Capitalism on Campus?

American college professors are predominantly hostile to laissez-faire capitalism.  That hostility ranges from tepid (the typical liberal Democrat who believes the country needs a welfare “safety-net” and ever-increasing economic regulation) to scalding (the Marxist who would like to abolish private property). Vigorous advocates of economic liberty and free enterprise are few and far between.

A conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute on October 6 assessed the impact of this state of affairs on students and offered a few ways out of the morass. One point of consensus: most students are interested in ideas, and the classical liberal ideas that underlie free markets have enormous power–when they are given a fair hearing.

 The event was the brainchild of Marilyn Fedak, a highly successful investment professional who has created “The Marilyn Fedak Capitalism Project.” In her opening remarks, she noted that many young Americans have a “pervasive disdain” for business, an attitude that is inflamed by what they read and hear in their college courses. She believes that their views are eroding the underpinnings of our social values and institutions.

Most of the morning was devoted to a lively panel discussion moderated by Harvard University professor Howard Husock. The panelists were:

  • · William Butos, Professor of Economics at Trinity College
  • · Ryan Patrick Hanley, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University
  • · Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics at George Mason University
  • · Jeffrey A. Miron, Professor of Economics at Harvard University
  • · Jerry Muller, Professor of History at the Catholic University of America
  • · Sandra Peart, Dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond.

In the discussion, several big points stood out.

First, many students enter college with a jaundiced view of capitalism and the free market (“the New York Times view of the world” as Professor Butos put it) that requires a good deal of deprogramming. Unfortunately, only a small minority of students take any economics classes and even there, the focus is often more on technical analysis than on what Professor Peart calls “the big questions.” Adam Smith, after all, came to economics through philosophy and regarded the moral case for economic freedom to be at least as important as the pragmatic case.

Professor Klein observed that the professoriate is strongly dominated by leftists. In many humanities and social science departments, voter registration is usually at least 10 to 1 for parties on the political left (Democrats, Greens, and others) over those on the right (Republicans, Libertarians, and others).  It’s not uncommon for there to be no “right” faculty members at all.

How much does that fact matter? It’s not true that every professor slants every course to favor his or her socio-economic beliefs, but there is apt to be more of that slanting when there is no one to provide any push-back. In ideologically monolithic departments, professors tend to bolder in tossing out anti-capitalist tidbits than if they have some colleagues who will say, “Wait a minute….”

Even so, does the faculty do much to alter the opinions of students? Professor Miron is skeptical, maintaining that most students come into college with political views similar to those of their parents, and leave with pretty much the same set of views. One reason why the overwhelmingly leftist faculty doesn’t have a greater impact is that students get so much information outside of the classroom. With the Internet, campus groups bringing in a wide range of speakers, and lots of time for students to debate issues among themselves, professors do not have a monopoly on their students’ time and attention.

Miron is right about that—American campuses are not monolithically anti-capitalist. Still, the counterweight provided by some outspoken pro-market students, groups, and speakers is small compared with the steady steam of material and commentary hostile to the free market that students get in many of their courses.

Professors Hanley and Butos stressed that college students should not be taught just the nuts and bolts of economic principles, but the much broader idea that capitalism is but one aspect of the free society.  At Trinity College, freshmen take a seminar to show them, as Prof. Butos put it, that classical liberalism is not a fixed set of conclusions, but a way of looking at the world that opens up a great number of questions.

There was general agreement among the panelists that well-taught courses like that are in great demand among students. Most don’t like being preached to and they want to know if and how ideas about economics are contested.

The keynote speech was given by Professor Robert George of the James Madison Program at Princeton. (For an insider’s perspective on that program, see this Pope Center article by Professor Michael Krauss.) Madison serves as an excellent example of the ways in which the intellectual climate on a predominantly leftist campus can be swayed by a relatively small cadre of non-leftist professors. “The Princeton faculty has around 1,000 members,” George said, “but I didn’t need 500; I just needed about 15.”

Professor George argued, as the panelists had, that the case for the free market needs to be made philosophically and not just on efficiency grounds. Students need to understand that the free market is crucial to human flourishing. It acts as a counter-weight to government overreach and protects the institutions of civil society. And those institutions help to inculcate the moral virtues that are essential to the free market.

So true! Countries with little economic freedom have little of any other sort of freedom either. Sadly, few students have ever heard a teacher or professor point out that connection.

The academy, George maintained, has a good set of ideals: open inquiry, civility, debate. Our task is to make colleges and universities live up to those ideals. One of his most effective lines at Princeton, when confronting leftist faculty members and administrators is, “I practice what you preach.” One-sided classes that treat students like lumps of clay to be shaped are not what education is supposed to be.

He mentioned a course entitled “Ideas and Arguments” that he has for several years team-taught with the black scholar Cornel West. The students read and discuss a wide range of authors including Plato, Augustine, Marx, Hayek, Martin Luther King, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Professors West and George don’t agree on much, but the erudite discussion of divergent views is brain food of the highest order.

Courses like that, giving students intellectual clash over “big ideas” might be the most effective means of smuggling pro-market thinking into the curriculum.

Where does the “Capitalism on Campus” conference leave us? More than a century ago, the “progressives” began a project of taking control of education for the purpose of shaping the opinions of young people. To a considerable degree, they succeeded.

Proponents of free markets and individual liberty have a tremendous opportunity on American college campuses. The way to counter anti-capitalist bias is not to fight fire with fire, but rather to give students something better. Professors who engage students with illuminating discussions of the pros and cons of laissez-faire as well as the pros and cons of government intervention will find a receptive audience.