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Why Professors Hate the Market

Mises Daily: Monday, June 05, 2000 by

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The anti-capitalism of college professors is legendary even if its genesis and basis is somewhat mysterious. If anything should be clear to those who care about evidence, it's that the market economy is superior to all forms of economic planning. Even minimal amounts of government intervention produce sector-specific stagnation.

Compare Fed-Ex, for example, to the post office, or public schools to private schools, or the unregulated high-tech sector with the highly regulated and unionized steel industry. Many heroic professors today do understand this. But that's not the norm. Why is it that so many professors in so many fields, particularly in elite institutions, and despite all evidence and good sense, still hate the market?

A clue comes from this year's hiring season. It turns out that college graduates, particularly in fields touching on computers and business, are hugely in demand. Colleges are flooded with recruiters vying for the students' attention. They are being courted as never before: wined and dined by executives, offered sign-up bonuses, paid salaries unheard of a decade ago.

But here’s the kicker: the large majority are not planning to attend graduate school. Apart from a real vocation to teach and research, why should they, especially in this extremely tight job market? Their skills are marketable in business and that’s where the money is.

In one case cited by the New York Times, Columbia University once had 70 percent of its graduating class planning to go forward with higher degrees. Now, only 20 percent are planning to do so. That's only one out of five students, at a prestigious school where you might expect that most students would seek higher degrees.

What does this imply about the remaining 20 percent? Among them, there are probably some potentially great scholars, people whose calling it is to live and work in the world of ideas. On the other hand, college officials fear that many of them are going on, not because they are brilliant, but precisely for the opposite reason: that they can’t cut it in the marketplace. As the Times puts it, "this trend makes many college officials fear that a smaller, and possibly less capable, group will choose to become professors."

It makes sense that grad school will be less attractive to people in boom times. But the Times. also reveals that the trend is very conspicuous in the reverse as well: it turns out that grad schools are most in demand during times of recession. Bad economic times equals high enrollment. It's no wonder that the intellectual class tends to hate the market: their very fortunes are bound up with creating more recessions, if only to fill seats in the classroom.

Ludwig von Mises once speculated, in his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, that the socialism of the professors was driven in part by government funding of universities, but also by the psychological factor of envy. Intellectuals consider themselves to be society’s most valuable assets, and look around to find businessmen, entertainers, and sports stars earning vastly more than they.

They conclude that the market is fundamentally unfair in the way it distributes resources, and resolve to do what they can to destroy it through teaching and writing. The current sorting trend is bound to increase the likelihood of professors in top schools being filled with envy toward capitalism. And the vast gulf that separates academic and business elites will grow ever wider.

Now, the university faces a problem of an additional kind: not only leftism but a general dumbing down. If the economic boom continues, and students continue to enter the marketplace rather than grad school, elite universities will no longer be the place where the best and brightest dwell.

This process of dumbing down has actually been going on for some time, and not only because the smartest are entering the business world. Affirmative action and politically correct degrees (women's studies, black studies, chicano studies, etc.) have dramatically diminished the prestige of graduate schools in general. And with police-state-style thought control and severe restrictions on intellectual life in general, campuses have lost the air of freedom that is necessary for creating a vibrant intellectual life.

The people who are inclined to put up with this are not going to be the fighters and the independent thinkers. Rather, they are the types who appreciate an environment of safe leftism, enjoy conformism to rigid socialist ideologies, and fear and loathe the rough and tumble of the market economy. They are inclined to do what they are told, adopt a conventional PC curriculum that avoids all controversy, and otherwise play it safe.

On the one hand, this kind of stagnation is a benefit to colleges because it permits them to squeeze out the troublemakers. On the other hand, their product will become less and less attractive to smarter people, and the social status of professors will decline. The decline will tend to feed on itself, with inferior teachers teaching inferior students at universities that once had the best reputations.

Thank goodness, the sad situation in elite schools is not representative of all universities. I know a historian who had impeccable credentials but had a hard time finding a position that reflected his qualifications. There was no other reason than that he was the wrong color (white), wrong sex (male), and held the wrong political views (conservative and free market). He ended up at a small college hardly anyone has heard of. On the other hand, he was astonished to find a very competent faculty filled with like-minded colleagues. It was a veritable haven of white male conservatives who had been shut out of name universities!

His story is a common one. Why did he and the thousands like him decide to pursue the academic life despite all the frustrations, low pay, and degrading treatment from the elites of the profession? Because they have a calling to teach and research, and can do no other. That is the original idea of the academic life, while the original idea of the university was a place set aside where others can benefit from their wisdom. In the long run, it is the body of thought taught by these idealists that will shape our world.

If the flight from elite academia ends up leaving only drones in place, who end up teaching only those whom the market rejected, while the brilliant few find alternative means of doing the hard and essential work of advancing knowledge, it will have been all to the good.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the alternative teaching community, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and editor of LewRockwell.com. Send him MAIL.