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Two Hypotheses about the Leftward Slant in Academia

Summary:
1. Academia is a highly right-wing place; leftism serves as an “expressive recompense” for that. 2. Academia is the gatekeeper of power and status. Leftism serves to temper the future holders of power. Tyler Cowen asks whether L.A. is the most right-wing American city: Right-wing isn’t exactly the right word, but neither is conservative nor libertarian.  Let’s put it this way: in which American city is the principle of sexual dimorphism so pronounced and so accepted and so built into the city’s most fundamental sector (Hollywood)?  In which American city is risk-taking and the resultant income inequality so much a part of the founding culture, in this case the business of entertainment?  Entertainment is also relatively free of government interference and subsidy, and has been so

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1. Academia is a highly right-wing place; leftism serves as an “expressive recompense” for that.

2. Academia is the gatekeeper of power and status. Leftism serves to temper the future holders of power.

Tyler Cowen asks whether L.A. is the most right-wing American city:

Right-wing isn’t exactly the right word, but neither is conservative nor libertarian.  Let’s put it this way: in which American city is the principle of sexual dimorphism so pronounced and so accepted and so built into the city’s most fundamental sector (Hollywood)?  In which American city is risk-taking and the resultant income inequality so much a part of the founding culture, in this case the business of entertainment?  Entertainment is also relatively free of government interference and subsidy, and has been so from its beginnings in American history.  In which city are the market outcomes — the winners and losers — so accepted as the final verdict of relevance?

Dare I say Los Angeles (and environs) is the answer to all of these questions, or at least in the very top tier of answers?

Note that defense spending also has long been a foundational sector for much of southern California.

Of course I am well aware of the actual politics of L.A., and all the more of Santa Monica.  Sometimes I toy with a “portfolio” theory of politics, namely that if your city or region’s core sector is quite capitalistic, your city’s politics will be fairly left-wing as a kind of expressive recompense against daily life.

Which American city or region is most like Denmark?  How about the Washington, D.C. area?  Very well educated, a thick middle class, job stability through government, and not many billionaires.  It is easy enough to live here and feel like a libertarian!

One of Cowen’s big ideas here–which I put in bold–is the the ideology of a place tends to act as a counterbalance or “expressive recompense” to the place’s actual behavior.

Let’s extend that idea to the academy.

The academy is an incredibly right-wing place in terms of behavior, though left-wing in terms of expression. Consider: Status competition is everywhere. Universities and colleges jockey for elite status and for higher rankings than their peers. Universities and colleges try to get into positions where they can refuse 80% or more of their potential customers. Academic job markets often follow something of a tournament model. The select few winners receive far higher compensation, status, and freedom than nearly everyone else. Hierarchy is everywhere: among schools, among journals, among disciplines (economics > sociology > history), among professors within individual fields, inside the structure of the university itself. The academy is full of individuals jockeying for power, money, and prestige. And there is rarely any external check to force this selfishly motivated behavior to actually serve the good of others.

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that academy would be so expressively leftist, and that as the behaviors above have gotten worse over the past 50 years, so the academy has become more left-leaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising, too, that the most behaviorally authoritarian fields–the ones with the greatest amount of deference to thought leaders and demands for intellectual orthodoxy–tend to also be the most expressively left-wing fields. (I’m looking at you, MLA and grievance studies.)

That’s a cynical hypothesis. But here’s a less cynical one:

As matter of fact, universities serve as the gatekeepers of power. In general, to have a good chance of securing the coveted, highest-status, most powerful positions in our society, you have to pass through the academy. Certain places (e.g., Harvard, Dartmouth) serve far more as gatekeepers than others (e.g., Northeastern, Keene State). And, interestingly, the more a particular school tends to serve as a way of selecting the ruling classes, the more leftwardly expressive it is.

But perhaps that’s a good thing, even if many left-wing ideas are rather silly. After all, if your main job is to choose and credential the ruling class, perhaps you also want to get them to mouth pious ideas about equality and social justice. You might even want to hire gatekeepers faculty who actually believe that stuff. The point is to temper the rulers and make them gentler, nicer, and a little more publicly-spirited than they otherwise would be. Maybe it’s useful to get the people in power to believe there’s something bad about power.

Of course, this could all backfire, and all you end up doing is teaching the people in power to rationalize and justify their authoritarianism and injustice using the language of equality and social justice. But, come on, how likely is that?

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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