Why Tenured Professors Should Never Be Allowed to Opine About Free Trade or Free Markets

I've long held that tenured professors who espouse 'free trade' or 'free markets' should have their tenure revoked--let's see how their tune changes (and I do include Krugman in this*). Ditto pundits with cushy sinecures. Let's put them in a world where they could show up at 9am and be told to pack their things and leave the building by 11am and see whether they extol its virtues (FREEDOM!!!)**.

Anyway, by way of Digby, we stumble across this brilliant essay about Robert Nozick, the Harvard philosopher who made libertarianism respectable. While the whole thing is worth a read, this section seemed pitch perfect (boldface mine):

Why did the Nozick of 1975 confuse capital with human capital? And why did Nozick by 1989 feel the need to disavow the Nozick of 1975? The key, I think, is recognizing the two mysteries as twin expressions of a single, primal, human fallibility: the need to attribute success to one's own moral substance, failure to sheer misfortune. The effectiveness of the Wilt Chamberlain example, after all, is best measured by how readily you identify with Wilt Chamberlain. Anarchy is nothing if not a tour-de-force, an advertisement not just for libertarianism but for the sinuous intelligence required to put over so peculiar a thought experiment. In the early '70s, Nozick--and this is audible in the writing--clearly identified with Wilt: He believed his talents could only be flattered by a free market in high value-add labor. By the late '80s, in a world gone gaga for Gordon Gekko and Esprit, he was no longer quite so sure.

...At the same time the university boomed, marginal tax rates for high earners stood as high as 90 percent. This collapsed the so-called L-curve, the graphic depiction of wealth distribution in the United States. The L-curve lay at its flattest in 1970, just as Nozick was sitting down to write Anarchy. In 1970, there were nearly 500,000 employed academics, and their relative income stood at an all-time high. To the extent anyone could believe mental talent, human capital, and capital were indistinguishable, it was thanks to the greatest market distortion in the history of industrial capitalism; and because for 40 years, thanks to this distortion, talent had not been forced to compete with the old "captains of industry", with the financiers and the CEOs.

Buccaneering entrepreneurs, boom-and-bust markets, risk capital--these conveniently disappeared from Nozick's argument because they'd all but disappeared from capitalism. In a world in which J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt have been rendered obsolete, reduced to historical curios, to a funny old-style man, imprisoned in gilt frames, the professionals--the scientists, engineers, professors, lawyers and doctors--correspondingly rise in both power and esteem. And in a world in which the professions are gatekept by universities, which in turn select students based on their measured intelligence, the idea that talent is mental talent, and mental talent is, not only capital, but the only capital, becomes easier and easier for a humanities professor to put across. Hence the terminal irony of Anarchy: Its author's audible smugness in favor of libertarianism was underwritten by a most un-libertarian arrangement--i.e., the postwar social compact of high marginal taxation and massive transfers of private wealth in the name of the very "public good" Nozick decried as nonexistent....

Charging high fees as defended by their cartels, cartels defended in turn by universities, universities in turn made powerful by the military state, many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just [as] this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller, it helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later.

And there you have the woof and warp of the Chicago school of economics. Yes, they gussy it up with some (primitive) math, but there's the underlying 'conceptual' edifice: ego, vanity, and a lack of self-awareness.

Which sounds a lot like your run-of-the-mill batshitloonitarian.

Related: Brad DeLong demonstrates how a true follower of Nozick fails the Turing Test. (heh).

*Krugman, like most economists, during the nineties and early aughts was a dogmatic 'free trader' (i.e., pro-shipping jobs oversees, consequences and causes be damned). Since he was one of the few big-name pundits to oppose Bush, however, he is viewed as a far-out lefty.

**Full disclosure: I don't have a tenured (or tenure-track) position.

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I've long held that tenured professors who espouse 'free trade' or 'free markets' should have their tenure revoked--let's see how their tune changes (and I do include Krugman in this*). Ditto pundits with cushy sinecures. Let's put them in a world where they could show up at 9am and be told to pack their things and leave the building by 11am and see whether they extol its virtues (FREEDOM!!!)**.

Which goes against the general concept of tenure, as much as I generally agree that libertarians are batshit.

By Katharine (not verified) on 23 Jun 2011 #permalink

I'd suggest that the list of topics that tenured professors of economics should not opine on is fairly long, and would certainly include anything having to do with economics.

Isn't tenure a private contract between the university and the professor? I don't see how that's not "free market." Nowadays, the tenured professor's job is to rake in as much in government grants for the university as he/she can, but I fail to see how the tenure arrangement isn't simply a contract freely made between consenting adults.

Karl Marx during his life relied solely on the market for the dissemination of his ideas and he did quite well. Some nations even made a religion out of them. Was that your point? That if it wasn't for private school trust funded academic tenure we would all be good communists by now?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 23 Jun 2011 #permalink

Juice: If Tenure is a market-based solution, then why is it not seen outside universities? Wouldn't tenure also have appeal in other industries?

Freedom of expression, freedom of research, and freedom to challenge prevailing wisdom to scientific discovery are all vital to scientific discovery. Despite this, large technology-minded corporations are more interested in the profitable potential of research, and have a long history of suppressing dissent from employees if it interferes with company profits.

Tenure is the application of an ideal that does not directly relate to profit, a liberal ideal that the long-term benefits of the freedom that comes with a tenured position are vital to rational discourse. While tenured professors might be competing in a market for those available positions, the position itself is a result of liberal philosophy, not profit-based market forces.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 23 Jun 2011 #permalink

It's obvious to me now why the wealthy adversary of J. Bond in the 1960s and '70s was always someone who was not American. With our tax rates at that time it wouldn't have been believable to portray Goldfinger as having his base of operations in Pennsylvania.

Word dog. Like my homeboy Plato sez, philosophy is a weapon for keeping down those with unfashionable melanin producing genes.

"If Tenure is a market-based solution, then why is it not seen outside universities?"
Universities are where we put smart people to give them the free time to come up with ideas to change the status quo... tenure is the way we ensnare them into thinking they will be able to actually do so, whilst providing a sufficient carrot that we can ensure they behave exactly in line with (and, ultimately, support) extent social norms.

"I don't see how that's not "free market.""

No, free market doesn't mean "by fiat as long as it's not a recognised government". There's no little coda there. Free market means a free market.

Tenure, like patents, trademarks and trade secrets are the antithesis of a free market, where the consumer is fully informed and makes a free choice.

For example, who is the consumer with tenure?

As far as Nozick giving up libertarianism, I don't see it. A google search doesn't offer much of anything to support this claim. In fact, Nozick clarified this misconception before his death:

"Yes. But I never stopped self-applying. What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the âCore Principle of Ethics.â" -R. Nozick

Read the rest, Metcalf is playing loose with the facts in an attempt to gain undeserved attention.

The author may want to focus on this line in the essay:

"But along the way to a full Harvard professorship, attained at the age of 30, he'd lost the socialist ardors of his upbringing."

How an academic throws away a leftist upbringing, then takes up support for free market capitalism may provide more valuable insight to Slate readers and Scienceblogs.