Importing Ideas

In the new Afghanistan, which seems uncomfortably like the old Afghanistan, the cabinet has revived the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice. The government will once again be able to keep an eye out for short beards, chess playing, slipping veils, alcohol, and other vices.

An official tells the Washington Post that he’s “swamped with job applicants” for the department.

Perhaps if they lose in the fall, Sens. Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman could team up to lobby for such a department in the United States. And future president Hillary Clinton just might endorse the effort.

Reaction vs. Response

See if you can pick out which statement below represents reaction to yeterday’s news of the foiled terror plot, and which statements represent response to the strategy of terrorism.

  • “This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11.” — President George W. Bush, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express.
  • “We cannot afford no security, but we cannot afford total security, because … absolute security could come only at the expense of grounding all the planes and really undermining our way of life. And that would, of course, be a defeat for America.” — Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, 8/11/06, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
  • “Everything that can be done to protect [travelers] is being done.” — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 8/11/06, quoted in the Washington Post Express

As Ohio State University national security expert John Mueller points out in his brilliant Regulation article, A False Sense of Insecurity, ”The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.”

By communicating messages of confidence, control, and resolve, two of three top administration officials have done a good job of responding to news of the foiled terror plots. The third has unwittingly played into the terrorism strategy.

Lieberman Mangles History — Again

The Democratic Party’s most notorious hawk has struck again.

During the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) embraced the notorious Kosovo Liberation Army, asserting that “fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values” (Linda Wheeler, “Marchers Strut Support for Independent Kosovo,” Washington Post, April 28, 1999). The KLA-dominated government in Kosovo has since proven his point by ethnically cleansing more than 240,000 Serb and other non-Albanian inhabitants of the province.

Lieberman has now brought his acute powers of analysis to bear again. Responding to the disruption of the latest terror plot in the UK, he opined that Islamic terrorists pose an even greater threat to America’s security than did the Soviet communists during the Cold War.

That comment exhibits historical illiteracy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the world’s number two military power. Its conventional forces could have overrun Europe and condemned hundreds of millions of additional people to communist slavery. Its arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons was capable of killing tens of millions of Americans and effectively ending American civilization. The USSR was a strategic threat of the first magnitude.

Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists are certainly scary, but their ability to cause destruction and loss of life is decidedly more limited. We need to remember that terrorism is the strategy of weak forces, not strong ones. The terrorists killed some 3,000 people on September 11. Subsequent incidents, such as those in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, London, and Mumbai, have each killed dozens or hundreds more. That is certainly tragic, but it doesn’t begin to compare to the number of deaths caused by the Soviet Union and its communist allies during the Cold War in various wars, much less to the deaths that would have occurred if the Cold War had erupted into World War III.

Lieberman’s scare mongering — and the similar tactics of others who hype the threat by saying that we’re already in World War III (or IV–or V!) — is profoundly unhelpful. We need to keep the terrorist threat in perspective (pdf).

Federalism, Compulsion, and School Choice

My recent posting criticizing federal school voucher programs has drawn a critique from Robert Teegarden of the Alliance for School Choice. Here is my response: 

I appreciate Robert and the Alliance taking the time to respond to my position on vouchers, tax credits, and the federal government. I’ve long argued that the school choice movement needs the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to hash out the best policy solutions, and here we are hashing out the proper federal role in market education reform. Excellent.

The first thing I’d like to do is correct some misapprehensions about my views. I do not think, nor have I ever said, that “tax credits… never have any government regulation,” as Robert claimed. I have shown that current tax credit programs impose less regulation on private school instruction than do current voucher programs, and I have argued that tax credits reduce the incentive for regulatory encroachment over time (see the “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict” section of the linked page).

Also, I would like to be clear that my opposition to federal school choice programs is not limited to federal vouchers, but includes federal education tax credits as well. I see federal vouchers as a more serious danger than federal tax credits, but neither is advisable.

The arguments, in both cases, are the same: the risk of destroying the entire U.S. independent education sector due to federal regulatory encroachment is simply too great, and federal intervention violates the 10th Amendment because Congress is granted no powers over education under the Constitution.

