Nader’s Raiders aren’t alone in criticizing ZapMe! The appearance of commercialism in the classroom — candy logos in some cafeterias, soft‐drink signs on the football field, commercials on Channel One’s TV sets — led a Wisconsin state lawmaker to introduce a bill last year banning advertising in schools. Politicians also don’t seem to like it when business offers something for “free.” Even if you’re a public school graduate, you know the price of zero is still $2 billion less than the $2 billion that President Clinton and Vice President Gore want the nation’s consumers to ante up to get the nation’s schools online.
As much as we’d all like for every child to have a computer at home and at school, economic reality must be faced. In an era of tightening budgets, the choice may be between higher taxes and computers. Should such goods be provided through private, peaceful exchange or through coerced taxation? As we consider ways of meeting the needs of schools, let’s bear a few things in mind:
First, few things in life are really “free,” even when the price is “free.” Broadcast television is “free” because someone buys commercials. Newspapers, while not completely “free,” are offered at nominal cost because someone buys advertisements in them. Politicians who create “free” programs for constituents do so at someone else’s expense. The difference, of course, is that when people come to voluntary private agreements, both parties feel they’re deriving some benefit. I watch TV despite some annoying commercials because on balance, I derive entertainment or informational value from the rest of the show. But when the goodies are given out by government, no such voluntary act occurs. As a taxpayer, I’m not free to refuse to fund the largesse. School officials feel they must accept it (along with whatever strings are attached) lest other schools get goodies at their expense. And that’s related to the second lesson:
Private action is preferable to public action. Having the private sector wire the nation’s schools not only meets a need without costing taxpayers money; it also means that there won’t be make‐work created for an army of bureaucrats maneuvering to keep their jobs in another “temporary” government program. As Ronald Reagan once said, “A government program is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” In contrast, schools and businesses acting in their own interests are much likelier to log off once a relationship involving computers or anything else is no longer fruitful for both sides. And that leads to the third lesson:
The one‐best‐school‐system model and mindset, according to which there are uniform rules for every school, needs to be scrapped. Unfortunately, Ralph Nader is not alone in suffering from the arrogance of thinking he knows what is best for millions of children in thousands of school districts. But America is a diverse country in which many possible ways of meeting local needs abound. Some schools desperately need computers, some don’t. Let’s allow the schools to decide if they want to accept a business’s offer of free goods. There could even come a day when computer companies compete with one another to wire the nation’s schools. Free will be a tough price to beat, but there might be a company out there willing to offer computers at a price that the schools can’t refuse — even if consumer advocates and politicians think the price is too high, or too low.