Why Is the University to the Left of the Population?

Why are most professors and university administrators to the left of the general population on politics?

This is an interesting question and one which Becker and Posner grapple with on their blog last week. Posner says it’s bizarre, and posits a couple reasons including: a) Jews tend to sympathize more with left-wing causes, and Jews occupy a disproportionate number of higher ed positions, and b) Men and women who came of age in the 60’s now occupy senior positions in the academy.

Becker, an intellectual himself, is more interesting:

In his 1950 book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, the great economist, Joseph Schumpeter, discussed exactly this question when asking why intellectuals were so opposed to capitalism during his time? His answer mainly was that businessmen do better under capitalism, whereas intellectuals believe they would have a more influential position under socialism and communism. In essence, Schumpeter’s explanation is based on intellectuals’ feeling envious of the success of others under capitalism combined with their desire to be more important.

I do believe that Schumpeter put his finger on one of the important factors behind the skepticism of intellectuals toward markets, and their continuing support of what governments do. Neither the unsuccessful performance of the US government first in Vietnam and now in Iraq, which they so strongly condemn, nor even the colossal failures of socialism and communism during the past half century, succeeded in weakening the faith of intellectuals in governmental solutions to problems rather than private market solutions. Since their basic hostility to capitalism is largely unabated, but they are embarrassed to openly advocate socialism and very large governments, given the history of the 20th century, intellectuals have shifted their attacks to criticisms of the way they believe private enterprise systems treat women and minorities, the environment, and various other issues. They also promote political correctness in what one can say about causes of differences in performance among different groups, health care systems, and other issues.

I believe considerations in addition to simple jealousy and envy are behind the opposition of intellectuals to capitalism. A belief in free markets requires confidence in the view that both sides to a trade generally gain from it, that a person’s or a company’s gain is not usually at the expense of those they trade with, even when everyone is motivated solely by their own selfish interests. This is highly counter-intuitive, which is why great intellectuals like the 16th century French essayist, Marquis de Montaigne, even had a short essay with the revealing title "That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another ". It is much easier to believe that governments are more likely than private individuals and enterprises to further the general interest.

Of course, the evidence that has been accumulated since Schumpeter’s book gives good marks to free market systems in promoting the interests of the poor and middle classes, including minorities. And examples abound of corrupt and incompetent government officials who either mess things up for everyone, or promote these officials’ interests. This evidence has impressed the man and woman in the street, but intellectuals are more removed from the real world, and tend to rely on and trust ideas and intellectual arguments.

…In effect, intellectuals have changed their views far less than other groups in response to the evidence. While intellectual opinions have stood rather still, the general population has moved their thinking against government solutions and toward solutions that use markets and other private transactions and relations.

20 comments on “Why Is the University to the Left of the Population?
  • I prefer a simpler explanation: professors and other academics think that they are smarter than other people.

    Presumably a mind that can comprehend the complexities of hermeneutical analysis can easily determine the best system of healthcare, or how to eliminate world hunger.

  • Ah, of course.

    The failure of free market “democracy’ to create anything remotely resembling social justice (did I really say that?) in the home of the brave and the land of the free gives the lie to Adam Smith’s economic fundamentalism.

  • “Posner says it’s bizarre”

    Of course it’s bizarre for a right person to not to understand why someone is left. Left and right “orientation” is the combination of a number of different biases in the way people see the world and what they see important. It goes goes both ways.

    The problem with this whole discussion is that it is being approached from a partisan right perspective(my assumption), it is being discussed with the biases and priorities of that perspective(economic).

    Being left isn’t being the antithesis of right(anti- capitalism), but that of different priorities and perspectives(social justice). This is where the article above fails, and why the resulting argument is so lacking in insight.

    You can’t expect to look to the right about insight and perspective of the left. In the same way you dont ask a white middle aged man what it’s like to be black. You end up getting a huge pile of crap, exactly like the ‘Jew’ reference.

  • Gregory:

    Quite reasonably, your assumption is that the right’s perspective is economic while the left’s perspective is social justice.

    My contention is that social justice and economics are thoroughly interdependent. A “centered” individual will have a perspective that prioritizes socially just economics.

    But what is “socially just economics”? The lesson of history is that it is the path that gives the most freedom to the most people. The choices on our path are constantly changing in the political winds.

    The question, for both economics and social justice, is not absolute. We will never have complete social justice and we will never have free market utopia. But the evidence is overwhelming that more economic freedom correlates with more social justice.

    Therefore, since the right prioritizes economics and that in turn has been shown to promote social justice, the right believes they are focusing on the solution (free markets) rather than the problem (social justice).

