Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies

I’ve easily read a hundred books on the evils of socialism.  I was quite surprised, then, by how much I learned from Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, available for free download.  Yes, I already knew that socialist regimes go through a popularity sequence, starting at “This socialist regime is a model for the world” and ending with “That’s not real socialism.”  Niemietz, however, describes this sequence with great precision and eloquence:

1. The honeymoon period

The first stage is a honeymoon period, during which the experiment has, or at least seems to have, some initial success in some areas. During this period, its international standing is relatively high. Even anti-socialists concede, grudgingly, that the country in question has something to show for it.

During the honeymoon period, very few dispute the experiment’s socialist character; almost nobody claims that the country is not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: during the honeymoon period, large numbers of Western intellectuals enthusiastically embrace the experiment. Self-declared socialists claim ownership of it, and parade it as an example of their ideas in action.

2. The excuses-and-whataboutery period

But the honeymoon period never lasts forever. The country’s luck either comes to an end, or its already existing failures become more widely known in the West. As a result, its international standing deteriorates. It ceases to be an example that socialists hold against their opponents, and becomes an example that their opponents hold against them.

During this period, Western intellectuals still support the experiment, but their tone becomes angry and defensive. The focus changes from the experiment’s supposed achievements to the supposed ulterior motives of its critics. There is a frantic search for excuses, with the blame usually placed on imaginary ‘saboteurs’ and unspecified attempts to ‘undermine’ it. There is plenty of whataboutery.

3. The not-real-socialism stage

Eventually, there always comes a point when the experiment has been widely discredited, and is seen as a failure by most of the general public. The experiment becomes a liability for the socialist cause, and an embarrassment for Western socialists.

This is the stage when intellectuals begin to dispute the experiment’s socialist credentials, and, crucially, they do so with retroactive effect. They argue that the country was never socialist in the first place, and that its leaders never even tried to implement socialism. This is the deeper meaning behind the old adage that ‘real’ socialism has never been tried: socialism gets retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’ whenever it fails. So it has never been tried, in the same way in which, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the government of Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

This is not a conscious process, let alone a purposefully orchestrated one. There is no equivalent of an industrial standards body, which awards a ‘real socialism’ certificate of authenticity, and then withdraws it again with retroactive effect. Socialists do not hold clandestine conferences in secret hideouts; they do not deliberately cover up their former support for the regime in question. They simply fall silent on the issue, and move on to the next cause.

At some point, the claim that the country in question was never ‘really’ socialist becomes the conventional wisdom. Since it is only the opponents of socialism who still refer to that example, while socialists themselves no longer do, it is easy to gain the impression that it must be a straw man argument. This book will show that these alleged ‘straw men’ were all once very much alive. They are not straw men at all. They are the failed utopias of yesteryear.

In short:

The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals. It is only after the event (i.e. once they have become an embarrassment for the socialist cause) that their version of socialism is retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’.

Niemietz then provides long list of case studies of self-labelled socialist regimes.  The two biggest examples – Soviet Union and Maoist China – fit his sequence to a tee.  So do North Korea, Cambodia, Albania, and Venezuela.  The chapter on the latter was especially eye-opening for me.  Choice passages:

Chávez defined his version of socialism explicitly in opposition to previous models. This was not empty rhetoric. Under Chavismo, there were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership
and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the formation of worker cooperatives and various forms of social enterprises was heavily promoted. Exact figures are hard to come by, but, according to Piñeiro Harnecker (2009: 309), the number of worker-run cooperatives increased from fewer than 1,000 when Chávez was first elected to well over 30,000 in less than a decade. By the end of Chávez’s second term, cooperatives accounted for about 8 per cent of Venezuela’s GDP and 14 per cent of its workforce (ibid.).

Venezuelan socialism would later show many of the negative features associated with earlier forms of socialism, but it was never government policy to replicate any of those earlier models. When Western Chavistas insisted that the Venezuelan government was trying to create a different model of socialism, they were not deluding themselves.

