NOT SO LONG AGO, American conservatives seemed to be converting the world to their ideas. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, country after country abandoned socialism for free markets, embracing such Reaganite themes as incentives, individualism, and responsibility. It looked as though the sun would never set on the friends of American conservatism. Yet today, American conservatives have never felt so alone.
This is not a matter of how many people around the world like American conservatives, but of how many are like them. To be sure, many political movements don’t have counterparts in other countries. But Europe and America are politically kin, and when in the 1980s Ronald Reagan took his stands for markets and against the Soviets he found ready and stalwart allies in Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and other indigenous conservatives. Yet all we hear of these days is the “exceptionalism of modern American conservatism.” What happened to Europe?
Finding an answer begins with a comparison of contemporary American and European conservatives, especially concerning their basic assumptions—or operating principles—about economics, foreign policy, crime, and morality.
Market vs. State
American conservatives believe that a healthy modern economy is so complex and innovative that most economic decisions have to take place in the private sector, where scattered information is located, and risk may be rewarded or punished. Government is best at enforcing rules of the game and engaging in limited redistribution. When it does much more than that, it creates inefficient regulations and bureaucracies prone to expanding rather than learning.
This basic assumption runs deep in American life, not merely because we’ve spent too much time in post office lines—everyone on earth has done that—but because we’re in a position to compare the post office to responsive, dynamic private businesses of all kinds. Many Europeans think similarly, especially business leaders, free-market activists, policy wonks, center-right politicians (including, apparently, the German Christian Democrats’ Angela Merkel), and the occasional center-left leader such as Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder.
But most Western Europeans fear that markets will fail to meet their needs and satisfy their interests. They maintain a faute de mieux faith that government is the indispensable actor in economic life. Even when compelled by economic crisis to trim taxes, privatize, and curb spending—that is, even while recognizing implicitly that these measures attract investment and encourage growth—European leaders rarely offer principled criticism of government intervention, much less positive rhetoric about the marketplace. (Jacques Chirac’s center-right cabinet is now privatizing state entities, not because private ownership is more efficient but primarily to cut the deficit and pay down the debt.) The European Union’s proclaimed drive to become internationally competitive is top-down and government-centered. Not surprisingly, “Thatcherite” and “neo-liberal” continue to be labels insultingly applied and hotly denied. All this is true even for several right-wing “populist” parties, such as France’s National Front, which calls occasionally for tax limitation but more often emphasizes protectionism and a welfare state generous to native-born Frenchmen.
These views have not been dislodged, even by serious economic problems. And Europe’s economic problems are serious. The unemployment rate is stuck at around 10 percent in Germany and France, and if anything this underestimates the true figure—even more unemployment is concealed through extensive job-training and early-retirement schemes. The fact that many continental European economies have such mechanisms for sidelining less-skilled workers makes it all the more striking that labor productivity still generally grows faster in the United States. For decades, France and Germany had narrowed the gap in labor productivity with the U.S., but in the past 15 years their progress slowed and then reversed.
The result is that the average U.S. per capita income is now about 55 percent higher than the average of the European Union’s core 15 countries (it expanded to 25 in 2004). In fact, the biggest EU countries have per capita incomes comparable to America’s poorest states. A recent study by two Swedish economists found that if the United Kingdom, France, or Italy suddenly were admitted to the American union, any one of them would rank as the 5th poorest of the 50 states, ahead only of West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana. Ireland, the second richest EU country, would be the 13th poorest state; Sweden the 6th poorest. The study found that 40 percent of all Swedish households would classify as low-income by American standards.
A comparable divide in operating assumptions exists on foreign policy. By and large, American conservatives believe that although international conflicts may arise from uncertainty, misunderstanding, and mutual threats, they usually result from simple predation, power-hunger, and hatred. Global cooperation is possible when would-be predators are deterred, which requires muscular firmness. Democracies are uniquely suited to be enforcers of international order because they are least likely to be its transgressors—which is the reason Americans have traditionally championed an integrated and assertive Europe, instead of seeing it as a threat.
