Mises Daily

Why Intellectuals Still Support Socialism

Intellectuals, particularly academic intellectuals, tend to favor socialism and interventionism. How was the American university transformed from a center of higher learning to an outpost for socialist-inspired culture and politics?

As recently as the early 1950s, the typical American university professor held social and political views quite similar to those of the general population. Today — well, you’ve all heard the jokes that circulated after the collapse of central planning in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, how the only place in the world where Marxists were still thriving was the Harvard political science department.

More generally, US higher education often looks like a clear case of the inmates running the asylum. That is, the students who were radicalized in the 1960s have now risen to positions of influence within colleges and universities. One needs only to observe the aggressive pursuit of “diversity” in admissions and hiring, the abandonment of the traditional curriculum in favor of highly politicized “studies” based on group identity, the mandatory workshops on sensitivity training, and so on.

A 1989 study for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching used the categories “liberal” and “conservative.” It found that 70 percent of the professors in the major liberal arts colleges and research universities considered themselves liberal or moderately liberal, with less than 20 percent identifying themselves as conservative or moderately conservative.1   (Of course, the term “liberal” here means left-liberal or socialist, not classical liberal.)

Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein have recently examined academics’ political affiliations using voter-registration records for tenure-track faculty at 11 California universities. They find an average Democrat:Republican ratio of 5:1, ranging from 9:1 at Berkeley to 1:1 at Pepperdine. The humanities average 10:1, while business schools are at only 1.3:1. (Needless to say, even at the heartless, dog-eat-dog, sycophant-of-the-bourgeoisie business schools the ratio doesn’t dip below 1:1.) While today’s Republicans are hardly anti-socialist — particularly on foreign policy — these figures are consistent with a widespread perception that university faculties are increasingly unrepresentative of the communities they supposedly serve.

Now here’s a surprise: Even in my own discipline, economics, 63 percent of the faculty in the Carnegie study identified themselves as liberal, compared with 72 percent in anthropology, political science, and sociology, 76 percent in ethnic studies, history, and philosophy, and 88 percent in public affairs. The Cardiff and Klein study finds an average D:R ratio in economics departments of 2.8:1 — lower than the sociologists’ 44:1, to be sure, but higher than that of biological and chemical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, management, marketing, accounting, and finance.

A survey of American Economic Association members, examined by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern, finds that most economists support safety regulations, gun control, redistribution, public schooling, and anti-discrimination laws. Another survey, reported in the Southern Economic Journal, reveals that “71 percent of American economists believe the distribution of income in the US should be more equal, and 81 percent feel that the redistribution of income is a legitimate role for government. Support for these positions is even stronger among economists with academic affiliations, and stronger still among economists with elite academic affiliations.”2

Why do so many university professors — and intellectuals more generally — favor socialism and interventionism? F. A. Hayek offered a partial explanation in his 1949 essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Hayek asked why “the more active, intelligent and original men among [American] intellectuals … most frequently incline toward socialism.” His answer is based on the opportunities available to people of varying talents.

Academics tend to be highly intelligent people. Given their leftward leanings, one might be tempted to infer from this that more intelligent people tend to favor socialism. However, this conclusion suffers from what empirical researchers call “sample selection bias.” Intelligent people hold a variety of views. Some are lovers of liberty, defenders of property, and supporters of the “natural order” — i.e., defenders of the market. Others are reformers, wanting to remake the world according to their own visions of the ideal society.

Hayek argues that exceptionally intelligent people who favor the market tend to find opportunities for professional and financial success outside the Academy (i.e., in the business or professional world). Those who are highly intelligent but ill-disposed toward the market are more likely to choose an academic career. For this reason, the universities come to be filled with those intellectuals who were favorably disposed toward socialism from the beginning.

This also leads to the phenomenon that academics don’t know much about how markets work, since they have so little experience with them, living as they do in their subsidized ivory towers and protected by academic tenure. As Joseph Schumpeter explained in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, it is “the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs” that distinguishes the academic intellectual from others “who wield the power of the spoken and the written word.” This absence of direct responsibility leads to a corresponding absence of first-hand knowledge of practical affairs. The critical attitude of the intellectual arises, says Schumpeter, “no less from the intellectual’s situation as an onlooker — in most cases also as an outsider — than from the fact that his main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value.”3

Hayek’s account is incomplete, however, because it doesn’t explain why academics have become more and more interventionist throughout the twentieth century. As mentioned above, during the first half of the twentieth century university faculty members tended to hold political views similar to those held by the general population. What caused the change?

