Arnold Kling  

Academic Self-Selection

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Why does the academy lean left in terms of politics? In this essay, I offer a hypothesis.


In general, wherever creative individuals receive incomes without having to worry about the "business aspect" of their organizations, you have freedom without responsibility...

When we see leftist ideology statistically predominant among college professors, news reporters, or open-source software advocates, what we are seeing is self selection. What Richard Florida dubbed The Creative Class is a self-selected group that seeks freedom without responsibility in their professional lives. Thus, we should not be surprised that their ideological bent is toward modern liberalism, which translates this personal preference into a political platform.


I would add that those disciplines that are farthest to the left tend to be those where knowledge is obtained through introspective insight, such as literature or philosophy. Where knowledge involves thinking about systemic interactions, professors may be less hasty to translate their personal experience of the good life into an economic and political program for society as a whole.

This issue has received some attention recently. For more on the discussion, see Stephen Karlson's roundup.

For Discussion. in the essay, I argue that under socialism "rewards start to accrue to the most ruthless and effective political operators." Are there mechanism to prevent this from occurring in non-market systems?


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COMMENTS (38 to date)
Eric Krieg writes:

I'm more interested in how we got to this point. Before the 1960s, academics were not monolithically left wing. How did they become so?

I must say that economics was a heck of a lot more attractive to me because the economic department of my university (SUNY at Buffalo) had a lot of Chicago PhDs. Libertarian politics had a lot of appeal to me then. (Still does, to a lesser extent).

So if conservatives are scared off from academic careers by faculty members that create an inhospitable environment in the classroom, I can understand that. That makes sense as an explanation.

Arnold Kling writes:

"Before the 1960s, academics were not monolithically left wing."

I think that they were, but they were quieter about it. In the 1950's, Adlai Stevenson was known as an egghead, Eisenhower was thought of as lazy and slow-witted, and Nixon was thought of as evil. My guess is that if the 1952 and 1956 elections had been held in the humanities departments of universities, the result would have been a landslide for Democrats.

What the sixties did was introduce politics into university life itself.

david foster writes:

"..under socialism "rewards start to accrue to the most ruthless and effective political operators." Are there mechanism to prevent this from occurring in non-market systems?"

Probably not. Much the same phenomenon can be observed in the corporate world. The less measurable a function/department, the more politics tends to take place within it. You are more likely to get to the top through politics in human resources than in sales.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>What the sixties did was introduce politics into university life itself.

My interpretation of this is that, like every other aspect of our culture that they have influenced, the baby boomers have ruined universtites too!

Seriously, perhaps in the past it was thought that politics and professionalism didn't mix. Now that attitude is that the prime motive of the university should be the promotion of left wing politics.

Boonton writes:

Hmmmm, I wonder if this description isn't a little bit self serving. "Why am I right wing when most of my fellow professors aren't? Because they are like spoiled children while I'm an adult in the 'real world'".

Likewise when the left asks why there isn't a liberal Rush Limbaugh the right responds that the mystical market has blessed conservatives because they represent the 'common man'. Perhaps the right should take the lesson they want everyone else to learn. Academia is a market like everything else, conservatives have simply failed in that market.

david fostet writes:

Academia is not "a market like any other market"..
in most markets, the incumbents don't get to decide on the fate of the new entrants. If you want to start a software company, you don't have to ask Bill Gates or Larry Ellison for permission. If you want to be a professor, you *do* have to gain the approval of the incumbent professoriate.

Boonton writes:

So if you wanted to start a University you would have to get permission from Harvard? I think your analogy is pretty weak.

Achille writes:

but if you want to work for Microsoft, you will have to be hired by the people in place...

In any case:
First, a wide range of political opinion are in fact represented in Universities.
Second, tenure, ranks and prestige are mainly based on quality of research not political opinion.
Finally, independence from business consideration is a blessing... unless you are really recommending that companies sponsor research projects!?! this way for sure research outcomes would be more in line with the objectives of big lobbies if this is what you want.

Boonton writes:

Kling's thesis is that academics are removed from responsibility hence can adopt liberalism as a philsophy because it is also supposedly removed from responsibility.

This is a bizaar way to view academia and the real world. Think of the CEO's whose 'responsibility' for failing companies was a golden parachute. Even state colleges must exist in a market. If students do not attend a college, the college will fail and the professors will be out of work. Yes Professors are buffetted against direct contact with market forces but that is hardly isolated to the academic world and even the Poetry Department has a head who must live within a budget.

