Authoritarianism, Left and Right

Browsing news stories on the web can be a fairly traumatic experience these days for those of us who value limited government and individual liberty. Hardly a day goes by without some new outrage being perpetrated by our government at some level.

The most recent travesty to catch my eye was a little gem from Knight Ridder Newspapers written by David Goldstein. He reports a new plan by the US Department of Education to create a database with information on all students from nearly every college and university in the country.

He writes:

Say you’ve just enrolled in college. Would you want your name and Social Security number put into a national student database in Washington?

You wouldn’t have a choice under a scenario envisioned by the Department of Education, which is considering a plan to maintain files on virtually every college and university student in the country: 15 million students from 6,000 schools.

Federal education officials and supporters in the higher education community contend that the system would improve the tracking of graduation rates and help measure quality in higher education.

Further digging reveals that the department’s proposed database would include the students’ names, social security numbers, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and a plethora of information concerning grades, courses, and degrees.

The department is justifying the plan by claiming that it will improve their ability to maintain educational excellence in our university system.

The idea for a national student database, first discussed last fall, grew out of the same push for more accountability in education that spawned the No Child Left Behind Act. That law has altered priorities and goals at the elementary and, to a degree, at the secondary school level.

Database backers in government and higher education say the ability to track students throughout their academic careers is being hamstrung. (God forbid that they should be "hamstrung" in tracking everyone’s academic careers. ~ SL)

The skeptical observer may view this as just one more example of our overbearing government engaging in left wing, politically correct authoritarianism. The federal government has already set up an intrusive system in our public schools which allows them to monitor achievement by ethnicity and gender. This system, which is part of the No Child Left Behind Act, includes financial incentives for leveling test scores between groups. Thus, this new proposal may just represent an extension of this odious system to the higher levels of our educational system (I’ve often mused that the solution to this problem is for our schools to ensure that every student is totally ignorant and illiterate…thus removing any inequalities that may exist and completely "leveling the playing field.")

The libertarians among us may ask whether this is a legitimate function of government and whether the very existence of the Department of Education is permitted by our constitution. We may further question whether such a system will have any effect on actual student achievement. We might even criticize this plan as an unwarranted intrusion upon students’ privacy rights.

Unfortunately, these concerns have generally been brushed aside by our courts and our government. By and large, there is nothing new here.

Being somewhat of a cynic, I’ve been wondering if the appearance of this plan at this particular time might have additional, ulterior motives…ones that are even more sinister than the standard government mania for social engineering.

Specifically, why does this proposal call for unique identifying numbers to be attached to students’ performance records? If the system merely desires to track overall achievement and race/gender statistics, why include the social security numbers? The Department of Education can just as easily threaten and bribe schools based on an institution’s aggregate numbers without demanding the collection of personalized data.

While I admit that this may just be an example of bureaucracy run amok, I smell something else in the air.

Namely, the government is now mired in a seemingly endless war in the Middle East. They are attempting to fight this war with an all-volunteer force and they are beginning to run into serious problems. Recruitment numbers have collapsed for the Army Reserves, the National Guard, the Army, and the Marines. The commander of the Army Reserves recently stated that it is becoming a "broken force." The military has almost tapped out its ability to circulate troops into the theater using "stop loss" orders and other shady maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the insurgency continues unabated and the "Iraqization" of the war is going poorly.

The Empire is thus left with precious few palatable options.

First, they could attempt to slog onward with the status quo. They could continue to abuse the Guard and Reserves and hope that the Iraqi Army eventually learns to fight the insurgency by itself. They could also hope that the insurgency fades over time.

Frankly, I think that this is whistling past the graveyard. They’ve been following this option for quite some time now, and they have nothing to show for it.

Second, the administration could declare the mission a failure and withdraw. Everything I knew about our government tells me that this option is totally unacceptable to our power elite. They have constructed an imperial system that requires the continuous expansion of military influence throughout the globe. The key to maintaining the system is "credibility." Potential enemies must know that our elites mean business when they threaten some distant potentate. Without that credibility, the whole system unravels. If they withdrew from Iraq now, the various tribes and dictators of the world will not take their threats seriously in the future. Furthermore, individual members of our power elite have staked their reputations on this mission. To withdraw now would wreck their careers and leave them in disgrace.

There is no way that they will let this happen, regardless of the casualties involved in continuing the war. Vietnam clearly demonstrated the reality of this pathological dynamic. They will only withdraw under truly desperate circumstances.

That leaves us with the last option: the military draft.

Two problems exist for this administration concerning the draft.

First, they must have a significant number of Democrats on board. The Republicans simply cannot enact a draft by themselves without suffering enormous losses at the polls. The blame must be spread throughout both parties so that the entire ruling elite is culpable in the public’s eyes.

The big question concerns what the Democrats would demand in return for their support. Some Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, are war hawks and could be counted on for support right from the beginning. Others would probably demand a myriad of concessions from the president, including an option for "community service" for inductees. They might also demand Bush’s support for various spending initiatives…or even a veto over his Supreme Court nominees.

Either way, I believe that the Democrats could ultimately be persuaded to go along with the draft in numbers that would give the Republicans plausible bipartisan cover (I am reminded here of the plot to kill Julius Caesar. All of the conspirators agreed to plunge their knives into his body at least once so as to make them all equally culpable for the murder.) Whatever opposition the Democrats might have, it most certainly won’t be based on individual rights. They abandoned that concept a long time ago.

The second problem with enacting a draft concerns the citizenry at large. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the draft. Appeals to patriotism and community service will only go so far. The option for non-military service might make it a bit more palatable. But ultimately, I think that the administration’s best strategy will be to convince the public that the draft will only affect small numbers of young people in certain critical fields.

Up to this point, the American people have been relatively quiescent about the continuing debacle in Iraq because it hasn’t really affected their daily lives. If the draft can be structured in a way that does not threaten most of the populace, then they might just continue to indulge in bread and circuses without much protest.

The military’s most acute need in Iraq is not for hordes of infantrymen. The most urgent requirements are for a relatively small number of young people with certain skills. In particular, they need doctors, nurses, medics, computer experts, and people with skills in various Middle Eastern languages.

And this is where that wonderful little database over at the Department of Education comes into play.

While those unique identifying numbers and the students’ personal information may be of little use for monitoring a given school’s academic success, it will have a great deal of use for tracking down a cohort of young people with certain skills that are desperately needed in the war.

Once the databases’ access is given to the Selective Service System, they would merely have to open the search engine and request, say, a list of students who are to graduate next year with a degree in nursing. A set of parameters could be entered concerning the proper ethnic and gender makeup…and presto…welcome to Fallujah. If they wanted to get really fancy, they could even skim off the students with the best grade point averages or the highest test scores. The possibilities are endless.

This same database could easily be mined to identify students obtaining advanced degrees in computer science or students who have taken extensive coursework in Arabic (remember…this proposed database will contain a list of every class taken — with grades — by every student at almost every college in America. Only those schools which accept no federal money would be exempt, and those can be counted on one hand).

Furthermore, since the data will be matched with social security numbers, the government will be easily able to track any student, even if he has left school or transferred to another college. The IRS has a file of everyone’s tax returns which is searchable by social security number. This also contains everyone’s workplace and home address.

I readily admit that I am engaging in a bit of speculation here. Perhaps this whole database is merely another example of the relatively banal left-wing authoritarianism which we have all grown to know and love.

But the appearance of this proposal at this particular time is nothing if not suspicious. Even if its utility for a draft is not the major consideration now, the system could easily lend itself to such use should the future need arise.

You might call me paranoid…but don’t say you weren’t warned.