    Unfortunately, both the term right and left carry a lot of meaning that does not necessarily apply to individuals who may correcty be described as “on the right” or “on the left”.

    For instance, I am a middle aged white Christian businessman who lives in a large suburban house and owns several SUVs. I could be the poster child for the religious right- but I’m not.

    Characterizing me as “on the right” is absolutely correct but that doesn’t define many of my beliefs.

    For instance, I believe:

    1. A woman has a right to choose, but only for 22 days after conception. This is based on a passage in Leviticus that is a theme throughout the Bible, that “life is in the blood”. Since the fetal heart starts pumping on day 23, I think it is Biblically sound that terminations before that day do not involve the taking of human life.

    2. I hate drugs but believe they all should be legal because the losses to liberty and the corruption caused by their illegality far exceeds the damage they might do. Drugs being illegal is the fuel that funds the gang activity which destroys the futures of so many disadvantaged young people.

    I could go on but the point is that it is destructive to categorize a person as “a right person” like you did and to go on and dismiss his words as “a huge pile of crap” based on your categorization.

    Characterizations of individuals or their viewpoints made on the basis of categorizations is the antithesis of social justice and I pray you will grow to understand that.

  • The comment by Posner about Jews is irrelevant and bizarre. Universities outside of the U.S. also tend to be left of the population, yet have a very small Jewish community.

  • Tom,

    “Quite reasonably, your assumption is that the right’s perspective is economic while the left’s perspective is social justice.”

    Yes, an assumption or simplification of the left / right divide for the purposes of brevity. And a continuation of the argument granularity used in the article(left/not left). To have explained it properly, I would have had to have added a description of a similar size to your post, or longer. Increasing my post size 4 times.

    The point was the argue the awkwardness/lack of value of one perspective trying to explain another perspective without a whole lot of thought going into it.

  • And could I also add that personalising and making needlessly judgemental comments like this are unhelpful:

    “Characterizations of individuals or their viewpoints made on the basis of categorizations is the antithesis of social justice and **I pray you will grow to understand that**.” (emphasis added)

  • Viewing the merits of both right wing capitalism and the left wing socialism in a contemporary setting will help us unravel some mysteries associated with the University question.

    In the collapse of USSR and East Europe, if we have experienced the outcome of left wing socialistic ethos carried too far, the crumbling healthcare / social security in the west, its unreasonable tax structures and recently, the subprime meltdown that forced its central banks to intervene and prop up financial misadventures of a few – have exposed the porosity of capitalistic architectures as well. Look at what liberal economic policies have done to Argentina – a nation that has slipped from being part of the Developed World into a Developing Economy, now getting clubbed with Emerging Markets.

    Instead of relating it to the racial identity, I guess it has more to do with the age and maturity of the people that make up the Academia. Their views are inherently grounded, intense and erudite, normally are in the 35+ league and have seen more world. They allow a variety of experiences to get factored into their decision making process, making them vulnerable and accommodating – a credo associated more with Left than the Right.

    The paradox I can think of is that of the fundamentalist economies (Islamic banking, artificial devaluation of Chinese Yuan etc.) that refuse to integrate into the global fiscal platform. Instead of mellowing down with age, they get intensified and deep seated.

  • I frequently ask this same question, but about myself. Why did I, growing up in rural Republican Colorado, end up as such a radical? How can the same environment produce conservatives and liberals? Or, more interesting to me, how is it that I’m an environmentalist and Scott McInnis, former Republican congressman from Colorado, who grew up 28 miles from me, could gleefully announce, “We’re going to gut the clean air act.” I like to think that it is directly related to two things: 1) intelligence 2) life experiences.

  • Isn’t it obvious?

    Universities are organizations which more closely model a socialist structure. As a result left-leaning people who appreciate that environment more, stay. Whereas right-leaning people who would prefer open competition and similar aspects of capitalism leave to the business sector.

    The one exception I’ve found is those who teach economics and business who nearly always lean to the right on fiscal policies.

  • “In essence, Schumpeter’s explanation is based on intellectuals’ feeling envious of the success of others under capitalism combined with their desire to be more important.”

    What a crock of shit.

    Intellectuals by definition are people who bother to think.

    I submit that a majority of the voting-age population of the U.S. is either too tired at the end of a working day, or simply too lazy and unmotivated, to think.

    In this country, thinking is more a luxury of the idle ‘class’ with money, or those who got their sinecure at university and the abundance of free time that goes with it, than a popular pastime of the masses.

    This country would be a far better place if we had no middle aged white Christian businessmen who live in a large suburban house and own several SUVs.

