Meritocracy for thee, a leg-up for me: conservatism and the academy

What right-wingers usually think of positive discrimination

As a general rule people on the right tend not to like so-called ‘positive discrimination’. Take this op-ed from America’s most venerable conservative magazine, the National Review:

Excellence should be celebrated wherever it is found, and affirmative action policies undermine colleges’ ability to search for it.

Or the British conservative columnist Toby Young on getting more working class students from state schools into the UK’s top universities:

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that universities should not lower the bar for state school applicants because that would effectively be sending a message to state schools that they can never be as good as independent schools. Rather, they should have the same expectations of all their applicants, regardless of their educational background, and encourage state schools to compete with private schools on a level playing field.

A double standard

However, there is one group that many right-wingers are comfortable demanding university’s show a special preference towards: themselves.

Take this example from the US:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R[epublican]-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.

This is an unusually stark proposal, but its subtext has been around for decades. In 1951, the National Review’s founder wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that argued that the curriculum of the famous university was biased in favour of liberalism and atheism. Since then universities have regularly been a been targets of conservative attacks on America’s coastal elites. As far back as 1989, the first President Bush attacked his Democrat opponent for having ‘the views of the Harvard Yard.’

As these things tend to, that idea has now made its way across the Atlantic. And we get outpourings like this:

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Do not mistake discernment for discrimination

The unexamined assumption underlying these accusations of bias is that universities – or rather the staff and students they are constituted from – should be treating all views equally. In fact, the opposite is true. While I deplore attempts to exclude views from universities through coercion, it is a natural part of how academia works that some ideas will first be attacked and then ignored. It would be absurd for universities to, for example, provide balance between mainstream earth scientists and flat earthers.

As Robert C. Post, a Yale Law professor, recently wrotes for Vox, universities exist precisely in order to help society discern which views have merit and those which don’t. As Post notes the people who make up a university simply can’t fulfill that function without giving greater prominence and respect to certain ideas than to others:

…universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time. subject my students to constant content discrimination. If I am teaching a course on constitutional law, my students had better discuss constitutional law and not the World Series.

Professors are also subject to continual content discrimination in their teaching and their research. If I am hired to teach mathematics, I had better spend my class time talking about my equations and not the behavior of President Donald Trump. If I am being considered for tenure or for a grant, my research will be evaluated for its quality and its potential impact on my discipline. Universities, public or private, could not function if they could not make judgments based on content.

Critically scrutinising an idea like ‘Brexit is a desirable outcome’ fits with that mission. It is definitely the sort of thing university humanities and social science departments should be doing. The purpose of that enquiry is not necessarily to pass a singular judgement on the idea. However, if the majority of academics who look into it, come away unimpressed, then that does reflect poorly on the idea.

The closing of the conservative mind

Now confronted with this judgement, people who hold that idea dear have two basic responses. These are the same options that anyone confronted with criticism has. They can take the criticism on board and try to use it to help improve. Or they can get defensive and begin to deny its validity. Or put more metaphorically, you can either get mad with the bathroom scales, or try to eat better and do more exercise.

Not all right-wingers are of the yelling at the scales variety. For example, the conservative MP David Willetts changed his mind about whether income inequality was a problem in response to a pretty consistent finding by social epidemiologists that it was. And clearly, being reluctant to update your views in the face of contrary evidence is not something only people on the right do. There are examples, of it occurring on the left too. Indeed, it is probably something everyone does at some point. However, at the present moment in the US and the UK, it does seem more prevalent amongst conservatives. Take for example, attitudes to science:

A 54 percent majority of Democrats, compared with just 13 percent of Republicans, say they have “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trust scientists at least “a little,” with 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans saying they don’t trust them at all.

As Ezra Klein has noted, whilst causes like climate change denial have become mainstream amongst Republicans, Democrats have largely managed to resist buying into anti-science messages – such as on GMOs – that might appeal to left-wing inclined voters.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Klein thinks the emergence of scientists like Bill Nye and Neil De Grasse Tyson as liberal opinion formers is especially important in this regard.

This dynamic is appears less severe in the UK. Perhaps for that reason, it has received less quantitative study. At least that I can find! Nonetheless, you still see signs of it. While prominent scientists and science popularisers, like David Attenborough and Brian Cox have voiced progressive views and opposition to Brexit, climate change denial has become mainstream amongst both Conservative MPs and their allies in the press. Indeed, the power within the British right of tabloid newspapers that combine reactionary politics, a penchant for pseudoscience, and a generally loose attitude to accuracy makes it kind of inevitable.

