Bryan Caplan  

Missing Politics

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Two decades ago, I asked a libertarian professor, "Is there any socialist analog of the Institute for Humane Studies?"  "Sure," he replied.  "Harvard University, Columbia University..."  Does anyone know of a less flippant response to my question?

In a similar vein, we might ask, "Is there any socialist analog of Liberty Fund?"  Is there any leftist charity whose chief mission is to organize small seminars where the participants read and discuss classic political writings? admittedly resembles Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty, but as far as I know the parallel ends there.

Even if readers manage to name decent counter-examples, unconventional outfits like IHS and Liberty Fund clearly play an unusually prominent role in the libertarian movement.  What's the root of the imbalance?

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Neal W. writes:

When I first started getting into politics I wanted to read books on both sides. I found out who Milton Friedman was and decided to jump in with his book "Free to Choose." I then emailed the webmaster of a socialist website and asked if he could recommend a book for socialists that was like Free to Choose and he replied, "No, there really aren't any."

Peter H writes:

The phrasing there is flippant, but many or most humanities departments at American universities pay serious attention to socialist theories. Marxist theories within history and philosophy, for example, are generally considered within the mainstream, and finding notable professors to support them isn't difficult. G.A. Cohen most readily comes to mind in that vein.

Of course, economics departments, by and large, are libertarian-inclined, and the most prominent public libertarians are, and have been for quite some time, academic economists.

I guess the prevalence of the libertarian-specific institutions is an artifact of the desire of libertarians to become a more serious force within the humanities, whereas socialists generally don't want to become part of economics departments as to supplant them entirely.

OneEyedMan writes:

I wonder if today they'd direct you to "Nudge".

Mr Econotarian writes:

Is there an NGO dedicated to espousing global economic freedom (as opposed to the more general theme of individual liberty)?

Troy Camplin writes:

Doesn't the answer to your question lie in the flippant answer you were given? If the universities are dominated by progressivism (or even socialism, Marxism, etc.), then it makes sense that extrauniversity organizations would emerge to fill the void. This is one of the rare cases where a supply emerged to fill a demand for something that was not present.

Ryan M writes:

Unions? "Solidarity" movements? Liberation theology groups?

Don't most libertarian institutes get their funding from wealthy donors? The only one I can think of that doesn't is AIER, but they were started by one and have an endowment.

If you look at the richest say, 10,000 people in America you'll find several libertarians who are willing to put money up for it. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s with the Volker Fund just as it is with the Kochs today. If you look at the Marxists among the top 10,000 in America, you'll probably find many "artists," actors, and blue blood college professors. Those types don't really look to get a copy of the Communist Manifesto and both volumes of Capital into the hands of eager, budding socialists. They are more interested in asking the government for a grant to make a documentary on exploitation. With their own money, they'll probably just send a few million to provide awareness that some species of moss is going extinct. Maybe a half million will go to the ACLU to sue town halls over the display of Christmas decorations.

Why would a socialist Baldy Harper storm out of a department and start an IHS when the history department he works for supports him?

Prakhar Goel writes:
In a similar vein, we might ask, "Is there any socialist analog of Liberty Fund?" Is there any leftist charity whose chief mission is to organize small seminars where the participants read and discuss classic political writings? admittedly resembles Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty, but as far as I know the parallel ends there.

Yes. The Federal Department of Education. They are bigger. They also have the right to use coercive force (taxes, the mandatory US education system). That is probably why they are so much more successful. They also have to cater to the lowest common denominator which is why you don't see them mandating Tolstoy or Aristotle.

In their day to day operations, they have very little resemblance to the Liberty Fund. However, their goal is completely analogous to the Liberty Fund: instill left-progressive/marxist ideas in today's youth (they call it education and building character).

The DoE is to the Liberty Fund as one of Intel's semiconductor fabs is to the obscure hobbyist making circuits out of breadboards. Same purpose but vastly different resources and vastly different techniques due to said resources.

Also, the libertarian professor was not being flippant. He was demonstrating incredible insight into the nature and true purpose of modern day American universities.

RZ writes:

Not so much the agenda of the universities, etc., but the perception among libertarians that their ideas don't get proper air in the traditional academic circles.
That and the fact that libertarians have more money than socialists and can fund that stuff.

twv writes:

re: RZ. It's not been my experience that libertarian are richer than socialists. I've known some pretty wealthy socialists.... I've known a handful of libertarian millionaires and billionaires, s well, but these are pretty rare, and most of them are niggards compared to grant-giving socialists. (As comments have indicated, the granting they usually focus on is giving money to universities or special programs associated with universities.)

re: main point. The parallel to Liberty Fund is probably . . . the old Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China, both of which had special propaganda subsidiaries that subsidized communist literature in U.S. translation, and distributed them in the U.S. through "popular front' bookstores and the like. When I was a kid in the '70s. I went to one of these in Portland, bought some Marx and Engels, looked at the book rack. (People often say nasty things about the culture of libertarianism, but I never got turned off by any libertarian like I got repulsed, physically and culturally, by the commies in these bookstores.)

There are gobs of ideas-oriented leftist groups, aren't there? Most that I know of are environmentalist in orientation. Don't most focus on a subset of ideas? So the parallels would be with PERC, for instance, not Liberty Fund.

Hyena writes:

I think a lot of commenters are missing the point. Prof. Caplan asked specifically about groups which exist to read classic political writings. While "Marxist" theory plays a significant role in the humanities, it's wildly divorced from the political meat of the movement.

Libertarianism has more to answer for because it is essentially a sparse position. A lot of effort is expended in explaining why libertarians wouldnt just lead the world to an early grave. The left usually just has to answer for reduced economic output.

Hyena writes:

That is, having more to explain, libertarians are willing to invest more in spreading their explanations.

liberty writes:

I don't really have a dog in this fight, but what about all the Soros-funded organizations?

Would that count as a counterweight to the Koch-funded libertarian organizations?

Nicola writes:

ISI was originally founded as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (a term that encompassed what we would now consider both libertarians and conservatives), explicitly modeled after the Intercollegiate Society of Socialists of the previous century. (Members of ISS included Jack London, strangely enough. He never struck me as particularly socialist...)

In general, though, I think the major place that classic political texts are discussed from a left-wing standpoint is, in fact, the university. (Perhaps some of the better high schools as well.) I sometimes wonder whether it's better to read them that way or not to read them at all.

Miguel Madeira writes:

I think that an important difference is that, usually, the several socialist subcurrents don't read the authors of the others - while you can have a libertarian organization discussing the works of Adam Smith, Bastiat, Mises, Rand, Hayek and Rothbard, you can't have a socialist organization devoted to the discussion of Marx, Bakunine, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Pannekoek

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