NEAL MCCLUSKEY, CATO INSTITUTE
Suppose you have an open patch of ground in your yard and you think, “I’d like some flowers. But which ones?” Suddenly a landscaper arrives and says, “Flowers? I’m a landscaper, and the truth is you need weeds.” An assistant then takes your wallet and gives the landscaper your money, telling you, “Be happy – you just got truth from an expert.”
Would your reaction be, “He’s an expert so he can keep the money and I should be grateful”? Or, “I didn’t ask for this, I still want flowers, and I am calling the police.”
Most people, I suspect, would go with the latter. But a response to my recent blog post looking at the Nikole Hannah‐Jones tenure dispute at the University of North Carolina, which highlights liberty and accountability problems when academic freedom is coupled with taxpayer funding of public universities, essentially says the right response is to let the landscaper keep your money, and be thankful for the enlightenment.
Taxpayers should have to fund colleges, writes Matt Reed, because professors are truth seekers, and academics publishing truth is a “public good” from which we all benefit. It should also be up to professors to decide how the money is used, and to police themselves, because other people do not always accept the truth academics proclaim.
“Academic freedom isn’t license to spout whatever you want,” he writes. “It’s a hunting license for truth.”
Let’s start with basic principle: Does a claim to truth‐seeking justify government giving one group other people’s money? At the very least we do not think so regarding the field that makes the ultimate truth claims, and that often involves imperatives to share that truth: religion. Indeed, we go to great pains to keep government separate. Why? Because truth is often very hard to establish, and one person’s conclusions about what is true, even if arrived at after years of study, may be very different—contradictory, even—from someone else’s, even who studied just as much.
But religion does not use the scientific method – hypotheses and verifiable evidence – so it is not real truth‐seeking. Academia does.
If only it were that straightforward, or as incredibly simple as the dangers from which Reed says academic freedom protects us: “two plus two is not six, no matter what a party currently in power says.”
If issues professors weigh in on were no more complicated than kindergarten arithmetic, establishing truth would be easy. But they are often extremely complex, with very difficult to unearth and interpret facts, and often involving values that cannot be proven “right” or “wrong.” The response to Hannah‐Jones’ 1619 Project is a perfect example of this, with hot debates both about the facts, and deeper, normative questions about the goals for, say, teaching United States history: Should we instill patriotism? Expose injustice? Focus on national principles?
Of course, rather than objective truth‐seeking, academia could have biases. Indeed, what if the ivory tower is largely an intellectual monoculture? The process of becoming one is easy to imagine: people who share certain worldviews might be more inclined to become professors than other people. More than that, if academics police themselves, they may accept into the fold mainly people who think as they do – people who demonstrate their worthiness by sharing in what the truth‐seekers believe to be the truth.
Data suggest that an overwhelming tilt does, in fact, exist, especially in the messy fields that tend to deal with issues – social sciences, humanities – that most directly impact the taxpayers being forced to fund academia. The National Association of Scholars recently found that in a sample of elite institutions, among the professoriate registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans overall, and in disciplines such as anthropology, English, and sociology, by ratios up to 42 to 1. Roughly similar imbalances have been found in other political‐leaning measures.
Forced funding of colleges would be incompatible with freedom even if schools had “balanced” representation – no adult is inherently entitled to someone else’s financial support, no matter how much they say it is for the would‐be payers own good. But the evidence suggests taxpayers may well be funding bias. This also undermines the assertion Reed makes that forced funding works out for taxpayers because in exchange for taxpayer dollars, academics must publish their findings, which constitute new knowledge.
Not only does publication not always happen, but academics’ leanings may well influence which new knowledge they pursue, and which they do not. Taxpayers might get the new knowledge academics want to have, not that some or even all of the taxpayers want. And in pursuing that knowledge, are we to assume that academics do not experience confirmation biases, or groupthink, or any of the other intellectual challenges that bedevil “normal” people?
But if we did not force funding, truth would not be sought, right? We’d suffer from “market failure,” which really means failure of free society. As Reed puts it, “Because we don’t know what will be found until it’s found, we can’t rely on the price system. Scholarship is inherently public; public funding is a perfectly rational response to what would otherwise be a market failure.”
Well, no. Just because we do not require taxpayers to fund inquiry does not mean inquiry does not happen, which Reed illustrates terrifically in his own piece. Discussing Hannah‐Jones, he writes:
She’s already a Pulitzer prize winner and a MacArthur Genius, and her work has been circulated far and wide; in terms of the truths she has found, the horses got out of the barn some time ago. Making her a cause célèbre only spreads her message even more. She has already nudged the public conversation more than most tenured scholars ever will.
It is, indeed, hard to think of a more robust national debate than the one we have been having over the 1619 Project, and it started with a profit‐making entity: The New York Times. Responses to it have come from all over, including National Review, think tanks, and many more parts of free society.
Of course, people can, and do, voluntarily fund free inquiry. Two of the nation’s premier research universities – the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins – were in the vanguard of research‐focused higher education, and both are private. And even with hundreds‐of‐billions of taxpayer dollars going to higher education, philanthropists give tens‐of‐billions of their own every year.
Finally, let me dispel Reed’s basic misinterpretation of what I wrote. He asserts that I want “majority rule” of academia. “If the majority decides that two plus two is six, then six it is,” he suggests I argued.
It is rare to see myself portrayed as the “majority rule” guy because I typically argue to keep government – including democratic – out of education decisions, especially when pursuing truth. I put liberty over democracy almost every time.
In keeping with that, I did not call for government intervention in my short blog post, which defended academic freedom and was clearly about the problem of forced funding of institutions. Indeed, such funding invites political interference because the funder cannot refuse to participate. That leaves her only one avenue for protection – government – if she feels truth as she sees it is being ignored, or worse, propagation of falsehoods is being perpetrated.
The solution I offered, albeit imperfect, was to make “individual choice – not political power [italics added] – much more central.” The more voluntarism there is on both the funding and academic sides of higher ed, the better. But that does not seem to be what some academics want. They want government to give them your money, because they are uniquely trustworthy seekers of truth.