What is going on over on the right? For the past two years, conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers have attacked the Obama administration and liberals generally as nothing less than reds, communists, and socialists. They warned that the left was about to bury American freedom and prosperity in a wave of public takeovers and nationalizations of business, health care, and who knows what next. And yet in its January 24, 2011 issue, The National Review -- the flagship magazine of American conservatism -- has come out in favor of state, yes, state, control of higher education. What would the late William F. Buckley, Jr. say if he were around to read such stuff in the magazine he founded 56 years ago to combat "statism" both in its Soviet and New Deal modes?
To be sure, The National Review's editors have not abandoned the politics of reaction -- at least, not yet. The January 24 cover story, "Operation Rewind" -- illustrated with "<<" superimposed upon a photo of the Capitol Building -- welcomes the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. It lauds congressional Republicans for getting down to business instead of wasting precious time wildly celebrating their return to power on the Hill. And sure to please their most loyal subscribers, a feature article by Deputy Managing Editor Kevin D. Williamson titled "Socialism Is Back -- And it's in Your Face," itself illustrated with an image of the Stars and Stripes with the fifty stars replaced by a Hammer & Sickle, vigorously decries socialism's hold on American education:
The public schools constitute one of the most popular instantiations of socialism in American life, though Social Security and government-funded transportation systems no doubt rank nearly as high... Public schools fail for the same reason that all socialist enterprises fail: lack of information. In marketplace transactions, prices communicate critical information about who is producing what, who is consuming what, and what it is that producers and consumers want and need.
Nevertheless, "pinko" arguments are definitely finding their way into the magazine.
In a short piece titled "Ivy Chase" (and we should note that "Ivy" is printed in red), Kevin A. Hassett clearly undermines the Friedmanite-Hayekian-von Misean cause. Noting that this is "the time of year when high school seniors zip uncountable college applications across the country" and that "many yearn to be accepted in top private colleges and universities such as Harvard or Williams and fear that they might get stuck at a lowly ‘state school,'" Hassett poses the subversive question: "But are public universities in the U.S. really that bad?"
Citing a recent report by the website Payscale.com, Hassett observes that "public institutions trounce the private ones in terms of the percentage return on investment." In other words, if you want to get your money's worth and, indeed, make a lot of money, you should seriously consider going "public." Or, as he advises the aspiring and ambitious eighteen-year-old, "So, if you are anxious this application season, relax. In most cases, the impact of ending up at a small state school rather than a ‘first choice' will be small indeed."
Now I know you're tempted to read the ideological contradictions between the articles by Williamson and Hassett as indicating the onset of schizophrenia at the National Review. And I agree that the right can seem rather crazy these days. But I don't like to psychologize. From what I can tell, the magazine's new ambivalence is nothing less than what founder Buckley and others back in the 1950s referred to as "creeping socialism."
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. A public-school boy from start to finish, he is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye