In a recent survey of the ideological persuasion of 1,643 full-time professors at 183 colleges and universities, three eminent scholars, Professors Robert Lichter of George Mason University and Stanley Rothman and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, found that nearly three-quarters of college faculty call themselves liberal. In the study of classical languages and literature, the humanities, they counted 81 percent and in the social sciences 75 percent. Even among engineering faculty they found 51 percent and in business faculty 49 percent. But the greatest number of liberal professors taught in the departments of English literature, philosophy, political science, and religious studies where some 80 percent of professors called themselves liberal. At elite universities the ratios were even higher; according to the survey, 87 percent of faculty were liberal.
Few terms are as vague and misleading as “liberal.” It may connote such attributes as progressive, freethinking, fair-minded, unbiased, and enlightened. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Classical liberalism espoused individual freedom, stressing not only human rationality but also the importance of individual property rights, natural rights, the need for constitutional limitations on government, and especially freedom of the individual from economic restraint. During the 20th century when new theories held sway, such as E.H. Chamberlin’s “monopolistic-competition theory,” Thurstein Veblen’s “institutionalism,” and John Maynard Keynes’ “macro-economics,” many liberals were taught to search for labor oppression and exploitation. They became New Dealers, Fair Dealers, and New Republicans and called themselves “new liberals.”
New liberalism grew and flourished concurrently with public education. They acted upon and reinforced each other. Most Americans now believe that a system of free public schools under local and state control is essential to the welfare of all. In the beginning a common school instructed just the first two or three grades in which pupils were taught the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Soon thereafter the first eight grades were deemed essential. In the 20th century, the high school became the education birthright of every American. Since World War II many Americans also look upon four years of college instruction as part of public education. In fact, most Americans now view public schooling as a common right for all children from nursery school through college. And if the survey by Messrs Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte is correct, most college instructors and probably also school teachers are liberal.
Educators have shaped American economic and political thought since the very beginning, They have led the way from traditional liberalism with its emphasis on natural rights and individual freedom to present-day liberalism with its concern for social reform and economic redistribution. And if it is true that there has been a “leftward shift” on campuses during the past two decades, we must brace for similar moves in public policy . They may even lead to a political command system with a myriad of economic regulations and controls, with rampant inflation and price and wage controls. We had better brace for more to come.
Democratic government is ruled by public opinion which is shaped by eminent thought leaders like those mentioned above. But why should they point in the direction of a command system with all its parts and attributes? Why should they find such grievous fault with economic freedom and the unhampered market order that enabled the population to multiply and lift its standards of living far above all others? This writer who spent most of his productive life among college professors can think of just two motivational forces that spring from human nature.
The market order that gradually evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries released much vitality and energy. Setting the people free from age-old barriers and restrictions, it enabled some individuals to create business enterprises, to organize, manage, and own them. A new breed of entrepreneurs arose, competing with each other, innovating and improving their enterprises. They created business capital which is personal wealth. Successful entrepreneurs became very wealthy, which created much envy and resentment not only among workers from whose ranks they had come but also among the old landowning aristocracy. Envy is a passion strongly rooted in the human heart.
The envious individual may do things that do harm not only to others but also to himself provided it reduces the inequality between them. The envious may appeal to and search for equality which is social justice to him. It has been the call of most social movements since the Industrial Revolution. Driven by envious voters, envious legislators may pass “envy restrictions”, impose “envy taxes,” and use envy as the basis of their calls for social justice. In 1934 the Roosevelt New Deal proposed personal income tax rates of up to 83.8 percent and death duty rates on individual property of 86.88 percent. In World War II, it raised the top income tax rate to 91 percent. Surely, envy was a powerful driving force of the New Deal.
Many college professors are great specialists in their given fields but rather poor dilettantes in economics. They may be puzzled and incensed by the visible wealth of a young manufacturer who, as a college dropout, never mastered English grammar nor cared about algebra and analytical geometry. In contrast, the professors attended several schools from first grade to graduate school, earned a number of academic degrees, titles, and honors, but their salaries may amount to mere fractions of the profit earned by the young entrepreneur. Having heard about monopolistic competition, labor exploitation, and conspicuous consumption of the capitalists, young college professors readily join the ranks of academic liberals.
Surely, many professors, legislators, and thought leaders do not rail against their neighbor’s conspicuous consumption and are not consumed by envy passion. They are brave or fortunate men who are able to bear envy. Yet they are social-justice liberals because they have been, and may continue to be, the recipients of public largess which they cannot deny their fellowmen. They may be grateful beneficiaries of public funds in the form of state education, generous scholarships, loans and grants to improve teaching in sciences, mathematics and foreign languages, and to develop audio-visual aids. They may have been the beneficiaries of federal grants to public and private schools, to elementary and secondary schools in “headstart programs” to improve the educational opportunities of poor children. They may be beneficiaries of “affirmative-action” policy favoring ethnic groups, that is, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Or they may be the graduates of publicly funded “charter schools” with “school-voucher programs” that provide public funds to pay for education at a school of choice. Most professors at public as well as private colleges are the proud graduates of well-known state universities and recipients of their degrees. As the grateful beneficiaries of so much public largess they cannot logically deny the same benefits to their students. They cannot refuse generous public benefits to the disabled, the unemployed, and the poor. They are morally obliged to join the welfare state and wage the “war on poverty.”
The schools of a country are pointing to the future. The survey of 1,643 full-time professors is hinting at more “leftward shifts” to come. We must brace for similar moves in public policy.