Jamie Oliver's school revolution
Recently I watched an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a show where foreign celebrity chef Jamie Oliver goes around our fair land trying to improve Americans’ eating habits, primarily by changing school cafeteria menus, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it proved beyond a reasonable doubt that public schools need to be abolished. For one thing, Chef Jamie points out that the food these kids are eating is catastrophically unhealthy. His solution is to convince the commissars of the public schools to make the kids eat healthier foods, but he has a terrible time getting the school board to change the cafeteria menus. Every time he tries to bring change, or even present his case, it becomes clearer that the school board and other public school rulers simply cannot be bothered, even if the health of their district’s children is at stake.
I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who is wondering “what kind of monster cares more about protecting his own arse than about the health of children?” Is that unfair? I don’t think so. I think the answer to that rhetorical question is “the bureaucratic kind.” This is not so unexpected: bureaucrats in the Department of Education have long cared more about padding their fat compensation plans and protecting their cushy jobs than about the education of children, which is notoriously shoddy in America. It’s little surprise that bureaucrats would be no more moved by obesity than by that holiest of American sacred cows, education.
The answer is not, and cannot be, to push the rulers (in this case the school board) to do the right thing in this one instance alone, that is, to have better food in schools. We may eventually succeed in making our kids physically healthier, but we would just be fighting the same fight over the next issue, again and again. And the issues that do get addressed are typically only the ones that are measurable, like body mass index (BMI), and there’s no way we could quantify how much artistic potential and creativity gets squandered when we cram our kids into boxes of bureaucratic control (see the presentations of Sir Ken Robinson). No, the answer is to abolish central planning from education.
It would be nice if we could do this at the beginning of one summer, and spend the summer watching the private sector adapt to the need, but if we must go incrementally, let’s abolish all federal participation from public schools, and make them 100% state and local. Then, state by state, we could abolish state participation. The states that tried to hold onto power and their old ways would be so far behind the free states that they would have to change; it would be anarchy. Kids would learn and grow in an environment as creative as they are.
Of course, private education is not free. Neither is public education, but people get to pretend that it is because, in that beautiful description of the socialist system, it is “free at the point of delivery.” This is a well-worn canard of the public sector: they take your money, hold it long enough for it to get Stockholm Syndrome, then send some of it back to you with the pretense that it’s theirs, and you’re lucky to get it. Your money is sort of like a brainwashed double agent that way. Don’t let your money fool you: public school is expensive. It costs almost twice as much (93% more) per student, on average, than the median cost of higher-performing private schools,1 and a few orders of magnitude more per student than homeschooling, which typically produces academically dominant students for some reason - perhaps that it involves children being taught by adults who care about their future, to wit, their parents.
Public schools are no exception to the rule that tax revenue spent by central planners produces lackluster results, and a few atrocities. (Call them what you like, I call the government-run kiddie warehouses “atrocities.”) Now the rulers of our schools have been captured by lobbyists for companies that foist on captive schoolkids preservative-laden, fattening food low in vitamins and fiber. Talk about the banality of evil!
So we can expect Jamie Oliver to join us in the fight to abolish government control over the public schools, right? Probably not. He seems to take for granted, as most on television do, that public schools have a legitimate raison d’etre, and are essential. How can he not see that the tyranny of public school boards is the cause of the crisis of processed foods dominating school cafeterias and the impossibility of introducing positive change? This is a good example of the Fatal Conceit of which Hayek wrote: that an expert can know everything that needs to be known to plan or orchestrate an aspect of the lives of thousands, or millions, of others. Jamie Oliver is not upset that there is central planning, he’s upset that it’s bad planning. Which implies, of course, that there could be good planning - no doubt planning done by Oliver himself or by nutritionists of whom he approves. That way, he can prevent the kids and their parents from making the unhealthy choices that some of them would no doubt make in the absence of control. That is why we need central planning.
One of the many problems with that thinking is that it leaves a central planner or board of planners in charge of everyone else, and such a structure is vulnerable to corruption: say, bribes from a soda lobbyist. All he has to do is bribe (or schmooze, if you prefer) one person, or at most the majority of a school board, and then his company makes millions of dollars from the thousands of school children imprisoned at that school by truancy laws. Or a school board can make honest mistakes, the way society once made the mistake of thinking that the trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oil were better for you than butter. Worse still, a school board ruling over innocent children and treating them like prisoners - or subjects - is simply wrong, even if they make really good decisions. With power like that, how long will it be before it goes to someone’s head? Men ought not have power over other men - or over other men’s children.
Regardless of what Jamie Oliver thinks, his show is a clear demonstration of why central planning is a failure pragmatically as well as a moral outrage. If we are not willing to protect our kids from the horrors of a powerful, soulless bureaucracy, just whom will we protect? It’s time for a change. It’s time for freedom and the wonders of free enterprise: for the children, their minds as well as their waistlines.