Blogs > Liberty and Power > Leftist Bias in Academia

Aug 8, 2005 5:06 pm


Leftist Bias in Academia



It's been awhile since I blogged about bias in academia.  Some of you may have already seen the story in today's New York Times in links from Hit & Run or Volokh.  The focus is a study by Dan Klein and Charlotta Stern (yes, the Dan Klein that many L&Pers know and love) that explores the voting patters of faculty and finds the usual lopsided results favoring Democrats.  Whatever one thinks of the causes and seriousness of the problem is one thing.  What galls me is the transparent hypocrisy of faculty and administrators in either dismissing or explaining the findings.  For example there's this from the Chancellor at Berkeley:

"The essence of a great university is developing and sharing new knowledge as well as questioning old dogma," Dr. Birgeneau said. "We do this in an environment which prizes academic freedom and freedom of expression. These principles are respected by all of our faculty at U.C. Berkeley, no matter what their personal politics are."

Every single one of them?  Every single one?  Might be worth asking the students behind the conservative newspaper there if they agree.

But what galls me even more is this comment:

A Democrat on the Berkeley faculty, George P. Lakoff, who teaches linguistics and is the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," said that liberals choose academic fields that fit their world views. "Unlike conservatives," he said, "they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake, which are what the humanities and social sciences are about."

This is the sort of attempt to monopolize the moral high ground that drives me insane.  I'm sorry Professor Lakoff, but American-style liberals do NOT hold a monopoly on caring about the public good and social justice (in the most general sense), nor on caring about knowledge and art for their own sake.  There are numerous conservative and libertarian academics who care deeply about all of those things.  We just think the policies and institutions that serve the common good and help those who need it most are not the same ones you do.  And we're in the teaching business because we care deeply about knowledge.   After all it's precisely more and better knowledge that will help us to discover whether your ideas or ours will better serve the public good. 

Instead of trying to rule us out of the discussion by definition, how about actually engaging in dialogue with us about which policies and institutions do, in fact, better serve the common good?  Members of the academic left who claim a monopoly on the moral high ground avoid the need to ever bring their ideas into debate with those who see the world differently.  If that isn't a good definition of "dogmatic," I don't know what is.  How hard is it to believe that those you disagree with believe the things they do with the same good faith and concern about the world that you claim for yourself?  If you really believe they don't, then your credibility in claiming that hiring and tenuring practices in academia are unbiased is near zero.

From my perspective, the only worthwhile definition of "political correctness" is precisely this sort of attempt at monopolizing the moral high ground.  I don't care about how many faculty come from what part of the political spectrum, or whether conservative students aren't brave and confident enough to speak up in class.  What I care about is having the legitimacy of libertarian and conservative ideas ruled out a priori by this sort of argument.  I'm totally confident that my world view can hold its own in any good-faith dialogue with any colleague.  What I'm not confident about is how many can sincerely enter such a dialogue.


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Lisa Marie Casanova - 11/22/2004

Dr. Long,
I do agree with your point that there would be more charity, and it would better reach the people in need. The problem is that many supporters of the welfare state cannot believe there could possibly be enough charity relative to the number of people they see who are in need. I got this response in a similar debate about social security from a poster:
"I personally cannot afford to save every old person in the nation or even on my street, and in all of recorded human history there has been nothing to suggest that the number of folks who ARE willing to voluntarily help out to a small extent will be enough to outnumber the number of folks in need of help."
Pretty fatalistic, but there seems to be a very sincere belief that people are just not like that- they don't possess that much generosity, or as mentioned in an earlier post, their values are too "individualistic", focused only on themselves and their own needs. In my experience, this is a major sticking point when it comes to discussing whether we can do without welfare programs funded by forcible taxation.


Roderick T. Long - 11/21/2004

And the further point I would make is: under a libertarian economy, a) people would be more prosperous, so the total amount of money given to charity would probably increase; b) with competing charities rather than a monopolistic-and-therefore-inefficient welfare state, the percentage of that money that would make it to the intended recipients rather than being eaten up by overhead would be much higher (compare the overhead of government welfare versus private charity right now); and c) without the various barriers that government puts in the way of the poor and prevents them from helping themselves (see, e.g., Frances Piven & Richard Clowhard's book Regulating the Poor, and our own David Beito's book From Mutual Aid to Welfare State), the number of people needing charity would be much smaller. So in a libertarian society, proportionally larger pieces of an absolutelt larger pie would be going to absolutely fewer poor people; sounds like an improvement to me.