At that point, the tone among Western Chavistas changed noticeably. Pro-Venezuela articles, which had so far tended to be hopeful and optimistic, became angry and defensive. The emphasis shifted from the supposed achievements of Chavismo to whataboutery, and to questioning the motives of Chavismo’s critics both in Venezuela and internationally.

In 2014, Owen Jones wrote an article for the Independent entitled ‘Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’. Jones acknowledges the existence of ‘recent economic troubles’, but the emphasis of the article is on the problems of the pre-Chávez era (‘let’s have some context’), and on the violence committed by parts of the opposition. It culminated in the claim that ‘[t]hose who relish using Venezuela’s troubles for political point-scoring have no interest in the truth’.

Since this is a high-quality book, Niemietz searches for counter-examples to his own thesis, and identifies two.  Cuba doesn’t fit because after decades of tyranny, many socialists still admire it.  East Germany doesn’t fit because it never had much of a honeymoon period.  Overall, though, these are minor deviations.  The socialist big picture is at once bizarre and horrifying, especially as so many young people negligently convert to this once-dying creed.

P.S. This spring I’ll once again be debating “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” this time at the University of Wisconsin versus Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago.

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In Praise of Home Delivery Culture

Writing at Reason magazine, Liz Wolfe lauds home delivery culture — the increasing tendency of Americans to Netflix and chill while relying on Amazon Prime, Instacart, Grubhub, and other services to drop the goods we consume off on our front porches.

Wolfe nails some of the individual benefits, and beneficiaries, of this “late-stage capitalism” phenomenon. It allows working people to spend more of their limited “free” time with their families instead of trudging up and down store aisles. It eases the shopping problems and increases the options of the elderly and disabled.

But Wolfe doesn’t mention a couple of the biggest SOCIAL benefits: Delivery culture is also a huge potential boon for the environment and in terms of reduced infrastructure costs.

Fewer individual shoppers means fewer cars clogging the roads and filling store parking lots (in fact, given Wolfe’s inclusion of ride-sharing services like Uber, it may mean fewer cars, period).

Fewer individual shoppers also means less retail space to heat, cool, and light.

And those two things translate into three other things: Fewer greenhouse emissions, less money spent building and maintaining roads, and more land potentially left as “green space.”

One Amazon or Instacart delivery van bringing groceries to 20 households reduces the number of vehicles out on the road for that purpose, during that time frame, by 95%, and the number of total miles driven for those shopping needs by some smaller factor.

One Uber vehicle transporting ten individuals or parties per day means at least five fewer cars taking up parking spaces for hours at a time at the non-home ends of round trips.

And because those services are operated with an eye toward maximizing profit, the vehicles used are likely to be more fuel-efficient and better maintained than your jalopy, and the drivers are likely to choose the most efficient routes, reducing miles driven, wear and tear on roads, and overall emissions.

Much of the focus on home delivery culture, both positive and negative, is on lots and lots of stuff becoming more and more accessible. That’s true, and relevant, whether you’re a fan of consumer culture or bemoan it.

But home delivery culture also incentivizes businesses to do things that are good for all of us. And it does so through market mechanisms rather than through political haggling.

The iron laws of profit and loss are more reliable motivators of business behavior than public scolding or government regulation.

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In Praise of Spontaneous Order

My girls and I recently spent several days in New York City, where I filmed this clip about unschooling and self-directed education. We decided to make it a field trip, enjoying a Broadway show, Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I have been a city dweller in Boston for over 20 years, it pales in comparison to New York City’s size and scale. Walking through Times Square, the phrase that kept popping into my head was: spontaneous order.

Here were thousands of people in a few square blocks, all peacefully pursuing their own interests in an environment of voluntary association and exchange. Some people might have been in search of Italian food, others Mexican. Some visitors may have been shopping for shoes, or pocketbooks, or travel memorabilia, while others were interested in the street performers and musicians. Some arrived by taxi, others by subway, and still others by foot or bicycle. Some were there to sell, while others were there to buy.

There were countless reasons all of those people were in Times Square, but they came as a result of their own distinct interests, taking advantage of a panoply of dining, shopping, and artistic vendors, without any central planner coordinating their activities. It is an extraordinary example of the power of the marketplace to spontaneously facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange for highly diverse individuals with many different interests and needs. As State University of New York economist Sanford Ikeda writes, “great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.”

