The Twelve-Year Sentence

You look at the parade of mindless dopes and dopers that make up the Occupy protesters and think: What is wrong with these people? They are mostly kids. They don’t have jobs. Most don’t even look employable. Those who are employable can’t find work at a wage they are willing to accept. Instead, they meander around in a mob at all hours, spouting inanities and imaging themselves to be radicals.

They don’t even know what they are protesting, not precisely, anyway. They oppose injustice, inequality and they like, but what does this mean? It means: The people in the buildings have money, and they do not. They are against that.

Meanwhile, they walk around with iPhones and Androids with fat data contracts paid for by moms and dads, all while agitating against the capitalist system that put these miracles in their palms in the first place. They claim to be against the suits, but they demand that the suits have more power to regulate, tax, redistribute, inflate, interfere and centrally plan.

What is going on here? Let’s speak the unspeakable truth that is still nearly taboo in today’s world. They were raised by government. From the ages of 6-18, they were tended to by the state in a system they were forced to join.

This is a point made first in an incredible book published in 1974, edited by William Rickenbacker. It is called The Twelve-Year Sentence. It is not only one of the greatest titles in the history of publishing; it is a rare book that dared to say what no one wanted to hear. True, the essays are all scholarly and precise (the book came out of an academic conference), but a fire for liberty burns hot below the footnoted surface. Especially notable: This book came out long before the homeschooling movement, long before a remnant of the population began to see what was happening and started bailing out.

The core truth that this book tells: The government has centrally planned your child’s life and has forced both you and your child into the system. But, said the writers, the system is a racket and a cheat. It doesn’t prepare them for a life of liberty and productivity. It prepares them to be debt slaves, dependents, bureaucrats and wartime fodder.

I’m thinking of this book as I look at the televised coverage of these protests. This is what the system has produced. This is the mob that once gathered in “home room,” assembled for school lunches, sat for endless hours in their assigned desks, was tested ten thousand times to make sure they have properly absorbed what the government wants them to know. Now they are out, and they want their lives to amount to something, but they don’t know what.

And it’s just the beginning. There are tens of millions of victims of this system. They were quiet, as long as the jobs were there and the economy was growing. But when the fortunes fell, they become a marauding mob seeking a father figure to lead them into the light.

Think of the phrase “12-year sentence.” The government took them in at the age of six. It sat them down in desks, 30 or so per room. It paid teachers to lecture them and otherwise keep them busy, while their parents worked to cough up 40% of their pay checks to the government to fund the system (among other things) that raises their kids.

So on it goes for 12 years, until the age of 18, when the government decides that it is time for them to move on to college, where they sit for another four years, but this time, at mom and dad’s expense.

What have they learned? They have learned how to sit in a desk and zone out for hours and hours, five days per week. They might have learned how to repeat back things said by their warden…I mean, teacher. They’ve learned how to sneak around the system a bit and have something resembling a life on the sly.

They have learned to live for the weekend and say, “TGIF!” Perhaps they have taken a few other skills with them: sports, music, theater or whatever. But they have no idea how to turn their limited knowledge or abilities into something remunerative, in a market system that depends most fundamentally on individual initiative, alertness, choice and exchange.

They are deeply ignorant about the stuff that makes the world work and builds civilization, by which I mostly mean commerce. They’ve never worked a day in the private sector. They’ve never taken an order, never faced the bracing truth of the balance sheet, never taken a risk, never even managed money. They’ve only been consumers, not producers, and their consumption has been funded by others, either by force (taxes) or by leveraged parents on a guilt trip.

So it stands to reason: They have no sympathy for or understanding of what life is like for the producers of this world. Down with the productive classes! Or as they said in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution: “Expropriate the expropriators” Or under Stalin: “Kill the Kulaks.” Or under Mao: “Eradicate the Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits and ideas). So too did the Nazi youth rage against the merchant classes who were said to lack “blood and honor.”

The amazing thing is not that this state system produces mindless drones. The miracle is that some make it out and have normal lives. They educate themselves. They get jobs. They become responsible. Some go on to do great things. There are ways to overcome the 12-year sentence, but the existence of the educational penitentiary still remains a lost opportunity, coercively imposed.

Americans are taught to love the sentence because it is “free.” Imagine tying this word to the public school system! It is anything but free. It is compulsory at its very core. If you try to escape, you are “truant.” If you refuse to cough up to support it, you are guilty of evasion. If you put your kids in private school, you pay twice. If you school at home, the social workers will watch every move you make.

There is no end to the reform. But no one talks about abolition. Still, can you imagine that in the 18th and most of 19th century this system didn’t even exist? Americans were the most-educated people in the world, approaching near-universal literacy, and without a government-run central plan, without a 12-year sentence. Compulsory education was unthinkable. That only came much later, brought to us by the same crowd who gave us World War I, the Fed and the income tax.

Escaping is very hard, but even high-security prisons are not impenetrable. So millions have left. Tens of millions more remain. This whole generation of young people are victims of the system. That makes them no less dangerous precisely because they don’t even know it. It’s called the Stockholm Syndrome: Many of these kids fell in love with their captors and jailers. They want them to have even more power.

We should celebrate the prophets who saw all this coming. William Rickenbacker saw it. He and the writers in this book knew what was going on. They knew what to call it. They dared to tell the truth, to speak the unspeakable: This system is more like prison than education, and it will end when its escapees are loosed on the streets to protest against anything and everything.

Even after nearly 40 years, this book has lost none of its power. It should take its place among the great documents in history that have dared to demand that the jailer step aside and let the inmates free.


Jeffrey Tucker