Some Europeans share this view, including most British and many Dutch and Danish conservatives, as well as Blair and other Laborites. Once upon a time, the Gaullists thought like this, and José María Aznar and other Spanish conservatives do so still. But most European governments now practice what Americans would recognize as a liberal foreign policy. This is not so much because Europeans inhabit what Robert Kagan calls a “post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity.” Instead they insist on seeing misperception, insecurity, and pride as the root of most international conflicts, which accordingly are best defused by reassurance and the careful avoidance of confrontation, ultimatums, and threats. The Spanish government’s response to the Madrid bombings—hasty withdrawal from Iraq—was denounced as appeasement by most Americans, but not by most Europeans. Of course, the British response to the London bombings has been quite different, at least so far.
American conservatives believe that the deterrent approach toward international predators should be firmly applied to would-be domestic predators as well. One might expect the same sensibility in Europe, given high crime rates there. Despite enduring stereotypes to the contrary, Europeans now match or surpass America in most crimes, including violent ones (except murder and, to a lesser degree, rape). In per capita terms, Belgium has more assaults than the U.S., the Netherlands nearly the same number, and France is rising fast. England and Wales have more robberies, the Dutch almost as many, and England and Denmark beat America in per capita burglaries and (here joined by the French) in theft and auto theft. After lecturing Americans that expensive welfare states would ensure social peace, many Europeans now find themselves saddled with both high welfare costs and high crime, while American crime rates have dropped. Western Europeans have met high crime rates with policing and prisons, of course, but more notably with multicultural appeals, jobs programs, and policies aimed at “social insertion” of the alienated. As Theodore Dalrymple explains, such policies transmit the message that criminals are victims, too, and their actions understandable responses to trying circumstances. The result, as in foreign policy, is a lack of resolve among the virtuous, wink-and-nod cynicism among offenders, and excuse-making by everyone.
Hard and Soft
European stereotypes hold that American conservatives, under increasing evangelical influence, want morality to be systematically legislated. Actually, American evangelicals spend far more time shaping behavior in the private or civil sphere than through government. They teach personal values like family responsibility, clean living, self-discipline, voluntarism, and moral clarity in the face of wrongdoing. This ambitious project of private-sector character shaping is virtually without counterpart among purely secular Americans. And it is almost nonexistent in Europe, at least beyond the state-sponsored project of inculcating anti-racism, multiculturalism, and laicism as among the highest virtues.
In sum, American conservatives of nearly every stripe agree that the world is a complex and competitive place in which human nature and its limitations play pervasive roles. In such a world, good people are wise to cultivate individual skills and character traits, to limit centralizing power (especially government), to confront rather than duck serious challenges, and to get incentives right, especially for predators, with an eye toward encouraging virtue, and at least restraint.
Different terms have been invoked to distinguish these conservative operating assumptions from their main alternatives. Television personality Chris Matthews is sometimes credited with the notion that Republicans and Democrats are, respectively, the “daddy” and “mommy” parties. Daddy tries to toughen citizens to cope with life’s ordeals, while mommy tries to shield them from its harshness. U.C. Berkeley linguistics professor (and Democratic consultant) George Lakoff tweaks this to say that conservatives advocate the “strict father” model for America while progressives are “nurturant parents.” The discerning journalist Michael Barone distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” America, representing, respectively, contemporary conservatism and liberalism.
Whatever terms we use to describe the right-wing worldview, American conservatives often develop a sense of “tribal” identification with those who share it, which explains their special bond with many Australian and British conservatives, and even with Tony Blair. This also explains recent conservative interest in Germany’s Angela Merkel, who seems to understand economic incentives, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who stands out for his toughness on crime, praise for bourgeois virtues like hard work, and emphasis on adapting France’s political economy to a competitive world. The problem is that while American conservatives share one of their operating principles with some Europeans and another principle with some others, they don’t share the whole bundle with very many at all. To use Barone’s terms, most Americans have hard values while the majority of West Europeans have soft ones.
The Churning State
Why have America and Europe diverged so much in their beliefs? Consider two groupings in society: communities of religious faith and sectors that are economically independent of government. Together these form the building blocks of American electoral conservatism, and are the two main generators of daddy party beliefs in America. Both are greatly diminished in Europe.
Barone argues that hard values are inculcated by competition while soft ones are promoted and preserved by “coddling.” Adult life in Europe, he suggests, is softened by protectionism, welfarism, and other public subsidies. Despite some variation, three broad economic patterns stand out in Europe. In the first place, proportionately fewer people work. To cut unemployment lines, many of their citizens are encouraged to retire early, on pensions far more publicly-funded than ours. The stand-out cases are France and Germany, Europe’s two largest economies, with labor force participation rates 10 to 15 percentage points lower than America’s (about 55 percent in France; over 70 percent in the U.S.). Second, a larger share of the European workforce is employed by government. Third, Europeans receive more income and benefits from welfare programs in the form of health care, housing, and income support. These benefits reach deep into the middle class.
