The Struggle for Liberty in Today's Academy

From: Technotranscendence (
Date: Wed Nov 07 2001 - 06:56:04 MST

Check out, especially, the two paragraphs between the asterisks, though the
whole article is good.

The Struggle for Liberty in Today's Academy
by Tibor R. Machan


[Posted November 5, 2001]

Sometime during the 1970s I was closely associated with the University of
California-Santa Barbara's Department of Philosophy, struggling to develop
and explore my classical liberal, libertarian, and Objectivist (or
neo-Aristotelian) ideas and gain for them some respect among the faculty and
students. I had very limited success--indeed, may be said to have been
failing--until something rather comic happened.

The department had invited Professor Antony Flew to give a paper, and we all
gathered on a Friday afternoon to wait for him from the airport. He arrived
on time and was being ushered into the reception room where a sort of
welcoming line was formed, with all of us standing in anticipation.

Professor Flew was by then a very accomplished analytic philosopher, a Hume
scholar, and the editor of several volumes on various aspects of analytic
philosophy. He was, let's say, a legend in his own time. As Professor Flew
appeared at the door, welcomed by the various faculty members, he stopped
and, raising his voice, aired the following question, roughly, addressed to
no one in particular: "Where is Tibor Machan? Does he not do graduate work

Well, my not being the star of the department's student body, Professor
Flew's question was met with skepticism and puzzlement. Why would he want to
know about this renegade person, something of a nuisance during those
heydays of the New Left and various fashionable statist doctrines?

It turned out, if my memory serves me right, that Professor Flew had by then
discovered Reason Magazine, which I had helped launch in Santa Barbara in
1969. And from its pages he must have learned that there was this
libertarian at UCSB's philosophy department, and he wanted to know a bit
about him.

While the episode was mainly of personal significance to me, an aspect of it
has some broader lessons to teach us. It took this kind of "merit by
association" to give at least a slight boost to my own career in its very
early stages. Henceforth none of the folks at UCSB's department of
philosophy could dismiss my politics as cavalierly as they had up to that

In this way the episode forecast a more important advance in the modern
classical liberal movement, namely, Nozick's publication, while he was a
young professor in Harvard's Department of Philosophy, of Anarchy, State,
and Utopia, which gave the more widespread impetus to the legitimization of
libertarian in academic political philosophy and theory. Nozick's book was
an intellectual virtuosity, there's no doubt about that, but it is
questionable whether without his Princeton/Harvard pedigree it would have
made the impact it did.

As Thomas S. Kuhn suggested, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), which launched the concept of
"paradigm" on its very successful career as a buzzword, only when a basic
idea gains social acceptance as a problem solver do folks in a discipline
begin to pay attention to it. This may not speak all that well of many in
the disciplines involved, but it does often help get a position over a
crucial hump, as Nozick did with libertarianism.

In the tradition of liberal education the ideal is for the academy to devote
itself to both the education of young scholars and the investigation of the
facts and theories of the various disciplines. This is perhaps one of the
reasons for the application of the standard of publishing or perishing at
most higher educational institutions--those who teach need to keep abreast
of their discipline, and being involved in research and scholarship is
surely one good way of doing this.

As with all human institutions, corruption is always a possibility, and so
many institutions of higher education can become sectarian and monolithic,
not to mention homes to what is not very charitably referred to as deadbeat
scholars who, usually once they have achieved tenure, no longer take part in
the conversations of their fields. Institutions may, of course, make valiant
or perfunctory efforts to discourage this, and we are familiar enough with
all these at various colleges and universities. Keeping someone at the
assistant or associate professorship level for decades on end, with no or
merely token increases in compensation, is just one such effort. Ostracism
and criticism are others.

Institutions, of course, may themselves be so structured as to encourage or
discourage conscientiousness, and this is so with higher education. I want
to argue that having higher education managed, ultimately, by the state is
one of the most corrupting aspects we find in these institutions. And one of
most obvious casualties of this corruption is the neglect of serious studies
of a private education alternative in higher education, along with all of
the adjacent inquiries that might focus on the pros and cons of what we
might call the voluntary or fully free society.

Now it is not easy to measure just how an institution might have fared apart
from being associated with the government. Frederick Bastiat's famous
insight about what is seen and what is not seen comes to mind immediately,
as one considers why such measurement is difficult. If the state provides
what is euphemistically called free education--and given that people will
generally be reluctant to refuse to take advantage of what does not appear
to them to be costing them anything in favor of purchasing what they take to
be the same service--it is difficult to imagine a plethora of fully private
higher educational institutions in a society in which government is
collecting and spending confiscated resources on the same.

So comparative studies are nearly impossible in such cases--even those
colleges and universities that are labeled "private" receive extensive
funding from the government and inadvertently model themselves on the
government's version of higher education. True diversity, experimentation,
and such isn't very reasonable to expect under such circumstances.

Yet it is not all that difficult to judge the matter via thought
experimentation. Consider, in this connection, the readiness with which
studies funded by private industry are often indicted merely because the
funding may induce some to skew their findings. If the tobacco industry
funds a study on nicotine addiction or the impact of advertising on the
young, it will readily be criticized for being completely unreliable, never
mind the specific techniques deployed in the study. (One paradox is that, of
course, those who aren't connected to the industry tend not to know a whole
lot about what is supposed to be researched in the first place.)

