Bryan Caplan  

How Much Influence Do Professors Have?

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What, Me Worry? Part II... Bryan's Thought Experiment...

Winterspeak chides me for exaggerating the negative externalities of academic leftism:

While I acknowledge that left-wingers are overrepresent[ed] in academia, I think this is an efficient market outcome and I think that Bryan's claims of the harm from leftist policies is overblown.

This is not because I think leftist policies aren't harmful, but because the idea that we would all live life in the best libertarian traditions if only those evil professors had not brainwashed us with Marxist propaganda is plainly nonsense.

Of course Winterpseak is right, though I don't think I said anything so extreme. All I said was that academic leftism has negative externalities. I didn't say that it's the only negative externality, or anything like that.

But Winterspeak does raise an interesting question: How much influence does academia have? Or to make the question more pointed: What would happen to policy if the average academic were as libertarian as the average GMU economist?

The short-term effect, I'll admit, would be negligible. Ideas and policy don't change quickly. But I still think that twenty years of libertarian dominance in the university system would make average college-educated opinion at least one standard deviation more libertarian. This would in turn have large indirect effects, via journalism, political slack, etc. My guess is that every standard deviation increase in the libertarianism of college-educated opinion would lead to about a half standard deviation increase in the libertarianism of policy.

Why, then, do leftist academics seem so impotent? They are victims of their own success. They've already gotten most of what their ideology demands. We have progressive income taxes, Social Security, Medicare, discrimination laws, etc. And especially considering indirect effects on journalism, policy-makers, etc., I'd say that leftist academics deserve 25-50% the blame. In any case, since they've gotten most of what they want, leftist academics don't have much left to do other than promote their least popular ideas.

After fifty years of libertarian dominance in academia, we'd be in the same situation. Lots of our least-favorite policies would be drastically scaled back. But we'd seem out of touch for demanding abolition, and spend a lot of time complaining that "No one listens to us."


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The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled The Market for Professors, 2 writes:
    A while ago I took exception with the notion that leftist academic thought produced leftist popular sentiment because I took exception with the notion that academic thought had much impact at all. Let me be clear, I don't think this is a bad outcome. A... [Tracked on August 15, 2006 10:02 AM]
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Isocrates writes:

Why, then, do leftist academics seem so impotent?

Partly becuase their ideas have been tried and are now discredited. For twenty years or so, liberal ideas about crime were dominant. People wanted to address the "root causes" rather than building more prisons. The results were disastrous. Now many professors complain about the size of the prison population, but no one listens to them.

Dezakin writes:

People wanted to address the "root causes" rather than building more prisons. The results were disastrous. Now many professors complain about the size of the prison population, but no one listens to them.

This is also a libertarian perspective you might notice.

Most of the "root causes" of crime for instance is invented crime; the Drug War is hardly a libertarian solution to social issues.

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