No Student Is an Island

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Yesterday, Thomas Sowell struck a variation on this theme, reminding readers that no man is an economic island, and whatever aid government gives to college students it takes from other people, and whatever it subsidizes distorts the prices that keep us all connected:

The general thrust of human interest stories about people with economic problems, whether they are college students or people faced with mortgage foreclosures, is that the government ought to come to their rescue, presumably because the government has so much money and these individuals have so little.

Like most “deep pockets,” however, the government’s deep pockets come from vast numbers of people with much shallower pockets. In many cases, the average taxpayer has lower income than the people on whom the government lavishes its financial favors.

Costs are not just things for government to help people to pay. Costs are telling us something that is dangerous to ignore.

The inadequacy of resources to produce everything that everyone wants is the fundamental fact of life in every economy — capitalist, socialist, or feudal. This means that the real cost of anything consists of all the other things that could have been produced with those same resources.

Sowell’s is a lesson that everyone should learn who thinks that even the hint of a student-loan crunch means that government should come to students’ rescue. Perhaps even more importantly, as John Merrifield points out in his new policy analysis, prices are a crucial piece missing from our socialized K-12 education system—and many school choice programs—leaving us utterly unable to tell the relative value of any school, program, or teacher.

It’s absolutely true that no man is an island. Too bad no one in politics seems to read John Donne — or Thomas Sowell.