The health care debate has some politicians railing: "we don’t want government running our health care; look at how they run the post office." Well, compared to companies that only offer the high-priced overnight and box shipments, I think the post office does a great job of getting my letter across country for 44 cents. But Americans don’t stop to think that local, state and federal governments are in charge of many more "businesses": police, fire fighters, public health, most public roads, agricultural extension, courts, military, and public schools.
Under this political rhetoric, we have "socialized" law enforcement, "socialized" fire fighters, "socialized" military, "socialized" courts, etc. By this logic, I have worked—along with my teacher colleagues in public schools and universities—in socialist institutions all my life. All were public, not private schools.
So wake up, Glenn Beck and the other pundits shedding tears over our drift to "socialism." The American government has been providing goods and services ever since we declared independence.
That is what governments do. The alarm of pure free-market extremists comes more from their realization that the Madoff affair, the collapse of banking, overpriced real estate, and devastated stock markets has shown that competition and greed have a downside. They have temporarily stopped touting moving money out of that "socialist" social security and into the stock market.
Police officers, fire fighters, soldiers and similar professions do not belong in the private sector. We do not want private companies of armed police running around competing for our business. And who pays them for solving a crime—the victim?
The concept that holds these "socialized" public services together is that they serve for the "public good." That is a term we should use more often.
When a police force solves a crime, we all benefit from the level of security we have. When firefighters put out a fire and save another’s house, we benefit because it does not spread to the rest of us. When we support road construction, even if we do not drive all of those roads, it benefits us in the indirect commerce and products that can be brought to us, and that supports our economy. These are all "public goods."
Education is likewise a public good. The rich landowner who has no children but who pays substantial taxes toward public education, benefits greatly by living in a society that is well advanced in civility above the feudal existence that would exist without an educated citizenry.
Proposals for vouchers and school competition are flawed. There is a shortage of teachers. Move to competition, and you merely redistribute the teachers. This parallels the conservative Cato Institute proposal to make all U.S. roads into toll roads. Most of us can imagine the consequences: roads to the wealthy areas get paved and the rest of us get potholes. Likewise, privatizing K-12 public education just leads to pothole education for the poor.
But public universities are being privatized, lamenting that they have moved from state institutions to state-supported institutions to state-located institutions. As tax support decreases, university tuition continues to skyrocket. Education is now perceived as a private benefit, rather than a public good.
Kansas regents schools used to be funded at a significant level for staying within an enrollment corridor and offering their unique programs. Now, each university gets to keep its tuition. And being tuition-driven has thrown Kansas universities into the free market model, seeking every warm body to bolster market share. Student "customers" are on their own to underwrite their own education costs. With scholarships (most were based on stock investments) decimated and the stimulus Pell grants only lasting for another year, many students are realizing a college education is a costly and risky gamble that may never pay off.
Conservative pundits who are fretting any move toward socialism will be comforted to know that our universities are rapidly moving to "free market." If we get socialized medicine, we may end up with a very healthy but ignorant population.