Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has a good on-line column at the New York Times on the recent controversy over the Obama campaign’s online ad about an imaginary woman named Julia. The Obama ad tried to argue that the Obama Administration’s policies would be more helpful to this particular person’s life course than would be true for a Romney Administration. The ad highlighted various government assistance programs such as Head Start, public education, financial aid for college, health care reform, small business assistance, Social Security, and Medicare.
The ad in turn led to some strong attacks from various conservative commentators. William Bennett, for example, formerly Secretary of Education under President Reagan, argued that:
“Julia’s entire life is defined by her interactions with the state. Government is everywhere and each step of her life is tied to a government program. Notably absent in her story is any relationship with a husband, family, church or community, except a “community” garden where she works post-retirement. Instead, the state has taken their place and is her primary relationship.”
But I think it is fair to say that many of these comments distort the nature of this imaginary Julia’s relationship to government. As Nancy Folbre points out, if preschool, K-12 education, and college student aid are working effectively, they lead to an adult who has more skills and productivity. As an adult, this more productive person will be less dependent on government welfare and other assistance. With higher skills, “Julia” will be more able to choose from a variety of better-paying jobs, which is an important dimension of human freedom.
This higher productivity benefits not only “Julia”, but the broader American community. If these programs work well, they provide fiscal benefits for the community in higher tax revenues from Julia’s higher tax payments and lower receipt of social assistance. Julia’s higher skills not only increase her wages, but also encourage more productive business growth that will benefit the wages of other workers.
We could equally well argue that government is pervasive even if one’s vision is that government should only provide national defense, police protection, and a court system enforcing the rule of law. Even in such a limited vision of government’s role, everywhere one goes, the rule of law is pervasive, with traffic lights, a police car that you pass, and the courthouse in the town square. The relevant question is, does this greater rule of law on net enhance human freedom and capabilities, or detract from it?
We can certainly raise legitimate issues about whether a particular investment in human capital works as effectively as it should, or provides sufficient flexibility to respect human freedom. For example certainly it is legitimate to debate how to make Head Start more effective and more flexible to address child developmental needs. We can also debate the degree to which there should be federal versus local control over the design of early childhood programs.
However, if a human capital investment program works, in the sense of effectively increasing a person’s adult life capabilities beyond what they would be otherwise, it seems a strange view to argue that this time-limited intervention is a government restriction on freedom.
Human freedom is not synonymous with zero government. Rather, greater human freedom requires a government that is smart, flexible, democratically controlled, and targeted at where its intervention can effectively expand human capabilities.