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Textbook Government: Time for Real World Teaching?

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 13, 2013

[Ed. note: This post reprints Mr. Bradley’s recent Houston Chronicle editorial, Textbooks Fail to Teach Real-World Government, with documentation and slight elaboration. His intellectual-diversity project at the high school he graduated from and taught at is www.freekinkaid.org.]

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a much-debated column (“Sorry, kids. We ate it all” – October 16, 2013), made a surprising argument: A Vietnam War–type uprising by today’s youth could result from the federal government’s growing indebtedness and unsustainable social programs. He pointed to signs that the exploited will rise up against this intergenerational injustice in a way not seen since the 1960s. [1]

Having taught high school here in Houston, I know that today’s youth are eager to debate ideologically opposed viewpoints on major intellectual and political issues. They are attracted to personal and economic freedom, and want to better the future for themselves and others.

But too often these young people face textbook teaching that quixotically promotes government, minimizes the clash of visions and shortchanges the intellectual case for economic freedom.

“We the people” civics textbooks romantically portray democracy as “us” working for the common good. Government, scarcely defined, is really quite different. It is unique, powerful and inherently dangerous, because it is that institution with a legal monopoly on the initiation of force. Seen in this way, government must be constitutionally constrained, extremely transparent and localized as much as possible.

Contrary to textbook descriptions, American government is less “us” than “them.” Government goes to those who show up, the saying goes, which means the nonpolitical are ruled by the seemingly permanent political class. Politicization and cronyism replace the rule of law. Bad government drives out good, civil society yields to political society, and distrust and conflict grow.

And eventually, as the students should learn, government runs out of other people’s money – even the money that has not yet been earned.

U.S. history textbooks, however, continue to proselytize the New Deal–Great Society programs that are responsible for the unsustainable entitlement programs the next generation faces. Consider today’s $17 trillion (and growing) federal debt –about $54,000 for every person, including students. Unfunded federal liabilities add several-fold to the problem.

Yet the coming-of-age generation did not vote for it. Politicians and bureaucrats did not ask them for permission to overspend.

This involuntary intergenerational wealth transfer is a government failure that leading government textbooks hardly debate, much less explain. Enter the public-choice school of economics. James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for documenting the basic insight that bureaucrats are self-interested, just like the rest of us. They want higher salaries, larger budgets, more authority and security. They are hyper-focused on the now, not some hypothetical future.

Elected officials are also self- interested. “No one will really understand politics, until they understand that politicians are not really trying to understand our problems,” stated economist Thomas Sowell. “They are trying to understand their own problems – of which getting elected and re-elected are No. 1 and No. 2. Whatever is No. 3 is far behind.”

The classroom disconnect includes high-school economics texts, which posit market failure as a carte blanche invitation for government correction. Yet government failure is often the cause of market failure. And government intervention can make alleged market failure worse. Students rarely get to assess imperfect markets in the proper context of real-world government.

A final example: U.S. history textbooks typically link the excesses of capitalism to the Great Depression of the 1930s – and to the Great Recession of our time.

Yet it is the government side of the mixed economy, not free-market capitalism, that has created artificial booms, via the easy money policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

And government intervention, including deficit “stimulus” spending, delayed both recoveries. It has been estimated that the Depression could have ended in 1930/31, and our current recession by 2010/11, with market-based responses instead of government programs and spending.

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” a certain U.S. senator from Illinois said back in 2006. But President Barack Obama is on track to double federal indebtedness on his watch. And he is pushing to implement European-style welfarism that will exacerbate future indebtedness.

Can America pull itself out of government dependency and avoid the middle-class poorhouse? The growing revolt against Washington’s business-as-usual is a start. Thomas Friedman’s hope for change is a fresh perspective.

But today’s students – tomorrow’s voters and leaders – will need to become an intellectual and political force sooner rather than later to get America on track. This will require, in many cases, going beyond their textbooks to intellectually diversify the classroom.


[1] Hard-core progressivist Robert Kuttner called called Friedman’s piece “[his] worst column ever,” complaining: “Friedman’s column swallows whole the budgetary malarkey of the corporate Fix-the-Debt lobby and its Wall Street sponsors.”


  1. Wayne Lusvardi  

    At Equinox gym in Pasadena, California I have the opportunity to talk to the young trainers who work there — all in their 20’s trying to find a job and working at minimum wage plus about $25 for each $100 specialized training session booked by members. Recently, I spoke with Yvonne, a bright, young Chinese lady trainer. She explained how her immigrant dad ran a small industrial business fabricating computer parts. I just happened to mention that in the Obamacare economy people will slowly find they don’t have money for computers or replacing computers with the newest model as they have in the past. That is because young people will be forced to spend the minimum fine of about $750/year on mandatory health insurance; or for young families they will have to pay like $6,000/year minimum for medical coverage. That $6,000 is money not going toward buying a car, saving for a downpayment on buying a house, or saving enough money to start their own business. I explained to Yvonne that my 55-year old carpenter had been almost entirely out of work for over 2 years because the home remodeling business in Southern California has tanked. Like Yvonne, I had to explain to my carpenter (Tom is his name) that he is a victim of Obamacare and ruinous Federal Reserve polices from 2003 to 2007. Yvonne believed that the decline of her father’s computer business was due to the “market.” Like Yvonne, Tom my carpenter believed the same. When I explained how Obamacare is affecting them they both stood there with that deer in a headlight look and didn’t speak. It was a moment of recognition that was on their face (like: “so this is how Obamacare is affecting ME!). A wild guess on my part is that both of the above people probably voted, or would have voted, for Obama. How long the cognitive dissonance between economic reality and political ideology will go on is anybody’s guess. When today’s 20 year olds get in their 30’s and there still are not enough jobs to support a family I think we may see a change. How long can young people live with their parents? Will the U.S. become like Italy where young men live at home almost forever?


  2. Andrew  

    I was surprised by the Friedman article. This is the same man who said, of the image of federal agents armed with (actual) military grade weapons busting into a house to abduct a young boy and send him to live under a communist regime, that it “warmed his heart.”


    • rbradley  


      I was too! I disagree with TF almost all of the time. But when a politically correct Bigwig gives me an opening like this, I try to widen it. (and remember Kuttner said it was FT’s worse article ever!).


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