August 30, 2012

Pundits Wrong on the GI Bill

As part of its series on higher ed issues in the 2012 campaign, the Chronicle of Higher Education has a long opinion piece in the form of a news article accusing Republicans of hypocrisy.

In "Self-Sufficient, With a Hand From the Government," author Scott Carlson claims to find "a striking dissonance" between the moving "pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative" a number of speakers at the Republican Convention told of their fathers' and their benefitting from the GI Bill, "one of the biggest federal programs in recent history."

This "irony," Carlson reports, "wasn't lost on liberals. Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and consultant, jumped all over the remarks on his Twitter feed on Tuesday night: 'Christie: Dad went to Rutgers on the GI Bill. Dems built that.'" Begala thinks these Republican fathers did not succeed "on their own," in President Obama's now famous words. They did not succeed because they were "just so smart" or because they worked hard. They were successful only with the help of a "hand from the government."

Carlson finds it "interesting to ponder ... whether Governor Christie's father would have been able to get that degree today, given the recent history of receding state support and inflating costs." Seen from Carlson's and Begala's angel, Republican calls to scale back the size and scope of government amount to biting the government hand that fed them.

What this complaint of hypocrisy ignores, however, is a crucial distinction between government programs to which beneficiaries have contributed, such as the GI Bill, and open-ended entitlement programs that require no such contribution. Assume for a moment that after the Civll War all freed slaves received "40 acres and a mule." Would anyone, even President Obama or Paul Begala, seriously claim that former slaves who had become successful later in life owed their success to the government program and not to their own sacrifice and hard work? Well, maybe, but would anyone listen to them if they did?

The GI Bill, like the hypothetical 40 acres and a mule, was not an entitlement or an example of beneficent government generosity. It was partial compensation for sacrifices made for and services rendered to the nation. Finding an "irony" in Republican proposals to scale back massive federal borrowing and debt, including funds for higher education, even though the fathers of many current party leaders benefitted from the GI Bill requires assuming that if one limited government program compensating one defined group of people for a limited time is good, all government benefits are good; that if some spending at one time was good, more spending all the time is better.

That "narrative" is more mythical than anything coming out of the Republican convention.

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