Monday, September 11, 2017

Buying influence in the university

One underlying fallacy behind arguments like this is that but for the money they get from donors, academics (or, journalists, writers, artists, etc.) would be writing about and arguing for entirely the reverse of what they now say. They are either natural intellectual blank slates, people with no ideas or opinions of their own arrived at from their own study and reflection, or, in this case, they are natural socialists. But dangle a few Koch dollars in front of them, and they will bust out into a libertarian free-market dance. Since academics and universities have no private interests of their own, if we can eliminate private funding from higher education, we eliminate private interest with it. And what's left behind is unconstrained "free" thought:
The more thinking is directly subsidized, the less it is actually free—which is to say, empowered to range where the relevant thinkers please, without any worries about a funder’s intellectual preferences. Private money for academia comes with a cost—especially when the funders are corporations, even if the beneficiaries are putatively liberal.
Public money, we are asked to conclude, comes with no such "worries" about "a funder's intellectual preferences," because democratic and legislative majorities have no "intellectual preferences" to foist on the beneficiaries of their largess. They fund immense state university systems purely for the satisfaction of empowering "thinkers" to let their thoughts range freely and would be perfectly content if, say, every product of these institutions elected to become a professional philosopher, or better yet, an anti-democratic revolutionary. The only actors in our regime motivated by private interest are rich people.

Let us try to imagine, instead, how it is the academics who are getting the better of the donors. In reality, academics come with a lot of pre-existing convictions, stronger ones than the average person's (though not necessarily wiser) on account of the immense intellectual energy they've devoted to cultivating them. Unlike donors who've made fortunes selling doo-dads or maybe other people's money, academics have only one thing to sell - their ideas. And they can hardly get anything for them on the open market. They make nothing in royalties because no one buys their $150 books, and they publish all their articles that no one reads for free. But along comes some rich guy who's willing to hand them millions of dollars to produce and publicize the very things they've been slaving over in obscurity for so many years. This rich guy has agreed to forego all the potential interest and dividends he could earn by investing the same money in something actually lucrative, and to let them use it instead for completely money-losing ventures like putting on conferences and teaching classes and hiring post-docs. Moreover, the rich guy is not himself a scholar, so he doesn't really know or care how the sausage is made, just so long as the scholars he funds keep on saying the sorts of things they've always said, which he likes but probably does not fully understand (or else he'd use his moneyz to become a scholar himself). His money alone can't force more people to read or agree with the things the scholars write, but it can make their writing of these things much easier and more comfortable for them. Which is to say, so long as the scholars keep on doing the work which they previously did very assiduously for minimal monetary rewards, they will get big monetary rewards from a guy who has devoted himself to amplifying their influence without really understanding their work. Is the donor buying influence, or are the scholars selling donors a bill of goods?

Obviously, it's not that bad for the poor rich guy because he believes that academic influence matters, and maybe it even does, so he may be getting his money's worth. But these sorts of condemnations of private money in higher ed never seem to consider that academics have ideas and interests, very strong ones, that often precede any offers of private money to pursue those ideas and interests. You can't create a libertarian or a liberal or any other kind of ideologue by picking a professor out of a hat and handing him a check. Libertarian donors fund scholars who are themselves libertarian, liberals fund liberals, and so on, and scholars seek out like-minded funders on the same principle. Donors don't want to change scholars' minds by funding them; that would be even more inefficient than funding scholarship in the first place. So if "buying influence" is not really about paying people to advance your ideas, but paying people to keep advancing their own ideas which you agree with, then what is the problem? Is it substantially different from donating money to universities to use for other purposes, like building a new dorm or hiring faculty or even to use for whatever purpose they elect?

Describing a libertarian beneficiary of libertarian funding, Johnson claims that,
The problem is the way he has been able to leapfrog the entire customary governing structure of a university and, via his wealthy friends’ emoluments, enjoy a coronation as the equivalent of university dean. If aspiring political philosophers want some of the post-docs, fellowships, or conference presentations Schmidtz’s center can lavish on them, they obviously need to gain Schmidtz’s favor; Schmidtz’s favor, in turn, relies upon that of his benefactors. If students are not libertarians, they are likely to modulate their views. And as for the true believers, the financial and professional support they find is enviable.
This assumes that "the customary governing structure of a university" is itself a shining example of disinterestedness, and that this fellow Schmidtz is the only game in town for professional advancement. If there were no jobs in philosophy for non-libertarians, then we might say that the "need to gain Schmidtz's favor" to advance is a problem for the discipline. But that's never the case. If you don't like Schmidtz or the work he does, you can apply instead to dozens of other equally narrow positions and funding opportunities which in turn exclude the topics and approaches that Schmidtz favors. However, because academia is the last feudal regime in the West, under "the customary governing structure of a university" that is apparently so great, you always need to gain someone's favor to get goodies like post-docs, fellowships, and conferences. Getting rid of outside funding will only diminish the number and variety of asses available to kiss, but it will do nothing to render ass-kissing unnecessary.

