Oxbridge Blues

David Stokes

12/12/2010 12:01:00 AM - David Stokes

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, picked the wrong moment to drive down Regent Street in London en route to a Royal Variety performance the other night. Several hundred protestors attacked their car and cries of “off with their heads” and “Tory scum” were heard. Scary stuff. The images coming in from across the pond—images of violent protests in London—are disturbing to most Americans. But if some are tempted to find comfort in the idea that what is going on over there could never happen here, they should think again.

At issue in the United Kingdom is the announced policy change, more than a year under discussion and review, to subsidize less of the college tuition of students. In the recent past, the top amount (calculated here in dollars) a student would pay for a year’s tuition is $4,800. The proposed new cap is $14,500. Bear in mind that this is a system that subsidizes tuition at both public and private colleges, though our cousins have their “private” and “public” labels reversed, much like their driving lanes.

That’s right, the idea is that to go to “Oxbridge” (Oxford or Cambridge—think Harvard or Yale) will now cost a maximum of $14,500—a great deal by American standards. Though admittedly it was an even better deal at $4,800. Of course, the rest of the real cost was being paid by the taxpayer.

As a reference point, the current average cost of a year’s tuition at a private college in the United States is $27,293—nearly twice as much as the new British cap.

The current turbulence in Great Britain is a case study about what happens when a society tries to take from people something they have grown to see as part of what they are owed: an entitlement. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the protestors are young people accents this point. This is a generation that has no reason to see it any other way. They are already a generation removed from that era of electoral and cultural sanity in the realm known as the age of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

Though she is in the twilight of her days, her very funeral plans being a national discussion, she must be aghast at what she is viewing on the “Telly.” But something she said long ago is very much at play right now in her nation, across the continent of Europe, and wherever the seeds of entitlement-driven protest are sown, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

Indeed.

One of the saddest recent reports I’ve seen is one about a student urinating on the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square. The statue has also been defaced with graffiti calling the great man various names, most too ugly to print. This is what happens when self-absorption reaches cultural critical mass. The lessons of the past are forgotten, and the keys to a good future are forsaken, all in a cult of “me-ism.”

Never mind that these bums (to use a Nixon term that just seems to fit) wouldn’t have a park to piss in if not for people like Mr. Churchill. He rallied a nation, including those college age at the time, to save the world. But back then, the people he worked with had been through the fiery trial of Great Depression-driven deprivation and likely had little of the sense of entitlement of subsequent generations. He once said: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."

Welcome to misery 101.

Writing in the U.K.’s Guardian, Gary Younge (a writer based in the U.S.) has suggested that current and recent student revolts around the world are a good thing. He wants that “their energy, enthusiasm, militancy, rage and raucousness might burn in us all.”

Younge sees the protests as nothing surprising because, “More than one in five people under the age of 25 in the EU is unemployed. In Spain the figure is 43%; in Greece 30%; in Italy 26%. Meanwhile the principle that education is a public good, to which all are entitled, all contribute, and all benefit through a more competitive economy, is in its death throes.” Did you catch that? The issue is that education is a basic good or right “to which all are entitled.”

Let’s think about this. If someone tries to take, say, your freedom of speech or worship away, would you fight for it? Yes. These are rights—rights that imply responsibilities. If someone tries to take your car away, would you resist that? Sure. It’s your property. It’s the natural response to something unfair and unjust. So it is logical that those protesting see what is being taken from them in the same way. Not saying they’re right—just conceding that they have no reason to think or feel otherwise. In a sense, they are entitled to their sense of entitlement. And that’s the root problem.

This is the long-term damage socialism does. It gets under the cultural skin and in its DNA and becomes part of the mix of life itself. Which is why Americans should be vigilant at this hour to make sure the recent turn away from this path to decadence becomes a significant directional cue for our immediate and long-term future. Because we, too, are at least a generation removed from the last time socialism was successfully stigmatized and marginalized in the age of Reagan.

Long before Ronald Reagan became our 40th President, while he served as Governor of California, he had his own encounter with student protestors at the University of California at Berkeley. Were he around today, he’d likely reprise what he said back then for the benefit of college students in the U.K and everywhere else: “Higher education is a privilege and not a right so these hoodlums should be thrown out. They are spoiled brats who do not deserve to be at a great state university.”

Now, that’d be a cool sound bite.