The result is a noticeably larger share of the population directly dependent on government benefits and services, and therefore directly threatened by any retrenchment of these in favor of private enterprise and private social provisioning. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan applies the label “churning state” to a welfare state in which cross-subsidies are so extensive and interwoven that virtually everyone is a beneficiary and no one will be the first to surrender his subsidy. And the recipients are often right to be afraid. For example, the unemployed would be foolish to give up generous benefits when for more than a decade their economies have been unable to produce enough new jobs.
Now add the influence of religion. The more religious an American is, the more likely he or she is to vote conservative. Millions of “people of faith” are drawn to, and have their values reinforced by, America’s vast and well-integrated religious apparatus of sermons, radio stations, television shows, books, stores, and mega-churches, an apparatus that shapes their beliefs about self-discipline, human nature, evil-doing, and much else.
By contrast, during the past century Europe experienced a drastic decline in rates of religious practice and faith. Whereas some 45 percent of Americans say they attend weekly religious services, one study in 1990 found comparable rates as low as 19 percent in western Germany, 13 percent in Britain, and 10 percent in France, and these have almost certainly fallen since then. There is no comparable apparatus of evangelization. As the sociologist of religion Peter Berger notes, this makes Western Europe stand out: instead of America being conspicuously religious by global standards, Europe is conspicuously secular.
The Median Voter
Such transatlantic differences can be highly consequential politically. Within a nation, major parties generally craft their platforms and rhetoric to attract the “median voter,” that is, the hypothetical voter at the exact center of the political spectrum, whose swing can determine the election. In most European countries, the median voter is both less religious and more dependent on government than the median voter in the United States. This tugs American politics to the right and European politics to the left.
This makes political differences appear even starker than the sociological ones. For example, American liberals when shaping their election platforms have little choice but to sideline “progressive” catchphrases, and instead proclaim their commitment to individual responsibility, the private sector, and toughness on crime and national security. This centrist posturing, especially by Democratic presidential candidates, is so thorough that non-Americans are often unaware that there is a sizable left-liberal minority in the United States. Democrats steer clear of any suggestion that they want to make America more like, say, Europe.
The opposite happens in Europe. Center-right politicians in Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and elsewhere compete for a very different kind of median voter, leaving them little choice but to defend the welfare state, strict secularism, and a soothing foreign policy (by avoiding talk of toughness at home or abroad). Germany’s Christian Democrats, for instance, often compete with the Social Democrats to raise public pensions. European business leaders who understand supply-side incentives, job creation, and taxes and regulation more or less as American conservatives do, censor themselves in order to remain politically relevant. Here, too, the effects can be so thoroughgoing as to obscure the fact that there is a sizable minority of American-style conservatives in every European country. And European conservatives reinforce this misperception by avoiding any suggestion that they want to make their countries more like America.
This explains why so many conservative projects in Europe have rested on the thin reed of individual leaders. Even Margaret Thatcher—who was lucky enough to govern in the face of a divided opposition and in the wake of the 1970s economic crisis—still felt compelled to endorse a health care system more socialized than many American liberals would favor. State spending began to rise again soon after she was succeeded by fellow Conservative John Major. Helmut Kohl left even less of a market reform legacy. So it’s no surprise that the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have witnessed a great deal of homeopathic cures for, but no serious surgery on, the European welfare state. This is especially striking in a country like France, which has suffered high (8–12 percent) unemployment for nearly 25 straight years. The record suggests that it is imprudent to invest much hope in rising center-right politicians like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, however individually promising they appear.
