Social Issues

Selected Skirmishes: Hostage Rescue

Another reason to liberate the schools

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The corpses weren't even cold when the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, triggered yet a new assault by political opportunists. Those pushing gun control exploited the situation to greatest effect, but the crusaders against TV violence and video game brutality, along with evangelists for family values and Internet censorship, also made very strong showings.

The senseless violence we observe at irregular intervals in our public schools freezes the national psyche. Gripped by fear, we are sitting ducks for each new policy fix. We will almost certainly embrace a new gun control measure to join existing state and federal bans on firearms within 1,000 feet of a school; doubtless, the new law will prove just as effective a deterrent as the old ones.

Through Election 2000, we will read about the Special Commissions, the congressional hearings, and the White House Task Forces on Violence in the Media. No one, rest assured, will rudely call attention to the failure of previous "solutions," such as the 1996 Telecommunications Act's "V-chip" and "voluntary" TV ratings.

Time to look elsewhere for answers. Rather than wondering what Congress can do, why not ask a different sort of question, such as, What kind of institution considers it ordinary for children to daily quench a thirst for hatred?

The answer, of course, is the American public high school. In middle-class Littleton, the rights of pre-adult man have evolved such that dressing "gothic" or issuing a sensational death threat is a free and accepted lifestyle choice. Of course, the in-crowd's taunting of the socially awkward is equally respected by "authority." After all, for public schools to slap down such behavior would trample the Constitution. While citizens rightly do not want government bureaucrats freelancing with their own moral codes, our children can't afford principals without principles.

The principal of Littleton's Columbine High said he had no idea that students at his school were members of a "Trench Coat Mafia"–the sobriquet, well-known among the students, was news to him. As a government official, his live-and-let-live approach is admirable.

But this man runs a school and his abdication creates a leadership vacuum into which punks get sucked. It seems incomprehensible that the adults at Columbine were unable to recognize, much less police, the anger, confusion, and raging hormones of the young men under their charge. In delegating education to state operators, we have kidnapped our own children and delivered them to inattentive captors. Yet we fail to appreciate the serious hostage situation thereby created.

Something similar operates in housing markets. In What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Charles Murray notes that with the formal protections now enjoyed by tenants in rental housing, the landlord is no longer "arbitrary and capricious." Pretty good up to a point. But with eviction tightly regulated, neighborhood troublemakers, who used to fear getting the bum's rush, enjoy domestic security. The landlord, who otherwise would have an incentive to kick ne'er-do-wells out–all things being equal, he ups the rent when the neighborhood improves–is emasculated. And the miscreant, who would otherwise have an incentive to shape up, is empowered.

The Social Uplifters declare that tenant-protection laws have ended the reign of terror inflicted by surly and dyspeptic landlords. But such laws have eliminated one of society's natural mechanisms for keeping communities and the people in them nice. When it is impossible to get rid of troublemakers, it is impossible to get rid of trouble.

It is readily understandable how anarchy came to reign supreme in our schools. It is also readily understandable how to redress the problem.

If parents were free to abandon the scene of the crime, moving their children–and tax dollars–to secured venues where brotherhood and respect were not simply electives but part of the core curriculum, school administrators would not be so clueless about the evil that lurks in their hallways. Were students not quite so liberated from the judgments of their teachers and the codes of adults, their schools would be better, safer places.

Given the choice, what parent would search for a school that opposed the Golden Rule? That was agnostic on the issue of classroom discipline? That tolerated belittling and hatemongering? Freed from the constraints of governmental power, what school teacher would not demand respect and dignity from those young rascals yearning for guidance?

Is it far-fetched to believe that the suppliers and the demanders of decency would flood the market for educational services? Hardly. Indeed, a recognition that they would is precisely the reason why vouchers and the like are bitterly resisted–opponents know that the choice to go elsewhere would empty our public schools more quickly than the next burst of gunfire.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) is an economist at the University of California at Davis and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.