It is more rare to find criticisms of scientific or scholarly work performed
at government-funded universities. In fact, the overwhelming majority of
political scientists, historians, political philosophers, and others dealing
with the study of human community life fully or largely acquiesce to the
statist position in nearly all aspects of their work. The exception is when
it comes to attempts at direct control of what they themselves are
saying--akin to the way the press tends to favor government solutions other
than when it comes to cleaning up its own act, in which case it vigorously
invokes the First Amendment to fend off the state.


Yet it is rarely suggested that all the government funding of research and
scholarship may well have a corrupting affect on these endeavors. Recently,
several philosophers--among them most notably Peter Singer--refused to even
attend conferences on environmental issues sponsored by Shell Oil
Corporation on the expressed ground that doing so would contribute to the
corruption of the disciplines being considered at the conference. Yet
thousands of scholars every year take part in government-funded NEH and
similarly government-sponsored seminars, and thousands more take money from
government to help them write their books and do their research. I have yet
to hear the same complaint from the folks so concerned about
industry-sponsored work about government-funded work.

Yet surely the state, given its far greater power and lack of competition,
is a more serious threat to scholarly and scientific objectivity and
nonpartisanship than are private firms that must always be careful that the
work of other, competing firms will attract great respect and
trustworthiness and, thus, profits.


There is no serious doubt in my mind that what I have related above
accounts, in significant measure, for the absence of a serious contingent of
classical liberal and libertarian scholars through Western higher education,
except in the field of economics, where the ideas of classical liberalism
are well nigh a defining element of the discipline itself. Trade or economic
exchange is, after all, impossible without the freedom to come to mutually
agreeable terms, so economists are, as some of their critics from the Left
rightfully point out, necessarily working within the classical liberal
framework or, if you will, paradigm.

In my own case, I can give you three telling stories. Around 1984 or so I
applied for a Congressional Fellowship, which would have involved working in
the office some member of Congress and contributing to the discussion of the
various measures on which he or she was considering a vote. I made it to the
short list and was flown to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where the
final interviews were being held. When my turn came, the very first question
the head of the committee conducting the interviews asked me was: "How could
you, one who considers libertarianism sound, ever advise anyone in
Congress?" I answered, "Well, I could ask whether the measure pertained to
what the role of government is supposed to be in a free society." Needless
to say, I was not selected.

On another occasion I recommended a project to one of the grant-giving
bodies in Washington, suggesting that I investigate the proper scope of
public authority, with an emphasis on an analysis of the concept of "the
public" in a free society. It came to light, after my proposal was rejected,
that several of the panelists found this line of enquiry--not, mind you, my
methodology or scope of research or scholarship--infelicitous because it
would not likely contribute to proactive government proposals.

Finally, in 1987, Sidney Hook and I made a pilot for a proposed PBS series
on political philosophy, "For the Love of Work," featuring the ideas of Karl
Marx. This received enthusiastic endorsements from a wide variety of
scholars, by no means all of the classical liberals, and was nevertheless
turned down. The Wall Street Journal did some digging and discovered that
one panelist voted against it on the expressed grounds that the program
proposed to feature as its host a "mere popularizer of libertarianism."

That I had by then published in several major philosophy journals and law
reviews was cast aside in the decision process of this panelist and, I can
only surmise, in that of most of the others.

My claim is by no means that everyone must get corrupted in a
government-funded college or university. But I would maintain that unless
one is rather strict with oneself and keeps the issue in the forefront of
his or her mind, such corruption is very likely to creep into one's academic
work, if only by making sure that one does not touch on sensitive topics,
ones that may offend the authorities who distribute the resources taken from
the citizenry.

Why, one can ask, would such folks fund work that undermines their own
dedicated service, one that presupposes the aggressively proactive state?
It would not be reasonable, would it? This leaves us with a problem: how to
extricate higher--indeed, all--education from the clutches of government?
In semi-democracies such as we have in most Western societies, in order to
effectuate change without out-and-out violent revolution, it is necessary to
gain the support of those who are primarily concerned with an area of study
and practice.

But the state has a monopoly on higher education, and those who work for it
tend, in part accordingly, to favor the state in most every respect. How can
their support be obtained? The good news is that even the state can go
bankrupt, in more ways than one, including intellectually. And there is
plenty of evidence that statism itself is now on the verge of bankruptcy.
Not only because its most explicit forms have been discredited in the minds
of many citizens, but also because any honest investigation of the arguments
made in favor of statism has to conclude that these arguments are tepid,
desperate, and merely repeat the lame dogmas of the past.

Thus the minority but growing number of dedicated students and, often,
champions of the free society may yet have a chance to turn people's minds,
especially those of the next generation seeking fresh solutions to the
problems of community life. This, at least, is my hope.

But complacency is a big obstacle to progress, as is the more understandable
fact that many people, among them a great many intellectuals, are dreamers
and believe that against all odds they can eat cakes and have them, can
square circles, can reach the impossible dream.

This is understandable because in some cases believing along these lines can
be the way to make important breakthroughs. Yet just as breakthroughs must
be made without abandoning good ideas already developed, so it is vital that
whatever political experimentation seems appealing not be done at the
expense of values we know well enough to be confident about. And because no
guarantee exists against this temptation, libertarians must recognize that
their vision is a possibility but by no means some guaranteed future.

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