Private Money Is Better Than Public Money

By Graham Peterson

Elizabeth Popp Berman has a great rhetorical style, both because of her no bullshit confrontation with important things, and because she is extremely fair.  Berman generously provides a list of the assaults of academic freedom the state has perpetrated, supporting my argument that the state is not superior to private funding for Universities.

This time I’ll take it further.  But first, I’ll concede like Berman that a lot of people were justifiably upset by the Koch Foundation’s apparent attempt to politically influence hiring.  Lots of outrage.  One chair.

Consider that left intellectuals have a near monopoly on hiring decisions across the humanities and social sciences nation wide, and use that monopoly to further their politics.  It appears that political hiring isn’t what people have a problem with so much as whose politics are getting mixed up in the hiring.

Private funding is superior to state funding of academic activity because it is transparently political, not in spite of the fact that it is.  Like I said in a different post recently,

The only thing that can guarantee that objectivity, scientific dispassion, and reason do their magic, is if we subject ourselves to vigorous argument, both within ourselves, and with one another . . . . Positivism, reason, and objectivity are merely the guarantees of illiberal and intolerant dogma without the commitment to internal and external debate that they were designed to ensure.

People have the sense that the state’s funding of academic research is non-partisan, which feels like it lines up with scientific objectivity.  Nay.  And that intuition actually puts the state, or rather its academic bureaucrats, in charge of deciding what is true.

Berman says, “universities respond to public preferences,” but no.  Funding of academic research is almost totally removed from voter preferences.  It has been captured by the professorate, which is a bureau of appointees that experiences no political competition.  The greatest evidence of that fact is how unrepresentative academic research is of the views of the polity.  Only about 1/3 of the national electorate is left of center.  Sociological research is about 16:1 left to right.

The National Science Foundation is not just interested in primary research.  NSF grant proposals include Broader Impact statements, which are (if you’ll allow me some polemics) basically the BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!?!? statements.  Grants are refereed by a peerage of leading scientists . . . who are strongly left.

What seems to have happened here, is that sometime around the 1950s and 60s, because of the combination of the G.I. bill hiring boom and the social movements of the period, left advocates recognized a prime opportunity to capture an institution, through which they would be able to influence future leaders.  It is no dark conspiracy — we all want to influence the children.

Universities, because they were trying to entice a growing professorate, were offering tenure as a job perk.  This economic development was legitimated with the horror stories of intellectuals who fled to the United States to set up places like The New School for Social Research.  The combination of an influx of well meaning left intellectuals and well meaning Deans created a system in which scholarship was moving (sometimes violently, see WUSTL Sociology), to the left.

I think the mechanism is rather clear.  Unions have a history of providing opportunities for ethnic, family, and political capture.  Tenure has a history of providing the same for academic politics.  Now, academics are extremely sensitive about being accused of institutional discrimination and bias.  It is, admittedly, an affront to our core ethics of intellectual honesty and meritocracy.  Nevertheless, here we are.  The distributions don’t lie.

The response to this discrimination seems to have been for many right leaning interests to develop private research institutes in the late 20th century.  Enter a long campaign by left, publicly funded intellectuals, to paint people at Cato, Heritage, AEI, RAND, Hoover, Mercatus, Liberty Fund, IHS, etc. as a bunch of dangerous ideologues.

Berman deserves an enormous applause for muting that dialogue to talk about the underlying principles here, but I wanted to propose my read of the history.

I don’t know exactly what happened at FSU’s economics department, but the debacle has been cherry picked and hammered to death.  Moreover, Berman compares this, the worst of right funding, with DARPA’s funding of the internet, the best of left . . . interventionist . . . public funding.  That’s not an instructive comparison.

The majority of the research the Department of Defense has done has gone towards attacking Iraqi civilians with degraded nuclear material and blowing up Afghanis.  One of their big streams of money funds number theorists.  Number theory has exactly zero scientific or practical applications — except for code making and breaking.

State funded interventionist intellectuals have promoted social programs that have corralled blacks into ghettos, blocked the measurement of sexuality and public health, legitimated the denial of reproductive rights to women, and manufactured statistics on drug addiction out of whole cloth.  Academics discriminate against their political opponents, even consciously admitting to it on anonymous surveys.  Moreover, state funded university education is an astonishing case of regressive redistribution.

Non-partisan, apolitical research and teaching.

Here’s what we do at our wingnut colloquia.  We all get a packet of fringe conspiracy material like Wealth of Nations and On Liberty, with a letter attached talking about the goals of open inquiry.  We show up to a room of people who come from a variety of disciplinary and political persuasions, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and genders.  We workshop papers and get CV tips.  There’s cake.

I think the only way to remedy this situation is to get rid of tenure, separate research from teaching and send tuition dollars to the pockets of instructors, and make research professionals go find their own patrons to fund their research.  Obama out spent Romney, and left academics will not lose their funding stream if they can’t take it from people with taxes.  Libertarian mega-billionaires will not reproduce ideological hegemony with funded university chairs.

Arguing for more state funding is not going to improve science, nor especially outcomes for the people we all want to persuade and save, who need the proposal and exercise of as many competing alternative hypotheses about their world as possible.  That requires taking money from all kinds of people, without using funding sources as an excuse to not listen to an argument.



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