There are a number of problems with Paul Krugman’s NYT piece earlier this week, “A Socialist Plot.” Krugman compares the American educational system to its healthcare system, arguing that because Americans aren’t inclined to disparage the former as a socialist threat, we likewise shouldn’t consider universal healthcare as a “socialist plot.”

“The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. It’s just a matter of historical accident that we think of access to free K-12 education as a basic right, but consider having the government pay children’s medical bills ‘welfare,’ with all the negative connotations that go with that term,” says Krugman.

Krugman assumes that a defense of private versus public education is indefensible. After hypothesizing about making a case for abolition of public education, he purrs to his NYT audience who have never considered any practical option besides the government administration of education, “O.K., in case you’re wondering, I haven’t lost my mind.” Clearly to even consider getting rid of public education is insane.

First, let’s make a basic distinction between government mandates and government provision. The government mandates that I have car insurance before I take my car out for a spin, but I don’t sign up with the government for that car insurance. In the same way, drawing my own analogy, government could mandate K-12 education without being the primary provider of said education.

And as far as socialists plots go, government provided education should be ranked right up there. Even social observers who are largely sympathetic to socialism see the administration of public education primarily in terms of its utility as a means of social control rather than as a means of inculcating truth. Thus says Reinhold Niebuhr: “While education is potential power, because it enables the disinherited to protect their own interests by organised and effective methods, the dominant classes have suppressed their fears about education by the thought that education could be used as a means for inculcating submissiveness.” Whether the dominant class is the bourgeois or a politburo, public education as social control is a real concern.

Kristoff concludes, “We offer free education, and don’t worry about middle-class families getting benefits they don’t need, because that’s the only way to ensure that every child gets an education — and giving every child a fair chance is the American way. And we should guarantee health care to every child, for the same reason.” Socialism, apparently, is the American way. And middle-class families that send their kids to private schools aren’t “getting benefits they don’t need,” they are paying via taxes, often dearly, for education they don’t want.

There is an analogy between health insurance, car insurance, and education. It may be that the government mandate that all Americans have health insurance (although I doubt such a policy’s prudence), and yet not become the primary provider of such health insurance. Where market forces fail, nonprofits, charities, community groups, and churches must fill the gap. BlueCross and BlueShield is a nonprofit health insurance association providing coverage for about 1/3 of the American population. If need be tax credits and other incentives could be extended to promote private financing of such initiatives.

For more on the push for socialized health care in the US, check out this week’s commentary, “What’s Wacko about Sicko.”

  • Marc Vander Maas

    I’ve often wondered: if education of children is to important to be left to the market, and if, as socialized health care proponents claim, health care is too important to be left to the market, why do we leave the production and distribution of food – which is easily more vital to survival than either health care or education – in private hands? Why is there not more agitation for a government takeover of grocery stores and farms? Is food not also too important to be left to the market?

  • Dan VandeBunte

    As someone who used to work in a grocery store, I feel qulaified to answer your question, Marc.

    Grocery stores require much more fiscal sense than most politicians have. Product ordering, promotions, till counting, can smashing, box crushing, sending people on breaks, gathering carts from the parking lot, etc. It’s all very complicated.

    They require thousands of products to be properly inventoried, stocked, and shelved. You can’t just put stuff anywhere? It’s not exactly the type of hands-on work most politicians want to get involved with.

    They’d be too distracted with those cool pricing guns to accomplish any real good.