This week, we here at Ask Edgeworth proudly uphold our tradition of commenting on the news several months late. Too many blogs are quick and topical. Anyone can be up-to-date. We're "the slow blog"—and proud of it.
Anyway, Lichter, Rothman, and Nevitte's analysis of political viewpoints among university faculty comes as no surprise to anyone who has wandered within 50 miles of a college campus, any campus, in the last decade or so. To anyone who hasn't, here's the news: viewpoints tilt left of the median voter. There's been some noise about this in the blogosphere.
Full disclosure: Fiscal conservative, social moderate. Sort of. No place for me in either party these days. I like markets, but acknowledge the existence of market failures and a role for government when they occur. I vote for candidates from both major parties on a case-by-case basis.
What puzzles me is that people on the right get upset about bias in academia and people on the left often seem to think it's no problem at all. This is backwards! The problem is not that conservatives--or even centrists Democrats who are only two standard deviations left of the median voter instead of three--may be denied opportunities in some parts of academia. Some definitely are. But there are other places to make a career. Creative thinkers find a way to produce good work.
No, the real problem is that discourse in universities is stifled. The lunacy at Harvard over Lawrence Summers' comments illustrates this beautifully. Universities have become havens of faith-like ideology on many issues. A narrow, stifling intellectual environment does more damage to those inside the community--to academics, themselves--than to anyone on the outside.
A centrist of either party easily notices the tilt. I sat in on graduate course in mathematical sociology that took place during the California recall vote. During a lecture, the professor said “I assume we’re all voting for Gray Davis?” It was a casual inquiry, conveying his calm, clear-eyed perception that it would be inconceivable for a student in a graduate sociology course to vote for the centrist, pro-choice Republican that the rest of a heavily Democratic state went on to vote for.
In another graduate sociology course I sat in on, it was clear there were things you could not talk about, positions you were not allowed to hold. People went crazy if you stepped beyond the bounds of what was "proper." It was out of bounds, for example, to say something positive about markets, or to take unapproved positions on the causes of urban poverty (i.e., that that the primary cause was probably not a Machiavellian majority imposing its will on a powerless minority.)
It’s not so bad in economics departments. Economists tend to enjoy saying outrageous things and striking a contrarian pose. Thus, there’s a good deal of intellectual freedom in an economics department--along some dimensions. In an International Trade course, an undergraduate student approached the professor to say thank you. Why? Apparently, it was the first course she had ever taken in which anyone had dared say a positive word about global trade. She had studied globalization in many courses. In courses outside the economics department, however, all she had ever heard were negatives.
It would be tedious to catalog incidents. Fortunately, I don’t have to. There’s lots of systematic evidence that shows a lack of ideological diversity. And there’s the Summers flap at Harvard to demonstrate that unpopular speech is often not allowed.
The main point, really--and one that seems to have been missed in a lot of the commentary--is that academics tend to hold far-left positions on fiscal and economic issues, issues that are not “moral values” lightning rods. What I find most startling about the Lichter study is that 65 percent of college faculty think the government should ensure full employment. Arguably, the government could do this through some kind of massive expansion of the public sector. I cannot recall in the last several election cycles any presidential candidate in either party taking a stance so interventionist or distortionary. This is a position far to the left of the debate in mainstream politics—and one that is not favored, as far as I have observed, by most economists.
Much of the discussion has focused on social issues. No one will mistake academia for the religious right, but distaste for the religious right does not and cannot explain a sociology professor who can’t imagine anyone in a sociology course voting for a popular social moderate. Nor does it explain a pervasive belief that government should ensure full employment. Nor does it explain a near-Luddite mistrust of global trade in some departments.
Who is damaged by this? The political right? Centrists? Moderates? Libertarians? Red-State Voters? No. As academia loses credibility, professional academics suffer the consequences. When academics deny evidence--or seek to prohibit discussion, as in the Summers case--people begin to ignore them. It is the political left that is most damaged by insularity at universities. Ideas that go unchallenged do not evolve or improve, and lose their attractiveness to those outside the temple's inner sanctum.
Instead of worrying about the lack of ideological diversity on college campuses, academics too often offer the Delong excuse. It goes something like this: “Of course academia is filled with left-leaning thinkers. Academics have to be smart. Anyone right of center is an idiot. Q.E.D.” I’m poking fun at Brad Delong here by exaggerating. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, based on this astonishingly silly post.
Delong focuses on caricatures. He never addresses the truly disturbing findings from formal studies (obvious through casual empiricism to anyone who’s visited a campus in the last decade.) Academics tend to hold views to the left of the Democratic party platform, and certainly far left of what could be called the Clintonian middle ground. There is a profound economic naivete in this posture, as bad or worse than anything one would ever hear from a supply-side demagogue. This is what should concern academic economists of any party or ideology.
I’m a little disappointed in Delong here, as he has always seemed to me to be the thinking man’s Paul Krugman. Where Krugman (as pundit) has become more of an entertainer and raving polemicist, Delong has exhibited more nuance. Alas, there is no sign of nuance or fair-mindedness in this particular post.
In any event, there’s more to come next week: Dr. Edgeworth Boks will rebut my post and offer up a passionate defense of Delong.
(We here at Ask Edgeworth, unlike--say--Harvard, approve of intellectual diversity and open debate.)