Robert’s contention that the 10th Amendment allows for federal vouchers – because ”the people” want vouchers and the Amendment reserves power to “the people” – is not persuasive. The express purpose of the 10th Amendment is to forbid Congress from acting outside its constitutional purview, regardless of what voters may be clamoring for at any given time. If the people want to change the Constitution to allow federal vouchers, there is a provision for that in the amendment process. Unless and until the Constitution is amended, Congress is legally bound by it.

In making the regulatory argument, I referred to “the laboratory of federalism.” It’s not my phrase, though, and I shouldn’t have used it. A better way of expressing the issue is to think of the states as market actors competing for businesses and residents. Under the “marketplace of federalism,” families and businesses seeking high quality education can seek out educationally freer states and flee states that mess up their education systems by excessively regulating the private sector. The federal government, by contrast, is a monopolist. Any regulations imposed by it are imposed equally on all schools in every state.

There is no check or balance to mitigate this threat. Robert called me “prescient” for expressing this concern, but the converse is true: I can’t see the future, but my hindsight is 20-20. Having studied dozens of school systems from ancient times to the present, I have found no system of elementary and secondary education funded by the government that did not eventually fall under the government’s pervasive control. Not one.

Robert points to pre-school and higher-education programs that have escaped such suffocating regulation. These are not germane. Historically, government regulation of the content of schooling has been concentrated most severely on the elementary and secondary levels because this is the period during which minds can most easily be shaped. Too much younger and children cannot grasp intellectual and ideological concepts. Too much older and they begin to have minds of their own. The existence of government-funded college and pre-school programs that have escaped extensive regulation does not alter the fact that such minimally regulated programs have seldom existed and have never survived at the elementary and secondary levels.

Robert ends his commentary with the following hopeful statement: “Money going to students is different from money going for institutions….  And like the famed battles for Troy, the ‘curriculum culture wars’ in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values.”

His hope is unjustified. As I pointed out in the article to which Robert was responding, the Dutch have had “money going to the student” since 1917. This has not eliminated their culture wars. Some liberal Dutch citizens are uncomfortable funding orthodox Islamic voucher schools, and have made efforts to regulate them out of existence. In the wake of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, several schools, Muslim and non-Muslim, were burned to the ground in eye-for-an-eye arsons. Though Muslim voucher schools still exist, they are being increasingly heavily regulated, whether or not they promulgate extremist or hateful views.

It isn’t hard to see similar fault lines in America. A conservative religious school in Florida (one not participating in any of that state’s voucher programs) expelled a student a year or two ago for learning while gay. The student wasn’t “out,” but a teacher got wind of his sexual orientation, asked him about it, and he was expelled when he answered truthfully.

Does anyone think this expulsion would long stand if the school were cashing government voucher checks? Inevitably, liberal-minded folk would campaign for a law forbidding discrimination on such grounds. And would religious conservatives morally opposed to homosexuality be happy about such a law, or happy to fund schools aimed specifically at gay students? Or would they try to pass their own regulations to entrench their own views?

What voucher advocates have yet to acknowledge is that compelling all taxpayers to support every kind of schooling (a government voucher program) is a recipe for the same set of social conflicts as compelling all taxpayers to support a single kind of schooling (the current monopoly system). The only alternatives that avoid this socially Balkanizing compulsion are complete separation of school and state, and non-refundable education tax credits.

As I explained in my piece on federal vouchers, personal use tax credits involve people spending their own money on themselves – no compulsion involved. And tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds allow the donor to chose the recipient organization, also avoiding compulsion.

Finally, tax credits are indeed viable. Robert claims that the donation tax credit funding stream would prove insufficient. Before the rapid spread of state schooling in the mid-1800s, elementary enrollment and literacy were nearly universal among the free population in both England and the United States. That was in large part due to mutual aid societies and philanthropies. It has, in other words, already been done – and done even without the help of a tax credit program. With a tax credit program that allows taxpayers to redirect their funds to scholarship programs at no cost to themselves, universal access to the education marketplace can be achieved far more easily than it was in the early republic.

Robert’s comment that it is somehow unacceptable for low-income families to rely on the goodwill of others fails to recognize that this is exactly the system we have today. This is a democracy. If there were not overwhelming support for high levels of education spending in this country, we wouldn’t have increased inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by a factor of 14 over the past eighty years. Americans’ commitment to universal education is undeniable, and does not rest on a gun being pointed at the public’s head.