The mirage of ‘politically correct’ bias

Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the possibility that there is real bias in academia and research. Sometimes your bathroom scales are broken, and sometimes universities favour ideas for reasons other than them being more truthful. This issue is probably clearest with regards to funding. For example, we almost certainly think the average medication is more effective than it is, because many clinical trials are funded by the people who make those medicines. Right-wingers have a theory for why academia might be biased against them. Universities are in the grip of a form of ‘politically correct’ groupthink. Academics do not want to voice conservative views, lest they incur the disapproval of their left-wing colleagues and students.

I find this unconvincing because:

  • It does not account for why left-wing ideas would have become dominant in the first place. If right-wing arguments were coherent and well evidenced wouldn’t they have become the dominant ones with which it is risky to disagree.
  • Many academics do produce work with ‘right-wing’ conclusions such as that children typically do better if their parents are married rather than cohabiting, tax increases being bad for economic growth or immigration depressing wages.
  • There is a well-funded ecosystem of media and think tanks promoting right-wing ideas that should not only foster ideas that could make their wake into academia. Plus that same funding could be directly applied to funding academic research.
  • The conservative tendency to pick fights with research applies as much to what are essentially empirical questions as ones that centre on values.
  • In academia as in many fields, being confirmist lowers not only risks, but also rewards. The most celebrated researchers tend to be iconoclasts, who overturn recieved wisdom. Therefore if academia generally ziggs left, there are incentives for individual academics to zag to the right.

All of which makes me think that the reason that right-wing ideas find so little support in academia is that they mostly don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Instead of engaging in the hard, boring work of coming up with proposals that account for uncomfortable information, contemporary conservatism has chosen the easy comforts of conspiracy theories and tribal epistimology. ‘Alternative facts‘ are treated as if they are as good as the real thing. Institutions that raise questions about the movement’s proposals – including but not limited to academia, the media and the judiciary – have their legitimacy questioned. Rather than coming up with a conservative solution to the problem of climate change – probably the gravest one currently facing the world – many conservatives have opted to pretend it isn’t happening. The Brexit campaign was marked by claims that sounded just about plausible to a voter with a modest amount of attention to devote the the subject, but not to anyone able to study it in any kind of depth. We were told that the UK could save itself millions of pounds in budget contributions that had already been remitted back to us. Likewise we were warned that the UK didn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU, even though the treaty article governing the accession of new member states explicitly says that it can only happen if exist members including the UK “shall act unanimously” in support of it. Michael Gove’s notorious assertion that “Britons have had enough of experts” may have been true of the country, but it was definitely true of a campaign that had many reasons to face focused scrutiny, including from academia.

Role-models

The sad part about contemporary conservatives developing such disdain for universities, is that they are attacking the very places that previously incubated many of the most important right-wing ideas. Here are some examples:

  • It is hard to imagine the Thatcher revolution, and the monetarist economic policies which accomponied it, without the work of the Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Indeed, legend has it that Thatcher once interupted a presentation she felt misrepresented conservative thinking, by slamming one of Hayek’s books on the table and declaring this is what we believe!
  • Michael Oakeshott wrote his philosophical defences of a conservative disposition as a professor at the LSE.
  • Henry Kissinger went from Harvard to being Nixon’s most important foreign policy advisor.
  • The first generation of neoconservatives relied heavily on the work of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and his critiques of sixties counter-culture.
  • The concept of Broken Windows policing – espoused most famously by Rudy Giuliani – was first developed by two Harvard criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
  • Public choice theory, the notion that you could use the tools of microeconomics to study the public sector as well as private markets, is relied on by many scholars from across the political spectrum. However, it was originally developed by conservatives working as academic economists, who were looking for a tool with which to critique the expansion of welfare programs. They included James M. Buchanan who would win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Take your own medicine

That the right has largely disengaged itself from that kind of serious academic work has hurt it. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that Thatcher and Reagan came in with a clear program they could implement, whilst the Brexiteers and Trumpians are flailing incoherently. Had either group engaged seriously with academics who work on public policy, they would almost certainly have been better prepared for the challenges they faced.

Thus the conservative movement would not benefit from positive discrimination in academia. Quotas for right leaning academics and attempts to root out imaginary ‘liberal’ bias, would just make the right even more intellectually lazy than it currently is. Instead it must practice itself, the message of tough love it preaches to others. Rather than asserting that they have a right to the respect of academia, right-wingers should set out to earn it. The way to do that is with good ideas backed up by convincing evidence and cogent arguments. The likes of Hayek, Oakeshott and Kissinger did that in the past. If their heirs cannot do that in the present, the fault is their own, not academia’s.

 

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