Why So Few Conservative And Libertarian Professors?

1.29.10 – Daniel B. Klein – Two researchers offer a new twist on an old question—why do college professors overwhelmingly lean to the left? Bias against conservatives is not the main reason, nor are the allegedly higher IQs of liberals, say Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse of Harvard.

Why So Few Conservative And Libertarian Professors?

By Daniel B. Klein

Two researchers offer a new twist on an old question—why do college professors overwhelmingly lean to the left? Bias against conservatives is not the main reason, nor are the allegedly higher IQs of liberals, say Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse of Harvard. Instead they suggest a theory of “path dependence” –few conservatives are attracted to work in scholarly fields dominated by the left, just as few males want to be nurses in a traditionally female field. People tend to giggle when a man wants to become a nurse, they say, and conservatives tend to feel similar embarrassment in entering leftist academe.

This giggle theory underrates what leftist domination does to faculties. In the recent book The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope and Reforms, Charlotta Stern and I discuss groupthink mechanisms. The majoritarian procedure of each department means that once a majority leans left, the department will tend toward leftist uniformity. The pyramidal structure of each discipline means that publication, awards, grants, recommendations will follow the pyramid’s apex, and if the apex goes left it tends to sweep leftists/neuters into job posts throughout the pyramid.

If leftists have a lock on many fields, it means that non-left applicants will tend to be screened out. Awareness of that feeds back to the non-left student’s thoughts about the future. Self-selection is a function of the screening.

We found that Republican-voting members of the scholarly associations were significantly more likely to have landed outside of academia. For example, in Anthropology/Sociology, 43% of the Republican scholars were working outside academia, compared with only 24% of Democrat scholars. In History, it was 47% versus 27%. In all six disciplines overall, it was 41% versus 25.

The individuals we are talking about here are members of the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association, and so on. Most had PhDs. So we find that Republican-voting members of such associations are consistently more likely to be working outside of academia – in government, private sector, independent research, or other. Do we think these people don’t care for research and learning, that they just don’t want the income, security, prestige, and student attention that professor status affords? Then why are they members of such associations?

Somehow the smoking-gun evidence of our study has been consistently overlooked by scholars like Gross and Fosse, the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. We must remember that the professionalization and entrenchment of the academic disciplines, and vast expansion of the public university systems, are all part of the modern social-democratic age. The past 120 years are one era. In the history of the social sciences and humanities – economics included – the professionalizers generally had ideological sensibilities strongly progressive/social-democratic.

Besides, the analogy to male nurses doesn’t ring true for the non-left professor -classical liberal, libertarian, or conservative, not moderate or uncommitted. I’ve never dreaded telling an acquaintance I’m a professor. I don’t fret that he would assume I like FDR or The West Wing or single-payer healthcare. Why should I care if he did? Would a woman dread reactions to the revelation that she is an elite chess or poker player—both games dominated by men? More likely such a woman would feel special pride in having cracked a male field. Many non-left professors may feel that way. Also, the non-left professor surely has the comfort of blaming leftist bias for his not being more eminent.

Role models and mentors for non-left professors do matter a lot. But that’s different from the giggle theory.

For role models, a student can admire a Milton Friedman or Richard Epstein. It isn’t hard for one to find images of the non-left professor. One communes with Milton Friedman by reading his books and watching the many videos of him available on Youtube.com. But not taking classes with a non-left professor will certainly dampen the non-left student’s academic aspirations and prospects.

The great classical liberals Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek said that, by and large, beyond our local setting we lack the knowledge to make our benevolence effective. Smith and Hayek helped to formulate and establish a web of verities, by-and-large truths, intended to establish a presumption of liberty, a presumption that we don’t know enough to intervene beneficially. This classical liberal philosophy, rooted in humility, is out of sync with a “progressive research program,” that currently dominates the academy. Groupthink and philosophy combine to keep the non-left away.

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Daniel Klein is professor of economics at George Mason University and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.

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January 29th, 2010

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