Johnson even admits that there is nothing in principle wrong with advancing the libertarian arguments that the Kochs like, since "such provocations can be quite salutary in philosophy, a field that ruthlessly questions all presuppositions." The problem, he claims arises when provocations are
"incentivized by private money with the explicit aim of passing laws. Zwolinski’s price-gouging piece, for example, includes a handy appendix listing states with anti-price-gouging statutes. I don’t recall John Rawls helping out readers by categorizing state tax policies in terms of how far they run afoul of the Difference Principle."
This seems to be a distinction between (laudable) abstract "provocation" with no political or legislative goals such as Rawls's Theory of Justice, and (corrupt) "provocations" concrete enough to translate directly into laws. But Rawls did aim to influence laws, in a much bigger way than Zwolinski, so much bigger that a list of all those that run afoul of his principles would've required its own book. A rich liberal in the 1960s who wanted to advance redistributive welfare programs through philosophical arguments could not have done better than to promote Rawls, even though nothing he wrote could be turned directly into legislation. Inversely though, sinking money into an academic article for the purpose of securing the passage of a pro-price gouging law is probably imprudent. At least if you hire a lobbyist, he will have direct connections to legislators, which is a lot more than one can say for peer-reviewed philosophy journals. Worse yet, a great deal of academic research, even that which is indirectly or even publicly funded, is about narrow and concrete topics whose conclusions can easily be translated into particular laws. Empirical research almost by definition is concrete like this, and there are entire schools of public policy which pursue research designed to inform legislation. So in the end, a categorical distinction between the kind of research that private money issues in and the kind that "free thought" produces can't be sustained.

So long as academics depend on paychecks, the "free thought" Johnson seeks will never be possible in universities. It takes the greatest naivete or willful ignorance to think that getting a paycheck from the state immunizes scholars against external "influences" on their research, whereas getting one from someone who agrees with their work and wants to subsidize their instincts is a distortion of freedom. State legislatures demand "relevance" and economic growth, not to speak of whatever other local priorities - economic and ideological - their constituents may value. The "customary governing structures" of universities undermine Johnson's "freedom" even further - you must study what your disciplinary superiors deem valuable using the methods they prefer to find employment in the first place, and you must be sufficiently prolific and influential in the study of these things to convince these same superiors to let you keep your job. Private funding mitigates these pressures by opening up the universities to study that legislatures don't want to subsidize (often for good reason), and those to which prevailing fashions and academic and disciplinary hierarchies are indifferent or averse (sometimes with good reason, sometimes not).

It's true that, woefully for Johnson, there aren't currently many socialist or far left philanthropists funding the kind of research he finds congenial. (Which is apparently ok, because "obvious solutions don’t need research.") Indeed, restricting private funding of higher education because, at the moment, such funding disproportionately comes from conservatives, libertarians, and liberals, while reinforcing academic hierarchies in the humanities and social sciences, which at the moment favor the left, seems to be very much in keeping with a certain kind of private and partial interest that is not so different from the motivations of the Kochs, et al. But the political views of "the donor class" and the fashions of academia are contingent things, subject to change and even reversal. If such reversal were to transpire, private funding may turn out to be the last bastion for socialist and leftist thought, as a certain libertarian philosopher once pointed out.

Meanwhile, there is nothing fundamental about private funding that makes its recipient intellectually unfree, just as there is nothing fundamentally liberating about public funding. It's the self-supporting philosopher, the Thales who uses his knowledge to make a killing in olive oil futures and depends on no funds from anyone who is properly free in the Johnsonian sense. But those people don't become professors in the first place.


Withywindle said...

Read; enjoyed: don't disagree.

Miss Self-Important said...


Andrew Stevens said...

I will go further and signal complete agreement, though I don't normally comment to do that.

And I'm not this time. We are now going to test your thesis about whether Trump can be trolled. Now that he's been praised by all the morning news shows for betraying his base and working with his good buddies Chuck and Nancy, we'll see whether that's enough to encourage him to keep doing it.

Miss Self-Important said...

You're right, this is a kind of test case. Although I thought that the flattery Trump mainly sought was from his own constituents, or people who could plausibly appear to be his constituents. The media is just a medium, literally, for conveying the flattery. So in this case, the troll would be to have a bunch of attractive young DACA recipients tell him how much they love him and how grateful they are to him for his humane and wise views on immigration and how excited they are to vote for him in 2020 because they know he's going to defend them in order to convince him to actually defend them.

A case where the media praises him for something he's already done (or isn't sure whether to admit he's done?) creates different incentives, especially if it clearly pits him against his supporters rather than aligning him with at least some people who claim to be his supporters. It will help us to see if he's motivated by flattery from any source or he's specifically concerned to be loved by his loyal followers.

Andrew Stevens said...

Don't let him fool you. He cares very, very deeply what the media think of him; he's obsessed by it and has been for more than 40 year. It's just that ever since he entered politics they've all hated him so he has to hate them back.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, I don't doubt it. Just saying that it's quite the same kind of trolling I had in mind. But it may be easier!