Spontaneous Order

In his book, The Fatal Conceit, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek explained the beauty of spontaneous order in greater detail, arguing that while it’s not perfect, the order that arises through decentralized, individual interest is superior to any external attempt to mastermind human action. Hayek wrote:

Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected “appropriate” places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.

A few days in Times Square gave me an even greater appreciation for the spontaneous order of the marketplace and its ability to satisfy an array of preferences, peacefully and voluntarily, without central planning or control. It’s an extraordinary display of emergent, harmonious human action.

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Negroes With Guns: The Untold History of Black NRA Gun Clubs and the Civil Rights Movement

Black NRA Gun Clubs

With the violent crime rate increasing disproportionately in urban communities, it’s no surprise that a recent phone survey of black voters found that 80 percent felt gun violence was an “extremely serious” problem. However, it seems this surge in violence actually has many in the black community changing their views on gun ownership.

In 1993, 74 percent of African-Americans favored gun control. Fast forward to 2018, and a Crime Prevention Research Center report found that concealed carry permits are on the rise – especially among minorities. In Texas alone, the number of blacks with permits has grown by almost 140 percent since 2012. Overall, this growth in the number of permits for blacks is happening 20 percent faster than for whites.

This increasingly positive attitude toward firearms might not be a new paradigm, but rather a return to form.

In this three-part series on militias in America, Early American Militias: The Forgotten History of Freedmen Militias from 1776 until the Civil War and American Militias after the Civil War: From Black Codes to the Black Panthers and Beyond provide detailed looks at the history of militias in early and post-Civil-War America. This guide takes a final look at how militias played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement, an important piece of America that’s missing from our history books.

Robert F. Williams and Armed Black Self-Defense

Few are aware that weapons played a pivotal part in the American Civil Rights Movement, specifically through Robert F. Williams. A curious figure in American history, Libertarians are quick to lionize him and his radical approach to black self-defense, but they’ll quickly cool when they learn of his longstanding association with leftist totalitarian politics and governments. Conservatives likewise might initially find themselves infatuated with a man who did not wait for “big government” to deliver his people, but rather leveraged the Second Amendment. Liberals, for their part, might find something to admire in Williams’ notion of liberation, but will recoil in horror when learning that his preferred vehicles for change were the NAACP (great!) and the NRA (terrible!).

Williams was many things, but chief among them was a harbinger of things that would come long after he had fled the United States for what he considered greener pastures in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He stands across the divide, separating the non-violent, electoral, protest-oriented phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s from the later, more militant and direct-action-oriented phase that would arise in the mid-to-late 1960s as the movement became more frustrated (particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King).

Born in North Carolina in 1925, Williams’ experience mirrors that of many African-Americans of his generation. He moved to Detroit as part of the Second Great Migration, where he was privy to race rioting over jobs. He served in the then-segregated United States Marine Corps for a year and a half after being drafted in 1944. Upon returning to his North Carolina hometown, Williams found a moribund chapter of the NAACP. With only six members and little opposition, he used his USMC training to commandeer the local branch and turn it in a decidedly more military direction. The local chapter soon had over 200 members under Williams’ leadership. If nothing else, his leadership was effective at building the movement from the ground up.

Black NRA Gun Clubs KKKAn early incident is particularly instructive in how effective these new tactics were. The KKK was very active in Monroe, with an estimated 7,500 members in a town of 12,000. After hearing rumors that the Klan intended to attack NAACP chapter Vice President Dr. Albert Perry’s house, Williams and members of the Black Armed Guard surrounded the doctor’s house with sandbags and showed up with rifles. Klansman fired on the house from a moving vehicle and the Guard returned fire. Soon after, the Klan required a special permit from the city’s police chief to meet. One incident of self-defense did more to move the goalposts than all previous legislative pressure had.

Monroe’s Black Armed Guard wasn’t a subsidiary of the Communist Party, nor an independent organization like the Black Panther Party that would use similar tactics of arming their members later. In fact, “Black Armed Guard” was nothing more than a fancy name for an officially chartered National Rifle Association chapter.

