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Book Review: The Burden of Bad Ideas

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The Burden of Bad Ideas
by Heather Mac Donald (Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 2000); 242 pages; $26.

WE HAVE ALL HAD our share of bad ideas. Most of the time, we discard them before acting on them, but when we do act on a bad idea, we usually realize quickly that it was bad and therefore stop. When individuals have to bear the consequences of their actions, bad actions seldom do serious harm even to the originator, much less anyone else.

But sometimes, bad ideas worm their way into collective action through government policy. When that happens, the bad consequences are not felt by those who conceived or implemented the bad ideas, but by others. And because of the lack of a feedback loop to bring distress to the politicians or bureaucrats pushing the idea, the bad consequences can go on indefinitely. New York, for example, adopted its on-running, ruinous policy of rent control in 1943.

Bad ideas that have been embraced by bigwigs are the subject of Heather Mac Donald’s book The Burden of Bad Ideas. Mac Donald, a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has here collected a dozen of her essays, written between 1995 and 1999, that zero in on bad ideas in education, welfare, law-enforcement, health, philanthropy, and the incessant drumbeat for “multiculturalism.”

The book works beautifully. Venturing forth into that great test track for bad ideas, New York City, Mac Donald observed and spoke with people, both the officials who enforce the bad ideas and the wretched people who suffer from them.

What emerges isn’t a theoretical work, but a “dirt-under-the-fingernails” kind of book about actual human beings and events that often leaves the reader shaking his head in disbelief.

Take education for starters. Our socialist “public” education system attracts bad ideas like spilled sugar attracts ants. The chance to get youngsters captive for experimentation and conditioning is irresistible to those who want to reshape the world according to their own vision. One way of doing that is to gain control of the training of teachers, thus increasing the likelihood that schooling will be done “the right way.” In a devastating essay entitled “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” Mac Donald takes us behind the scenes for a look at classes in Teachers College at Columbia University.

“For over eighty years,” she writes, “teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade) — self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity — but the one thing they are not about is knowledge.” The would-be teachers at Columbia (and in most “education schools”) hear over and over that they must not engage in anything so dreary as “rote learning.” Instead, they must act as “facilitators” to help students “construct their own knowledge.”

Teacher ed, Mac Donald also observes, is heavily laced with inane blather about the evils of American society and culture. After quoting from a widely used text entitled Literacies of Power, an “illiterate, barbarically ignorant Marxist-inspired screed,” Mac Donald writes,

What does any of this have to do with teaching? Everything, it turns out. In the 1960s, education programs took on an explicitly political cast; schools were to fight racism and redistribute power. Today, Columbia’s Teachers College holds workshops on cultural and political “oppression” in which students role-play ways to “usurp the existing power structure” and the New York State Regents happily call teachers the “ultimate change agents.”

The bad ideas emanating from Columbia ensure that we have a large cadre of teachers whose politics are thoroughly statist but who don’t have a clue how to teach kids the Three Rs and even believe that it would be a terrible thing if they did.

Mac Donald has another flabbergasting piece on education (“An F for Hip-Hop 101”) about a charter school where the “curriculum” revolves around the elements of inner-city street culture such as rap, graffiti, and breakdancing, but let’s move along to welfare.

The failures of welfare

New York was the first American city to embrace the modern notion that every citizen is entitled to the full range of necessities of life at the expense of others, and the destructive consequences of full-blown welfarism are more evident there than anywhere else.

In “Homeless Advocates in Outer Space,” Mac Donald writes about the various feel-good programs that have been enacted to shower money on the “problem” of homelessness, which turns out to have no impact other than to create employment for hundreds of social workers and administrators.

In “Compassion Gone Mad,” she writes about New York’s efforts to deal with teenage pregnancy, where illegitimate children become pawns of relatives who use them to get more money from the government.

In “Welfare’s Next Vietnam,” she writes about the demented idea of extending “disabled” status to children. Among other consequences of that, we now find parents coaching their children to do poorly in school so they can be diagnosed as having a “learning disability,” and so add to the amount they collect each month from the government. One family managed to get all nine kids declared “disabled,” thereby qualifying for $3,500 per month in payments.

The overarching message of those and other essays on welfare is inescapable: Once welfarism gains a foot hold, it will grow relentlessly, feeding on the dysfunctional behaviors it encourages.

Tripping on gun control

Only once does Mac Donald stumble. Her concluding essay is on the killing of Amadou Diallo by New York policemen. Her stance is that the killing was a tragic accident, not a racially motivated murder, as the reliably demagogic Al Sharpton portrayed the incident.

Unfortunately, Mac Donald leaps too enthusiastically to the defense of Mayor Guiliani’s “get-tough-on-crime” policy of aggressive patrols to look for people suspected of carrying illegal guns and confiscating any found.

She readily accepts the claim that such patrolling was responsible for the city’s decline in crime without pausing to wonder whether Diallo wasn’t the victim of yet another bad idea. “Gun control” laws invariably do more to impede honest people from defending themselves than to impede criminals, and vigorous enforcement of them is apt to lead to the sort of bloody confrontation that occurred in this case.

Still, The Burden of Bad Ideas is overwhelmingly an excellent work. Heather Mac Donald has given us a clear, unsentimental look at the results of some of our very worst ideas. Too bad that Pulitzers hardly ever go to journalists who expose the harm done by excessive government.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.