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Blatant bribery
July/August 2017

Universities depend on government money — in other words, on resources from the rest of society — for their survival. The logical expectation might then be that, on average, people employed by universities would have a political standpoint that roughly matched that of society as a whole. For most of the 20th century that was the case, more or less. But in the last 40 years the situation has changed radically. A well-known 2001 study of public intellectuals by the American legal scholar, Richard Posner, found that they had become predominantly left-wing. By implication, ostensibly the cleverest people in advanced liberal democracies — the kind of people who fill university departments — disapprove of capitalist institutions and structures. If capitalism is taken to be a defining feature of such liberal democracies, the majority of university intellectuals take an adversarial stance towards the societies that support and honour them.

This might be thought odd, even bizarre, but the evidence is that the Left is more entrenched in universities — in both North America and Europe — than ever before. According to a recent study from the Adam Smith Institute, Lackademia: Why do academics lean left?, only 12 per cent of British academics back the Conservative Party or other right-wing political groups, with the proportion declining in the last few decades. Moreover, once a slant of this sort is established, it tends to be self-reinforcing. In all walks of life people want to work with like-minded individuals. Sir Roger Scruton is perhaps this country’s most distinguished avowedly conservative philosopher. In his book with Mark Dooley, Conversations with Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury Continuum, £16.99), he recounts his constant difficulties in finding paid employment in the university sector. While the anecdotes are often hilarious, the larger message — that in the so-called “social sciences” academe is becoming a closed shop for the Left — is terrifying in a theoretically “open” society like Britain.

Of course, top opinion-formers overlap with public intellectuals who overlap with the humanities departments in universities. The opinion-formers were furious with the “populism” that emerged from the Brexit referendum and the Trump presidency. In the recent general election leading Conservative politicians have every reason to be furious with the opinion-formers for encouraging the young to vote for crypto-Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn. Tension between Britain’s universities and the Conservative government is likely to increase between now and the next election. Is the ideal of a university sector free from political influence viable in modern democracies, where opinion-making, intellectual activity and university teaching are inextricably linked?
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August 27th, 2017
7:08 PM
"By writing the textbooks that undergraduates must absorb, and in other ways nudging opinion and attitudes, university teachers have great influence on what young people believe. Such beliefs are the ultimate drivers of political commitment." I'm sure you are correct? However, the following is not the economics that is usually covered in economics text. “This “equilibrium” graph (Figure 3) and the ideas behind it have been re-iterated so many times in the past half-century that many observes assume they represent one of the few firmly proven facts in economics. Not at all. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that demand equals supply in any market and that, indeed, markets work in the way this story narrates. We know this by simply paying attention to the details of the narrative presented. The innocuous assumptions briefly mentioned at the outset are in fact necessary joint conditions in order for the result of equilibrium to be obtained. There are at least eight of these result-critical necessary assumptions: Firstly, all market participants have to have “perfect information”, aware of all existing information (thus not needing lecture rooms, books, television or the internet to gather information in a time-consuming manner; there are no lawyers, consultants or estate agents in the economy). Secondly, there are markets trading everything (and their grandmother). Thirdly, all markets are characterized by millions of small firms that compete fiercely so that there are no profits at all in the corporate sector (and certainly there are no oligopolies or monopolies; computer software is produced by so many firms, one hardly knows what operating system to choose…). Fourthly, prices change all the time, even during the course of each day, to reflect changed circumstances (no labels are to be found on the wares offered in supermarkets as a result, except in LCD-form). Fifthly, there are no transaction costs (it costs no petrol to drive to the supermarket, stock brokers charge no commission, estate agents work for free – actually, don’t exist, due to perfect information!). Sixthly, everyone has an infinite amount of time and lives infinitely long lives. Seventhly, market participants are solely interested in increasing their own material benefit and do not care for others (so there are no babies, human reproduction has stopped – since babies have all died of neglect; this is where the eternal life of the grown-ups helps). Eighthly, nobody can be influenced by others in any way (so trillion-dollar advertising industry does not exist, just like the legal services and estate agent industries). It is only in this theoretical dreamworld defined by this conflagration of wholly unrealistic assumptions that markets can be expected to clear, delivering equilibrium and rendering prices the important variable in the economy – including the price of money as the key variable in the macroeconomy. This is the origin of the idea that interest rates are the key variable driving the economy: it is the price of money that determines economic outcomes, since quantities fall into place. . . . In other words, neoclassical economics has demonstrated to us that the circumstances required for equilibrium to occur in any market are so unlikely that we can be sure there is no equilibrium anywhere. Thus we know that markets are rationed, and rationed markets are determined by quantities, not prices.”

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