Scott M. Harris writes:

You are certainly right about self-selection. However, I wonder whether something deeper is going on here. Trying to avoid negative consequences (pain) is a fairly universal human trait. I see the self-selection process as one involving excellence in manipulating concepts. Unfortunately, the division of labor, which is ultimately responsible for creating specialists in manipulating concepts, creates the conditions that allow many specialists in manipulating concepts to avoid responsibility (pain).

I view ethics, economics, and politics from a decision-making perspective. By decision-making I mean the task that begins with finding a problem to solve and ends with reviewing the decision-process. All wise managers know that dividing up the process of decision-making into separate tasks creates the potential for no one taking responsibility for the results of the entire process.

It strikes me that the major difference between the French and Scottish Enlightenments is that the former was led by intellectuals and the latter was led by practical men. The intellectuals, being intellectuals, focused on the problem of finding problems to solve and choosing the best alternatives. The practical men considered the entire decision-making process. Benjamin Franklin was ever bit as intelligent as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The difference between the two was that Franklin appreciated the great difficulties involved in implementing grand, progressive plans.

In the Afterword of my book, Wealth in the Information Age, I compare George Lakoff’s distinction between modern liberals and conservatives to that of Thomas Sowell. Lakoff sees modern liberals as those who prefer nurturing mothers to strict fathers. In contrast, Sowell sees modern liberals as people who parse the problem of living good lives into much smaller problems than conservatives do: Modern liberals see the world filled with problems not being solved and want to give the power to solve them to someone who sees the world as they do. Conservatives see the world filled with complex problems, which are best solved through decentralized decision-making. (See Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions.)

Lakoff’s and Sowell’s explanations are not as disparate as they first appear. Modern liberals break down the universal problem of how we live good lives into smaller pieces than conservatives do. From the modern liberal perspective, means are relatively trivial; hence the focus is on “feminine” ends. From the conservative prospective, ends are relatively distant; hence the focus on “masculine” means. To modern liberals, the conservative focus on “masculine” means looks heartless. To conservatives, the modern liberal focus on “feminine” ends looks like using noble ideals to justify shortsighted ends.

We can bridge the chasm between conservatives and modern liberals by recognizing that the United States owes its greatness to its citizens’ free pursuit of progress toward a good life for all. Supporters of this tradition of freedom and progress (process conservatives) seek to maintain the dynamic process that made the United States great. Enemies of this tradition are those who seek to gain government favors at the expense of progress (special interests), impose their vision on others (authoritarians), maintain the current state of the world for its own sake (state-of-the-world conservatives), and consider liberty an end in itself rather than a means to justice (libertarians).

I know from experience that Lakoff can’t see this. He cannot imagine that anyone can have more than one world-view, much less use more than one successfully. Yet this is exactly what we do when we imagine the world as we would like it to be when we find grand problems to solve and imagine the world as realistically as we can when we select alternatives. Reagan’s “trust, but verify” was a very Madisonian idea. It is not surprising that Madison spent an extra year at what was to become Princeton University as assistant to John Witherspoon, a Scottish Common Sense philosopher.

Boonton writes:

Here's another factor, why does 'conservative responsible' business demand that labor be trained at 4-yr colleges that teach 'iresponsibile liberalism'? Why would the market not set up 'Conservative Colleges' whose graduates would presumably make more money being more valuable in the working world?

david foster writes:

"but if you want to work for Microsoft, you will have to be hired by the people in place..." Clearly. But in software, there are objective criteria for performance. People want to hire someone who can hire working (or at least good-looking) software. In academia (outside the pure sciences) the criterion of performance is basically: approval of your work by those who are already there. Hence the highly-politicized nature of hiring & promotion in the humanities.

Luke writes:

Actually, when you start your software company, you may have to get permission from Microsoft, or they will hit you with patent lawsuits if you create something close to what they have created.

I disagree with the idea that open-source software advocates (like myself) have to be left-leaning and/or enjoy the freedom-sans-responsibility idea. I am a libertarian, and I think that OS software is great.

True, most OS developers hardly ever think about business plans or the economic needs of prosperity (like revenue, duh!), but other OS advocates recognize it is possible to take a current software program source code and alter it for your own needs. The better your alterations, and the more specialized, the less competition you face from the masses of chaotic developers out to just promote a communcal fantasy land.

