|Allow me a preface before I suggest an answer, Luke. Really, the government cannot do much. It is up to each individual. Granted that we live in a culture that informs us, each person makes their own choices.|
Given that the government cannot be a market entity in the sense that ultimately it must by definition hold a monopoly on retaliatory force, everything the government could do is "wealth distribution."
I go into it twice on my blog about "Unlimited Constitutional Government." I mean, can Congress get its walls painted? An open bid process selecting the lowest price would still be "wealth redistribution" because if YOU were getting your own home painted, you might select the most expensive contractor, if you judged them to be the best value for the money. When the Pentagon does that, we complain about wasteful spending... They cannot win...
We roll a lot of different public entities into "government." One example is the debate over "Common Core" which confuses and is confused by the fact that public school systems are and are not "government." The school board is separately elected. The mayor generally has no say. The city council generally has no say. The funding for schools is distinct, also. Another is the public library. Again, the librarians do a good job of keeping the mayor and the police out of the stacks; and city libraries are funded from distinct millages.
On a West Wing episode, speech writer Sam Seaborne is tasked with formulating the conservative case against public schools. (Wasted trillions over decades. Congressional liberals send their own kids to private schools, not DC public.) In the end, he summarizes his true feelings: "I think that education ought to be like defense - insanely expensive for the government and free for everyone."
Before it got into the business of farm subsidies, the US Department of Agriculture was an educational agency, discovering and distributing the best information on farming. In addition, for many years, they operated a training course in Indexing. The theory was that farm wives had the intelligence and the time to learn how to index books for publishers and do the work via the mails.
Back in 1990-1992, I served on the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services. The guest speakers included Newt Gingrich and Lamar Alexander. Of course, the librarians were all in favor of feathering their own nests. Still, I believe that they made a strong case that if push came to shove, our general society would be better off with libraries and no schools, rather than schools without public libraries. Their agenda was informed by the easy array of horror stories of censorship and control from local schools, from the censorship of books to the decisions on curriculum. In the library, you can educate yourself by your standards to meet your own needs.
So, my view is that libraries should be like defense: insanely expensive for the government and free for everyone. The actual use of them would depend on a cultural norm that is widely lacking. I mean, that is why you started this topic, because of bad choices that you see other people make. I do not know an institutional fix for that.
Until about 100 years ago, America's common culture did support the individual choices you (and all of us here) prefer that everyone make. The Horatio Alger stories are misunderstood today: in the end, the poor boy only gains the chance to succeed; he does not become rich. I have two boy's stories about aviation from before World War One. In both books, the boy runs away from home to make his fortune.
I am not conversant with children's literature today, but I see a lot of titles and precis go by. Mostly, I find sob stories. Even Harry Potter for all of its virtues is about a boy who is rescued from his boorish home by a greater institution. He does not just get it into his head to learn wizardry and make his own way in the world as a good mage.
(Edited by Michael E. Marotta on 11/28, 7:07am)