To answer, we must realize first that academics receive many direct benefits from the welfare state, and that these benefits have increased over time.

Excluding student financial aid, public universities receive about 50 percent of their funding from federal and state governments, dwarfing the 18 percent they receive from tuition and fees. Even “private” universities like Stanford or Harvard receive around 20 percent of their budgets from federal grants and contracts.4   If you include student financial aid, that figure rises to almost 50 percent. According to the US Department of Education, about a third of all students at public, 4-year colleges and universities, and half the students at private colleges and universities, receive financial aid from the federal government.

In this sense, the most dramatic example of “corporate welfare” in the US is the GI Bill, which subsidized the academic sector, bloating it far beyond the level the market would have provided. The GI Bill, signed by President Roosevelt in 1944 to send returning soldiers to colleges and universities, cost taxpayers $14.5 billion between 1944 and 1956.5   Federal spending on the latest version, the Montgomery GI Bill, is projected at $3.2 billion in 2006 alone.

To see why this government aid is so important to the higher education establishment, we need only stop to consider for a moment what academics would do in a purely free society. The fact is that most academics simply aren’t that important. In a free society, there would be far fewer of them than there are today. Their public visibility would no doubt be quite low. Most would be poorly paid. Though some would be engaged in scholarly research, the vast majority would be teachers. Their job would be to pass the collective wisdom of the ages along to the next generation.

In all likelihood, there would also be far fewer students. Some students would attend traditional colleges and universities, but many more students would attend technical and vocational schools, where their instructors would be men and women with practical knowledge.

Today, many professors at major research universities do little teaching. Their primary activity is research, though much of that is questionable as real scholarship. One needs only to browse through the latest specialty journals to see what passes for scholarly research in most disciplines. In the humanities and social sciences, it is likely to be postmodern gobbledygook; in the professional schools, vocationally oriented technical reports.

Much of this research is funded in the United States by government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the USDA, and others. The large universities have tens of thousands of students, themselves supported by government-subsidized loans and grants.

Beyond university life, academics also compete for prestigious posts within government agencies. Consider my own field, economics. The US federal government employs at least 3,000 economists — about 15% of all members of the American Economic Association. The Federal Reserve System itself employs several hundred. There are also advisory posts, affiliations with important government agencies, memberships of federally appointed commissions, and other career-enhancing activities.

These benefits are not simply financial. They are also psychological. As Dwight Lee puts it:

Like every other group, academics like to exert influence and feel important. Few scholars in the social sciences and humanities are content just to observe, describe, and explain society; most want to improve society and are naive enough to believe that they could do so if only they had sufficient influence. The existence of a huge government offers academics the real possibility of living out their reformist fantasies.6

It’s clear, then, that there are many benefits, for academics, to living in a highly interventionist society. It should be no wonder, then, that academics tend to support those interventions. Economists, in particular, play active roles as government advisers, creating and sustaining the welfare state that now surrounds us. Naturally, when government funds their research, economists in applied fields such as agricultural economics and monetary economics are unlikely to call for serious regulatory reform in their specialty areas.

Murray Rothbard devotes an interesting chapter of Man, Economy, and State, to the traditional role of the economist in public life. Rothbard notes that the functions of the economist on the free market differ strongly from those of the economist on the hampered market. “What can the economist do on the purely free market?” Rothbard asks. “He can explain the workings of the market economy (a vital task, especially since the untutored person tends to regard the market economy as sheer chaos), but he can do little else.

Furthermore, economists are not traditionally popular as policy advisors. Economics teaches that resources are limited, that choices made imply opportunities forgone, that our actions can have unintended consequences. This is typically not what government officials want to hear. When they propose an import tariff to help domestic manufacturers, we economists explain that this protection will come only at the expense of domestic consumers. When they suggest a minimum-wage law to raise the incomes of low-wage workers, we show that such a law hurts the very people it purports to help by forcing them out of work. On and on it goes. As each new generation of utopian reformers promises to create a better society, through government intervention, the economist stands athwart history, yelling “Remember the opportunity cost!”

Over the last several decades, however, the role of the economist has expanded dramatically. Partly for the reasons we discussed earlier, the welfare state has partly co-opted the profession of economics. Just as a higher murder rate increases the demand for criminologists, so the growth of the welfare/regulatory state increases the demand for policy analysts, antitrust consultants, tax and regulatory experts, and various forecasters.

