Authority, Schools, and America’s System of Government

The following is an edited version of a talk Andy Smarick gave to AEI’s Leadership Network about schools, subsidiarity, and civil society.

Although this was probably billed as a talk about school reform, it’s mostly an argument about an approach to governing. I just don’t think we can have a serious conversation about education policy unless we start by talking about who should be in charge of collective decisions and why.

So yes, I’ll eventually wind my way to K-12 and the politics currently surrounding it. But by the time we reach that schoolhouse door, you’ll probably feel like you walked for miles, uphill, in the snow to get there. So please consider this my heartfelt confession, my legal disclosure, and my sorry-not-sorry for this bait and switch…

OK, let’s start at the very beginning. And if this is way too rudimentary for you and/or way too philosophical, please bear with me for a minute. I promise to try to take it somewhere.

The Founders were consumed with the need to distribute government power. God bless them for that. They were rightly worried about tyranny. Remember they were working in an era when absolute monarchs, despots, and such were the rule not the exception. The stuff in Montesquieu and Locke was still at this point mostly navel-gazing.

So if you read the Constitution or the Federalist Papers you can see the lengths to which the Founders went to limit authority. And brilliantly so. The separation of powers distributed authority among branches. Federalism divided power further between different levels of government. The Bill of Rights delineated a whole host of areas where the government couldn’t act at all.

Obviously, you know all this stuff. But for our purposes here, the important issue is that while that system does an exceptional job of distributing power—not letting it concentrate—what it doesn’t answer nearly as well is how things ultimately get done. That is, things still have to get accomplished; authority needs to exist somewhere. So how does that happen in this kind of system?

America developed a uniquely American answer.

If you’ve read Tocqueville or Kirk—even Robert Putnam—or more recently Yuval Levin, you know that our answer is this magical combination of subsidiarity and civil society. On the first score, as much as humanly possible, you push decision-making authority down to the lowest level—the level closest to the people—able to handle the issue. Then you trust a wide array of entities—mostly non-government bodies—to do the bulk of the work.

Often these take the form of non-profit, civil-sector groups. For decades they’ve also been knows as “mediating institutions.” They sit between the individual and the largest entities in public life, like huge corporations or the federal government or the United Nations. Mediating institutions help give individuals meaning and connections that just wouldn’t exist if humans were viewed as fully autonomous, mechanical entities. So these groups include the family, a local HOA, the Elks or the Knights of Columbus, a local town council, a local labor union, a bowling league (per Putnam), a community foundation, a soup kitchen.

This approach is, notably, very, very different than the politically progressive view that often says, “‘Government’ is just another way of saying ‘people working together’.” That view holds that most collective action must (or at least should) occur via the state. But the subsidiarity/civil society approach says that there are invaluable ways for citizens to collaborate and cooperate voluntarily—as I like to say it, “we can act together without being acted upon.”

Government on the other hand compels, it forces, it mandates. Laws are generally binary. You are in compliance or you are not. You are eligible or you are not. So government is quite good at what Isaiah Berlin called “monism;” it can produce an answer, a single answer, the democratically approved answer, the answer that fits the majority.

In some cases this is necessary and even ideal. We need a single tax schedule; we can’t have different individuals deciding for themselves what rate to pay. We can’t have competing military forces.

But also remember that there is a cost to be paid when you have a single democratically determined answer, especially when it comes from the federal government. It means that everyone not in the majority lost. It means they don’t get to live as they want in that particular sphere of life. And, importantly, the more government decisions that are made, the more spheres where more people don’t get their way.

Obviously people don’t like to lose a policy debate and be forced to live with a rule they didn’t want. But when individuals or groups lose repeatedly, the costs also compound. It does real damage to individuals and communities when they don’t have agency, when they lack the ability to control broad swaths of their own lives. You can get disengagement at best. But you can also get the “problem of the commons”—many people don’t feel any ownership of a joint enterprise. You can get frustration and alienation. At worst we end up with resistance and rebellion. Recall that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called a riot “the language of the unheard.” People act out when their power has been taken away.

So the combination of subsidiarity and civil society is actually a community and individual empowerment strategy. It allows people to be in control of as much of their lives as possible. I think this is a great general rule, but this is especially important in our nation.

Part of America’s strength is its diversity; we have had, and will hopefully always have, a rich blend of histories, faiths, cultures, and traditions. The homogenization caused by statism runs counter to our national character. A community in Salt Lake City may have a different definition of the good life and how to achieve it than the citizens of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And both could differ from Seattle or St. Louis or Lubbock, TX or Lawrenceville, NJ.

So one way to look at “e pluribus unum” (the American motto of “out of many, one”) is that we became one by respecting and protecting the many; that the common national American character is the direct result of our preservation of our proud differences.

Now, to be fair, there are those who honestly don’t believe any of what I just argued. Some are convinced that subsidiarity and civil society are just tools for allowing racism and sexism and other dreadful practices to carry on. They believe that humans’ worst characteristics are revealed, and our worst behaviors perpetuated, by local, non-democratic bodies. They believe that we must empower Uncle Sam in the name of equity and that to defer to private, voluntary communities is a way we allow backward, destructive conduct to continue.

Speaking for myself, I believe that tradition and custom in most cases reflects the wisdom of the ages. Old principles and practices—often reflected by and fostered in quiet, local, noncompulsory institutions—have been time-tested and proven in most instances to make the most of human strengths and mitigate human weaknesses. But others say, “No. That kind of thinking protected segregation, child labor, and other countless other ills.”

