The kinds of things conservatives believe

| June 14 2011
Christopher Cook

I have a relative with whom I enjoy conversing immensely. Living far apart, we don’t have a chance to converse much, but when we do, it’s always edifying. She is one of the smartest people I know, and I always enjoy the challenge and stimulation that such intelligence offers in a conversation on matters of importance.

This relative is on the political left. She is, like most people who make up the rank-and-file of the political left, a decent person who means well. Unfortunately, I believe she has largely bought into the left’s superior marketing that it, as an aggregate ideology, is the ideology to which anyone who “means well” should adhere. Similarly, I believe she has, as so many do, also bought into the idea that somehow the left is the ideology to which to adhere if one prefers freedom, less corruption, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. History has already demonstrated that implementation of the left’s ideas tends to produce less freedom, centralized corruption, and the least good for the greatest number of people . . . but good marketing is hard to overcome.

I recently had an opportunity to enjoy one of our fascinating and productive discussions. Among the things I tried to get across were a few general notions of what we as conservatives believe.

A discussion of our dramatic debt situation led (perhaps inevitably) to a discussion of the need to reform wasteful government departments, an area of general agreement between us. In spite of the fact that my larger point was that discretionary spending is not the problem driving the debt, I did mention that the Department of Education is on many conservatives’ wish-list for elimination.

Explaining why allowed me to explain a core conservative principle: subsidiarity:

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

We don’t oppose the Department of Education because we hate children and want to see them fail, though that is the almost-inevitable shriek from our opponents on this issue. Rather, we oppose the Department of Education because we believe that as centralization increases, efficiency decreases. It is in keeping with our core belief in subsidiarity to propose that education would be better handled at the state and local level, rather than with the inefficient, unresponsive, overbearing, one-size-fits-all approach that the federal government must, almost by definition, take.

Ronald Reagan opposed the Department of Education, then a brand new entity. Just like the rest of us, he opposed it not because he hates children and wants them to fail, but because he believed it would not work. And now, several decades of evidence appear to be proving him (and the rest of us) right:

But the federal government has neither the authority nor the capacity to achieve local school improvement, as a half-century record shows. As a result, schools and states are scrambling, and the NCLB mandate has led to “serious unintended consequences, such as a weakening of state achievement standards and a loss of transparency to parents and taxpayers about students’ real academic performance,” according to The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke. But there are even bigger problems—the significant expansion of the federal role in education, leading to restrictive red tape tying up local and state education leaders.

The costs of complying with federal mandates are extraordinary. Burke writes that “estimates from 2006 found that the new guidelines and regulations created by NCLB increased state and local education agencies’ annual paperwork burden by 6.7 million hours, at a cost of $141 million.” That number continues to grow. According to Representative John Kline (R–MN):

States and school districts work 7.8 million hours each year collecting and disseminating information required under Title I of federal education law. Those hours cost more than $235 million. The burden is tremendous, and this is just one of many federal laws weighing down our schools.

And despite the rules and regulations, not to mention a tripling of federal per-pupil expenditures and $2 trillion of taxpayer money spent since 1965, academic achievement and graduation rates have remained flat.

The entire piece is worth a read, for it covers several other important points and offers some solutions.

It is not a dispositive or comprehensive case; it is just a part of the picture. Nonetheless, as conservatives, we believe we can predict with certainty that the Department of Education will fail to produce its intended results because it violates the principle of subsidiarity. The federal government should run the military and the United States’ foreign policy because those are precisely the sort of thing that a central authority must do. Education is not, and massive centralized bureaucratic oversight and control of education is doomed to fail. We are seeing that failure now, and our children are the victims. That is why conservatives tend to oppose the Department of Education, hoping to see it downsized or eliminated.

Rather than accepting that we have a different interpretation of the given fact set—but that we too have children’s best interests at heart—the left will often accuse us of somehow being opposed to the academic success of our nation’s precious children. We are then treated to some further explanation for what we want to do with the savings: payoffs to our oil cronies . . . tax cuts for some rich fatcat somewhere . . . money to devise special devices that will more efficiently push wheelchair-bound seniors off of cliffs . . . etc.

But perhaps, given the evidence before us, it is time to question their motives in all of this. The Department of Education, and federal oversight of education in general, have manifestly failed, yet any efforts to decentralize educational control will surely be met by savage resistance by huge swaths of the left’s most powerful players and entities. Could it be that they have a vested interest in maintaining large bureaucracies and controls—an interest that has nothing to do with children’s interests? Massive education unions would likely be weakened in power, money, and influence in any such decentralization. Could it be that those dependent on unions for their political power might oppose such decentralization simply because it would weaken those unions and thus threaten their continued hold on power?

Perhaps it is time for conservatives to stop protesting our innocence on the subject of who has children’s best interests at heart. Central control of education does not help children, yet the left continues to support it. Perhaps it is time for us to start questioning their real motives.

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