Pundits Wrong on the GI Bill

As part of its series on higher ed issues in
the 2012 campaign, the Chronicle of Higher Education has a long opinion
piece
in the form of a news article accusing Republicans of hypocrisy.

In “Self-Sufficient,
With a Hand From the Government
,” author Scott Carlson claims to find “a
striking dissonance” between the moving “pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps
narrative” a number of speakers at the Republican Convention told of their
fathers’ and their benefitting from the GI Bill, “one of the biggest federal
programs in recent history.”

This “irony,” Carlson reports, “wasn’t lost
on liberals. Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and consultant, jumped all
over the remarks on his Twitter feed
on Tuesday night: ‘Christie: Dad went to Rutgers on the GI Bill. Dems built
that.'” Begala thinks these Republican fathers did not succeed “on their own,”
in President
Obama’s now famous words
. They did not succeed because they were “just so
smart” or because they worked hard. They were successful only with the help of
a “hand from the government.”

Carlson finds it “interesting to ponder …
whether Governor Christie’s father would have been able to get that degree
today, given the recent history of receding state support and inflating costs.”
Seen from Carlson’s and Begala’s angel, Republican calls to scale back the size
and scope of government amount to biting the government hand that fed them.

What this complaint of hypocrisy ignores,
however, is a crucial distinction between government programs to which
beneficiaries have contributed, such as the GI Bill, and open-ended entitlement
programs that require no such contribution. Assume for a moment that after the
Civll War all freed slaves received “40 acres and a mule.”
Would anyone, even President Obama or Paul Begala, seriously claim that former
slaves who had become successful later in life owed their success to the
government program and not to their own sacrifice and hard work? Well, maybe,
but would anyone listen to them if they did?

The GI Bill, like the hypothetical 40 acres
and a mule, was not an entitlement or an example of beneficent government
generosity. It was partial compensation for sacrifices made for and services
rendered to the nation. Finding an “irony” in Republican proposals to scale
back massive federal borrowing and debt, including funds for higher education,
even though the fathers of many current party leaders benefitted from the GI
Bill requires assuming that if one limited government program compensating one defined
group of people for a limited time is good, all government benefits are good;
that if some spending at one time was good, more spending all the time is
better.

That “narrative” is more mythical than
anything coming out of the Republican convention.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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