I take that point. In fact, I believe firmly that all advocates of localism should take that critique very seriously. But if taken too far, that warning can throw the baby out with the bathwater. What I mean is that we must acknowledge that it took Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—all bold federal authority overturning unjust local practices—to enable many of our fellow citizens to live freely. But that doesn’t mean that we should extrapolate that localism is always wrongheaded and therefore must be rooted out by the always wise, always just, always benevolent Uncle Sam.

This is both because of the virtues of localism and civil society and because the federal government is by no means always on the side of the angels when it comes to fairness—remember the Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott, Plessy, the WWII-era internment of Americans of Japanese descent, race-based redlining. Uncle Sam, like all of us, is flawed.

But when we ignore the value of subsidiarity and non-state action and ignore the many mistakes of high-level government actors, we find ourselves on the path to technocratic progressivism. This is based on a kind of policy positivism: The idea that there are “right” answers on matters of policy, that these answers can be discovered by evidence and impartiality. This view then justifies—almost necessitates—the swift, smart implementation of these “right” answers via a powerful, high-level government. And the key to carrying out this plan is the elevation to positions of authority brilliant, well educated, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, technical experts. These leaders—modern-day Platonic philosopher kings—will manage us to success and happiness and justice.

Domestically, this kind of thinking has recurred throughout our history. From the first Progressive Era’s reliance on the “best men” of the community; to Woodrow Wilson’s trust in rationality, neutral experts, and executive authority; to FDR’s “brain trust” of professors; to the JFK-LBJ “best and brightest;” all the way up to the Obama administration’s officials who crafted powerful executive orders and federal rules on health care, the environment, and so on.

This is how best to understand the ever-growing, and overpowering, federal “administrative state.” Over generations, when you don’t trust subsidiarity and civil society, and you do trust the federal government and technocrats, not only does the federal government grow, you have executive branch agencies dictating more and more rules. So we see hundreds of thousands of pages of federal regulations, countless executive orders, federal guidance documents, and “Chevron deference,” the policy of court’s trusting that federal agencies and their rules and interpretations are right.

So more and more of our lives are dictated by unelected federal administrators who honest-to-goodness believe that they have the right answers.

So let me finally bring this back to education because it’s a terrific case study of the growth of technocracy and the subsequent revolt against technocracy. The federal No Child Left Behind Act came up with expansive rules on how to measure school performance, how to rate schools, and how to intervene in schools. Then Race to the Top was the federal government’s way of telling states what policies to embrace and how to organize and orient their K-12 systems. Then Common Core was a centralizing effort designed to make common across the states what kids should learn in reading and math. Then there was the massive federal School Improvement Grant program, Arne Duncan and President Obama’s $7 billion effort to tell us what to do with failing schools. Then there were numerous other Obama-administration guidance documents substituting Washington’s judgment for that of local and state leaders.

In each of these instances, powerful federal officials decided that they knew best, that they had found the right answer—an answer that had not and presumably could not be found by local leaders and civil society.

Success. Game over. Everything from that point forward was copasetic…

Well, except for the consequences. It turned out that NCLB infuriated lots of families and educators and local system leaders. So did Common Core. Race to the Top is now seen by many as the embodiment of federal presumptuousness. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s own study, the School Improvement Grant program failed badly. And so on.

In short, communities wanted their power back. This is a large part of the reason why Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which brought No Child Left Behind to an end. It’s why just last week Congress repealed the Obama administration’s overbearing regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act. It’s why Common Core faced such a backlash in so many places.

But—interesting, importantly—it’s also why for 25 years charter schooling and school choice have been growing. It’s not hard to see how they’re the ultimate “counter-programming” to the education world’s embrace of technocracy. While technocrats have been trying to centralize and homogenize and control, choice and charters have done the exact opposite—they explicitly empower kids, parents, educators, and communities. There are 3 million students in charters now and there are 60 state-level private school choice programs.

I recently wrote about how Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of scientific revolutions, namely the shift from one paradigm to another, helps elucidate the differences between the technocratic trend and this counter-programming. Using Kuhn’s language, the two are “incommensurate” in important ways; many people find it all but impossible to toggle between the two. The paradigms simply reflect very different worldviews. And this I think helps explain the toxicity of the current education-reform debate.

Whether we use as an example the introduction of a new charter-school law, or the proposed expansion of a state’s tax-credit scholarship program, or the nomination of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the debate seems to boil over instantaneously. Of course, in each of these instances there are particulars that matter—a city’s unique history and needs, the wording of a specific provision, Secretary DeVos’s résumé. So I’m not trying to minimize the claims of those in favor of or opposed to any of the above.

But it does seem to me that these are episodes of a larger drama—or that these participants are proxies in a much bigger war. On one side are those advocating for educational diversification, choice, and decentralization. They are offering—perhaps screaming—a counterargument against the thrust of decades: a push for a more powerful federal government, the belief that there are “correct” policy answers, the certainty that locals and civil society cannot be trusted, and the conviction that we must rely on technical experts to get things right.

Said another way, the choice-differentiation-decentralization approach (and the animus it engenders) seems to be education’s chapter in the story I mentioned at the very start of this talk. That is, we have a system of government that purposely distributes power. It leaves open the question of how we’ll get things done. America’s traditional answer was—and perhaps America’s resurgent answer is—“we get things done via subsidiarity and civil society.”

—Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This first appeared on AEIdeas.

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