Saturday, July 4, 2020

Is Academia a Right-Wing Institution with a Left-Wing Cover?

In this post at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen speculates that Los Angeles is the most "right-wing" city in the US in terms of practice, rather than people's political beliefs. Here, "right-wing" signifies strong inequality in status

In LA, there is winner-takes-all kind of tournament, and people are strongly motivated to raise their own status while willing to accept radical inequality in prestige. People are treated differently based on their status and prestige, and in particular, how they look, whom they know, and who's in their network. All of this is tolerated and celebrated, despite the overtly "left-wing" politics people claim to espouse. 

If I recall correctly, in another post, Cowen speculates that often times the political ideology of a place tends to counteract, balance, or cover up the underlying politics. So, for instance, LA and New York are very hierarchical and status-driven, but espouse left-wing politics, while red cities often have much lower income inequality, but espouse conservative ideas.

I similarly wonder if academia is a right-wing institution with a left-wing cover. Below is a partial excerpt, modified in various ways, from a paper forthcoming in an edited anthology:

Given how poorly universities behave and given how much they undermine social justice, it’s strategic for administrators to use social justice talk as much as possible. While academia is supposed to aim at a higher mission and be non-profit, the actual people inside academia are normal, selfish, for-profit people. Egalitarian talk is often a cover or disguise for the pursuit of self-interest, just as talk of salvation in the medieval Catholic church was often a cover for the pursuit of real estate, power, and wealth. 

While academia is filled with people who posit egalitarian ideals, it is not an egalitarian place. In behavior, academia may be the most right-wing institution in the US, even more than the military or the police. (Think of how open the military and police are to accepting and promoting common people. Now think of how open the good colleges and universities are.) Higher ed serves a very right-wing function, namely, to reinforce class hierarchy. Academia is highly hierarchical; everything and everyone gets ranked, and everyone is acutely aware of such rankings. Finally, while nearly all academics pay lip service to left-wing ideals, their actual behavior is predominantly selfish. In short, academics simultaneously promote egalitarianism philosophy and inegalitarian outcomes. Status, not education, is the sine qua non and the essential product it sells; if it stopped providing this, it would quickly go out of business. Higher education strongly contributes to income inequality, especially in the United States.


People often use moral language to disguise their pursuit of self-interest. Academics in general are trained to use moral language in a sophisticated way. Perhaps we should regard academic egalitarianism as cheap altruism. If I say I’m an egalitarian, I come across as nice and caring, even though I haven’t thereby done anything to help others or sacrificed my self-interest to help the poor. On the contrary, many egalitarians go out of their way to explain why their egalitarian commitments do not require them to donate their excess income to others.