My two cents on academic freedom

With a link to Larry Summers’ epiphany thrown in for good measure.

I tweeted somewhat randomly on this subject, because it kind of irritates me and I am not quite sure why.  I would like to follow up with a brief post, that is still mostly half-baked thoughts, which many of you (assuming there are many of you) may wish to skip. If you thought my others stuff was opinionated and conclusory, ….

I have noticed some academic economists getting all pearl clutchy and morally absolutist about academic freedom.  I believe that *  freedom of expression is a good thing worth protecting, although I am not sure why professors or their firms should be uniquely protected these days. So I was trying to figure out why the academics’ pose bugged me. As I have mentioned before, the definition of a liberal is somebody who likes to argue, even with those he agrees with.

Having given this some thought, I have come up with four possibilities. First, I guess it is jarring to see an economist go morally absolutist on anything. Rather, than saying academic freedom is a sacred and ancient right, like catching fish from the commons, I would have thought they would say something along the lines of the following:

In a classical economy, with atomistic agents, the optimal amount of academic freedom emerging out of competitive equilibrium would be a function of tastes, technology, intellectual endowment, and communication costs and externalities, with the latter pair being a motivation for knowledge providers to form firms called “universities.”

I can’t help thinking that the absolutism around academic freedom, then, is either a tribal signaling device or evidence of overestimating one’s own worth.

Second, leaving aside the source, I just don’t believe in moral absolutes. And I have never met anybody whose actual behavior suggested they really did either.

Third, this seems like a rather odd thing to get up on the high horse about, given what is going on in the rest of the world. Sure, violent obstruction of people offering opinions you do not want on campus should be condemned, as violence.  But the fact that Charles Murray can’t rant on about how unfair the world is to white people — or that I don’t have the opportunity to top up my daughter’s tuition to pay her college to host Milo Yiannopoulos — just does not get onto my radar screen.

Fourth, and this is the big one, it ticks me off that there seems to be a tendency to favor unilateral disarmament by liberals on issues such as this.  There is a culture war – at least – going on right now in the United States, you know.  And it is fairly important for the forces of light to win it.

It is so typically liberal and self-defeating to get all virginal about process, when the other side is in it to win it and biting off the heads of babies. How about worrying about Colin Kaepernick and letting Milos or Chuck take care of themselves?

An analogy can be drawn to what conservatives sometimes say in the presence of an external threat, although I admit to being irritated when they do.  You know, it would be good to keep the country whose constitution you claim to want to defend.

There are grey areas involved here. And I think this relates to the epiphany that Larry Summers recently had about “political correctness”, which is meant to be a threat to “academic freedom.”

Sure the academic freedom guys have a good point. But there are other good points out there too.  I remember when I was a kid, and Catholic, I instinctively thought that the universe could not force us to choose between two “goods.” Clashing values, then, were a logical inconsistency.  Yeah, that was wrong. And it took a while for me to get over it.  Maybe there are others similarly stuck.

Or maybe this is all wrong.  Just blue skyin here.

* Post-Catholic, I am trying these days to confine my believing to that, rather than in.