Universities and Government Bureaucracies: The Left's 'Chokepoint Charlies'

In the days of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, "Checkpoint Charlie" was a border crossing point between East and West Berlin. Its obvious purpose was to prevent those who wished to escape the Communist tyranny of East Germany from doing so. In about two and a half years before the Wall's construction choked off the flow, roughly 550,000 East Germans fled to the West.

The communists had their checkpoints. Leftists have their chokepoints. Those who occupy positions in university systems, government bureaucracies, as well as certain union and professional organizations, often with the active assistance of the courts, serve as the system's "Chokepoint Charlies." You can't get through or move on unless you jump through their hoops, comply with their demands, or behave according to their established norms. This column will focus on the first two sets of Chokepoint Charlies.

In university systems, the most obvious chokepoint is tenure. If you achieve it, you have a position for life; if you don't, your career is essentially over. Not surprisingly, leftist-dominated universities have used denial of tenure as a principal means of culling promising conservative professors, or even usually reliable liberals who utter occasional center-right thoughts, from their faculties' ranks.

Other university chokepoints are in the classroom. For the most part, it's still true that if you're bright enough, apply yourself, keep your head down, and avoid making too many waves, you'll get through. But if you happen to incur the wrath of an intolerant radical prof by expressing a dissenting view, no matter how well-supported, you may find yourself with a failing grade, a lengthy redress or appeals process with less than assured results, and perhaps the inability, at least at that university, to go on to the next step in your desired major.

Perhaps the most dangerous chokepoint at universities is in research. If your line of inquiry leads to conclusions that are contrary to established beliefs -- say, just for the heck of it, if you find evidence that the earth really hasn't been warming, or even if it is warming that it's not significantly influenced by human activity -- there's more than a slight chance that your "peer reviewers" won't be impressed and that your next funding request may not be granted. Just like that, you're on the outside looking in. As seen in the ClimateGate emails, you'll also be the recipient of major grief, up to and including active attempts to prevent your work's publication, from agenda-driven ideologues who are secondarily and not primarily scientists.

If there's a solution that will lead to the elimination of higher education's chokepoints, the relentless college cost bubble, where tuition and fees are entering at least their fifth decade of rising faster than general inflation by a substantial margin, may present the opportunity. The past year's increases, in the presence of nearly zero inflation, have been particularly offensive. I believe the entire mechanism of higher education needs a comprehensive rethink. If you don't, ask yourself this question: Given today's technology, if the buildings, dorms, and stadiums weren't already there, would you organize a university system as it is organized today? I didn't think so.

Then there are the far more pervasive chokepoints that come courtesy of government. Almost inevitably, the left takes something that started out as something desirable and develops it into a political or statist tool to assert control.

For an extreme example, take the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the early 1970s, the idea of doing something about legitimately problematic pollution was a good one. But going after lawbreaking polluters and protecting the air and water supplies was hardly enough for the radical environmentalist movement. Their minions have worked tirelessly and relentlessly during the EPA's 40-year existence to morph it into the $10 billion command-and-control center it is today. Along the way, they received substantial help from Congress, which conferred automatic "standing" to their "public interest" groups in litigation, and the courts, which ultimately and incredibly decided that what humans and other living things exhale is a pollutant. Now, if Congress is able to pass cap and trade, the agency will be well on its way to possessing its Holy Grail of chokepoints: the ability to dictate financial consequences for virtually any human action that is somehow seen in their eyes to have some imagined potential to negatively impact Dear Mother Earth.

The nation's health care system is another key weapon in the statists' chokepoint arsenal. Of course, the idea of protecting seniors from catastrophic health care costs had considerable appeal in the mid-1960s. Too bad that this is only a small portion of what Congress passed. Medicare led instead to government dominance of over-65 health care. How interesting, and unsurprising, that Medicare has the worst record in the key chokepoint area of rejected medical claims.

Decades later, having gained additional beachheads in children's health care and prescription drugs (one of the saddest examples of opportunistic capitulation by alleged conservatives in our history), health care's Chokepoint Charlies are on the cusp of achieving control over the entire sector. If the recess-appointed radical whom President Obama has placed in charge of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid gets his way -- a man who believes that spending 8% of GDP on health care is quite enough (currently it's about 17%) -- the term "chokepoint" may take on a whole new meaning for seniors and others needing lifesaving or life-improving treatment.

In the two examples cited and in so many other areas, the government's Chokepoint Charlies have taken decades to build up their powers, and will of course fiercely resist relinquishing it. Reining them in will more than likely also require decades. A prerequisite to reversing their constantly hardening tyranny is getting enough voters to wake up to what has happened already, and to recognize how much worse it could really get. Despite all the premature end-zone dancing, I'm not at all convinced that we're there yet.