With IBM and HP and others getting behind Linux, it's obvious that these companies recognize this strength - that funding developers to create enhancements to Linux that will really benefit IBM is of benefit to IBM. Wether or not the code is open-source, and even free, the freely available software will encourage the purchase of IBM hardware that the software is suited towards.

Open Source development is actually how the first computer programs were created. Software was seen as a resource to enable machines to do things that enabled more business. Companies designed and created software with specific business goals in mind. General and generic software (like operating systems) are developed by large numbers of programmers because all of them stand to benefit from the improvements, so they don't mind spending their time on it. But the specific software still must be driven by a business purpose, and therefore, funded by a business entity.

At that point, the business can choose whether their software is going to be open-source or closed source. Generally, the more generic the software, the more it is viable to surrender to the entire OS community. But most software will just be written using the generic OS languages to keep costs down, but the actual code of those programs does not have to be open, only modifications to the original OS package.

The OS community gets a justifiable bad rap as being communistic and liberal (and they are), but there IS an economic advantage for OS, and not all in the community are the closet socialists they're often portrayed to be.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Why would the market not set up 'Conservative Colleges' whose graduates would presumably make more money being more valuable in the working world?

Who says that this isn't the case? What are the starting salaries of business majors vs. literature? Or one of the various "studies" graduates?

Mike writes:

I would phrase it differently but I basically agree with Arnold. I think an interesting way to look at it is in terms of the level of external feedback that occurs in given fields. What I mean by this is that liberals tend to dominate humanities departments that are truly insulated from the outside world (no one outside of academia is paying attention to women's studies research). In contrast fields like business and medicine cannot divorce themselves from reality without paying an enormous cost (we don't see pomo research methods in the medical sciences).

I think what we see is that people who are more idealistic (theory for the sake of theory) self select into the humanities while those who are more practical / realistic gravitate towards non-academic careers or academic careers in fields like business and medicine

Boonton writes:
Who says that this isn't the case? What are the starting salaries of business majors vs. literature? Or one of the various "studies" graduates?

Do you have any idea what a good copywriter or art director can make in an advertising agency?

My objection to this thread is that it is based on an incredibly self-serving world view which boils down to 'how can we come up with a theory to explain why everyone else is stupider than me!'. This isn't economics but another manifistation of the intellectual arrogance that has been getting worse and worse among the right wing for the last 10 years or so.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>My objection to this thread is that it is based on an incredibly self-serving world view which boils down to 'how can we come up with a theory to explain why everyone else is stupider than me!'.

No more a self serving a world view than the good Dean from Duke University. And unlike the good Dean, we aren't in charge of an entire undergraduate college!

It is fighting fire with fire. In that sense, Arnold's column is downright brilliant.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I have to agree with Boonton that this is really a poorly thought-out and self-serving post.

First of all, lots of people want "freedom without responsibility." It's hardly a uniquely liberal desire. Second, defining "responsibility" to mean ONLY financial responsibility is just silly. Most workers have little responsibility for the decisions that affect a company's profitability. The programmer's responsibility is to get the software written accurately and on time. If he doesn't do it then he might not get a raise or promotion, or might even get fired, but he's not the one who decided to devote resouces to this product rather than another one. The auto worker's job is to do the assembly tasks, or whatever, properly, not to decide on design, pricing, financing, etc.

University faculty have responsibilities also, and how well they fulfill them determines raises and promotions also.

Before you jump up and down and scream "tenure," examine your beliefs about the market. Doesn't it have to be true that university faculty trade other forms of compensation for job security? Or is this the one labor market where these sorts of principles don't apply, because that would shoot a hole in your theories?

Boonton writes:
No more a self serving a world view than the good Dean from Duke University. And unlike the good Dean, we aren't in charge of an entire undergraduate college!

I suspect that the Duke University Dean was trying to be funny, not undertake a serious attempt to explain society. If you're saying that Arnold's piece was a gag, then I guess I should lighten up.

Thank you Barnard, Universities are a labor market like any other. Just like a corporation, Universities need both tuition paying students and check writing alumni to survive. A 'Liberal U' with all the tenured factulty in the world would not last very long if it didn't attract tuition paying students (who are free to choose from any college) or produce successful graduates whom the labor market pays enough for them to donate a portion of their income.

Monte writes:

“I argue that under socialism "rewards start to accrue to the most ruthless and effective political operators." Are there mechanisms to prevent this from occurring in non-market systems?"

