Liberal Hatred of Hillsdale is Really Hatred of Self-Government

The Frederick Douglass statue at Hillsdale College.

Visit the Hillsdale College website and the first thing you see is a quote from President Larry P. Arnn: “Hillsdale offers an education designed to equip human beings for self-government.”

Scroll down a little further and discover a whole section dedicated to the importance of “elevating the civic conversation”:

A more perfect union requires a more serious discourse. We believe an educated citizenry can be a powerful force for honoring, understanding, and defending America’s founding principles.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate, eager to defeat the Republican tax bill—or at least to make it unpopular with the public—have zeroed in on Hillsdale College in an attempt to highlight supposed Republican hypocrisy.

At issue is a provision of the tax bill that would have exempted from a proposed 1.4 percent excise tax on endowments for large private colleges—schools such as Hillsdale—which do not currently meet the threshold endowment levels in the bill ($500,000 per student) and do not take federal money of any kind. Also exempted from the tax, in this amendment by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Ted Cruz(R-Texas), would have been private institutions with fewer than 500 students.

As lawmakers debated the bill on the floor, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) offered an amendment to remove that exemption language from the bill in a surprise vote that passed 52-48, with four wobbly Republicans joining in support.

When challenged, Senator Toomey provided a principled defense of his language.

“My view is if a college chooses to forgo federal money and the students that attend have to find their own way to get there, it is diminishing the burden that that college would otherwise impose on the taxpayers,” Toomey said. “So it is perfectly reasonable in my view to exempt such a college from the tax on endowments.”

It was not enough, however, for Democrats to defeat this amendment that would have spared self-sufficient small colleges such as Hillsdale from this tax. They piled on Hillsdale directly, calling it “discriminatory institution” because, in refusing federal funds, Hillsdale is also exempt from federal regulations with specious requirements for “diversity” in its student body.

Hillsdale, however, has a rich history promoting equality and equal opportunity for its students. Impressively, it was the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. Hillsdale’s founders were involved early on in the fight to abolish slavery and many students fought and died in the Civil War. It was also the second college in the nation to grant four-year liberal arts degrees to women in academic subjects beyond home economics.

Liberals Against Nonconformity
In today’s world, Hillsdale is a rare jewel among liberal arts colleges. It promotes the cultivation of independent thinkers who develop the tools to help them discern the truth through reason. Students at Hillsdale should expect to confront the world as it really is rather than relying on institutions and maxims to decipher and distill it for them.

But it is precisely Hillsdale’s tradition of continued independence of mind and nonconformity that has liberals in an uproar. Hillsdale is a self-supporting and, therefore, a self-governing institution. In other words, they practice what they preach. And true to their mission, they encourage their students to develop the skills that will make them self-supporting and governing, too.

Democrats falsely claimed Hillsdale would be the only school to benefit from the exemption. In fact, at least six other schools meet the criteria—though it is certainly true there ought to be more.  It’s also certainly true that the prospect of more frightens Democrats.

But even though it is true that as things currently stand, the exemption from the excise tax would only help a small number of schools, the argument does not change the justice or the wisdom of the exemption. Taxing non-profit entities like Hillsdale on their most prominent source of funding, secured from private and not public sources, creates an undue burden on them. Toomey explained it this way:

I will answer it again. You may choose to disagree, and that is fine. We can have our different opinions on this. But my view is, a college that chooses to say, “We don’t want to take any federal taxpayer dollars” and therefore saves the taxpayer I don’t know how many millions altogether—usually thousands per student—I think it is quite reasonable that a college that chooses to not put that imposition on the federal taxpayers ought to be able to be exempt from this tax. It would be available to any college that made that choice. Several colleges in America make this choice, and any others that choose to would be able to participate.

Toomey also explained the amendment would apply to all qualifying schools that may, in the future, decide no longer to accept federal funds. A subtle nudge, no doubt.

Perhaps what truly concerns Democrats is that Hillsdale’s example may inspire other institutions that are fed up with the overreach of regulatory burdens to forgo federal money, especially if there is a tax incentive for doing so.

The ‘Hypocrisy’ Sham
Irritatingly, the Democrats debating Senator Toomey—Claire McCaskill of Missouri and the tag team from Oregon, Merkley and Ron Wyden—insisted on mischaracterizing their disdain for this measure by falling back on talk of “hypocrisy.” Toomey, an outspoken critic of earmarks, was supposedly advancing an earmark designed to benefit Hillsdale (and, by insinuation, the DeVos family and other significant donors to Hillsdale College).

When that disingenuous attack fell flat, they suggested there was something sinister in Hillsdale’s refusal to take federal money (even in the form of student loans) because the school is not subject to federal rules governing race-based admissions. Hillsdale refuses tax dollars on principle because the school refuses to reduce individual human beings to a label and a number.

Merkley, especially, twisted these facts to come up with this whopper:

You make the point that your colleagues on the left don’t have a fond opinion of this particular college, but my point is, we don’t have a fond opinion of discrimination and of giving a tax provision for just one college that happens to be funded by one of the wealthiest families in America because they happen to be a Republican donor. Why would that be a good provision in terms of the United States of America, to subsidize a college that quit taking federal funds because of discrimination?

As Congress’ constitutional duties and responsibilities are increasingly turned over to an unaccountable administrative state, not elected by the people it seeks to govern (and even control), elected representatives should not be surprised by the inclination of many citizens to disassociate themselves from it as much as humanly possible. Free people resent being told what to do by people who have no earthly right to tell them they must do it.

What’s Really at Stake
The idea of self-government is at odds with the administrative state and with the ideas of partisan progressive politicians who still believe they can—must—improve society through expertly constructed institutions. Self-governing citizens resist such institutions and demand that politicians who, after all, are merely our representatives and work for us, respect our right to consent to the laws that govern us. If the price of your assistance is submission to a series of regulations and rules that have all the force of law but almost none of its legitimacy, we will take a pass on your offer to “help.”

But when we talk about the taxing power of Congress, it is not an “earmark” or a gift to exempt certain categories of people from paying it any more than it is a gift not to help yourself to the food in your neighbor’s refrigerator.

This is more than a debate about a school paying taxes on its endowment. It is a debate about whether or not our government will recognize state, local and individual rights that allow localized governments, organizations, and individuals to go “off grid” and govern themselves within the constraints of the limited government established by the solemn will of the American people in our Constitution, or if we are all to be forcibly swallowed up by an out of control and very controlling administrative state determined to make us conform to its whims.

When a college like Hillsdale, founded as it was by abolitionists, gets under the skin of politicians who do not like the independent thinkers they graduate, this American Republic may yet be saved. Returning power back to the people and preserving the freedom to be governed only by our consent is very foundation upon which our regime distinguished itself as the “last best hope for all mankind” and it is the kind of spirit that sincere public servants like Senator Toomey know ought to be encouraged.

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About Paula Steiner

Paula Steiner is president of the Virginia Federation of Republican Women and has more than 20 years experience working in government on the federal and state levels.