Michelle Obama on Personal Responsibility and the Limits of Federal Programs

Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:

about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on…. What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people?  Because it’s like someone dying every day.  Like, it’s just crazy.

Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that

there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that.  No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that.  You have to do that.

The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.

Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k-12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.

Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co-payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.

Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.

But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.

But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.