The perception that Europe is uniformly center-to-center-left is further reinforced by the fact that public expression is monopolized by a collusive journalistic, intellectual, and Eurocratic elite whose “arrogance [is] almost beyond belief,” in the words of William Kristol. Its ideologically lopsided political and intellectual elite is so potent that it may shape Europe’s political identity as much as secularism and economic dependence do. Mainstream European press coverage of America, free markets, and robust conservatism is so routinely paranoid and hyperbolic that it makes Howard Dean look temperate. This can conceal important divergences between elites and average citizens. The June 2005 Dutch referendum on the EU constitution revealed a profound disconnect between the parliamentary and journalistic classes, on the one hand, who overwhelmingly favored the treaty, and average citizens on the other, who rejected it 62 percent to 38 percent. Without the public vote, negative opinion polls would have been explained away by the elite as revealing little more than a shallow, momentary fit of temper. A lot may be obscured by the fact that 15 of the 25 EU governments haven’t planned even consultative referendums for adopting the new constitution.
Kristol has suggested that, in a way, Europe is stuck politically in America’s 1990s, with a cultural and political elite plagued by drift, failure, and scandal—but without the breakthrough achieved here by reform-minded conservatives like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. Yet intellectually, Western Europe seems even further behind than just the 1990s. Many Europeans still find it logical to respond to unemployment with protectionism and government jobs programs; leaders routinely speak of corporatist-style “social dialogue” between the state and major interests; a center-right prime minister argues that subsidized agriculture is central to France’s economic dynamism; few expect Europeans to act resolutely to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; and governments try to stem globalization with what one scholar calls a “social democratic Maginot Line.”
All this reminds one of nothing so much as the 1970s. The spirit of Jimmy Carter exited the American political stage decades ago, but, like Jerry Lewis, it remains a matinee favorite on the other side of the Atlantic.
The bad news is that real change is going to happen not by cashiering leaders or nudging political parties, but by changing what the voters think and want. And that is long, hard work. The good news is that the ranks of robust conservatives may be expanding in Europe and elsewhere. In Australia and Japan, security threats and the accumulation of market-oriented economic reforms seem to be bringing center-right sectors around to postures that American conservatives can recognize and appreciate. In Great Britain, Thatcher’s mission of de-socializing the Labor party has borne fruit. (It is true that government spending has risen under Labor, but it has under the Bush Administration, too.)
In Western Europe as a whole, prospects for a “values” revival remain hazy. But another change might help generate daddy-party beliefs: further economic liberalization, which would not only improve the region’s economy (cutting unemployment, for example) but, by creating more competitive markets, might spread hard values, at least concerning business. How could liberalization be promoted? Much economic reform is held back by Europeans’ fears of the economic unknown, specifically that markets cannot provide at reasonable cost the services and insurance coverage that their governments currently offer (in return for high taxes).
Two mechanisms might erode those fears: first, the potentially powerful demonstration effect of the former Communist countries’ success. Today, a contest is underway between economic liberty in east-central Europe—whose growth could demonstrate the efficiency of their less regulated and less taxed economies—and the efforts of the French, German, and other Western European governments to force growth-stifling “harmonizing” measures on the new EU members. East-central Europe can only play an instructive role if its economies remain free. American conservatives thus have an interest in maintaining the perceived viability of the market-oriented central European “social model.” To this end, the U.S. could offer those countries closer trade ties and moral-diplomatic support in their attempt to stand up to Brussels (and Paris, and Berlin, and…).
A second means of eroding anti-market skepticism would be a campaign of public diplomacy, not by the U.S. government but by the American conservative movement. Such a campaign would show Western Europeans that a great number of their fears are unfounded. Books like Cowboy Capitalism, by Olaf Gersemann, a German business journalist, have begun to debunk myths about America’s poverty, joblessness, social immobility, and quality of life; but more efforts are needed. Blogs remain an undeveloped medium in Europe and might help kick-start the resistance to the European Left’s intellectual hegemony. A little encouragement might go a long way.
It is not only American conservatives who have an interest in making the world safe for conservative principles. The story of contemporary American conservatism is in many ways the story of modern America itself. American liberals think they see their own counterparts all over the world, but they have ample reason to feel alone, too. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge note in The Right Nation, “The more you look at [America’s] prominent Democrats from an international perspective, the less left-wing they seem.” “For the foreseeable future,” they write, “the Democrats will be a relatively conservative party by European standards.” It may be that our liberals and conservatives have more in common than they realize, and thus much to gain by seeing their common principles prosper around the world.
Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2005 edition of the Claremont Review of Books.
AMERICA PROVIDES AN AMAZINGLY GOOD LIFE for the ordinary guy. Rich people live well everywhere, but what distinguishes America is that it provides a remarkably high standard of living for the “common man.” A country is not judged by how it treats its most affluent citizens but by how it treats the average citizen.
