Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Conservatives in Academia

So why are conservatives underrepresented in academia? Kieran Healy argues that conservatives are on the horns of a dilemma: they must either (a) admit the existence of institutionalized inequality or (b) admit that conservatives just aren’t as smart as liberals.

C’mon now, isn’t there a more obvious explanation? No, I don’t mean Ezra Klein’s idea that smart conservatives are more likely than liberals to seek material gain in the private sector (though there may be something to that). I mean the fact that academia is almost entirely a non-profit enterprise, and it’s much easier for discrimination to survive without the discipline of profit and loss. In academia, there is no bottom line. Whether one gets tenure has much to do with the popularity of your ideas with the old guard in your profession. Like will tend to hire like, and as a result the same biases get duplicated year after year. The dominance of liberalism decades ago perpetuates itself to the present day. (Note that it’s much easier for non-liberal professors to survive in institutions with a long history of non-liberal viewpoints, such as the University of Chicago.)

There is a very weak market test for schools based on ideological balance, because students can choose to go to other colleges – but rare is the student who will reject a prestigious school because of the ideology of its professors. The smart but non-liberal student will attend the most prestigious school he can get into, and then tolerate the views of his professors for long enough to graduate. The lack of diversity across colleges in their ideological balance makes it very difficult to find an equivalent college with a substantially different ideological balance.

Another possible reason liberals dominate academia was suggested by Robert Nozick: intellectuals are, in general, people who appreciate thinking and planning, and they feel underappreciated. They tend to think society would just work better if all the dumb people would stand aside and let the smart people run things. As a result, they tend to be more hostile to arguments in favor of spontaneous, decentralized orders like the market.

One more thing: When complaining about the ideological balance in academia, conservatives are generally not asking for any special privileges. They aren’t demanding affirmative action for conservatives. Rather, they are drawing attention to the hypocrisy of liberals who champion the need for diversity of every variety (gender, race, economic background, etc.) except the kind of diversity that presumably matters most in an academic setting: diversity of opinion. Perversely, they even justify race- and class-based preferences on grounds of engendering more diversity of viewpoints. I’ve yet to hear a liberal advocate of diversity-based affirmative action advocate the recruitment of more non-liberals.

(BTW, I’m not a conservative. I’m a libertarian. Since libertarians are usually lumped together with conservatives in the studies of ideological diversity, I don’t know whether libertarians are over- or under-represented relative to their numbers in the population.)

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