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No real story ever has a tidy beginning. There are too many formerly loose threads coming together. But let us try to make as much sense of this one, as the incoherence of most of its participants will allow.
It begins with a simple observation that was transformed by intellectual laziness into a monstrosity. May I trust that all present have had Introductory Microeconomics? Um, well, no, probably not, any more. Well, the most basic concept that comes out of this material is that of the Supply and Demand curves - that is to say, the number of units of a commodity that will be produced and sought, respectively, as a function of price. The supply curve is pictured as going up - the more one makes by selling an item, the more eager one will be to produce it. The demand curve is pictured as going down - the more one has to pay for an item, the more hesitant one is to do so.
As is argued, left to itself, the market will tend to drive the price of a commodity to that level at which the curves cross - the point of market equilibrium. Trying to hold the price below that level, say by governmental fiat, will lead to shortages, and unmet needs. Trying to hold the price above it (as with the programs put in place to guarantee that corn farmers see a minimum price for their crops) results in surplus production, which in the long term, represents wasted labor, going into the production of goods that won't be used. Neither is considered desirable, so, in general, governmental control of prices tends to be a very bad idea.
It's a nice, simple picture, and, as long as one remembers the rationale behind it, and the limitations of the argument, it can be an informative one. But there lies the problem. Critical thinking takes time and effort, and people wanted to skip ahead to the end.
Indeed, such was a matter of established tradition in many segments of U.S. society, where rote learning was the deeply rooted tradition, by people who simply wanted to apply what they learned immediately, and felt that going into the theory behind it was a diversion that would cost them profit. "Get to the point, get to the point !" was the traditional refrain. So, instead of remembering the argument - which would have allowed them the modify it, and pursue it to new conclusions, as the assumptions underlying it in the beginning ceased to be valid - they memorized the conclusion of the argument, and applied it blindly, without understanding.
Instead of saying "the government shouldn't be capping, or supporting the price of corn, as a general practice", what came into vogue was a blanket pronouncement that "the government shouldn't interfere in the marketplace, period", an extrapolation that the simple argument above does nothing to justify. One could recite a litany of horrors that the resulting abdication of governmental responsibility lead to, but let us focus on one particular idiocy - the soaring of college tuitions.
The conclusion that prices shouldn't be capped, was blindly applied, treating places on the enrollment list for a University treated as a commodity, leading many to argue that there should be no public outcry, and certainly no governmental intervention, as tuitions were sent to absurdly high levels. But let's remember our argument, and think about it. Suppose that the universities do, indeed, set their tuitions in such a way as to maximize profit - at the level of market equilibrium. What is the great boon our argument promises the consumer? That supply will equal demand, and that there will be no shortages. That is, everyone who wishes to make a purchase, and has the money, will be able to do so.
That's pretty darn good, if people are buying corn. But wait a second! If what they're paying for is a place on that enrollment list, and there are exactly as many buyers as slots, what that means is that there is no competition for the slots available, whatsoever. Instead of people being admitted, based on their qualifications, the criteria for acceptance, in effect, will be the ability to raise the funds needed to attend. End result, the best universities would be teaching, not the best and brightest, but, usually, the spoiled children of the rich, and those receiving scholarships.
"Ah", some will say, "so the very best will still be able to get in, using those scholarships". Giving us a token presence of those admitted based on merit, in a sea of people there based on privilege. But that is still a lie, as anyone who has ever looked over a list of scholarships knows all too well. There are few, if any, scholarships open to general competition. Almost all require their applicants to meet certain geographic, racial, or other special criteria, and so these students, too, enjoy the benefits of privilege, not the reward of hard work and ability. It is merely a more whimsical sort of privilege that they enjoy, these left handed lesbian blue-eyed daughters of albino Laotian hair dressers from Vermont, and the like.
Again, one could dwell on the harshness that this exercise in academic greed inflicted on those who persisted in trying to advance based on ability, not privilege, be it financial (wealthy parents), or political (affirmative action). Especially as college financial aid was cut in the name of "letting the market take care of it". Students who had to sell their bodies in order to meet tuition, in a society dominated by a conservative movement that dared to trumpet its support for "family values", or, during the Clinton years, had to "volunteer" for the dangers of experimental drug testing, under an administration that spoke of its "compassion". One might discuss the failure of the predictions of the standard model, and, by implication, of the assumptions underlying it, as universities later admitted having engaged in price fixing (as the Ivys did a few years back), sending tuitions even higher.
But again, let us narrow our focus, and consider these children of privilege, in all of its varieties. They, or to be more accurate, their parents or benefactors, had bought their way into places their credentials would never have taken them. They were impostors, intellectual poseurs unequal to the traditional demands of the institutions they had entered, and unready for the level of discourse formerly expected of those who attended. But those used to being indulged are not about to idly accept being denied what they want, and the prestige that comes with ones presence at a prestigious school, is what they desired. To be shown up, would be to lose this. So, loudly and belligerently, they demanded that the curricula, and the discussions, be made more to their liking. Often, they would be so blunt as to announce that the fact that they were paying to be there, entitled them to get what they wanted from the schools - a point that the schools, having already prostituted themselves, didn't hesitate to grant. So, the dumbing down of campus life began in earnest.
