequently they’ll have a chance to apply that knowledge directly in the field.
And here we come to the point. Often a government-run institution can achieve a certain objective better and more efficiently than can a private concern, because its objective never comes into conflict with its profit centers. (Because, obviously, it doesn’t have any.) West Point doesn’t need to worry about research dollars or attracting superstar academics or (worst of all, in my opinion) encouraging hordes of young people to go to graduate school to create a class of impoverished and indebted paper-grading serfs. West Point has one goal: churn out well-educated Army officers and, by extension, well-rounded managers and human beings. It achieves that goal magnificently, and in that area it stands equal to the great private universities.
There’s nothing wrong with bitching about government in your private life. We all do it. But recently some folks having been trying to elevate griping about the DMV to the level of policy debate.
For the record, I like the DMV. When I go to the DMV, I see a person’s face, and that person — however troll-like and unhelpful he or she may be — is on some level ultimately accountable to me as a taxpayer. This is pretty much the opposite of my experience with the ubiquitous “toll-free customer service hotlines” by which all business is conducted with mobile phone companies, insurers, and pretty much all private corporations you have to deal with. Let me put it this way — which is more aggravating: getting your decals renewed at the DMV, or trying to close out a credit card?
Here is a video put out by the Acton Institute in which a reasonable-sounding, if slightly patronizing, white dude in a suit explains why socialized health care will destroy America and everything you love. That dude is entitled to his opinion, of course, and I’m not going to take him to task for every bit of hilarity. (“There are people [in Canada] who actually die while they’re waiting to see the doctor. That’s not made up. Look at the studies.”) But I’d like to point out that the following sentence:
“The bureaucracies haven’t invented iPhones, they haven’t invented Blackberries, they haven’t invented Facebook, or social networking or anything that we’re accustomed to.”