Lisa Marie Casanova - 11/20/2004

"We cannot simply rely on the generosity of self interested humans." Why not? I encounter this claim fairly often, and it makes me curious. Many people seem pretty sure that we need the welfare state because everybody else is just too selfish. But how do you know? Do you really believe no one does good for anyone else without being forced? (serious question- I have met people who seem to believe just that). Do you think you are this kind of person, or that everyone else is? This seems to me a very low, and very depressing, opinion of other people. I am curious about where it comes from, since when I ask people who make this assertion to explain it, they often act as though the need for the welfare state rests on a dismal assessment of human nature that is so obvious it needs no dicussion.


Roderick T. Long - 11/20/2004

Here's a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject of "libertarians and compassion":

http://libertariannation.libertyserver.com/a/f12l1.html

(At the moment I'm writing this, the server that the above URL links to seems to be down, but I trust it'll be up again soon.)


Aeon J. Skoble - 11/19/2004

Something odd about this claim: "you accuse liberals (of which I do not include myself) of taking the moral high ground, yet I see conservatives (whatever that means) and libertarians (ditto) taking intolerant ideological stances that are not based on logic or reason, but are instead based in their own ideological perceptions all the time."

99% of the time, libertarians are people who "converted" from being a liberal or a conservative. I don't mean to imply that no liberals or conservatives have actually thought through their positions, but libertarians are the last people to accuse of dogmatism, since in virtually every case they had to have been non-dogmatic enough to switch to libertarianism in the first place.


Steven Horwitz - 11/19/2004

>>Unfortunately, I don;t think there are many libertarians who can support the claim that their economic theory is supportive of the human rights to life, a clean environment, peace, a "minimum core standard of living" (read the ICESCR), and several others in any way in the end due to the blatant flaws in the foundations of the theory. I really don;t mean to spread a broad brush over ALL libertarians, but the whole "free market" idealism has been shown to be untenable and highly ideological by many brilliant economists...if you want names...Mark Weisbrodt of CEPR and Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia.<<

I don't think the comments section is the place to debate this out, but I haven't read anything of Stiglitz's that convinces me of "blatant flaws" in libertarianism or the free market. And I DO think libertarians can maintain their claim that their ideas will produce those results. I'm not sure how, in the face of a century of statist failures, those who believe that government is a better solution than markets and civil society can say with a straight face that it would do better.

And if you believe that the libertarian argument turns on "the generosity of self interested humans," then I'm not sure you really understand the argument. It's not about generosity, it's about institutions.

As far as the quote context goes, I provided the NYT link so you can judge for yourself. Having seen the same sentiment expressed by leftists all my adult life, I didn't think twice about the need for context. It's what too many, but certainly not all or a majority, of leftists believe.

I'd also be curious to know what the libertarian positions you note that are void of "logic or reason" and which institutions pushed by libertarians are currently failing. I fail to see very much of the world I'd prefer in the institutions that surround me, so I'd also be curious which libertarian institutions currently in practice have failed so miserably.


chris l pettit - 11/19/2004

What always confused me was that, on the issues of rights and liberties, I usually agree wholeheartedly with the libertarian position. Unfortunately, I don;t think there are many libertarians who can support the claim that their economic theory is supportive of the human rights to life, a clean environment, peace, a "minimum core standard of living" (read the ICESCR), and several others in any way in the end due to the blatant flaws in the foundations of the theory. I really don;t mean to spread a broad brush over ALL libertarians, but the whole "free market" idealism has been shown to be untenable and highly ideological by many brilliant economists...if you want names...Mark Weisbrodt of CEPR and Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia. I am all for the ending of corporate welfare and the large superstate, but realistically, a system of welfare must exist at some level. We cannot simply rely on the generosity of self interested humans who have been raised on misguided individualistic values.

As a human rights lawyer and academic, I see more "caring"...if you want to call it that...from most libertarians than I do from many "liberals"...but only from the rights portion of the program.

In regards to Lakoff...I find it interesting that you impose your own perception and ideology on what he said. how do you know what he meant by "conservatives?" What I will give you is that he was sloppy in his language and did not define his terms. maybe there was something else in the article that clarified? I would not be one to accuse another of selective quoting...but this is also a possibility (the article, not yourself).

What is rather amusing is that you accuse liberals (of which I do not include myself) of taking the moral high ground, yet I see conservatives (whatever that means) and libertarians (ditto) taking intolerant ideological stances that are not based on logic or reason, but are instead based in their own ideological perceptions all the time.

I agree that we need to discuss what institutions are best for promoting peace and human rights because, at least in the US...most of them are failing miserably...including many pushed by libertarians.

CP
www.wicper.org


Mark Brady - 11/18/2004

What would be really interesting to read is a poll of the political and social theories and public policy positions held by academics. E.g., What role do they think the market should play in the allocation of resources? Or what role should the state assume in regulating medicinal and non-medicinal drugs? Or which U.S. military intervention overseas (Iraq? Afghanistan? Yugoslavia?) are they opposed to? It would be interesting to see how libertarian / classical liberal they are regardless of their party affiliations.

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