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Are Students Afraid To Be Free?

Class is back in session for most colleges and universities across the country. Last year, I had the privilege of teaching college economics courses for the first time. We discussed many issues, from the economics of War on Drugs and the War on Terror, to the minimum wage, to why airlines offer discounts to grandmothers but not, businessmen. It was during one of these discussions, when analyzing a particularly nefarious but common policy, that one of my students raised his hand. His question was simple:

WHY DO PEOPLE STILL ADVOCATE THIS?!”

The question was a great one. It gave us an opportunity to discuss how the incentives faced by policymakers may mean economically detrimental policies persist. But the student’s question got me thinking. Every year on campus there are always students staging some kind of demonstration. Sometimes it’s as innocuous as signing people up for a social club or organizing a sporting event. Other times, it’s a direct assault on what a university campus should be, a place where students can be free to express and explore ideas, a place where students are exposed to different kinds of people and new ways of thinking.

This second kind of activity is happening all across the country. From establishing “free speech zones” on college campuses, to school officials seizing Hanukkah candles from a student’s dorm because of a supposed “fire hazard” (note students were allowed to smoke in the same dorm), there is a disturbing trend of limiting liberties on college campuses. What’s more worrisome is that it’s not just political actors who advocate such polices, but students.

The question to ask is why? When there is no clear incentive for a person to advocate a particular policy, how do we answer this question? In one of my favorite papers, the late Nobel Laureate James Buchanan argued that individuals will continue to advocate for policies that reduce prosperity, cripple civil liberties, and grow the size of government. The reason—people are afraid to be free. He states,

[T]he attitude here is akin to that of the child who seeks the cocoon-like protection of its parents, and who may enjoy its liberty, but only within the limits defined by the range of such protection. The mother or father will catch the child if it falls, will bandage its cuts.... Knowledge that these things will be done provides the child with a sense of order in its universe, with elements of predictability in uncertain aspects of the environment.

[...]

[T]he state – steps in and relieves the individual of his responsibility as an independently choosing and acting adult. In exchange, of course, the state reduces the liberty of the individual to act as he might choose.

In discussing many current policy issues, from unemployment benefits, to healthcare, to education, to public prayer, there are really two courses of action. One course allows people the liberty to choose for themselves, to do as they will and not impose their preferences on others. The other option relegates these decisions into the hands of supposedly benevolent bureaucratic actors. In some cases, removing responsibility from individuals may sound appealing. But it is important to remember that such a decision involves costs. In many cases, the cost may be our individual liberties.

In my courses I aim to challenge my students. I want them to question their prior assumptions so they can critically examine the world around them. I encourage them to recognize that there are a variety of obvious and hidden costs to any policy, what Bastiat referred to as “what is seen and what is not seen.” College students should be lots of things. They should be curious, and question, and explore. They should pursue new passions and discover what the world has to offer. But there are things students shouldn’t do. I try to convince them they shouldn’t put off their homework until an hour before it’s due. They shouldn’t allow someone else to chart their course. They shouldn’t let someone else make their decisions. They shouldn’t be afraid to be free.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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