Government acts illogically by bargaining with aid

By usually focusing my columns on University issues, I spare myself from having to compete with the likes of the New York Times for idea originality and writing quality, and make sure that important University goings-on, even if not glamorous, are addressed. Nevertheless, this week’s News raises an important issue that affects Yale, but has a much larger scope.

Proposals for new legislation aimed at curbing illegal sharing of digital media files on college campuses included provisions that threaten to withhold financial aid from schools that do not comply or meet the legislation’s standards on file-sharing enforcement (see “Students targeted by new file-sharing bill” 11/13). While there are plenty of debatable issues that surround file sharing and intellectual property, the enforcement methods proposed — using student financial aid as a pawn — are disappointing.

Federal financial aid for higher education comes in the form of grants and work study and is given to students based on their family’s low income levels. While universities are the ultimate recipients of federal money for tuition, the aid is intended to help give those with the fewest opportunities a chance to attend the college of their choosing. Yale has traditionally made up for any decreases in federal aid, so its students need not worry. Students at other, less well-endowed universities, however, are directly impacted by fluctuations in federal aid.

The legislation on file sharing has nothing to do with low-income students, so why must the proposals involve federal financial aid at all? While the two are completely unrelated, financial aid is obviously valuable for schools. Thus, threatening to withhold it can ensure a university’s compliance with almost any demand from the federal government — such as a file-sharing crackdown. Such indirect maneuvering is necessary because the targeted universities are generally private, independent bodies, free to set their own policy.

Targeting a goal directly is usually the most efficient way to achieve it. Indirect methods lead to inefficient or incomplete outcomes and simultaneously frustrate other objectives. In this case, by using financial aid as leverage to change schools in a way the government could not otherwise, the government undermines the aim of student-aid programs. If the most extreme proposals are fully carried out, students on aid could be limited to choosing only from schools in compliance.

A direct approach is usually preferable to an indirect one. If a direct method of achieving a goal is impossible (or illegal), one should consider whether that goal is a reasonable one in the first place. Most of the time, as with the goal of forcing schools to police their computer networks for illegal file sharing, it is not.

Leveraging money from one program to achieve unrelated aims is a problem not unique to student aid and file sharing. It permeates the law-making process in the United States. In the past, when the federal government found it could set speed limits or drinking laws for the whole country, it withheld highway funds to force states to comply. Other proposals for federal-government-directed changes at universities have threatened research grants.

The federal government has clear goals in providing student financial aid, funds for road construction and research grants. In the case of financial aid, the government principally seeks to give everyone an equal chance in life with respect to education — for highway construction, the government provides a good that (until recently) it seemed was not provided privately and, for research grants, the government seeks to subsidize basic research that has external benefits for society far beyond those the researcher can realize.

These goals — equal opportunity for education, infrastructure and the advancement of knowledge — are incredibly important ones. When the government uses them as bargaining chips to advance other policies, they become less effective and less efficient in achieving those goals. Students should be given grants based on their need, not based on their chosen school’s compliance with file-sharing rules.

The examples I’ve mentioned show instances of how, over time, the federal government has encroached more and more on the liberty of states and individuals. While this trend seems unlikely to reverse, the federal government should focus more on things it should be doing — like providing opportunities for those who are born underprivileged — and less on interfering in the actions of private individuals.

Patrick Ward is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.