Bryan Caplan  

From Tabarrok Town to Caplan Land: Summers Moves in the Right Direction

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Alex Tabarrok doubts there's much discrimination against right-wing academics; I beg to differ. Now I'm getting some support from a surprising source: Though he's still making up his mind, Larry Summers is moving from a Tabarrokian starting point to a Caplanian end point:

To date, Summers said, he has largely viewed the political imbalance as one of “able people making choices.” ...If you are a smart person who doesn’t like the world of markets and profits, “you have a much narrower range of choices,” he said, and academic careers may be quite desirable...

At the same time, he added, the extent of the imbalance and some informal research he has conducted “give me pause” and has him wondering about the possibility of bias against right-leaning thinkers...

It’s not that there are no conservative professors, he said, but their share is so small as to raise questions that deserve more attention. Summers wondered if the situation isn’t like it was in the early days of baseball’s racial integration, when people trying to say equality had arrived could point to the relatively equal performance of black and white stars. “But it appeared that there were not any African-American.250 hitters,” Summers said. “The only [black] players who played were stars.”

With a lot of luck, this debate will inspire another thinly-veiled Larry Summers episode of The Simpsons.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
PrestoPundit writes:

There doesn't have to be any "in your face" bias and discrimination. Academia is a filter, selection and self-replication system. Professors replicate their own kind, and their own ways of thinking. A pretty obvious insight.

If you don't have professors who know anything of the ideas of say Hayek, then it's rather hard for you to learn anything about those ideas. It is even harder to write a Ph.D. under professors who don't know these ideas. Try writing a Ph.D. on Hayek in any of a half dozen different disciplines at any of the top 20 universities in the country (the ones that will possibly allow you to work yourself at a top university). You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who is familiar with Hayek's work, let alone understands it in any depth -- or has any sympathy with it. Try writtin a dissertation for a committee than has no understanding of or sympathy with the work you are doing. And after you've done that -- try finding a job at a top 20 university with your Hayek inspired dissertation.

When you think about the fact that professors replicate their own ideas and have sympathy with their own ways of thinking, consider then that the most important "conservative" ideas run counter to the systematic ways of thinking held by most academics. Hayek ideas, for example, have run against the great train of academic thinking in the last 50 years -- against positivism, against behaviorism, against scientism, against legal realism and legal positivism, against socialism, against Keynesianism, against the "mainstream" explanatory strategy in economics, etc., etc., etc. Not only are most academics ignorant of Hayek's work, their own work stands opposed to the research program advanced by Hayek.

Of course, some parts of academia has been catching up with Hayek -- e.g. his attack on behaviorism -- but often academics has simply jumped from one mistake from hayek's point of view to another.

Of course, the folks in the GMU economics dept. are the exception which proves the rule -- they've got academic careers on track even with a bit of Hayek under their belt. But note well. GMU econ is not a top 20 university, and the GMU folks have only skimmed the surfaces of the ideas found in Hayek. So even at GMU a "conservative" scholar would only find a weak foothold to study the ideas of one of the leading conservative thinkers.

Mike writes:

I have noticed an interesting emerging parallel. When I was in college in the late 1960s I was politically interested but the child of FDR and Truman democrats. I was not very politically sophisticated, some would say naive. I went to a state university which was somewhat conservative and definitely late to the political fads of the era. In retrospect I truly appreciate the meaning of the liberal media establishment since you got all of your news from the big three networks and the major city newspapers in general and Walter Cronkite and the New York Times in particular.

Today I would consider myself somewhere between an independent conservative and a libertarian. I was bombarded by the economic teachings of "out of the closet" Marxist economics professors. Somehow, probably through the school of hard knocks, or having been mugged by reality I survived the collegiate experience to become what I am today.

Now move the clock forward to today and let's see what the new generation is doing. My youngest daughter graduated cum laud from an Ivy League university. In her senior year I asked her if I could sit in on one of her classes just for grins. What I found was very interesting. The class could have been taken directly from my collegiate experience forty years ago. The students were just as left of center politically but not disturbingly so. Surprisingly, the professor was excellent in keeping his politics to himself and presenting the material in as objective a manner as possible (in a social science class no less). I would describe my daughter as relatively politically disinterested yet reasonably knowledgeable on the affairs of the day. Her mom and I were never overtly political around the dinner table but somehow our down to earth reasonableness rubbed off. I am happy with the educational experience she received and I am sure most of the parents of her classmates are too. My sense of the campus climate was one of getting a good education and not wasting time on the academic craziness of my era.

Now, what has happened to the "liberal media establishment" of the 60s and what does that have to do with academia of today? With the emergence of alternative sources of news and public opinion such as blogs, conservative talk radio, and Fox News we have seen a revolution in the diminution of old media. Network news and print media have lost their dominance and are shadows of their past power.

My prediction is that academia will increasingly be viewed by the public as an insular and irrelevant institution which your children must endure so they can get their union card to middle and upper class America. Parents will, like me, realize that if you have raised your children well they will survive the experience and prosper but look back and recognize the institution for what it is. Sadly, it is on the same societal track as the establishment media only thirty years behind.

English Professor writes:

I read the article that Bryan linked to, though I haven't read the actual paper. Let me add a few comments. First, I am very suspicious of self-identification with respect to political beliefs. Because of all the screaming in recent years about how liberal academia is, some of my left-leaning colleagues now call themselves moderates. Here's how crazy it can be. One of my colleagues is a life-long Democrat; she has been an activist for various candidates. She is a strong supporter of unions and believes the minimum wage should be increased. She is a self-identified feminist. But she is anti-abortion. Now, she truly is a moderate left-leaning academic (and outside of my libertarian self, there isn't a person to her right in the department). But my colleagues, some of whom self identify as "moderate," call her a conservative. In academia, the whole understanding of liberal/moderate/conservative has been shifted to the left.

Back to the article. When I look at the some of the specific questions as they are broken out in the article, I find that 75 percent of those surveyed believe that abortion is acceptable "for any reason." And 69 percent believe that same-sex sexual relations "is not wrong at all." (Let me add that since my own views are more-or-less libertarian, I agree with these positions.) Now, I suspect that if you asked these same questions to the general public, you would find much less support for these views; and in many communities they would be not only minority positions, but radical positions. But according to the survey, many of the people who hold these views are "moderates." As I said, I haven't read the survey, but I work at a non-elite PhD-granting university, and here on the ground things look quite different from the way they're portrayed in the article.

Kimmitt writes:

Shorter Larry Summers: The shortage of women in academia is due to their inferiority as scholars, but the shortage of male conservatives in academia is due to bias.

Thanks, dude!

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