The Politics of Economics

Posted: Jan 15, 2008 1:37 PM
The Politics of Economics

William Ross Wallace famously declared in a poem extolling the virtues of motherhood that "the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

The point is clear enough: shaping the moral and intellectual beliefs of the next generation determines what kind of future we face.

In this age of near-universal government-run education, one of the most important hands that rocks the cradle is the public school. And if reports from Europe are any indication for what the future of public education holds for America, there is much to worry about.

In an article published in Foreign Policy Stephen Theil ( exposes the dangerous anti-capitalist indoctrination that students in France and Germany endure in the public schools. It is well worth a read.

Free markets are portrayed in European textbooks as "savage, unhealthy, and immoral," and Theil describes the curriculum as a "diet of prejudice and bias" against capitalism. That prejudice is being reflected in popular attitudes, with German citizens supporting socialist ideals (47% respond favorably to socialism), and only 36% of the French supporting free markets.

French and German textbooks are larded with anti-capitalist propaganda, even linking prosperity to failing health. "Economic growth imposes a hectic form of life, producing overwork, stress, nervous depression, cardiovascular disease, and, according to some, even the development of cancer" asserts one French textbook.

One wonders what a zero-sum economic paradise would look like? History suggests it would not mirror the Garden of Eden. In point of fact, a zero-sum economic world that rejected economic growth would be a Malthusian nightmare.

Theil’s study of European and American textbooks does contain a ray of hope: while fewer than half of American students are taught economics, the education they do get is pretty firmly grounded in classical economics, not polemics against the market.

Though the news is encouraging, suggesting that American exceptionalism is still alive, the current political debate in the United States is not exactly encouraging. Both John Edwards, and to a certain extent Mike Huckabee are tapping into a growing economic anxiety here in the United States that is sure to be picked up by the other Presidential candidates and members of Congress.

It seems clear that the creative destruction that capitalism thrives on makes many people uncomfortable to begin with; adding to that base level of anxiety the uncertainties associated with the recent popping of the tech and mortgage bubbles and the corresponding decline of the dollar, and it is easy to imagine a toxic backlash against the more freewheeling aspects of capitalism.

Unfortunately, the greater certainty that is offered by the semi-socialist economic model is accompanied by slower economic growth, lower standards of living and much higher levels of unemployment that we have experienced here in the United States. German unemployment, now at its lowest rate in 15 years, still hovers near 8.4%--68% higher than in the United States. France’s unemployment rate is 8.3%, again low compared to recent history in France, but much higher than in the United States.

The (Bill) Clinton campaign famously rode to victory on the theme "it’s the economy, stupid;" and to a great extent, every politician knows that economic concerns drive political behavior. Today, Americans are anxious about our economic future, and it seems probable that one consequence of that will be a rise in government attempts to reign in and direct the market—to become more like Europe.

If that is the case, we may not be able to blame the shift on a steady diet of anti-capitalist propaganda in the schools, as is the case in Europe. In America, the cause is the widespread ignorance of the virtues of the marketplace, which makes us more susceptible to the siren calls of the economic populists whose policies would just as surely undermine our prosperity as the European socialists do.

The solution? Again, only half of American students are taught basic economics in our public schools, and still fewer of our college students get a good grounding in economics to counteract the overwhelmingly leftward bent of higher education. It’s long past time that we recognize that a basic grounding in economics is a necessary component of our education to become good citizens.

Economic literacy would not eliminate genuine policy disagreements based upon competing values, but at least it would give Americans a common baseline of understanding that would elevate the debate. Americans would at least understand the trade-offs that various policies entail, and that would be a step in the right direction.