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The GI Bill

June 22, 2007

Tags EducationPolitical Theory

Garrison Keillor notes the anniversary of the GI Bill on the Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights. It was one of the most important and influential pieces of legislation ever signed by an American president, but the newspapers barely covered the story at the time. They were too busy reporting on the Allied invasion of Europe.

...Before the war, about 10 percent of Americans attended college. After the war, that figure rose to about 50 percent.

...The cost to taxpayers for the GI Bill was about $5.5 billion, but the result was 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 17,000 writers and editors, and thousands of other professionals. It helped spur one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

(The Writer's Almanac links to this worshipful remembrance from establishment historians.)

Thomas DiLorenzo wrote an excellent demolition of the myths around the GI Bill some years ago. He points out in particular the politicization of the universities that was started by the GI Bill:

Today, accreditation agencies, private in name only, have tremendous power over colleges and universities, and they are slavish to government's agenda. Today, these agencies are the major source of political correctness and big-government ideology on college campuses.

I would only add two direct critiques of Keillor's analysis. He seems to implicitly assumes that because the GI Bill produced more professionals of various sorts that it was obviously a great thing. Besides the unconscious self-congratulation that one expects from the intelligentsia ("more of us is clearly what the world needs"), there is the matter of how many college degrees is optimal. Should every man, woman and child have a PhD? If not, what is the right number? How does Keillor know that 450,000 engineers was exactly what society needed at that time? Absent the operation of the free market there is no way to know.

Secondly, the contention that pouring out lots of people with college degrees produces "economic booms" simply can't stand up to the post-WWII experience. States trying to engineer economic growth throughout the developing world have tried this and I don't believe any positive correlation has been found between how many more people are getting college degrees and how well the economy grows. It would not surprise me at all, in fact, if there was a slight inverse correlation since huge jumps of investment in higher education are typically not something that happens through market demand but through things like the "GI Bill" that have been happening in developing countries through many decades of economic misery.

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