  • I was thinking what Scott Young said, and also that there’s a self-perpetuating nature to it — once academe gets sufficiently left, non-lefties are not going to feel welcome there, and will by and large seek employment where they fit in better. (Of course that doesn’t answer how it got to be that way in the first place.)

  • Well, in my public policy program in uber-liberal Seattle, there are plenty of market-oriented folk–students and profs.

    In fact, it is this teaching that led me to a recent conclusion in response to a case study we read in “Management and Organizations”–we were reading about job training policies and welfare reform. It was a specific, government-sponsored re-training program Seattle was trying to get welfare moms to enroll in, and they were having problems with low enrollment.

    My response: WTF does some random government entity know about re-training for today’s job market? Why couldn’t they offer incentives to businesses to create programs that will actually be applicable, and allow these folks to make some money?

    I can do a quick cost-benefit analysis in my head as well as those on welfare can (and do), and I don’t want to spend my time sitting in some government-sponsored, unpaid, possibly-pointless “re-training’ either (I think I called it “pretend training” in my memo). I want a *job,* and I’m fine with an entry-level one, as long as there is training & internal career ladders.

    I mentioned the programs being run in privatized jails as an analogy…the left may opine about rehabilitation, but the market-oriented guys have figured out how to get these guys trained and into the workforce upon release–give them a job, let them build a resume and some human capital.

    anyways…I brought this up to my classmates, and most agreed, although admittedly most also spent their time trying to “fix” the structure of the government programs in their memos. I tend to this that this would be a perfect example of where government and the market can be in symbiosis–the government has no real reason to be spending $$$ re-training (unless it’s in an actual community college program), but they can certainly make it easier to get businesses in place in areas where they can benefit a whole community.

  • Another great article on this subject: “Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism” by the great Milton Friedman. In short, most professors are told how smart and special they are and are unable to reconcile why academic success isn’t 100% correlated with success in the market. I gave a speech on this paper in my study abroad class in France. It went over like a ton of bricks. It was great.

  • Fundamentally, I think the reason the University is Left is due to tenure and the group mentality that ensues.

    People on the right tend to be impatient with structures like tenure where you work for years without any tangible benefits. We, right wingers, like our accountability and our rewards, now.
    They like new ideas right away and don’t understand why anti-meritocratic (read: tenure) ideas reign. Professors who slouch in their duties, just as workers who fail to produce, ought to be fired. Due to tenure, there really is no such mechanism.

    I think there’s been a systematic effort on the part of Left wingers to punish right thinkers or to at least make it known that their ideas aren’t welcome. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just read Harvey Silverglate (left-winger) and Alan Kors’s (right-winger description in The Shadow University. This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot in the past and would love to discuss with you as soon as we both get the chance.

  • They can only be considered to the left of the general population if a very academic understanding of “left wing” is deployed. In terms of lifestyle, solidarity and a willingness to align in any concrete way with the interests of proletarian workers and it is much more likely to be the case that the institutionalised academics will reveal themselves ultimately to be on the side of the establishment.

  • Hey Ben
    As someone who works in academia, I think you will find that most people are socially more liberal – we have to be – but fiscally the distribution runs the gamut from very liberal to extremely conservative. Many Universities are focusing on “inclusive excellence” – how can we make everyone on our campus feel welcome, safe and not discriminated against while providing an environment for excellence? This means that we need to accomodate and include people with lifestyle choices or races or genders with which we may personally feel uncomfortable. By the very nature of the academic structure we learn to be tolerant, to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to come to know and value those who are different. Ultimately, to treat all groups with respect.
    Also, I think that university is where students experiment with lifestyle choices. There is a freedom to try on different behaviors or modes of dress or ways of thought. This is encouraged. So you will see more diversity of all types on college campuses than elsewhere in society where people may choose to fit in to their group. Finally, I personally feel there is an idealism to liberal thought and values that perhaps is dulled with age when pragmatism may reign. So college campuses, where youth predominates, will simply house more idealist people.

  • Heh — I find much of this conversation hilarious.

    One of the reasons why “intellectuals” tend to lean left is that they are in the business of passing on the lessons of history, whereas many (not all) right-wingers — particularly in the Bush era — are in the business of obscuring the lessons of history. Example: Invading a country to humiliate its leaders and establish a new system of government by a show of force is doomed to fail over time, even if it takes decades to fail. Many senior military leaders knew this at the beginning of the war in Iraq, so, like academics, the media, Democrats, and the UN, they were dismissed as irrelevant or worse by the administration as they ramped up the hysteria about “mushroom clouds” and whatnot.

    You may as well ask why so many doctors are so prejudiced against the tobacco companies.

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