The Immorality of Free and Public Education

Why the demand for free education is un-American and unethical.

As I travel across the United States to give talks and seminars on my books and political and moral philosophy, I am increasingly struck by the degree to which today’s college students believe that they are morally entitled to a free education. They think that this entitlement starts from the time they were born right up until the time that they graduate from college.

Since I never politicize my classroom and generally, as a rule, do not insert my political viewpoints into that space which I believe is a sacred domain where rigorous exploration and examination of great canonical figures from the Western philosophical tradition should take place, these campus visits give me ample opportunities to explore the philosophical and moral assumptions behind the idea that “free public education,” is the birthright and human right of all human beings. In a gentle but rigorous manner, I usually begin by asking students who press the issue privately with me on such visits, a few basis basic and fundamental questions. And they are:

Are the procreative choices that your parents made the moral and financial responsibility of other individuals? Or, do they not belong to your parents? When you become a legal adult at the age of eighteen are you not responsible for your own life and existence? Do we have a constitutional right to have children we cannot afford to maintain? Is it a form of child neglect to bring more children into the world than one can afford to support? When one has children, is it fair to expect one’s neighbors or compatriots to bear in the financial responsibility of raising them when they may have decided not to have any, or to have just one, or two, or just the exact number their budget can afford over the course of a lifetime?

Several students interpret the questions as hostile ones. This says more about the untrained and lugubriously sentimental nature of their sensibilities than it does about the probing nature of the questions themselves. Other students seem genuinely baffled that such questions could even be rationally presented to them. They are equally stunned that they are required to answer them. One student told a panel I was participating in that the right to a free public education from birth to college was an unassailable moral axiom, and that those who challenged such an axiom were heartless monsters.

So now we begin the question by posing it to the general public—the men and women of common sense.  

You who have sacrificed and planned your lives carefully and are already in debt and sending your own children to school, by what moral right would anyone dare tell you that you have a right to finance his or her college education? By what moral standard would anyone bring a child into the world and expect total strangers to assume the financial and moral obligation of educating that child?

Those on the far left will say that to do so is a social good. I have heard this sort of conceptual inanity repeatedly, and I have often asked for clarification. When asked what is meant by social good, left-wingers often mean “the public interest.” When asked to define the public interest, they fumble and mumble and twist themselves like linguistic pretzels into all orders of moral conundrums. Society is nothing more than the sum of each individual person. Therefore, any reference to the public good would have to first logically refer to what is the good of each individual person. The answer to this presupposes the question: How do we know what that good is? One of the glorious achievements of this country, and one that has appealed to millions the world over, is that here we get to choose a conception of the good for ourselves. For some, it is having a family, for others it is pursuing a career or devoting one’s life to a specialized hobby, service to others, traveling—you name it. There are as many conceptions of the good as there are persons to imagine them for themselves. And, in the United States of America, the state has no business imposing its or any conception of the good on you or deciding a priori what your conception of the good is. It leaves you free to choose your own notion of the good, so long as in doing so, you do not violate the individual rights of others. Any foisted notion of the public good on individuals means that a group of people has decided that their interests and their conception of the good should be the sum of the good of all members of society. It is an act of tyranny because it overrides your conscience and takes away your indubitable capacity to decide what the good is for you personally.

The cardinal sin of asking for anything for free in this life is that you abnegate your responsibility not just for maintaining your existence but, more importantly, of achieving your humanity. For we achieve our humanity in several ways. One is by exchanging goods and services with others. We affirm the worth of the other, and we respect the other by rewarding him or her for such services, and, in so doing, our agency is implicated in affirming our self-worth and dignity in the beautiful act of reciprocity. In reciprocity, there is a recognition of equality among each of us as individuals. Each ratifies the survival of the other through this reciprocation.

The demand for a free education is symptomatic of another moral problem in the United States. Those on the alt-left see self-reliance, initiative, and a commitment to one’s own life as, at best, hopelessly naïve—not for themselves. Oh, no, they have gotten where they are by the exercise of their own virtues. But the state apparatus and its system are so corrupt and stacked against the “marginalized” they believe, that the application of those virtues will always be possible for a Condoleezza Rice, or a Colin Powell, or an Oprah Winfrey, but not for the majority of those on whose behalf the case for free education is usually made: blacks and Hispanics in America. The problem is that these left-wingers see grit, honor, hard work, and self-reliance as American virtues, and ones that they possess. But, more specifically, unlike, say, conservatives, who tend to be individualistic and encouraging of universal self-reliance, left-wingers see such traits as “white” characteristics. Those traits reinforce whiteness in their minds, and there is a gnawing resentment towards those blacks and others “on the margins” of society who wish to appropriate those virtues for themselves. They cease being authentic in the minds of the left. A sizable number of well-meaning, but, in the end, racist progressives, need so-called marginalized peoples to be marginalized.

The point I am making once more is that left-wingers heed the call of blacks or any espoused socio-economic need by any group with glee because it places them in a permanent position of power, and as part of a managerial class over a needy set of entitled subjects whose interests they represent. The absence of independence, and the neediness of those who regard need as a justification for the creation of a special set of rights, simply reinforce how independent, privileged, and powerful they stand in relation to their socioeconomic inferiors.

Finally, when you demand anything for free, a demand that is so un-American one can hardly take the claim seriously, you are claiming a status of such impoverishment that you are holding yourself up as an object of pity. But, unlike compassion and mercy, pity is not an American emotion at all. Pity denotes contemptuous sorrow for the misery or distress of another person. And the contempt one feels is linked to a moral vice the other harbors: an unwillingness to exercise one’s agency in the relief of that suffering; a perception on the part of the pitied that the world is hostile to one’s initiatives, and that no action is possible—at least, action that would liberate one from the condition of hopelessness one is trapped in. To present oneself as a life-long socio-economic supplicant is morally repugnant because it requires that one becomes an active participant in the infantilization of oneself, that one permits one’s creative agency to be  expropriated by others, and,  therefore, that one effaces one’s capabilities, and that one remains locked in a concrete-bound range-of -the moment mode of existence appropriate for animals, rather than see oneself as a being who must project a long-range future for oneself and plan one’s life accordingly.

Americans find it hard to endorse such standpoints because they assume a malevolence about the American universe that is untenable and empirically false. No doors are closed forever to anyone in this great country of ours. If your ethos and character disposition are set for achievement, if your will is wedded to a resilient and tenacious spirit, perseverance guides and drives your efforts, and, further, you rid yourself of the squalid self-defeating idea that you are entitled to the financial earnings of other people—that your parents’ procreative choices are the responsibility of other people—you will find a way to make it in this country.    

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

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