The Constant Bailer

Over the last couple of weeks, the nation has been understandably preoccupied with faltering financial houses and federal promises to save them. Save them, of course, for the public good, to the tune of roughly 700 billion taxpayer dollars. (Or is it 1 trillion taxpayer dollars? Oh, what’s a few hundred billion among friends?)

These happenings have inspired a lot of folks to declare truly free enterprise a failure and conclude that government must do more to “manage the economy.” But before we accept all that, let’s put the supposed failure of freedom—and magnificence of government—in a little context by considering something government has managed for a long time: public schooling.

In the 2004-05 school year (the latest with available data), the nation spent about $520 billion, adjusted for inflation, on public schooling, a figure that in two years would surpass the utterly atrocious $1 trillion some people fear taxpayers are about to eat saving investment bankers. And, of course, we’ve been paying through the nose for public schools for decades. But what do we have to show for it? Flat achievement, sinking international academic standing, and a lot more teachers and school employees living off the taxpayers.

Without question, from taxpayer and simple justice perspectives, the proposed rescue of private companies that took big chances and lost is unconscionable. It’s hardly, however, a sign that free markets don’t work. Indeed, considered alongside the perpetual bailout that is public schooling, it just highlights once again that government—the constant bailer—is the real problem, not a free market that would punish both bad bankers, and bad schools, if only it were allowed.