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O'Reilly: Freedom or equality? The question endures

Calling higher education an "economic imperative," President Barack

Calling higher education an "economic imperative," President Barack Obama is pushing for a new rating system for colleges that would judge schools on affordability and performance and determine how federal financial aid is distributed. But William F.B. O'Reilly says more government intrusion isn't the answer. Credit: AP

What's more important, freedom or equality?

That was the age-old question posed to this 15-year-old camper as he and group of his peers trekked down New Hampshire's Mt. Jefferson in July 1979.

The question was asked by a former star fullback at Princeton, a rugged redheaded counselor by the name of Howard Baetjer, Jr., or, Howie, as we called him. It came on the heels of our ascent question: "Should elected representatives do as they see fit, or always vote the will of their constituents?"

To be sporting, and to my immediate chagrin, I took the side of both arguments that the translucent libertarian clearly wanted to cream like a Rutgers safety. The results were gruesome.

Thirty-four years later -- I haven't seen Howie since -- Professor Baetjer has a book out perfecting his points. It couldn't come at a better time. "Free Our Markets; A Citizens Guide to Essential Economics" is an unabashed -- gushing really -- defense of free market economics at a time when government is getting more intrusive by the day. It's the free-market-for-dummies guidebook I wish I had been able to thumb through on the summit of Jefferson.

Baetjer argues as fiercely against "crony capitalism" as he does against government regulation, providing ammunition for those sickened by the abuses of both political parties. "Baetjer takes a new look at economics -- neither from the left nor from the right, but from the heart," writes one reviewer. But most of all, he lays out an easy-to-follow case for why freedom is the essential ingredient to ensure the best approximation of equality possible and how market intervention, however well intentioned, almost always results in unintended consequences that hurt the average person.

This week we are seeing more evidence of his point: UPS just announced that it will cut health care insurance for 15,000 employee spouses who can purchase insurance from their own employers, saving the parcel carrier $60 million annually. Its stated reason? To "offset increases due to the Affordable Care Act," aka Obamacare. The UPS announcement comes on the heels of similar ones, like Forever 21 cutting the hours of several hundred employees to 29.5 per week. The clothing retail store improbably maintains that Obamacare's mandate on businesses to provide health care for employees working 30 hours per week had nothing to do with its decision; reports of businesses nationwide limiting work hours to 29 per week are widespread.

Obamacare may have been a noble idea, but in an attempt to artificially control health care costs, we are now seeing insurance rates skyrocketing in some places and employees being hurt because employers are logically acting in their own competitive interests -- unintended consequences in action. And it doesn't stop with health care.

Also this week, we saw President Obama touring Western New York to tout his new initiative, making college more affordable to middle class students. Those costs are at a crisis level for most American families, having well surpassed the rate of inflation for more than 20 years. Relief is needed, and the president's pollsters almost certainly steered him into the issue. But the principal reason college costs are so high in the first place is the low-cost federal loans and guarantees that have allowed colleges and universities to charge virtually anything they want, which at least President Obama acknowledges. Hundreds of subpar colleges and institutions have also opened their doors to take advantage of the "free" money flooding the education market. The results of federal tampering are astronomical debt loads on students -- total student loan debt now stands at $1.2 trillion -- and the cheapening value of a college degree.

President Obama, among other things, now wants to limit student loan payments to 10 percent of one's income. Does he not realize the incentive he will be giving students to run up the largest loans possible? That would simply provide another boon to universities and another hit on taxpayers.

Market forces are already working to solve the problem of unaffordable college costs. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and other online instructional efforts are steadily growing. They will almost certainly begin driving down costs. Georgia Tech now offers a MOOC master's degree in computer science. Penn State, the University of Michigan, Columbia and Purdue are among universities offering online master's degrees in engineering. Some are predicting that MOOCS -- which came about in part because of government meddling -- will not only lower costs, but eventually burst the higher education bubble, resulting in the shuttering or merging of hundreds of institutions.

"Free Our Markets; A Citizens Guide to Essential Economics" wanders into the American discourse at a time when government activism is at its highest level since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Maybe there should be a mandate on federal policymakers to give it a quick read.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.