Depriving the People of an Education and Happiness


The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s 2013 National Summit on Education Reform, held last Thursday and Friday in Boston, provided many good lessons to fold into policies for Rhode Island.  One lesson of political philosophy, though, stands out for being unexpected (as does the lesson never to take a job that requires commuting from Rhode Island to Beantown).

During Thursday’s lunchtime keynote, Theodore Olson talked about his latest effort to use the courts to legislate.  His litigation’s goal is admirable: to argue that labor rules that bind the California education system are so arduous as to have violated the right to a good education that the state’s constitution guarantees.  For example, it can take years and millions of dollars to push out individual teachers whom everybody agrees are terrible, so they are instead shuffled around and, he says, many ultimately end up serving time in front of classrooms serving the most disadvantaged populations.

The political problem, as Olson sees it, will be familiar to Rhode Islanders:  “Children don’t seem to have a seat in the legislature,” he said, because it is controlled by groups that are invested in the status quo.

He takes that impression as justification for explicitly manipulating the legislative system as the founders of the United States and of California set it up by using the courts as a lever to change both the law and public opinion.  In his speech, Olson even went so far as to present social change as a lawyer’s calling — not ensuring that clients are able to navigate the existing law so as to receive fair treatment, but actively working to change the law toward desired social ends.

In this regard, even with the honorable objective of breaking the stranglehold of a labor-union-heavy education establishment, the strategy is a short-sighted insistence on expediency with consequences that are beginning to become evident in cracks throughout American society.  It’s a species of aristocratic technocracy, in which a ruling class defines “civil rights” and then uses the shortest path to impose that definition on everybody else.

By avoiding the responsibility to educate the public and affirm the need for individuals to be informed and active in a civic way, the crusaders of the courts deprive the public, over time, not only of a voice through their elected representatives, but also of the habits of civic engagement.  Whether a particular outcome is desirable or corrupting, the boundaries of what people can and cannot do to shape the governments under which they live become narrower and narrower.  Worse, the public gets the sense that the law is such a complicated mess of rules and limits that the average person should really have no right to change it.

A similar principle arose in an unexpected way when American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks took the stage the following morning for a session titled, “The Right to Rise: Education as America’s 21st Century Ticket to Social Mobility.”

Brooks’s presentation focused primarily on social and biological research into the components of happiness.  He put the number of 48% on the degree to which an individual’s tendency to be happy is simply genetic.  Another 40%, he said, comes from the experience of accomplishing one’s goals, which is often vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the outside world.  The final 12%, however, not only is “in our hands,” but can open doors to that other 40%.

According to Brooks, a “happiness portfolio” — the aspects of our lives that we can structure to maximize or minimize happiness — has four components: faith (purpose), family, community, and earned success (with the emphasis on earned).

During the question and answer period, with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush moderating, Brooks called the social safety net one of Western civilization’s “great achievements,” but he cautioned that it must be seen in terms of what disadvantaged individuals actually need in order to achieve happiness.  To advance in their lives, he said, struggling Americans need three things, in this order:

  1. Transformation, so they can restructure their “happiness portfolios” in a beneficial, not harmful, way
  2. Relief, so they can escape the traps of hardship
  3. Opportunity, so they can move forward on their own initiative

An overemphasis on “relief” is the path to dependency, not to happiness.  Far from elevating those caught in the mire, the message becomes one of grievance that insurmountably powerful forces have put them there and plaintive expectation that it is somebody else’s responsibility to ease the experience.

In this context, Olson’s approach to changing the law is the legal equivalent of a welfare state.  In the welfare case, the aristocracy treats the underclass as a client base for whom it will determine just awards to redistribute from a shrinking productive class.  In the legal case, the underclass is characterized not by its economic powerlessness, but its political powerlessness, and forms the client base for the aristocracy to impose its vision of a just and moral society, shrinking the boundaries of self-government.

In both cases, expediency creates something selfish out of the impulse toward philanthropy. While the social advocate and the courtroom advocate have the joy of fighting on behalf of their clients, they deprive the masses of their God-given right to the “Pursuit of Happiness,” as our Declaration of Independence puts it, because the advocates are both doing all the work and shutting off opportunities for those who differ.

There is no court in which to sue against the violation of that particular right.  Appropriately, given the theme of the conference, the solution therefore lies in education and reinvigorated public debate.