I’ve complained that for the most part, self-identified centrists and moderates prefer not to engage in direct arguments about their policy preferences in this election, but instead to argue about “electability”–essentially laundering their preferences through mute off-stage proxies, some other group of voters who won’t accept an “extremist” policy proposal simply because it’s extreme.
It’s not as if any given proposal is intrinsically extreme. (Well, up to a point: there are ideas that might be in some absolute sense be deemed to be fringe–say, banning any policy that accepts that the Earth is round and that the solar system is heliocentric.) “Extreme”, for the most part, is a judgment about how far a given idea is from some perceived stable consensus or status quo. As such, it’s more a marketing term than an empirical description: you make something extreme by describing it as such, over and over again, much the same way that you remind people that Colgate has new whitening agents and an improved fluoride formula.
Let’s take by way of an example the proposition that making public higher education free to all citizens and residents is a really extreme proposal. So extreme that it has been the normal public policy of many other liberal democracies (and a few non-democracies). So extreme that up to 1980 or so, it was in effect the policy of most states in the United States, in that there was a sufficient level of public funding for universities and community colleges that most could, if they chose, attend college for very little.
How did that become “extreme”? Through a steady thirty year effort to defund public higher education, which simultaneously raised the cost to prospective students while degrading the quality of the service it provided. Why exactly did we do that? Largely because we had thirty years of both Republican and Democratic administrations that turned away from public goods in general while cutting taxes, thirty years of austerity talk about inefficiencies and the need for private competition, and thirty years of educated elites trying to slow increasing access to higher education as union-protected high-wage manufacturing was transferred overseas and high-paying professional work that required educational credentials became the only alternative to low-paying service jobs. Thirty years of using higher education as the false whipping boy explanation for a major structural realignment of the economy (there aren’t enough engineers! There are too many poets and anthropologists!) while starving higher education in the process.
That’s how “public higher education should be free or nearly so to citizens and residents” became an extreme idea. It isn’t that way naturally: it was made extreme, a parting gift from the boomers and their parents who benefited from the idea back when it wasn’t extreme. It’s as if a thief broke into your house, stole something valuable, and then claimed you shouldn’t have it back because you never could have afforded it in the first place.
Inasmuch as any moderates care to actually engage the proposal on its merits, they have complained that it is regressive. Meaning that free access to public higher education should be means-tested, and the wealthy should have to pay. That sounds reasonable enough, but in fact, this is the torturous logic that has brutalized liberal democracy for the last three decades.
Before we get to the practicalities of it, at a more philosophical level, what looks like a gesture that targets income inequality in fact sanctifies it as foundational. When you prorate access to public goods, you establish that there are and must always be tiers of citizens–that inequality is fundamental. Platinum-tier citizenship, Gold-tier citizenship, etc. It effectively amends the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created unequal. What is public should be public to all: it is the baseline of equality.
That the wealthy can buy more on top of that is true–but don’t write that into the baseline. The rich can buy more legal representation than the state can provide, they can buy concierge health care on top of a public provision, they can buy an expensive private education. Yes. Figuring how to keep that from cancelling out equality of opportunity is a difficult, challenging problem. But you do not acknowledge that fact by writing it in at the deepest level of provision.
The wealthy already legitimately pay their fair share in a progressive tax system–if it’s actually used effectively as a way to redistribute excessive wealth and check run-away inequality.
The complaint that “free college” is regressive, moreover, feels jury-rigged to this political moment. The people who raise this argument against Sanders and Warren curiously seem to think this is the one ad hoc case where this concern is important. They are not arguing in favor of universal means-testing in the provision of public goods. Should we start charging wealthy people more to enter national parks? To send their children to public secondary schools? Should their EZ Passes charge them twice as much to drive on an interstate highway? Should they have to pay a fee to use the Library of Congress website? Be charged a fee in order to send a letter to their representative in Congress? Why not? They can afford it, after all. Isn’t it regressive to allow them to generally access public goods on the same basis as everyone else?
The idea that free public college should only be for those who really need it, moreover, is in practical terms the same kind of terrible idea that Democratic moderates have been peculiarly in love with since Johnson’s Great Society programs. When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers. “Ah! I see you earn just $1,000 too much to qualify for free public college, and so will have to pay $5,000 a semester. Why don’t you consider taking on debt to attend my for-profit online school and we’ll spread that out for you? How about you hide that $1,000 in income using my $500/year accounting service? Try using your employer-offered system for tax-deferred payments into a special fund rather than receiving raises for the next four year!” Simplicity isn’t just about a basic idea of citizenship: it is also about efficiency, the very thing that neoliberal policy-makers supposedly revere so greatly and yet will so very often go to great pains to avoid.
Perhaps it is no great surprise that eye-rolling dismissals at supposedly utopian improvidence and hand-waving at proxies who are afraid of extremism is the preferred way to engage proposals like “free public higher education”. Who would want to undo thirty years of rigging the conversation, after all? Or for that matter twenty or so years of close ties between some of the economic interests that have benefitted from the defunding of public higher education and centrist policy makers.