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Missing the Point

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy is talking about what conservatives think, without talking to any real conservatives. He's dismissing the complaint that conservatives are underrepresented in academia, and how this 'challenges' our 'assumptions':

The trouble is that conservatives, by and large, tend to believe that people get what they deserve in life and that labor markets — whether for food service workers, corporate consultants, assistant professors or any other occupation — shake out fairly. When confronted with evidence of systematic racial or gender inequality, for example, they’ll go to considerable effort to argue that it’s differences in natural talent, acquired skills or personal preferences that are driving the outcome.

Which is, of course, a joke. Conservatives do believe something similar: that over time, in a free market, such biases will tend to even out in the aggregate. After all, if Mister Evil and I both own factories, and he discriminates against minority workers, I can hire better people at a lower price, and I'll drive him out of business. This takes time, but that's the basic mechanism.

Academia isn't like that, and Kieran's smart enough to know that no 'conservative' with half a brain believes that the market for corporate consultants works in any measure like that for academics. For one thing, find me a guy at PriceWaterhouse or Accenture who's got tenure. Universities don't compete with one another in the same way that the big consultancies do, nor do they compete for dollars in the same way. [1] The public teat of government alters incentives, to say the least: otherwise, why would all these law professors be incensed by the Solomon amendment. Some reasons for liberal academia (preference of academics for non-competitive environments, for instance, or for conservatives to go into higher-paying industry jobs), and some of these imbalances may indeed be fading over time as conservatives would expect. (Hence, the rise of the University of Chicago.) It's far from clear that a conservative with half a brain faces the 'challenge' Healy's putting forward.

This is the reason I very rarely read Crooked Timber, and instead prefer En Banc. Far fewer of the latter's arguments are structured like this:

1. I believe X.
2. (Conservatives/Republicans/whatever) believe (some version of X which is obviously untrue and hideously oversimplified).
3. I have no need to include quotes from actual conservatives, or indeed attack a single person with identifiable views rather than some vast amorphous blob that I can describe as I wish.
4. I am therefore correct. QED.

I try to avoid that style of argument (unless it's necessary for humor--but then I don't expect to be taken seriously), primarily because if my estimate of my opponent's view can be taken apart by a five-year-old child (see number 12), it doesn't make me look all that good.

[1] But don't just take my word for it: even leftish sci-fi authors agree with me. (Sort of off topic, but the ways in which academia, and particularly researchers, differ from the free market is a big topic of Bruce Sterling's Distraction, which I finished up last week.)


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En Banc is quite suddenly dead. I'll reorganize our blogroll shortly in light of this. Query: does this mean that Anthony Rickey will now have to turn to Crooked Timber?... [Read More]

» Sputter- what? from Crescat Sententia
En Banc is quite suddenly dead. I'll reorganize our blogroll shortly in light of this. Query: does this mean that Anthony Rickey will now have to turn to Crooked Timber?... [Read More]


Is US academia really that left wing? All the major business schools and economics departments seem to be hugely to the right. I saw Joseph Stiglitz explaining that he had to get a nobel prize before he could lecture on his version of Keynesianism and be taken seriously. Then again, maybe its just that educated people tend to be more leftwing :-)

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