By John F. Di Leo -
On May 31, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a plan to bring free universal all-day pre-kindergarten to all the people of Chicago. The local news media focused on the structure of his announced plan – it’s designed so that it only happens if he’s re-elected, so it’s clearly designed as a re-election campaign tactic. But then, when in history have expansions of government not been tied to election campaigns? That’s hardly news.
No, what this humble reader found interesting about the announcement was the Mayor’s office’s approach to it. Rahm Emanuel believes that poor children should have the same right to pre-kindergarten that wealthy children have.
"Right?" When exactly did free all-day preschool become a civil right?
Has our society so completely lost track of what rights are, that we are no longer shocked by hearing a politician abuse the term?
The True Meaning of Rights
The United States of America are the result of a magnificent confluence of a philosophical moment, a political opening, and the heritage of great cultures. Our nation was founded by the heirs of Western Civilization, the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and the Enlightenment – a generation of principled, honorable, and generous patriots who loved and respected their shared heritage, and believed they were placed on this earth, at that time, for a purpose: to perfect the freedom philosophy that had been slowly developing over the previous 500 years in England.
From the Magna Carta through the Petition of Right, and moment after moment of hard-won gains in between, England had been gradually growing into a nation that respected liberty… and the Glorious Cause of the American War of Independence was the opportunity to carry that libertarian movement to its ultimate conclusion: a nation actually conceived in liberty, and designed to secure it for its citizens for all time.
So our Founders crafted their Declaration of Independence and their Constitution with care, and then added a Bill of Rights to absolutely ensure that the government of THIS nation could never violate the human rights that other governments had violated in the past.
We have a right to political speech; we don’t have a right to force someone else to pay for its publication, but we do have a right to speak. We have a right to freely assemble; we don’t have a right to force the city or state to provide us with a meeting place. We have a right to attend the church or synagogue of our choice; we can’t force our Catholic neighbor to fund our Lutheran church or vice versa through his taxes, but we can each attend and fund our own parishes without fear of government opposition.
These are rights, presented in the context of our Founding documents. A right is yours from birth, and allows neither curtailment by government nor forced funding by your neighbor. The government doesn’t provide you with the newspaper, the microphone, the church or the temple, but it cannot stop you and yours from providing them yourselves.
Bread and Circuses
By contrast, consider the mayor’s proposal of “a right” to free preschool.
A preschool isn’t a political philosophy, a religious expression, or a libertarian action. It’s a service. A baby-sitting service that may be slightly educational, maybe even be considerably educational, but is still, at its core, a service. By definition, it cannot be a right.
Attendance at a preschool requires the provision of a building, the hiring of teachers, the funding of utilities and school supplies. It costs thousands of dollars per year. In Chicago, the publicly-shared number is upwards of $14,000 per year per kid, for a full-day preschool program, but even that doesn’t take every aspect of its mammoth cost into account.
Now, let’s return to the Enlightenment for a moment, shall we? That’s the era that truly developed the concept of rights as we understand them today: Do you think that Locke, Montesquieu, Burke, Hamilton, Washington or Madison would have supported a laundry list of rights like those in our Bill of Rights if they had such costs?
They couldn’t have. Their commitment to limited government and low taxes would have overruled such excesses… and rightly so!
To be a right, it cannot place an obligation on another person. It cannot require the allocation of government money, only the tolerance of the government and one’s fellow man.
But Mayor Rahm says that every preschooler has a right to force his destitute neighbor to fund his preschool program. In a city with high unemployment, high poverty, high despair… a city in fact in which thousands give up and flee to other states every day… this mayor wants to raise the tax burden even higher – to provide universal preschool, a concept whose value has been shot down time and time again in educational studies. However well-intentioned, its true, lasting educational benefits range from minimal to nil.
But should this surprise us? Should the mayor’s advocacy of a costly program of demonstrably minimal benefit as a campaign tool shock anyone, after all these years? Perhaps a trip down memory lane might be helpful.
One of the many reasons that our Founders used as justification for our Revolution was their widespread understanding that the faraway Parliament in London no longer represented the British citizenry. The King was able to control a majority in Parliament, in part, because of the presence of what were known as “rotten boroughs” – election districts so poor or so corrupt that the party or the king were able to control who won the election, without true regard for the interests of the constituents. Often, candidates didn’t even live in the district… often, they never even visited except at election time.
As a result, the American Founders did what they could to guard against such a result here. When setting up the United States, our Founders established residency rules, age rules, citizenship rules… they did what they could to ensure that districts elected people from their own neighborhoods to public office – people who still remembered what life was like for the average Joe.
Somewhere along the way, however, our state capitals, and especially, our nation’s capital, got so powerful, so establishment-empowering, that once people join the club, they lose touch with home awfully fast. Our residency requirements, at least, do something to help keep them tethered to their roots, but it gets harder every year.
Fast forward to 2010. Rahm Emanuel had left Chicago for good. He accepted a job in the Obama administration; he moved his family permanently to Washington and converted his house to investment property. It was rented out to a family of strangers when Mayor Richard M Daley announced his retirement.
Suddenly, the Chief of Staff job in Washington didn’t feel so appealing… being Major Domo at the White House is great, of course, but the possibility of being the dictator of the midwest’s largest den of iniquity was just too tempting; Rahm Emanuel threw his hat in the ring and headed back home to Chicago.
There was just one obstacle: a residency requirement. A candidate for mayor of Chicago must have lived in the city for at least the year before the election. That’s not a lot to ask, is it?
Unfortunately for Rahm Emanuel, he was living in Washington a year before the election. He could not possibly qualify.
But he ran anyway. And the case went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The law was written to ensure that we no longer had rotten boroughs in the United States. The law was designed so that powerful establishment types like Washington DC movers and shakers couldn’t just push the locals out of the way and get themselves plum posts like mayor in cities in the hinterland.
But The Illinois Supreme Court buckled to the power of the Washington establishment, threw out the law, and allowed a resident of Washington to be elected in Chicago because, after all, he had lived here before… and he still had an investment here… and his wife might have left a dress in the attic of the house they were renting out…
They found a way.
The establishment, in fact, will always find a way to accommodate its own… and so they did. Rahm Emanuel, the Washington macher who pushed locals out of the way to be mayor of Chicago, is now in his eighth year in office.
And he’s doing what nobles have done since the dawn of time: he’s proposing to take more taxes from the peasants, to dole out more bread and circuses to other peasants, in order to hold his own triumphant re-election party next year.
We shouldn’t be shocked at any of this. It’s how big city politicians talk and act all over the country.
It’s just that, as a political science major myself, with some serious respect for the concept of human rights, it really bugs me to see a cheap political stunt passed off as a human right.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a writer, actor, and trade compliance professional. He was born in Chicago, but his parents wisely moved him to the suburbs as soon as he could talk, just in case he ever wrote a column. Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut, and the byline and IR URL are included.