Socialism permits the concentration of power, which, by definition, includes control over the material means of production. There is no mechanism capable of diffusing the accrual of rewards to those who exercise that power beyond any inclination on their part to govern with benevolence. Historical examples of this occurring in non-market systems are conspicuously rare.

"It should be remembered, as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also ...." – Thomas Jefferson

Boonton writes:

It is interesting that corporations and large businesses look like socialism on the inside. Instead of personal interest, people are encouraged to think of the collective interest of the firm. They are assigned tasks, chores, responsibilities along the lines of 'to each his needs, from each his ability'.

The manager doesn't have to 'buy' his office, he simply demands it as a requirement for him to do his task of managing properly. Likewise the janitor is not expected to make decisions on the firms new product line. It's ironic that capitalism works so well when it creates so many little 'socialist islands' inside of itself. I know a lot has been written on this but I don't have any sources handy.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>I suspect that the Duke University Dean was trying to be funny

He was trying to be funny, but not in a way that he wasn't at least partially serious. See the link, the good Dean explains himself a little better in it.

Eric Krieg writes:

The good Dean says, "There is a statistical association between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views. Said another way, a larger proportion of academics are likely to be liberal, but certainly not all, and this may also vary by field and subfield because of the nature of knowledge, learning and the advancement of knowledge in that field. But, stated this way the hypothesis still remains incredibly vague. What qualities, what traits are we talking about? What causal relations underlie these statistical associations?"

These are sociological questions, maybe psychological. Not so much economic, in my opinion.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>It's ironic that capitalism works so well when it creates so many little 'socialist islands' inside of itself.

It works so well because the overall firm is still subject to market forces. Thus, there are incentives to nuke those "socialist islands" if they get too out of hand. Not so in a university.

You would think that there is a need to balance professor productivity against the need to raise tuition. But in practice, it doesn't appear to be so. That's why I support federal price controls on tuition at any university that recieves federal funding of any kind.

Boonton writes:
It works so well because the overall firm is still subject to market forces. Thus, there are incentives to nuke those "socialist islands" if they get too out of hand. Not so in a university.

So it is in a University. Name one University that would survive if no students went there?

You would think that there is a need to balance professor productivity against the need to raise tuition. But in practice, it doesn't appear to be so. That's why I support federal price controls on tuition at any university that recieves federal funding of any kind.

Amusing Eric, we must use socialism to save ourselves with socialism.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Amusing Eric, we must use socialism to save ourselves with socialism.

Absolutely. I wonder how the professors will feel after getting a taste of their own medicine.

asg writes:
Name one University that would survive if no students went there?

Harvard, Yale, Rice, and Stanford all have endowments of sufficient size that they could continue to run and meet their operating costs without any tuition income from students. Duke might be (barely) in that club too.

Scott M. Harris writes:
The manager doesn't have to 'buy' his office, he simply demands it as a requirement for him to do his task of managing properly. Likewise the janitor is not expected to make decisions on the firms new product line. It's ironic that capitalism works so well when it creates so many little 'socialist islands' inside of itself. I know a lot has been written on this but I don't have any sources handy.

Read Ronald Coase's 1937 The Nature of the Firm.

Why would the market not set up 'Conservative Colleges' whose graduates would presumably make more money being more valuable in the working world?

For-profits dominate the low end technical education markets. University of Phoenix dominates the distance learning market. The Teaching Company does a great job in adult education by repackaging lectures originally developed for traditional institutions. Some state politicians are beginning to consider replacing subsidies to state colleges and universities with vouchers, effectively privatizing state institutions of higher learning.

Protestant Hillsdale College (MI) is an example of a college that tries to remain what small liberal arts colleges were before the GI Bill. It takes absolutely no money from the Feds and so avoids all of their mandates. The newly established Catholic Ave Maria University (FL) hopes to do the same thing on a much bigger scale.

Of course, all traditional institutions of higher learning have long been in the business of selling monuments to the wealthy. It’s amazing how conservative they can pretend to be when they are trying to make these sales.

Eric Krieg writes:

Boonton, keep in mind that the conservative backlash against college liberal indoctrination, while building for a long time, has only started to reach a fever pitch very recently. National Review has just published a book for students looking for conservative schools, so maybe the market IS kicking in.

