Today's Wall Street Journal contained one of the saddest stories I've read in a long time. It details the horrendous state of the education system here in Portugal, where just 28% of people between 25 and 64 years of age completed high school.
Author Charles Forelle ties the state of education to Portugal's weak economy, as well as to the negligence of her former dictator, Salazar, all of which is fair enough, as far as it goes. But in doing so, he misses a significant point. Many of the undereducated people he interviews see no reason to get an education and this, I think is where the story lies. In a country whose dictator, and now, whose socialist system, tells you that the role of government is to provide for people, there is very little incentive to go to school.
In our capitalist system, with all of its flaws, there is still a strong incentive for investing in one's education. From high school on, every successfully completed year of school, especially if one chooses one's area of specialization carefully, can pay significant dividends in terms of income. And although we are rapidly becoming an entitlement society, there are still large numbers of Americans who consider it their responsibility to prepare themselves to compete in a labor market.
Contrast that with Portugal which, although I love it for many reasons, I must say is afflicted with a nearly terminal lack of initiative. House hunting here is a daunting task, because most landlords cannot be bothered to clean or paint or do much property maintenance until AFTER they receive a deposit from a prospective tenant. It doesn't matter to them that a cleaner, nicer-looking home could sell or rent more easily. For the most part, they are unwilling to put forth effort in advance of the payoff. This, as far as I can tell, stems first from the Salazar regime, where citizens were supposed to look to the dictator as the provider of all good things, and now the government without Salazar, which citizens are supposed to see as the provider of all good things.
If government exists to provide you with housing, food, and healthcare, why in the world would you waste your time in a classroom when the beach is beckoning? Why learn trigonometry, for crying out loud, when at the end of the road, British tourist girls are rolling towels out onto the sand? If everything can be had simply by voting the right party into power, or by going on strike, education is for chumps. This is the true cost of socialism. By promising everything, it deprives people of incentives for self-improvement. It may take a generation or two, and its effects vary somewhat depending on the culture in which they are exhibited, but ultimately, the system that promises to provide everything takes away the one thing that matters - the drive to do, or make, or become something.
At the end of the article we get just a glimpse of this. A 16 year-old dropout - not in a forgotten rainforest village, and not in a shotgun shack in the Ozarks, but in 21st Century Europe, mind you - is asked if he might someday like to go to college, and study engineering. "It's never crossed my mind," He said. "I don't know anyone who went."