Photo by Boston Public Library

Republicans believe the elimination of the commons will make Americans free in ways they aren’t today. We will soar once we are freed from the chains of public education, crossable bridges and drivable roads, from the curse of clean air and clean, drinkable water, from the prison-house of effective disease control and safe pharmaceuticals.

These are some of the things that citizens provide for one another through the agency of government. That fact is a drivable bridge too far for the moral worldview of many conservatives. In their view, freedom has two elements: it is all about the individual, not the community; and it is possible only within a hierarchical, authoritarian framework. In other words, freedom is the freedom to obey.

I spent the weekend in Dallas with George Lakoff in front of several different audiences. In each, the topic of freedom came up.

Lakoff notes, importantly and accurately, that public education issues are issues of freedom. “You can’t be free if you haven’t learned about the world and your possibilities in that world,” Lakoff said. He goes on to note that you can’t have a successful business without court-enforced contract law. You can’t be free if you risk death every time you open a can of beans.

American democracy is based upon the value of mutual care. We decided that for any one of us to prosper (and be free), all of us must have the opportunity to prosper. If this seems like common sense to you, you have a progressive moral worldview.

Progressives believe in both personal and social responsibility. Conservatives reject social responsibility. In a perverse twist, they believe that everyone benefits when the predatory and the pampered are allowed to scoop up all the wealth without regulation or restriction. By such is the Moral Hierarchy maintained. As a portrait of the pure conservative, this is not exaggeration or parody.

As you might imagine, the consequences of the triumph of this worldview would be devastating. Wait, we don’t have to imagine them. Look what the so-called “austerity” budgets in Europe have done to actual living people. The pain is horrific. By the moral lights of progressives, the princes of power and finance in Great Britain, Germany and elsewhere are simply evil when they promise that joblessness, poverty and poor health make their people more free and secure the long-term public good.

Even more troubling to me are those people who don’t really hold completely to the conservative worldview but are willing to abandon their more compassionate values out of fear. These are the people lifting Mitt Romney from, say, no more than 30 percent of the vote to half the vote.

In this context, let me once again raise the topic of public education. At the peril of democracy, we underestimate the selfish motivations behind the conservative push to close down public schools and turn education over to private corporations. And that is what they want to do. Once they have pushed passed a certain point, there will be no return to the kind of public education Americans have enjoyed for decades. Here’s why.

Take millions of students out of public schoolrooms and it won’t be long before the infrastructure of public schools will shrink. School buildings will be sold to private companies. They’ll be turned into pizza parlors or car lots. Even if all America should awaken to the extraordinary reduction of opportunity and equality, rebuilding the public school system will be nearly impossible.

Conservatives know that such consequences would be unpopular if they spoke of them. So they don’t. That means it’s up to us. It means, as Lakoff has been telling us for years, that we have to publicly advocate the progressive moral view behind public education, behind our commitment to one another through maintenance of the commons.

I once thought that was just a matter of good politics. I now believe it is a matter of survival.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith