America The Educated

Jill LePore writes about the irony of “Tea Partiers dressed as Benjamin Franklin call[ing] for an end to social services for the poor”:

On July 4, 1786, when Jane Mecom was 74, she thought about the path to prosperity. It was the nation’s 10th birthday. She had been reading a book by the Englishman Richard Price. “Dr Price,” she wrote to her brother, “thinks Thousands of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in Ignorance and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable Situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages.” And then she reminded her brother, gently, of something that he knew, and she knew, about the world in which they lived: “Very few is able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.”

That world was changing. In 1789, Boston for the first time, allowed girls to attend public schools. The fertility rate began declining. The American Revolution made possible a new world, a world of fewer obstacles, a world with a promise of equality. That required — and still requires — sympathy.

This is something I’ve gotten interested in lately. America has been one of the richest countries out there for a looong time. And we often tell ourselves a story in which that has something to do with our orientation toward capitalism and free markets. And no doubt it does. But we obviously also benefitted enormously from large-scale big government redistribution of wealth away from Native Americans and toward white settlers, paired with big government infrastructure projects to make that land usable. Meanwhile, it’s also the case that America has traditionally been the best educated country. That’s a crucial part of our Puritan heritage and it’s always played a key role in our economic success. Public services, when delivered effectively, are extraordinarily valuable.