Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

"Affirmative action for an oppressing minority:" Liberals, Conservatives, Academia and Capitalism

It’s not that there are no conservative professors, he [Larry Summers] said, but their share is so small as to raise questions that deserve more attention.

- from The Liberal (and Moderating) Professoriate, by Scott Jaschik

Affirmative action for an oppressing minority — that’s one hell of an idea!

- Alexander Nekvasil, in comments on “The Borjas Blog” regarding this topic

1. I want to focus on these remarks by Summers, because I think they are wildly mistaken:

To date, Summers said, he has largely viewed the political imbalance as one of “able people making choices.” He said that if you are a smart individual, and you like the market, profits, and “striving for profits,” you have “a wide range of choices in life,” of which an academic career is but one. 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. In this way of thinking, he said, it’s not surprising to find more liberals than conservatives on college faculties.

Going back to the Reconceiving Economics post – note how Summers looks at how choices are even framed as a product of a bigger choice, not one involving what is good for an individual and society, but one involving money. Notice how the choice that involves some moral pretense is the choice which has created an exclusive club of liberals.

Summers could use recourse to my normative argument here. He would be well-served if he said there was something about capitalism that promoted freedom, and that what we might want is to promote that within capitalism which is most amenable to freedom.

2. What Summers doesn’t see is that the world isn’t about those who like “markets and profits” vs. those who don’t like “markets and profits.”

One thing missing about the debate regarding academia is how the whole thing is about money and power, and dissent from that in academia is pretty much only a ruse for more money and power. I have friends that are feminists and working in some gender studies’ departments who would be the first to tell you how vicious academic politics within those departments gets – activist solidarity is needed far more than a spirit of inquiry, and the internal consequences of that win the department standing (and do educate some people, I should say), but at enormous cost (I don’t think I need to detail how one can be treated if one is outside those departments).

The problem is even larger when we conceive of the modern research university – those labs cost money. Corporations may get first crack at any research they’ve helped fund directly, it’s almost like the professors in those fields are on loan to the students and the university. The whole concept of faculty is undermined in this enterprise: there’s no reason why mercenary private labs couldn’t do the same work much cheaper, if it weren’t for the fact universities still occasionally attract talented people who want to learn and are eager to do research.

3. If we suppose the whole of the University is a form of a corrupt capitalist enterprise, that could, in theory, solve a number of questions one has about schools nowadays. I.e. “Why is the Chronicle of Higher Education so focused on business and money making matters?” “Why are Universities always concerned about lawsuits rather than the good of students?” etc. (also, in the case of Rutgers, “Why would a University think its reputation only determined by its football team’s success?”) If you think I’m being radical in advancing this, do note that it is a thought experiment. A far more radical case – logically sound, even – that the University in its present form will not survive has been made by David Gelertner.

What makes the University corrupt is that underlying any moral claims it might advance – “we’re here to create open-minds,” or “we would like people to be more sensitive to claims of gender and race” – is the money/power problem. Summers is implicitly advancing making money and getting power as one solution to the University’s ills – maybe if professors tried to get a real job, they’d know better.

4. I think that’s the exact wrong logic. The logic of modern capitalism has destroyed the University. It’s destroying politics – if we start talking numbers and technical things before discussing what we value and why, how on earth is democracy going to survive? Yet as Gracchi has pointed out to me, look at the more thoughtful blogs on politics – they’re almost exclusively concerned with technical issues and “outcomes,” as if we already knew what people wanted and why, and as if “everyone getting what they want” is the job of politics.

An education has to be about higher things. Hence, affirmative action for conservatives is preposterous as long as people are thoughtful and willing to listen and preserve other lines of thought other than their own. (This blog has been said to be pointless because I almost always advance lines of thought other than my own.) But if the attitude that conservatives only exist to oppress is the preeminent idea in academia, then forget affirmative action – the whole University needs to be scrapped. If we use the one place that is supposed to be dedicated to open-minds and rational discourse to propagate our own biases, then the worst of modern capitalism has arrived and conquered. Education is only about what we want immediately, what we see presently.


  1. “If we use the one place that is supposed to be dedicated to open-minds and rational discourse to propagate our own biases, then the worst of modern capitalism has arrived and conquered”

    —but this is the huge misunderstanding. It is precisely the PUBLICALLY FUNDED universities that DO NOT tolerate open minds and rational discourse!

    It is precisely the government funded universities that can be as CORRUPT AS THEY WANT, as self-serving as they want, like a criminal syndicate, supporting only those who agree with them, that they WILL STILL get FUNDING from the government, i.e. taxpayers and the rest of the people

    publically funded universities end up becoming the most INTOLERANT of places precisely because they can GET AWAY with it and get FUNDING non-stop. They are for people who can’t SUPPORT THEMSELVES in the market, through REAL WORK, so they require that their parasitic and unproductive existence be supported by the rest of the people

    it is precisely the LACK of private universities that are funded by enrollment, that end up creating totalitarian universities without any incentive or checks and balances

    in capitalism, if a private university has poor performance, enrollments go down, it goes bankrupt. In public universities, performance ALWAYS goes down because there’s no incentive, and NO checks and balances. They will always get funded through taxed coercion from people who had no desire to go to the university

  2. Ashok:


    I’d vote for you on the basis of this one.

    Once again you see past the partisan idols. Pity that the far-seeing are often ostracised for doing so.

    Keep the flame burning.


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