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The Struggle for Liberty in Today's Academy

Mises Daily: Friday, November 02, 2001 by

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Tibor R. MachanSometime during the 1970s I was closely associated with the University of California-Santa Barbara's Department of Philosophy, struggling to develop and explore my classical liberal, libertarian, and Objectivist (or neo-Aristotelian) ideas and gain for them some respect among the faculty and students. I had very limited success--indeed, may be said to have been failing--until something rather comic happened. 

The department had invited Professor Antony Flew to give a paper, and we all gathered on a Friday afternoon to wait for him from the airport. He arrived on time and was being ushered into the reception room where a sort of welcoming line was formed, with all of us standing in anticipation. 

Professor Flew was by then a very accomplished analytic philosopher, a Hume scholar, and the editor of several volumes on various aspects of analytic philosophy. He was, let's say, a legend in his own time. As Professor Flew appeared at the door, welcomed by the various faculty members, he stopped and, raising his voice, aired the following question, roughly, addressed to no one in particular:  "Where is Tibor Machan? Does he not do graduate work here?"  

Well, my not being the star of the department's student body, Professor Flew's question was met with skepticism and puzzlement. Why would he want to know about this renegade person, something of a nuisance during those heydays of the New Left and various fashionable statist doctrines? 

It turned out, if my memory serves me right, that Professor Flew had by then discovered Reason Magazine, which I had helped launch in Santa Barbara in 1969. And from its pages he must have learned that there was this libertarian at UCSB's philosophy department, and he wanted to know a bit about him.

While the episode was mainly of personal significance to me, an aspect of it has some broader lessons to teach us. It took this kind of "merit by association" to give at least a slight boost to my own career in its very early stages. Henceforth none of the folks at UCSB's department of philosophy could dismiss my politics as cavalierly as they had up to that point. 

In this way the episode forecast a more important advance in the modern classical liberal movement, namely, Nozick's publication, while he was a young professor in Harvard's Department of Philosophy, of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which gave the more widespread impetus to the legitimization of libertarian in academic political philosophy and theory. Nozick's book was an intellectual virtuosity, there's no doubt about that, but it is questionable whether without his Princeton/Harvard pedigree it would have made the impact it did. 

As Thomas S. Kuhn suggested, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), which launched the concept of "paradigm" on its very successful career as a buzzword, only when a basic idea gains social acceptance as a problem solver do folks in a discipline begin to pay attention to it. This may not speak all that well of many in the disciplines involved, but it does often help get a position over a crucial hump, as Nozick did with libertarianism. 

In the tradition of liberal education the ideal is for the academy to devote itself to both the education of young scholars and the investigation of the facts and theories of the various disciplines. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the application of the standard of publishing or perishing at most higher educational institutions--those who teach need to keep abreast of their discipline, and being involved in research and scholarship is surely one good way of doing this. 

As with all human institutions, corruption is always a possibility, and so many institutions of higher education can become sectarian and monolithic, not to mention homes to what is not very charitably referred to as deadbeat scholars who, usually once they have achieved tenure, no longer take part in the conversations of their fields. Institutions may, of course, make valiant or perfunctory efforts to discourage this, and we are familiar enough with all these at various colleges and universities. Keeping someone at the assistant or associate professorship level for decades on end, with no or merely token increases in compensation, is just one such effort. Ostracism and criticism are others.

Institutions, of course, may themselves be so structured as to encourage or discourage conscientiousness, and this is so with higher education. I want to argue that having higher education managed, ultimately, by the state is one of the most corrupting aspects we find in these institutions. And one of most obvious casualties of this corruption is the neglect of serious studies of a private education alternative in higher education, along with all of the adjacent inquiries that might focus on the pros and cons of what we might call the voluntary or fully free society. 

Now it is not easy to measure just how an institution might have fared apart from being associated with the government. Frederick Bastiat's famous insight about what is seen and what is not seen comes to mind immediately, as one considers why such measurement is difficult. If the state provides what is euphemistically called free education--and given that people will generally be reluctant to refuse to take advantage of what does not appear to them to be costing them anything in favor of purchasing what they take to be the same service--it is difficult to imagine a plethora of fully private higher educational institutions in a society in which government is collecting and spending confiscated resources on the same. 

So comparative studies are nearly impossible in such cases--even those colleges and universities that are labeled "private" receive extensive funding from the government and inadvertently model themselves on the government's version of higher education. True diversity, experimentation, and such isn't very reasonable to expect under such circumstances.

Yet it is not all that difficult to judge the matter via thought experimentation. Consider, in this connection, the readiness with which studies funded by private industry are often indicted merely because the funding may induce some to skew their findings. If the tobacco industry funds a study on nicotine addiction or the impact of advertising on the young, it will readily be criticized for being completely unreliable, never mind the specific techniques deployed in the study. (One paradox is that, of course, those who aren't connected to the industry tend not to know a whole lot about what is supposed to be researched in the first place.)

