The conservative commentator Ben Domenech has recently written an article about the problem of college debt. While he intends to solve the problem from a conservative perspective, I think more than anything he illustrates the lack of ideas in mainstream conservatism. The main thrust of the piece can be seen from central example he cites:
One such student, a 25-year-old Cincinnati woman, recently wrote about her burden of having two degrees, complaining she is saddled with $188,307.22 in student debt, “all of which is my sole financial responsibility” and pronouncing the dawn of a debt “epidemic.”
She demanded “answers and clarity as to why this happened. How did I arrive at this position in life so financially handicapped and disenfranchised? I followed societal expectations, earned an education and am employed. … I am owed answers simply because I have the right to pursue happiness.”
The answers are simple: This is the downside of being an overeducated 25-year-old in an economy that needs more welders and fewer sociology majors, and where it costs a lot more to be the latter than the former.
Ending up nearly $200,000 in debt was entirely this woman’s choice, nothing she was forced to do. We can be sympathetic with her plight without wanting to extract more tax money to bail her out for her bad decision.
Debt is no more an epidemic than being fat is an epidemic. If repaying a debt means we can’t buy a desired McMansion or flashy car, that’s nobody’s fault but your own. Think before you take on debt, or you will be left to deal with the consequences. Unless, of course, we take the path toward a redistributionist society where no one has to pay for their bad judgments. And that, unfortunately, is a real possibility.
There are two main problems with this line of thought.
First, the moral he derives from his example contradicts it. The hapless 25 year-old he cites isn’t likely to overcome such debt by just buying a cheaper car or a less expensive house. $200,000 is a lot of money, and if her degrees are as worthless as the article implies, it will take her a long time to pay off her dues. This isn’t just a simple issue of cost-cutting; we are talking about a potentially life-ruining amount of debt. Later on in the article Domenech claims that “America has thrived as a place where luck was made, not granted by government diktat” but it is very hard to see how this student can recover from such a blow. A life of unpaid bills and terrible credit scores probably awaits her, rather than any sort of redemption.
Second, I agree that as a society we can’t subsidize every bad decision individuals make. Domenech is correct that government cannot, without catastrophic consequences, subsidize for poor choices willingly entered into, even when the persons in question are young and naive. But there is a key difference in interceding on behalf of specific persons, and questioning whether the whole system is flawed. While Domenech, like a typical conservative, focuses on the sense of entitlement contained in the student’s words, he ignores the sense of social justice. It’s not just a selfish “Help!” that is being uttered here, but “what can we do to prevent this from happening?” That’s the more interesting, and more difficult, question to ask. And that is where this conservative narrative of radical self-independence palpably falls short. If your only answer to real people in real problems is “tough, deal with it,” your philosophical bearings ought to be questioned. And this is not an isolated phenomenon: the whole lackluster Republican convention is a testament to the lack of ideas in conservatism. Instead of proudly thumping their chests in a self-congratulatory “we built it ourselves,” conservatives need to think more about how to actually solve problems. Individualism is not a panacea for every social problem.