In much of the world today, the average citizen has a very hard life. In the Third World, people are struggling for their basic existence. It is not that they don’t work hard. On the contrary, they labor incessantly and endure hardships that are almost unimaginable to people in America. In the villages of Asia and Africa, for example, a common sight is a farmer beating a pickaxe into the ground, women wobbling under heavy loads, children carrying stones. These people are performing arduous labor, but they are getting nowhere. The best they can hope for is to survive for another day. Their clothes are tattered, their teeth are rotten, and disease and death constantly loom over the horizon. For most poor people on the planet, life is characterized by squalor, indignity, and brevity.
Even middle-class people in the underdeveloped world endure hardships that make everyday life a strain. One problem is that the basic infrastructure of the Third World is abysmal: The roads are not properly paved, the water is not safe to drink, pollution in the cities has reached hazardous levels, public transportation is overcrowded and unreliable, and there is a two-year waiting period to get a telephone. The poorly paid government officials are inevitably corrupt, which means that you must pay bribes to get things done. Most important, prospects for the children’s future are dim.
In America, the immigrant immediately recognizes that things are different. The newcomer who sees America for the first time typically experiences emotions that alternate between wonder and delight. Here is a country where everything works: The roads are clean and paper-smooth; the highway signs are clear and accurate; the public toilets function properly; when you pick up the telephone, you get a dial tone; you can even buy things from the store and then take them back. For the Third World visitor, the American supermarket is a thing to behold: endless aisles of every imaginable product, 50 different types of cereal, and multiple flavors of ice cream. The place is full of countless unappreciated inventions: quilted toilet paper, fabric softener, cordless telephones, disposable diapers, roll-on luggage, deodorant. Some countries, even today, lack these conveniences.
Critics of America complain about the scandal of persistent poverty in a nation of plenty, but the immigrant cannot help noticing that the United States is a country where the poor live comparatively well. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s when CBS television broadcast “People Like Us,” which was intended to show the miseries of the poor during an American recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, probably with a view to embarrassing the Reagan Administration. But by the testimony of former Soviet leaders, it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans have television sets and microwave ovens and cars. They arrived at the same perception of America as a friend of mine from Mumbai who has been trying unsuccessfully to move to the United States for nearly a decade. Finally, I asked him, “Why are you so eager to come to America?” His reply: “Because I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat.”
The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by a very few, to a large segment of society. Few people in America have to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Emergency medical care is available to everyone, even those without proper insurance. Every child has access to an education, and many have the chance to go to college.
Ordinary Americans enjoy not only security and dignity, but also comforts that other societies reserve for the elite. We live in a country where construction workers regularly pay $4 for a nonfat latte, where maids drive rather nice cars, where plumbers and postal workers take their families on vacation in Europe or the Caribbean. As Irving Kristol once observed, there is virtually no restaurant in America to which a CEO can go to lunch with the absolute assurance that he will not find his secretary also dining there. Given the standard of living of the ordinary American, it is no wonder that socialist or revolutionary schemes have never found a wide constituency in the United States. As sociologist Werner Sombart observed, all socialist utopias have come to grief in America on roast beef and apple pie.
As a result, people live longer, fuller lives in America. Although at trade meetings around the world protesters rail against the American version of technological capitalism, in reality, the American system has given citizens a much longer life expectancy and the means to live more intensely and actively. The average American can expect to live long enough to play with his or her grandchildren.
In 1900, the life expectancy in America was around 50 years; today, it is more than 75 years. Advances in medicine and agriculture are the main reasons. This increased life span is not merely a material gain; it is also a moral gain because it means a few years of leisure after a lifetime of work, more time to devote to a good cause, and more occasions to do things with the grandchildren. In many countries, people who are old seem to have nothing to do; they just wait to die. In America, the old are incredibly vigorous, and people in their seventies pursue the pleasures of life.
“Yes,” the critics carp, “but these benefits are only available to the rich.” Not so. Indeed, America’s system of technological capitalism has over time extended the life span of both rich and poor while narrowing the gap between the two. In 1900, for example, the rich person lived to 60 while the poor person died at 45. Today, the life expectancy of an affluent person in America is 78 years while that of the poor person is around 74. Thus, in one of the most important indicators of human well-being, the rich have advanced in America but the poor have advanced even more.
