Blogs > Liberty and Power > More on Leftist Dominance in Academia

Aug 8, 2005 1:06 pm

More on Leftist Dominance in Academia

A little more on my ongoing favorite subject of the causes of leftist numerical dominance of academia:

Some of you may have seen this Jonathan Chait LA Times piece (requires quickie registration and hat tip to PrestoPundit). There are some decent points in this piece, but this paragraph caused me to reach for the Maalox:

The main causes of the partisan disparity on campus have little to do with anything so nefarious as discrimination. First, Republicans don't particularly want to be professors. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.

Of course the notion that conservatives/libertarians are so strongly interested only in their financial well-being and don't care anything about a cleaner environment or better health care, etc., is offensive enough, but we've seen that before.

What strikes me more this time is that Chait and other lefties tempted to make this argument need to remember the other side of their brain's focus on the "vast right-wing conspiracy," which is full of all of these "corporate-funded" think tanks all over the place. Well just who the hell is it who is working at those places for $30K/year? Lots of people who would prefer the world of ideas and policy to the business world and its higher incomes. Those of us here know many of them. Numerous conservatives and libertarians have chosen the world of ideas (and its associated relative poverty), but they didn't make that choice in academia. The world of the think tanks (and the blogosphere) are among the most intellectually exciting places I've ever been, and are filled with people committed to the importance of intellectual activity without being too concerned about how it increases their bank accounts.

Not only is Chait's answer wrong, he's not even asking the right question. The question to be answered is not why are there no conservative and libertarian intellectuals, but why they are engaged in that activity in places other than academia. Whether it's accurate or not, the perception of many of those folks is that academia is not open to them, and it's not because they don't have the "chops."

UPDATE: Professor Bainbridge raises many of the same points in a TCS column from earlier this week.

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Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 12/12/2004

Mr. Woolsey makes a good point. It isn't just ideology keeping libertarians and conservatives out of academia. Methodology, for those who prefer praxeology over numerology, plays a significant role. I pretty much had to switch from international relations as my primary concentration to political theory for my M.A. because my major professor at the time was uncomfortable directing a thesis using praxeological methods. I've even had one professor tell me that the method of the Austrian economists amounts to ideology. On the other hand, not all libertarians, and probably most conservatives, do not favor praxeology over numerology. So I still think that ideology plays a significant role as well.

Bill Woolsey - 12/12/2004

I don't think that anyone is claiming
that conservative or libertarian think
tanks fail to impose ideological

The point, I thought, was that some who
work in such places would rather work
in academia and can't find positions because
of leftist ideological bias.

I think that there are some conservatives and/or
libertarians who find the benefits of academic
life worth the lower pay.

I suppose we are a bit of a standing rebuke to
the leftist prejudice that conservative and
libertarian thought is nothing more than a
rationalization of mainaining economic privilege.

But, there aren't many of us.

I believe that there are many rank-and-file
libertarians and conservatives who are motivated
by resentment at having government impose
restrictions upon their ability to obtain and
maintain high material standards of living in
order to benefit a bunch of undeserving slackers.

By the way, there are a good many rank-and-file
Democrats who selfishly support big government
in order to get a free lunch.

I doubt if conservative, libertarian, or leftist
academics really fit into either of these

One of my questions about these sorts of studies
is how does economics fit in?

I believe that the top schools are dominated by
democrats, though relatively moderate ones on
economic issues.

I believe that there is no problem with having an
academic career in economics if one has mainstream
Republican views on economic policy.

While their might be a problem with getting and
keeping an academic job as an economist if one
wears anarcho-capitalism on one's sleave, I
think the real problem with libertarians seeking
academic positions in economics is austrian methodology.

That is, to get and maintain an academic position in
economics, one has to like math, statistics, and data.

I do think this selects against people whose primary
interest in public policy--of any sort. But as long
as one is willing to do that sort of thing, one can
get an academic job.

Now, what about English? What about History?

Sometimes, at least, these stories about leftism
in academia is limited to humanities at top schools.

Certainly those fields are extremely competitive.

But aren't we talking about pretty small numbers
of people?

And what about Philosophy?

Gus diZerega - 12/11/2004

While I think there is considerable truth to Steve's point that left oriented departments are biased against conservative and libertarian academics, based on many years of personal experience, the real problem seems to be that ANY academic who is not part of the dominant herd has a hell of a time getting a decent position. For example, a liberal professor at Wisconsin, now retired, told me that his best graduate students had the hardest time getting jobs.

Another liberal professor at U. of Colorado is concerned that the filling of the academic nooks and crannies that once enabled non-conforming academics to get positions with PhDs just like all the others (due to massive production of conforming PhDs.) suggests that my field - Political Science - may be very short indeed on creative scholars within a few years. I suspect the problem is not specific to my field.

My personal experience with conservative/libertarian think tanks suggests that they are usually every bit as closed to those thinking outside the particular box du jour as any department on the left. Probably usually more so, because they depend on meeting the ideological expectations of their donors to survive, and so select for more ideological than normal scholars, people threatened by new applications of existing theory, even and perhaps especially, theories close to their own. (Being human institutions, there are exceptions. I can think of two, maybe three, honorable exceptions to this generalization.)

Despite my explicitly basing my work in political theory on Hayek and the Austrian school, obviously including endorsing the market as the best means for meeting ecinomic needs, I have experienced considerably better treatment personally and professionally by left wing departments than by conservative think tanks. And the only college which ever explicitly told me by letter not even to bother to apply was that bastion of conservative thought, Grove City... The chief reason I have any contact at all with conservative/libertarian thinkers via conferences is due to the interest of one benefactor in my work. Other than him, I would have long ago dropped into the memory tube, despite an active publishing record.

to quantify:

Years spent receiving a full time salary as a visiting prof. at left oriented departments: 5 with an offer of another.

Years spent receiving a full time salary at a conservative or libertarian think tank: 0

Years spent receiving a part time salary at a conservative or libertarian think tank: 2.5

Years spent receiving a part time salary at a left oriented academic department: at least 8

Total number of years since receiving a PhD: 20
(Fortunately I also ran my own business when none of the above happened.)