Any attempt to bring rigor into the classroom, brought protests to the school administration, and charges directed against the faculty or graduate assistants of "irrelevant and distracting thought patterns", or the like. Any attempt to formulate an argument that was more than a sound bite, or support a nuanced position, got one shouted down by those whose idea of a profound argument was "Oh yeah? What are you, a communist?" (Or racist/sexist/homophobe/fascist/elitist, depending on the prevailing rhetoric of the moment). More and more, that was the whole student body.
At thus point, one thread twists around another, and strengthens it. In the early 80s, a great push came, in a very un-Libertarian fashion, for an increase in the drinking age to 21. This was pursued with a stubborn and defiant lack of scruple that was to characterize the next two decades of American popular culture, as the Federal government, lacking the authority to order states to increase their drinking ages, resorted to the withholding of highway funds (consisting of money extracted from the states) from states that didn't comply with the central government's wishes in this matter. In other words, "we don't have the legal right to make you do this, but we'll fine you if you don't".
The ironic result of this was an increase in binge drinking among those 18-21, and the usual change in personality that accompanies it, as beer parties, where gross overconsumption is a matter of peer pressure, became the only place where the students could consume. Moreover, it gave new life to the flagging institution of the fraternity (and sorority), which had been going out of fashion in an increasingly individualistic adult world.
The new kids were a bit more awkward than their immediate predecessors had been, given the stricter, frequently smothering, upbringings that had come into fashion. (Respecting someone else's freedom might mean not doing your own thing, don't you know?) They were away from home for the first time, had trouble socializing, and a little drinking, and the resulting loss of inhibition helped with that. The problem was, that the 21 drinking age meant that mild, social drinking in the dorms was no longer an option. In place of moderate consumption, in the once freer and more accepting atmosphere of the dormitory system, the students found that the relatively unsupervised greek houses were the only places they could go to drink.
Of course, the key difference, in saner times, between life in the dorms and fraternities, is that residence in the former was guaranteed, while residence in the latter was dependent on the approval of those around one. Life in a dorm would broaden one's thinking, and one's horizons, because those different from one were going to be around, whether one liked it or not, and one simply had to learn to live with them. Open mindedness made the process a lot easier, and so, before the schools began to revive the attitude of "in loco parentis", and crack down on their students back during the Reagan (*) years, it was an experience that helped one grow.
Fraternities and sororities were as different in this regard, as one could imagine, in as unwholesome a way as one might fear. No need to grow, or broaden one's attitudes there - the individual who was a little bit "too" different, could easily be thrown out. So conformity - easy, unquestioning conformity, became the price of acceptance. As the greek houses came to dominate campus life, it became the price of having a connection to the rest of the campus community - especially as dorm policies became so constrictive, as to eliminate the possibility of much of a social life existing outside of the fraternities.
Consequently, when campus anti-intellectualism began to make its appearance, it was greeted by a body of students, that for structural reasons, had been conditioned to timidly go along with whatever the group wanted - to do otherwise, was to become an outcast. And so, what would have been an occasional nuisance, snowballed until it was almost unstoppable. "Sometimes you just have to go along to get along" became the creed of a cowardly generation, whose only prevaling principle, increasingly, was "don't make waves".
Then, one day, back in 1991, a minority community in South Central Los Angeles started rioting, because it didn't like the outcome of a criminal trial, and "going along to get along" mean giving it, and those allied to it, whatever it wanted, without question, and on bended knee. Political Correctness, and our era, were born.
It was a simple transformation, really. The fashionably non-existent attention span, and the smug willingness to shout down the complaints of the less powerful, that had characterized the former neo-conservatives, were simply reapplied to the newly perceived power structure. Free associating accomodationism, the natural response of those afraid to be out of step with their peers' opinions, guaranteed that as one position of the radical left was cravenly submitted to, the next, no matter how absurd, would meet even less resistance that those before. Oh, and that those who questioned the new absurdities could, as a matter of fashion, expect to be ignored at best, and terrorized in the name of "sensitivity" at worst. Far more likely, it would be the latter, for, as in any other cult-like setting, a lack of fanaticism, in implying a lack of total support for the group, made one suspect, and the likely target for the next bout of hysterical, and hypocritically self-righteous rage.
Now, imagine that in a place where ranting and raving in response to the least hint of dissent was not only fashionable, but demanded, and honesty condemned, that our indignant young sociopaths were suddenly given the chance to reach a global audience, in a place where success was most easily achieved by banding in large groups, and harassing one's opposition into silence. What would you have? You'd have fascism. You'd have willful ignorance. You'd have Usenet.
(*) This was best exemplified, a few years later, by a comment by Constance Horner, a member of Pres. Bush's cabinet, to the effect that "the institutions of our society need to take control of the lives of our young people", because she felt that left to their own devices, they were too individualistic.
(1) "Today" is late in December, 1999, as I'm writing this.