His 1962 book, Negroes With Guns, was prophetic for the Black Power movement to come later on in the decade. But Williams is noteworthy for his lack of revolutionary fervor, at least early on. Williams was cautious to always maintain that the Black Armed Guard was not an insurrectionary organization, but one dedicated to providing defense to a group of people who were under attack and lacking in normal legal remedies:

To us there was no Constitution, no such thing as ‘moral persuasion’ – the only thing left was the bullet…I advocated violent self-defense because I don’t really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.

Robert Williams

Williams himself is an odd figure, not easily boxed into conventional political labels. While often lauded, for example in a PBS Independent Lens hagiography, it’s worth noting that Williams spent a number of years operating Radio Free Dixie, a radio station broadcast from Communist Cuba that regularly denounced the American government. He urged black soldiers to revolt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Williams personally praised the Watts riots in 1966, simultaneously invoking “the spirit of ‘76.” Radio Free Dixie ceased operations in 1965, when Williams relocated to Red China at the personal request of Chairman Mao Zedong (hardly a proponent of freedom). Williams happily accepted, and this is where he remained for the rest of his exile from the United States – avoiding dubious charges of kidnapping white activists, Williams claimed he was defending from Klan attacks.

However, it’s not entirely fair to brand Williams a pliant, party-line Communist, either. Even while hobnobbing with the elite of the Chinese Communist Party, Williams regularly denounced the U.S. Communist Party as “Gus Hall’s idiots.” To some degree, this reflects internal divisions in the international Communist movement at the time, with national parties and internal factions lining up between Moscow and Beijing. But he also refused to rule out any sort of deal between himself and the federal government – or the far right, for that matter – on the grounds that he would do anything to avoid prison. He gave speeches in China denouncing the United States, including one where he associated Robert Kennedy with an alleged system of international white supremacy.

Upon returning to the United States, Williams was put on trial for the alleged kidnapping and was extradited to North Carolina from Michigan. By the time his case went to trial in 1975, it was a cause celebre among the American far left and the charges were soon dropped. His later years were marked by a lack of political activity. He received a grant from the Ford Foundation to work in the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. He seemed to have little interest in leading the more militant, Black Power incarnation of the Civil Rights Movement that had emerged in his exile. The title of his New York Times obituary is rather telling: “Outspoken and Feared but Largely Forgotten.”

Williams is a confusing figure, one that’s hard to figure out and even harder for people of any political persuasion to take a hard line in favor of. An iconoclast and a malcontent, he was simultaneously capable of self-sacrifice, exiling himself from his homeland, as well as blatant (and almost certainly appropriate) self-interest, ready to cut any kind of a deal to keep himself out of jail. No matter what your opinion is of Robert F. Williams and his role in bringing together blacks and guns, one thing’s for sure – we won’t be seeing him on the front of dollar bills any time soon.

Continue reading Negroes With Guns: The Untold History of the Black NRA Gun Clubs and the Civil Rights Movement at Ammo.com.

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Codifying Our Worst Impulses: The Ideas that Started World War II

 

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the deadliest violent conflict in human history.  Death tolls vary, but often reach 80 million souls.  What caused it?  Lists of proximate causes never end, but the only credible “root cause” is simply: ideas.  Three countries started World War II: Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While popular summaries rarely list the Soviets as initiators because Hitler double-crossed Stalin two years later, Molotov and Ribbentrop’s  so-called Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a Treaty of Aggression Against Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What ideas led the leaders of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union to war?  The obvious answer is extreme nationalism – the view any action is morally praiseworthy if it advances the interests of your nation-state.  Heinrich Himmler said it best:

For the SS Man, one principle must apply absolutely: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood, and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, the Czechs, is totally indifferent to me… Whether other races live well or die of hunger is only of interest to me insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise that doesn’t interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women fall down from exhaustion in building a tank ditch is of interest to me only insofar as the tank ditches are finished for Germany.

