Tue Feb 10, 2004

Conservatives in Academia

I’ve never found the argument that conservatives are discriminated against in academia terribly compelling. But it does seem like an interesting case, if only because in making it common or garden conservatives are forced to admit the existence of institutionalized inequality, something they are usually loath to acknowledge. Andrew Sullivan just bumped into this question. (Via Pandagon.) He raises and then dismisses the most parsimonious explanation for this inequality, namely that conservatives are just not as clever as liberals and so don’t get hired. He quotes a tongue-in-cheek line from a professor who says “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia.”[1] Andy is not persuaded, of course. But why not?

As a paid-up sociologist, I have no trouble believing, as a starting point for empirical enquiry, that entrenched inequalities based on social categories (Male/Female, White/Black, and so on) are to be found all over the place. Inequality gets institutionalized via many mechanisms—Chuck Tilly’s book Durable Inequality provides a handy taxonomy—and there’s a lot we don’t understand about it. But for a given case, by temperament I’m more inclined to believe that one of these mechanisms is at work rather than, say, the fair return to human capital secured by rational choices in an open market. 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.

So if we assume along with Andy and his ilk that conservatives really are significantly underrepresented in academia, it seems to me that conservatives face a simple choice. They can acknowledge the wealth of evidence for durable inequality of different kinds and join the people investigating the many and varied ways that it’s produced and sustained, and maybe even sometimes eliminated. Or they can bite the bullet and accept that the poor market performance of conservatives must reflect their inability to compete on human capital terms with their sharper, more skillful and harder-working liberal competitors. To borrow a recent argument from someone else, if we measure things by revealed preferences, i.e. voting with their feet, it seems conservative academics just prefer to be Resident Scholars at the AEI rather than tenured professors at Wharton, Yale or Chicago. In any event, the least plausible option is to argue that the embedded, political character of markets and the occupational structure is obviously at work in the labor market experiences of conservative academics, but not the life-chances of, say, women or black men.

fn1. Note that, the comments of this particular prof nothwithstanding, if stupid people tend to be conservative, it does not follow that conservative people tend to be stupid. It should be clear that nothing in this post depends on the latter assumption.