Incentives Matter . . . Again

By Graham Peterson

At my wingnut colloquia out at Mercatus Center and Liberty Fund, there is an interesting phenomenon – nobody uses the L word.  People rarely talk about liberty directly, nor freedom.  When people (rarely) ask if you identify as a libertarian at dinner, the mood of the comment is not unlike the way people sometimes ask (we hope with apprehensive grace) if someone is gay.

It’s not about identity – it’s about ideas.

It would also seem that academic libertarians have internalized the criticism of ideological bias among us.  We are a taboo, and we know it.  In some sense, this is a good thing.  Coming from all corners of the academy – where we’re minorities – we face incredible incentives to be self conscious about our own biases and to be open to debate.

Now it doesn’t always work out this way.  I for instance have become a notorious libertarian troll by getting defensive about accusations and ad hominem.  When you’re a perennial minority and face a lot of attacks, one strategy is to build up permanent defenses and become militant (this of course just confirms to outsiders that you are a nut job, and is the wrong road to go down).

But what is interesting to me, is that I do not see that the radical left in academics – my counterparts – face the same incentives I and mine do.  See, I know I’m crazy.  I know everyone thinks I’m crazy.  I have a great deal of insecurity about my craziness as such – it’s one of the reasons I think I, and other libertarian and conservative academics, troll their colleagues.  We’re trying to assert and reaffirm our ultimately shaky beliefs.

On the other hand, these incentives make me invest more in my beliefs, think more deeply, and be more critical of my thinking.  I think there is a distinct difference between radical leftists in the academy and the radical right.  Radical leftists for the most part live in a world where their colleagues believe at least some, and often most, of an attenuated version of their beliefs.

There is much more to any system of beliefs than the cost imposed by the number of other people in one’s social network who share the belief.  But nevertheless, this bit of network economics is an important consideration.

As a result I think the academic left should be more conscious of how influential their radical elements among them are.  Radical lefties face extremely low costs to believing insane things (take for example Herbert Marcuse’s argument that we ought to suspend free speech for groups who hold ideological hegemony).  And because people reason with cartoons of one another (you do too) the radical left often times defines the entire academic left.

Similarly, I think the academic right should be more conscious of how unrepresentative the radicals are.  And we really cannot blame them for their beliefs — if we paid as low a cost for being wrong as they do, we’d be much less careful ourselves.  Nor can we blame the moderate lefties for allowing the radicals to breed.  Moderate lefties want to maximize the number of social justice et al. arguments on the table in order to maximize the chances that a good one will pop out.  That means setting high tolerances for false positives.  And that means letting their radicals blather.

I feel very strongly that ideological bias in the academy is a real problem — but it’s one worth taking a breath and analyzing if we’re every going to correct it.

These statements are mine and mine alone — they do not represent Mercatus Center, Liberty Fund, or those of the staff, donors, fellows, or other affiliates of those organizations.

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