…When somebody comes to me and says, I can’t build tank ditches with children or women. That’s inhumane, they’ll die doing it. Then I must say: You are a murderer of your own blood, since, if the tank ditches are not built, then German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. That is our blood. That is how I would like to indoctrinate this SS, and, I believe, have indoctrinated, as one of the holiest laws of the future: our concern, our duty, is to our Folk, and to our blood. That is what we must care for and think about, work for and fight for, and nothing else. Everything else can be indifferent to us.

Almost everyone understands that Japan and Germany grew extremely nationalistic during the 1930s.  Few realize that the same holds for the Soviet Union as well.  Under Stalinism, anything that advanced the interests of the Soviet Union was the moral imperative – starting with the reabsorption of all the breakaway territories of the Russian Empire.

By itself, however, extreme nationalism need not generate war.  Rationally speaking, the best way to advance the national interest is with peace and consumerism.  The leadership of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, however, all angrily rejected this bourgeois, “shopkeepers’” perspective.  Instead, they equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government – and angrily denounced Western “plutocracies.”

This was most obvious in the USSR, which deliberately eradicated the rich, business, and private property itself in order to build a totalitarian militarized society.  But Germany’s National Socialists had a similar vision.  Their goal was not to build an idyllic consumer society, but a mighty war machine.  Unlike the Soviets, however, the Nazis had the common-sense to harness the rich, business, and private property rather than destroy them.   As Hitler told Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning:

He had no intention, like Russia, of “liquidating” the possessing class. On the contrary, he would compel it to contribute by its abilities towards the building up of the new order. He could not afford to allow Germany to vegetate for years, as Russia had done, in famine and misery. Besides, the present owners of property would be grateful that their lives had been spared. They would be dependent and in a condition of permanent fear of worse things to come.

The same holds for Japan: Its leaders equated the national interest with the power and glory of the Japanese government, not the safety and prosperity of the Japanese people.  So while the Japanese government happily used the domestic rich and domestic business, it truly bled them dry during the war.  As Walter Scheidel explains in The Great Leveler:

Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by the richest tenth of that top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.

However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more—93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few.

What’s the right word for “equating the national interest with the power and glory of the government rather than peace and consumerism”?  There are many candidate labels  – “statism,” “romanticism,” “populism,” “communitarianism,” “anti-capitalism.”  But none is quite right, so we might as well stick with the label that activists who equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government have preferred throughout the 20th century: socialism.  Obviously, there are many kinds of self-identified socialists – including socialists who unequivocally seek a peaceful, consumerist society.  Historically, however, these are rare – and since I’m not a socialist, I say that “real socialism” equals “what most self-styled socialists do when they have power.” Whatever label you prefer, the key point is that all the regimes that started World War II praised the power and glory of the government to the skies – and brought traditional elites – the rich and business – to their knees.  Or their graves.

Before you join me in blaming World War II on nationalism and socialism, though, there’s an obvious objection: These ideas have been ubiquitous for ages.  My response: The emotional impulses behind nationalism and socialism – impulses like xenophobia and anti-market bias – are indeed long-lived and widespread.  Far more children dream of being warriors than merchants.  But the initiators of World War II turned these knee-jerk feelings into bodies of thought.  They codified humanity’s worst impulses into explicit, militant, self-conscious ideologies.  And they took their ideologies seriously enough to kill for them – and often to die for them.

Does this mean that every latter-day nationalist and socialist is morally comparable to the architects of World War II?  No; that’s absurd.  The reason for this moral non-comparability, though, is disturbing.  The rhetoric of modern nationalism and socialism remains grotesque.  Anyone who says “By any means necessary” is, by implication, saying, “If it takes 80 million deaths for us to win, then so be it.”  The saving grace of latter-day nationalists and socialists is that almost all of them are hypocrites.  They may say, “By any means necessary,” but thankfully few have the stomach for it.  As I’ve said before, if your ideas are bad, hypocrisy makes them less bad.

Still, I am dismayed by the renewed popularity of nationalism and socialism.  I don’t think World War III is coming this century.  If it does come, however, I will blame the nationalists and socialists who take their scary slogans to heart.

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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