Dinesh D’Souza is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Scholar at the Hoover Institution. This essay is excerpted from a longer piece originally published in the Heritage Foundation’s “First Principles” series.
ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION is, on one level, an industry, like all others, with schools producing a service that is consumed by the nation’s children. On another level, elementary and secondary education is unique, an industry on which the whole society rests. As I wrote in 1955, “a stable and democratic society is impossible without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens and without widespread acceptance of some common set of values.” That is why government plays such a major role in schooling. It compels attendance in school. Taxpayers pay the bulk of the costs of schooling. Government owns and operates most of the schools.
Government ownership and operation of schools alter fundamentally the way the industry is organized. In most industries, consumers are free to buy the product from anyone who offers it for sale, at a price mutually agreed on. In the process, consumers determine how much is produced and by whom and producers have an incentive to satisfy their customers. These competitive private industries are organized from the bottom up. They have been responsible for truly remarkable economic growth, improvements in products and increased efficiency in production.
In elementary and secondary education, government decides what is to be produced and who is to consume its products, generally assigning students to schools by their residence. The only recourse for dissatisfied parents is through political channels, changing their residence or forswearing the government subsidy and paying for their children’s schooling twice, once in taxes and once in tuition. Parents of more than 10 percent of all students, those who go to private schools or are schooled at home, have adopted this final recourse. In short, this industry is organized from the top down.
Performance differs as much as organization. In sharp contrast to other major industries, there has been little, no, or even negative improvement in the product. Children are taught the way they have been for centuries. Functional literacy is very likely lower than it was a century ago. And we spend more per student, in real dollars corrected for inflation, than we ever have before and more than any other country does now. Top-down organization works no better in the United States than it did in the Soviet Union or East Germany.
The prescription is clear. Change the organization of elementary and secondary schooling from top-down to bottom-up. Convert to a system in which parents choose the schools their children attend—or, more broadly, the educational services their children receive, whether in a brick-and-mortar school or on DVDs or over the Internet or whatever alternative the ingenuity of man can conceive. Parents would pay for educational services with whatever subsidy they receive from the government plus whatever sum they want to add out of their own resources. Producers would be free to enter or leave the industry and would compete to attract students. As in other industries, such a competitive free market would lead to improvements in quality and reductions in cost.
The problem is how to get from here to there. That is where vouchers come in. They offer a means for a gradual transition from top-down to bottom-up. However, not just any voucher program will do. In particular, the kind of voucher programs that have been enacted so far will not. Almost all of them have been limited, directly or indirectly, to low-income families and some have not permitted parents to add on to the voucher, thereby limiting the tuition that can be charged. They are what I have called charity vouchers, not educational vouchers.
Even if such vouchers were much more widespread than they are now, they could not provide the kind of market needed to stimulate innovative experimentation. It is as if when automobiles or television were in their infancy the government had prevented charging more than a very low price. One function played by the rich is to finance innovation. They bought the initial cars and TVs at high prices and thereby supported production while the cost was being brought down, until what started out as a luxury good for the rich became a necessity for the poor.
An educational voucher of reasonable size, though less than the current government spending per student, that was available to all students regardless of income or race or religion and that did not prohibit add-ons or impose detailed regulations on start-up service providers would end up helping the poor more than a charity voucher—not instantly, but after a brief period as competition did its work. Just as the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly led to a revolution in communications, a breakup of the school monopoly would lead to a revolution in schooling.
There has been some progress toward charity vouchers but almost none toward educational vouchers. The reason, I believe, is that centralization, bureaucratization and unionization have enabled teachers’ union leaders and educational administrators to gain effective control of government elementary and secondary schools. The union leaders and educational administrators rightly regard parental choice through vouchers and tax-funded scholarships as the major threat to their monopolistic control. So far, they have been extremely successful in blocking any significant change in the structure of elementary and secondary education in the United States.
The teachers’ unions have used their large income (estimated at more than $1.5 billion—that’s billion not million) and large membership to gain a major role in the Democratic Party. Teacher union delegates have been a significant fraction of all delegates to Democratic political conventions. They have made opposition to vouchers a key plank in the party’s mantra. The unions also have succeeded in persuading most teachers that it is in their self-interest to retain the current dysfunctional system.
