Editor’s Note: This excerpt is part of a longer essay published by The Heritage Foundation on the conservative policy response to COVID for higher education. The full essay can be found at The Heritage Foundation website.
The key to finding policies that can garner widespread conservative support lies in understanding the four schools of thought through which conservatives approach higher education policy reform. It is useful to keep in mind that this classification scheme is intended for conservative arguments, as opposed to individuals, because few individuals fall entirely within one school of thought.
This group believes that markets almost always work better than government control and that government should therefore be smaller and less intrusive in most areas of life, including higher education. This group argues that government taxation and funding skews incentives and the optimal allocation of resources, both from the distortionary taxes imposed to raise money and from special interest influence and political favoritism when the government spends money. They also worry that government control leads to the politicization of education. For this group, the less government involvement and interference in higher education, the better.
Chesterton’s Fence Brigade
The second school of thought is named after G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” ~ G. K. Chesterton, “The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic,” 1929.
These conservatives view rapid change as dangerous because modern society is the result of hard-to-build, complex, and interdependent institutions. Thus, they argue, wanton dismantling would likely have severe unintended consequences that could not be easily or quickly reversed. As former House Speaker Sam Rayburn reportedly once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” While this group may have objections to some aspects of higher education, they oppose radical change and instead gravitate toward incremental and gradual reforms.
Education Is Special
This group believes that markets generally work better than government control but will support government intervention when they believe there is either a market imperfection or a strong moral case. Education, they argue, has both. Education and research may have spillover effects that benefit the rest of society above and beyond the benefits that accrue to the students or researchers themselves. Economists call these spillovers “positive externalities” and note that markets tend to underproduce such goods and services. This underproduction can be remedied with subsidies, so these conservatives argue that positive externalities justify government subsidization of higher education. Another contingent of this group argues that education is so crucial in generating opportunities throughout life that it would be immoral to allow children from lower-income families to remain undereducated due to their inability to pay for college. For these conservatives, government funding for students, in general—and students from lower-income households, in particular—is justified in the name of increasing equality of opportunity and social mobility.
Ideological Siege Defenders
This group does not have uniform views on the scale of government involvement in education. However, they strongly object when they believe educational institutions are being used by progressives as re-education camps that aim to indoctrinate rather than educate the next generation. They look at higher education and conclude that it is being used as a weapon to wage ideological war on conservatives. For this group, either conservatives need to be reestablished within the higher education ecosystem to restore ideological balance, or failing that, the conservative movement should abandon existing higher education and build alternatives that are not so overtly hostile to conservatives.
To read the rest of this piece, visit The Heritage Foundation website.
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