Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I mostly disagree and mostly disagree. (You'll understand shortly.)

Freedom Without Responsibility

By Arnold Kling Published 02/17/2004

"The serious and interesting issue is how do we explain the surplus of liberals in academia...it seems to me that the only viable hypothesis left is something like the following: There is a statistical association between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views...stated this way the hypothesis still remains incredibly vague. What qualities, what traits are we talking about? What causal relations underlie these statistical associations? These questions are worth exploring, but I think the hypothesis is right headed."
-- Robert Brandon

I am going to delve more into the issues raised by Dr. Brandon, the chairman of Duke University's philosophy department, who wrote the essay quoted above in an effort to clarify what he had said in a previous and much discussed article. In that piece, he had said in effect that academics tend to be to the left of the country because conservatives are stupid.

First, I want to go a bit beyond the liberal-vs.-conservative dichotomy. I believe that it helps to separate social issues from economic issues. With that in mind, here is a simple (simplistic?) two-question quiz designed to tease out your political beliefs.

For each statement below, indicate whether you mostly agree, mostly disagree, or are uncertain.

1. I wish that the government in Washington would take more aggressive steps to provide health care and education to all.

2. I wish that the government in Washington would take more aggressive steps to punish pornography and recreational drug use.

I would answer "mostly disagree" to both questions. That also happens to be the libertarian answer.

Most of my liberal friends would answer "mostly agree" to more government provision of health care and education and "mostly disagree" to a war on pornography and recreational drug use. Conversely, the traditional conservative position is to "mostly agree" with a war on porn and drug use and to "mostly disagree" with government provision of health care and education.

My sense is that politicians of the two major parties tend to pander to the "mostly agree" side of both issues. For example, the Bush Administration tries to appeal to conservatives on social issues while expanding Federal education and health care spending in what I have called FlexDollar Welfare State.

Freedom vs. Responsibility

Another way of describing political alignment is in terms of freedom and responsibility. How much freedom should people have to pursue their own interests and desires? How much responsibility should they have for their own well-being?

The conservative ideology favors individual responsibility. However, conservatives see a need to protect the culture from behavior that runs counter to conventional morals. In that sense, conservatives are willing to restrict freedom.

The left takes the opposite point of view. Modern liberals see no reason to restrict individual freedom. However, they view people with inadequate health care or education as victims who should not be held responsible for their condition. Instead, support for health care and education should come from those whom the left regards as villains, referred to as "the rich," or "corporate America," or "straight white males."

Self-Selection

People with certain traits tend to choose particular occupations. Someone who is afraid of heights is unlikely to become a firefighter. Someone who is repelled by the sight of blood is unlikely to become a doctor. Someone who is impatient with details is unlikely to become a bookkeeper.

A fancy term for this is "self-selection." We say that people select activities and occupations that are suited to their temperaments.

If your temperament favors freedom without responsibility, then there are certain occupations that are a good fit. Academic life is one of them, as I pointed out in Real World 101. A professor has very little of what most of us would consider responsibility. Teaching, which is the most responsible activity that a professor must perform, is considered a minor part of the academic's life. Almost all professors seek to lower these modest responsibilities even further by seeking reduced teaching loads.

The trick to having freedom without responsibility is to get paid without having to worry about where the money comes from. Most professors do not worry about fundraising or attracting tuition-paying students.

In general, wherever creative individuals receive incomes without having to worry about the "business aspect" of their organizations, you have freedom without responsibility. In print journalism, reporting is kept separate from advertising or circulation. In the arts, commercial success is so difficult to predict that few writers, composers, or actors want to deal with the business aspect of their endeavors.

In software development, there is also tension between the creative side and the business side. Many programmers resent the "suits" (business executives) who impose inelegant requirements or harsh schedules on projects. Programmers who want maximum freedom with minimum responsibility self-select into open source software, where you get to work on the aspects of a project that you find important or interesting, without having to be accountable to a business executive or a novice user.

When we see leftist ideology statistically predominant among college professors, news reporters, or open-source software advocates, what we are seeing is self selection. What Richard Florida dubbed The Creative Class is a self-selected group that seeks freedom without responsibility in their professional lives. Thus, we should not be surprised that their ideological bent is toward modern liberalism, which translates this personal preference into a political platform.

The Libertarian Critique

The libertarian critique of Freedom Without Responsibility is that taking away responsibility leads to taking away freedom. The only way to provide collective benefits is by taxing those who work, save, and innovate. The more you try to alter market outcomes, the more you have to take away people's freedom. Friedrich Hayek warned that this was The Road to Serfdom. What he saw was that under both Communist Socialism in Russia and National Socialism in Germany, the loss of individual responsibility was accompanied by the eradication of freedom. This dark side of socialism was also the concern of novelist George Orwell.

Freedom Without Responsibility does not scale up to the level of society. As government takes over more responsibility from the individual, rewards start to accrue to the most ruthless and effective political operators. Work and production are crowded out by confiscation and bribery.

As government tries to second-guess market processes, it makes matters worse instead of better. A remote central government is not suited to playing the role of what George Lakoff calls a nurturant parent. The attempt to do so leads instead to an impersonal, maddening, stultifying bureaucracy.

Who is Stupid?

Professor Brandon is correct that the academic temperament is suited to the liberal ideology of Freedom Without Responsibility. However, it does not follow that Freedom Without Responsibility should be the model for an entire political and economic system.

The professors, artists, and others in the creative class of high-freedom, low-responsibility occupations are dependent for their survival and well-being on people who exercise much more responsibility with somewhat less freedom. Moreover, their ability to enjoy material comfort without having to engage in unpleasant labor depends on a system of free markets that the leftist ideology would destroy.

Freedom Without Responsibility may feel like a natural ideology for a cloistered academic. That does not make it an intelligent approach for public policy. Academics should correct for their natural biases by broadening their understanding of alternative points of view and by understanding the larger economic system. Adherence to any ideology, including liberalism, without question or re-examination, is what is really stupid.

Arnold Kling is a TCS contributing editor. He last wrote for TCS about George W. Bush and making decisions under uncertainty.

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