It is more rare to find criticisms of scientific or scholarly work performed at government-funded universities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of political scientists, historians, political philosophers, and others dealing with the study of human community life fully or largely acquiesce to the statist position in nearly all aspects of their work. The exception is when it comes to attempts at direct control of what they themselves are saying--akin to the way the press tends to favor government solutions other than when it comes to cleaning up its own act, in which case it vigorously invokes the First Amendment to fend off the state. 

Yet it is rarely suggested that all the government funding of research and scholarship may well have a corrupting affect on these endeavors. Recently, several philosophers--among them most notably Peter Singer--refused to even attend conferences on environmental issues sponsored by Shell Oil Corporation on the expressed ground that doing so would contribute to the corruption of the disciplines being considered at the conference. Yet thousands of scholars every year take part in government-funded NEH and similarly government-sponsored seminars, and thousands more take money from government to help them write their books and do their research. I have yet to hear the same complaint from the folks so concerned about industry-sponsored work about government-funded work.

Yet surely the state, given its far greater power and lack of competition, is a more serious threat to scholarly and scientific objectivity and nonpartisanship than are private firms that must always be careful that the work of other, competing firms will attract great respect and trustworthiness and, thus, profits. 

There is no serious doubt in my mind that what I have related above accounts, in significant measure, for the absence of a serious contingent of classical liberal and libertarian scholars through Western higher education, except in the field of economics, where the ideas of classical liberalism are well nigh a defining element of the discipline itself. Trade or economic exchange is, after all, impossible without the freedom to come to mutually agreeable terms, so economists are, as some of their critics from the Left rightfully point out, necessarily working within the classical liberal framework or, if you will, paradigm. 

In my own case, I can give you three telling stories. Around 1984 or so I applied for a Congressional Fellowship, which would have involved working in the office of some member of Congress and contributing to the discussion of the various measures on which he or she was considering a vote. I made it to the short list and was flown to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where the final interviews were being held. When my turn came, the very first question the head of the committee conducting the interviews asked me was: "How could you, one who considers libertarianism sound, ever advise anyone in Congress?"  I answered, "Well, I could ask whether the measure pertained to what the role of government is supposed to be in a free society."  Needless to say, I was not selected.

On another occasion I recommended a project to one of the grant-giving bodies in Washington, suggesting that I investigate the proper scope of public authority, with an emphasis on an analysis of the concept of "the public" in a free society. It came to light, after my proposal was rejected, that several of the panelists found this line of enquiry--not, mind you, my methodology or scope of research or scholarship--infelicitous because it would not likely contribute to proactive government proposals.

Finally, in 1987, Sidney Hook and I made a pilot for a proposed PBS series on political philosophy, "For the Love of Work," featuring the ideas of Karl Marx. This received enthusiastic endorsements from a wide variety of scholars, by no means all of them classical liberals, and was nevertheless turned down. The Wall Street Journal did some digging and discovered that one panelist voted against it on the expressed grounds that the program proposed to feature as its host a "mere popularizer of libertarianism." 

That I had by then published in several major philosophy journals and law reviews was cast aside in the decision process of this panelist and, I can only surmise, in that of most of the others. 

My claim is by no means that everyone must get corrupted in a government-funded college or university. But I would maintain that unless one is rather strict with oneself and keeps the issue in the forefront of his or her mind, such corruption is very likely to creep into one's academic work, if only by making sure that one does not touch on sensitive topics, ones that may offend the authorities who distribute the resources taken from the citizenry. 

Why, one can ask, would such folks fund work that undermines their own dedicated service, one that presupposes the aggressively proactive state?  It would not be reasonable, would it? This leaves us with a problem: how to extricate higher--indeed, all--education from the clutches of government?  In semi-democracies such as we have in most Western societies, in order to effectuate change without out-and-out violent revolution, it is necessary to gain the support of those who are primarily concerned with an area of study and practice. 

But the state has a monopoly on higher education, and those who work for it tend, in part accordingly, to favor the state in most every respect. How can their support be obtained? The good news is that even the state can go bankrupt, in more ways than one, including intellectually. And there is plenty of evidence that statism itself is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Not only because its most explicit forms have been discredited in the minds of many citizens, but also because any honest investigation of the arguments made in favor of statism has to conclude that these arguments are tepid, desperate, and merely repeat the lame dogmas of the past.  

Thus the minority but growing number of dedicated students and, often, champions of the free society may yet have a chance to turn people's minds, especially those of the next generation seeking fresh solutions to the problems of community life. This, at least, is my hope.

But complacency is a big obstacle to progress, as is the more understandable fact that many people, among them a great many intellectuals, are dreamers and believe that against all odds they can eat cakes and have them, can square circles, can reach the impossible dream. 

This is understandable because in some cases believing along these lines can be the way to make important breakthroughs. Yet just as breakthroughs must be made without abandoning good ideas already developed, so it is vital that whatever political experimentation seems appealing not be done at the expense of values we know well enough to be confident about. And because no guarantee exists against this temptation, libertarians must recognize that their vision is a possibility but by no means some guaranteed future.


Tibor Machan, adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University. He gave this talk at a Mises Institute conference on the Philosophy of Liberty. You may send him MAIL or view his Mises.org Article Archive.