To some degree, the increasing professionalization of the economics business must share the blame for this change. The economists’ premier professional society, the American Economic Association, was itself created as an explicitly “progressive” organization. Its founder, the religious and social reformer Richard T. Ely, planned an association, he reported to a colleague, of “economists who repudiate laissez-faire as a scientific doctrine.”7

The other founding members, all of whom had been trained in Germany under Gustav Schmoller and other members of the younger German Historical School — the so-called Socialists of the Chair — were similarly possessed with reformist zeal. The constitution of the AEA still contains references to the “positive role of the church, the state and science in the solution of social problems by the ‘development of legislative policy.’”8

Fortunately, the AEA subsequently distanced itself from the aims of its founders, although its annual distinguished lecture is still called the “Richard T. Ely lecture.”9

If asked to select a single event that most encouraged the transformation of the average economist from a critic of intervention to a defender of the welfare state, I would name the Second World War. To be sure, it was the Progressive Era that saw the permanent introduction of the income tax and the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. And it was during the Great Depression that Washington, D.C. first began to employ a substantial number of economists, to join such central-planning organizations as the National Resources Planning Board. Still, even in those years, the average economist favored free trade, low taxes, and sound money.

World War II, however, was a watershed event for the profession. For the first time, professional economists joined the ranks of government planning bureaus en masse

  1. To control prices, as with the Office of Price Administration, led by Leon Henderson and later John Kenneth Galbraith. This group included prominent “free-market” economists such as Herbert Stein and George Stigler.    
  2. To study military procurement (what later became known as “operations research”) with Columbia University’s Statistical Research Group (including Stigler, Milton Friedman, Harold Hotelling, Abraham Wald, Leonard Savage), or with the Army’s Statistical Control Group, which was led by Tex Thornton, later president of Litton Industries, and his “Whiz Kids.” The most famous Whiz Kid was Robert McNamara, Thornton’s leading protégé, who later applied the same techniques to the management of the Vietnam War.  

Before World War II the primary language of economics, in the English-speaking world, was English. Since then, however, economic theory has come to be expressed in obscure mathematical jargon, while economic history has become a branch of applied statistics.

It is common to attribute this change to the 1947 publication of Paul Samuelson’s mathematical treatise, Foundations of Economic Analysis, and to the development of computers. These are no doubt important. However, it is likely the taste of central planning that economists — even nominally free-market economists — got during World War II that forever changed the direction of the discipline.

What about other public figures, what Hayek called “second-hand dealers in ideas” — the journalists, book editors, high-school teachers, and other members of the “opinion-molding” class? First, intelligent and articulate liberals (in the classical sense) tend to go into business and the professions (Hayek’s selection-bias argument). Second, many journalists trade integrity for access; few are brave enough to challenge the state, because they crave information, interviews, and time with state officials.


What does the future hold? It is impossible to say for sure, but there are encouraging signs. The main reason is technology. The web has challenged the state-university and state-media cartels as never before. You don’t need a PhD to write for Wikipedia. What does the rise of the new media, new means of sharing information, new ways of establishing authority and credibility, imply for universities as credential factories? Moreover, as universities become more vocationally oriented, they will find it hard to compete with specialized, technology-intensive institutions such as DeVry University and the University of Phoenix, the fastest-growing US universities.

Home schooling, the costs of which are greatly lowered by technology, is also on the rise. And traditional media (newspapers and network news) are of course rapidly declining, and alternative news sources are flourishing.

The current crises in higher education and the media are probably good things, in the long run, if they force a rethinking of educational and intellectual goals and objectives, and take power away from the establishment institutions. Then, and only then, we may see a rebirth of genuine scholarship, communication, and education.

  • 1Cited in Dwight Lee, “Go to Harvard and Turn Left: The Rise of Socialist Ideology in Higher Education,” in T. William Boxx and Gary M. Quinlivan, eds., The Cultural Context of Economics and Politics (Lanham, MA: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 15–26.
  • 2Lee, “Go to Harvard and Turn Left,” p. 21.
  • 3Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1942), p. 147.
  • 4US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Financial Statistics of Institutions of Higher Education” surveys; and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “Finance” surveys, as reported in 1996 Digest of Education Statistics (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, 1996).
  • 5Theda Skocpol, “Delivering for Young Families: The Resonance of the GI Bill,” American Prospect 28 (September — October 1996): 66–72.
  • 6Lee, “Go to Harvard and Turn Left,” p. 22.
  • 7A.W. Coats, “The First Two Decades of the American Economic Association,” American Economic Review 50 (September 1960): 555–574, esp. p. 556.
  • 8Coats, “The First Two Decades of the American Economic Association,” p. 558.
  • 9For more on the professionalization of economics see Michael A. Bernstein, A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).
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