And probably the vast majority of kids don't even care if schools are leftist or not. They just want that degree the easiest way they can. Most kids probably cater to their professors prejudices, just to make their lives easier.

What is needed is more information. Kids should know if other students detect bias in a professor, and then can make a decision to take the class or not. Unfortunately, when students compile information on professors, the professors get nervous and start to talk about blacklisting and other nonsense. Just another example of how liberals believe in free speech for liberals, not for anyone else.

Boonton writes:
Harvard, Yale, Rice, and Stanford all have endowments of sufficient size that they could continue to run and meet their operating costs without any tuition income from students. Duke might be (barely) in that club too.

If they attracted no students, what would happen to them? Certainly they would lay off their teaching professors. The fact that these colleges have such endowments, though, is testiment to the fact that they 'won' in the market forces of academia.

The thesis that Colleges and Universities are outside the market is simply false. In fact higher education is probably the least insulated from the market (with the exception of the for-profit trade schools, private tutors, etc.). Going to college is voluntary and usually costly even with all the gov't aid. Colleges wouldn't have any students (aka customers) if they were not providing a product deemed to be worthwhile.

Eric Krieg writes:

Who deems it worthwhile? You yourself have said that companies just require a degree as a way to weed people out, nothing more. The value of the degree is not in what you learned in college, only that you were intelligent enough to get in (and perhaps finish).

If so many companies didn't require a degree, the demand for a college education would fall. The students are demanding the credential, nothing more.

Boonton writes:

You're correct, I do believe the market is overvaluing education. This isn't shocking, markets move a lot so somethings become overvalued and others undervalued.

Nevertheless, my point is that Universities and Colleges are not sheltered to market forces. Like any other company, the College has to convince the student that not only is it worth it to go to school but their school is the place to go. If they don't accomplish that, they will fail and that's the end of their tenured radicals in the poetry department.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Like any other company, the College has to convince the student that not only is it worth it to go to school but their school is the place to go. If they don't accomplish that, they will fail and that's the end of their tenured radicals in the poetry department.

I propose to Arnold that his next TCS article should be about market failure in how kids and families pick the schools that they do. I don't think that the mechanism that Boonton is describing is working.

Market failure leads to price controls!

Bernard Yomtov writes:

"companies just require a degree as a way to weed people out, nothing more."

OK. So what? So companies value the weeding process. Maybe they value the weeding at some schools more than at others.

On what basis can you claim they are "overvaluing" degrees?

Companies have been hiring college graduates for a long time. They have, in some cases, decades of experience. Surely they should know the relative values. And if the degree is overvalued, where are the employers making abnormal profits by not paying up for overpriced college graduates? Isn't that how the market is supposed to correct these things? If it's not happening, maybe there's nothing to correct. If you want to claim it's a market failure, then you should explain why the market would fail here, not just make an assertion.

Boonton writes:

I've long suspected that there's been 'degree inflation' going on for a while where companies are requiring degrees for jobs that don't really need them. I can't prove it and I would not necessarily agree it is a market failure. Market's take time to adjust and the labor market is by no means a perfect one. Information costs are high and the market is nowhere nearly as liquid as the stock market.

I'm not sure what Eric's beef is with colleges. It takes a hell of a lot more to justify an economic policy of price controls than thinking that parents and kids are just too dumb to figure out what the best schools are. Even if this was the case, price controls would be a diaster. When prices are forced downwards by gov't policy, demand will swell. The result of the policy will be a 'shortage' of the very same liberal professors Eric is supposedly going after!

Eric Krieg writes:

>>On what basis can you claim they are "overvaluing" degrees?

Good question. I think that businesses could perform a similar weeding process using other factors. For instance, they could administer an IQ test and more or less get the same results.

OK, I'm not too sure about the legalisty of administering IQ tests. But legalism aside, procedurally they could obtain the same results with an IQ test. And then we poor peons could avoid the cost associated with a degree.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>It takes a hell of a lot more to justify an economic policy of price controls than thinking that parents and kids are just too dumb to figure out what the best schools are.

Well, I have read tuition inflation appologists who say that gold plated facillities and the like are driving costs. I think that price controls are warranted.

Nobody is making universities accept federal dollars. If they want the dough, they ought to keep a lid on costs.

Boonton writes:

Nor is anyone making students take out student loans to go to such gold plated facilities. Nor is anyone requiring employers to pay a salary premium for such degrees. This is one area where the case for price controls would be exceptionally difficult to make.

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