Both of these pillars of power rest on shaky ground. The Democratic Party professes, in the words of Sen. Edward Kennedy, “to give voice to the voiceless.” But the “voice-less,” among whom are surely the residents of low-income areas in big cities, are clearly the main victims of the present schooling system and would be major beneficiaries of a more competitive educational system. Every poll shows them to be strongly in favor of vouchers, yet their political leaders hew to the party line rather than giving voice to the educational needs of the voiceless.
Similarly, teachers in government schools, especially the more competent ones, would be among the major beneficiaries of a transition to an educational system dominated by competition and choice. Under the present system, not much more than half of the money spent on government schools goes to teachers in the classroom. The rest goes to administrators, advisors, consultants and the whole paraphernalia of non-teaching bureaucrats. In private schools, the bulk of the spending ends up in the classroom. Equally important, teaching conditions are more attractive in private schools, as judged by the higher turnover in government schools despite higher average pay.
Such shaky foundations cannot indefinitely support a system that is so clearly defective, that is inconsistent with the self-image of the Democratic party and that is against the self-interest of most teachers in government schools.
I have been saying this for some years now and so far I have been wrong. However, I am not discouraged. Public support for educational vouchers is growing. More and more states are considering proposals for vouchers or tax-funded scholarships. Pressure is building behind each of the 50 dams erected by the special interests. Most major public policy revolutions come only after a lengthy build-up of support. But when the break comes, what had been politically impossible quickly becomes politically inevitable. So it will be with the goal of a competitive free market education system compatible with our basic values.
Milton Friedman received the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976. This essay originally appeared in the November 2005 School Choice Advocate, a publication of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.
FROM TIME TO TIME, readers ask me what books have made the biggest difference in my life. I am not sure how to answer that question because the books that happened to set me off in a particular direction at a particular time may have no special message for others—and may even be books I no longer believe in today.
The first book that got me interested in political issues was Actions and Passions by Max Lerner, which I read at age 19. It was a collection of his newspaper columns, none of which I remember today and all of which were vintage liberalism, which even Max Lerner himself apparently had second thoughts about in later years.
The writings of Karl Marx—especially The Communist Manifesto—had the longest lasting effect on me as a young man and led me to become and remain a Marxist throughout my twenties. I wouldn’t recommend this today either, except as an example of a masterpiece of propaganda.
There was no book that changed my mind about being on the political left. Life experience did that—especially the experience of seeing government at work from the inside.
The book that permanently made me a sadder and wiser man was Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To follow one of the greatest civilizations of all time as it degenerated and fractured, even before being torn apart by its enemies, was especially painful in view of the parallels to what is happening in America in our own times.
The fall of the Roman Empire was not just a matter of changing rulers or political systems. It was the collapse of a whole civilization—the destruction of an economy, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of many educational institutions.
It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Western Europe rose again to the level it had once reached back in Roman times.
How long would it take us to recover from the collapse of Western civilization today—if we ever recovered?
The kinds of books most readers seem to have in mind when they ask for my recommendations are books that go to the heart of a particular subject, books that open the eyes of the reader in a mind-changing way.
You will never look at the Third World the same way again after reading Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion by Peter Bauer. It demolishes many myths about the causes of poverty in the Third World—and about “foreign aid” as a way of relieving that poverty.
You will never look at crime the same way after reading Crime and Human Behavior by Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson. It is a strong dose of hard facts that shatter the illusions of the intelligentsia and the mushy rhetoric of “root causes” and the like.
Edward Banfield’s 1960s classic, The Unheavenly City, likewise cuts right through the pious cant about urban problems and confronts some inescapable realities. You will never look at urban issues the same way again.
Among my own books, those that the most readers have said changed their minds have been Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions, Basic Economics, Black Rednecks and White Liberals.
Frankly, Knowledge and Decisions is not an easy book to read and it was not an easy book to write. But it goes to the heart of why certain kinds of decisions are better made in particular kinds of places—whether economic, political, or other institutions, or in informal settings like the family. Unfortunately, those decisions are often made in places that don’t do as good a job.
A Conflict of Visions is my own favorite among my books but it too is not for everyone. It traces the underlying assumptions behind opposing ideologies that have dominated the Western world over the past two centuries and are still going strong today.
The most readable of these four books is Basic Economics, which may also be the most needed, given widespread economic illiteracy.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals challenges much that has been said and accepted, not only about blacks but also about Jews, Germans, white Southerners and others.
Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. (c 2006) Creators Syndicate. By permission of Thomas Sowell and Creators Syndicate, Inc.
“THE BOTTOM LINE OF ALL marketing strategy and tactics is to influence behavior,” writes Professor Philip Kotler of Northwestern University on the challenges of marketing in nonprofit organizations. “Sometimes this necessitates changing ideas and thoughts first, but in the end, it is behavior change we are after. . . . Some nonprofit marketers may think they are in the ‘business’ of changing ideas, but it can legitimately be asked why they should bother if such changes do not lead to action.”
The Heritage Foundation, like all serious research and education organizations, is clearly in the business of changing behavior, so these observations hit very close to home for all of us. In fact, at Heritage they are at the heart of our efforts to market key products such as the Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Getting America Right and Issues 2006, to name just a few.
Heritage has adopted a formal approach to marketing these and other important products that is based on fundamentally sound principles adapted from the for-profit sector. This approach has proven to be effective because it is a customer-focused team effort with clearly defined responsibilities, timetables and deliverables. Your organization, large or small, can easily adopt this approach and make it work for you.
Here is how it works.
Organizing the Team
At Heritage, marketing is a team effort. We all share in the task of identifying the needs of our customers and then helping to satisfy them. But this takes leadership, organization and planning.
Leadership is provided by a program manager, generally the person responsible for developing the product that is being promoted. That individual is most likely to have the clearest, most complete understanding of the product being offered and the customers who will benefit from it.
The program manager, working with the marketing director, organizes a team of responsible individuals from relevant departments within Heritage to develop a marketing plan for promoting the product. The marketing plan is a very simple yet powerful document that ensures all parties are on the same page. A marketing plan should answer these questions:
● Who are the key or target customer groups for this product (e.g., legislative staffers, Members of Congress, journalists, donors, general public)?
● Which individuals within our organization are responsible for dealing with each of these customer groups?
● How should we position the product in the eyes of these customers relative to similar products that might be available from other organizations? A traditional positioning statement that explains in no more than three short sentences what the product offers, how it is better and different than competing products, and who will benefit from using it is indispensable in coordinating all product communications and promotional materials.
● What are the action plan and timetable for promoting the product to each customers?
Once the plan has been agreed to by all members of the team, the program manager leads implementation by coordinating the marketing actions of all the individuals responsible for reaching out to targeted customer groups. Periodic follow-up meetings and discussions are extremely useful in monitoring progress, resolving issues, identifying new opportunities, ensuring accountability and bringing the marketing plan to completion.
Focusing on the Customer
Professor Kotler also points out that one of the simplest definitions of marketing is “finding customer needs and then filling them.” To the extent that our products are developed with specific target customers and their needs in mind, the program manager and team members should be able to identify quite clearly those customers to whom the product must be distributed. This is called “targeting.”
The value of “targeting” lies in being able to tailor promotional messages, events and distribution methods in ways that most closely meet the various needs and expectations of customers. That generally results in maximum exposure of the product to targeted customers, hopefully leading to increased product awareness, usage, and desired changes in behavior. This kind of marketing represents a “rifle-shot” approach to reaching customers—rather than the often less productive “shotgun” approach.
Let Marketing Work for You
This is all that needs to be done to create and implement a product marketing plan:
- Appoint a program manager—someone close to the product and customers.
- Identify which customer groups will be approached.
- Identify and enlist everyone who will lead outreach to a customer group.
- Brainstorm and agree on specific actions to promote the product to each group.
- Agree on a planned sequence of events and dates for completing actions.
- Assign responsibility for each action.
- Regularly follow up to assess progress, adjust the plan and resolve issues.
- Measure success: did the desired behavior changes occur (e.g., adoption of a policy proposal, etc.)?
And, the plan benefits both customers and the organization.
Customers can benefit from:
- Access to products they need, when, where, and how they need them.
- Reduced “transaction costs” in the customer time and effort required to access products.
- Improved knowledge and job performance.
The organization can benefit from:
- Enhanced customer focus and understanding.
- Improved organizational coordination and teamwork.
- More effective product placement with improved customer usage.
- Greater long-term customer loyalty to the organization and its products and services.
- Increased likelihood of achieving desired change in customer behavior.
With marketing plans, a small investment of time can go a long way toward creating successful products.
John Sieg is Director of Marketing at The Heritage Foundation.