For a further discussion of these points, please see my piece Forging Consensus, and thanks again for engaging in this important discussion.

It Wasn’t Hard to See Coming

Today the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education adopted its final report on reforming America’s ivory tower, and it’s just the sort of document one would expect from a commission stacked with higher education insiders. Indeed, I saw it coming months ago.

The report calls for substantially more taxpayer money to be spent on student aid, promoting “innovation,” and research. It also suggests throwing the doors open for a sweeping “partnership with states and federal agencies” to develop “a national strategy for lifelong learning,” and endorses the creation of a federal database populated with information on every college student in America, whether they receive public aid or not.

Perhaps the only areas where the report does not quite live up to my original expectations are in its sections on testing and “accountability.” It does urge schools to begin measuring student learning using standardized tests, and says the federal government should provide incentives for them to do so, but it stops short of saying outright, as I once feared, that the federal government should require such testing. What eventually put the kibosh on mandatory testing was that many higher education associations expressed big reservations about it, and the commission has tried very hard to please the ivory tower establishment.

Of course, the report’s recommendations are just the beginning. Next comes implementation, and politicians are likely to turn even the commission’s reasonable suggestions into bad policies. For instance, while the commission recommends focusing student aid more on the needy, policymakers are very unlikely to increase aid for the poor without also boosting it for wealthier people whose votes they need. The present student aid system demonstrates that reality perfectly.

Indeed, the corruption of the report’s few good recommendations began even before the document was approved. As I wrote yesterday, the draft which has now been adopted originally contained a passage suggesting that people consider – just consider – using more private loans. But that segment was removed when student advocacy groups protested against it, seemingly on the grounds that students should only get loans backed with money taken from taxpayers.

Which brings me to the ultimate point: No matter what kind of “common good” rhetoric it’s dressed up in, government policy primarily serves entrenched special interests, not the larger “American people.” That is why the only good recommendation this commission could have made would have been to get government out of the ivory tower, and why the recommendations it did make would do just the opposite.

A Civil War May Be the Necessary Next Step Toward a Political Equilibrium in Iraq

Iraq is an artificial country, the combination of three former Ottoman provinces with a quite different Muslim group dominant in each province. Few people have significant loyalty to any government of the combination of these provinces, and Iraq can probably be held together only by a strong man who commands the support of the military. After Tito’s death, for example, the former Yugoslavia broke up into six independent governments, and the separation of Serbia and Kosovo is still likely.

My judgment is that the only plausible political equilibria in Iraq are the emergence of a strong man or the fragmentation into three independent governments dominated by the Sunnis, Shia, and the Kurds. A civil war, I suggest, may be the necessary next step toward either of these outcomes. Current U.S. government policy, of course, is to try to achieve an accomodation among these groups without continued violence or an indefinite U.S. military role, an outcome that is desirable but increasingly implausible.

The U.S. government may not have the capability to prevent a civil war in Iraq, and in any case, we may not have a dog in that fight.

Our government, ironically enough, may prefer the emergence of a Sunni strong man to maintain a unified Iraq, someone like Saddam Hussein who is not subservient to Iran; and of course, Hussein was “our” man in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war. Fragmentation into three governments would be the preferred outcome only if it did not precipitate a larger regional war. The problem is that the Turks may oppose an independent Kurdistan on their border, and the Saudis may oppose a Shia state subservient to Iran on their border.

The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq may yet be controlled by the military and police forces of the current government without indefinite U.S. military support. Fine, but the Iraqi government should be aware that popular support for an indefinite U.S. military role in Iraq is falling rapidly. In the event of a more open civil war, the U.S. government should avoid taking any side in the conflict and should pursue a loss-minimizing strategy during a rapid phase-out of U.S. troops. In anticipation of a possible fragmentation of Iraq, the U.S. government may still have enough leverage on other governments to reduce the prospect of a larger regional war.

There is no plausibly rewarding outcome to the U.S. role in Iraq. Sometimes, the wisest course, if also the most difficult, is to choose the least bad of a set of bad outcomes.