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Pitfalls of Ignoring Libertarianism in Studies of Academics' Ideologies:

In my last two posts, I put forward some reasons why Gross and Simmons' important new paper on academic ideology understates the prevalence of liberals in academia. It is only fair to also point out a way in which that study overstates that prevalence, or at least underestimates the proportion of non-liberal academics. It does so by collapsing academics' ideologies into three categories along a single continuum: "liberal," "conservative," and "moderate." Respondents to their ideology question had the option of describing themselves as "Very liberal," "liberal," "slightly liberal," "middle of the road," "slightly conservative," "conservative," or "very conservative."

Note that this one-dimensional ideological scale entirely ignores libertarians, who - roughly speaking - are "liberal" on social issues, and "conservative" on economic ones. Some libertarians may describe themselves as "conservative" on the Gross-Simmons scale. Others, however, might pick "liberal" or "middle of the road," or simply choose not to answer the question because they don'e see a choice they like. For example, if I average out my "liberal" positions on social issues with my "conservative" ones on economic issues, I could describe myself as "middle of the road" on average. But it's a very different kind of "moderation" from that associated with, say, DLC Democrats.

Ignoring libertarians may be defensible in studies of the general population, where they are relatively rare (although even among the general public, some evidence suggests that about 10 percent are closer to being libertarian than conservative, moderate, or liberal). It is much more problematic in a study of academics, where libertarians are a much larger fraction of the nonliberal total than in the general public. In my experience, about half of nonliberal/noncentrist law professors are in fact libertarians rather than social conservatives. Lawprofs are not included in the Gross-Simmons study. But economists and political scientists (two other groups with which I have some familiarity) are, and the libertarian-conservative ratio there does not seem to me much different than that in law. Even if we cautiously assume that libertarian academics are only half as common as conservative ones, the Gross-Simmons data imply that about 5% of academics are libertarians (vs. 9.4% conservative). And another 5% would be "slightly libertarian" (vs. 10.5% "slightly conservative").

How much does this skew Gross and Simmons' overall results? It is difficult to say. It all depends on how many libertarian academics would describe themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative" when they answered the author's one-dimensional ideology question and how many would describe themselves as "liberal," falling into one of the three categories the authors classify as "moderate," or simply refuse to answer the question. Given the deepening of the conservative-libertarian split during the Bush years, I suspect that the proportion of libertarians willing to embrace the "conservative" label has been declining; this trend is likely to be unusually strong among academics, most of whom follow politics closely. My best guess - and it's only a guess - is that about 50-70% of libertarians would refuse to embrace the two most "conservative" categories in the Gross-Simmons framework. Assuming that libertarian academics make up about 6-7% of the total (perhaps an underestimate), that implies that the true proportion of right of center academics is 12-13% rather than the 9% that the authors estimate. In some fields, such as economics and other social sciences, the proportion of libertarians among the nonliberals is likely to be significantly higher than that. If you count the putative "slightly libertarian" academics (parallels to the authors' "slightly liberal" and "slightly conservative" categories), the libertarian proportion would be about twice as high, perhaps 10-14% of the total sample.

In my judgment, properly accounting for libertarians would not overturn the conclusion that the left side of the political spectrum is overwhelmingly dominant in academia - especially when you consider the factors discussed in my previous two posts. It would, however, substantially increase the estimated proportion of academics who are neither liberal nor "moderate."

UPDATE: I was remiss in not mentioning this 2005 study of social scientists' political views by GMU economist Daniel Klein and Swedish scholar Charlotta Stern, which finds that "social scientists who deviate from left-wing views are as likely to be libertarian as conservative." This finding strengthens the case for including libertarianism as a separate category in studies of academic ideology.

Jerry F:
The reason libertarians are ignored is that, from the perspective of the far-left academia, libertarians are just plain conservatives, and actual conservatives who hold conservative views on social issues are considered like fascists or well beyond the realm of acceptable views.
10.9.2007 11:59pm
Ilya Somin:
The reason libertarians are ignored is that, from the perspective of the far-left academia, libertarians are just plain conservatives, and actual conservatives who hold conservative views on social issues are considered like fascists or well beyond the realm of acceptable views.

It may well be true that many liberal academics see little difference between libertarians and conservatives. But that doesn't mean that it is methodologically accurate to follow that approach in a study like this one.
10.10.2007 12:01am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Ilya, I think you'll find libertarians in economics, business, and computer science, maybe a few among scientists, and that's about it. Overall, I suspect you're overestimating based on the unusually high prevalence of libertarians among non-left law professors. Even with law I think you're overestimating; you are probably about right when it comes to the most prolific and prominent right of center professors, but I think there are a fair number of at least moderately conservative Republicans out there who aren't familiar to you because they are older and (like their liberal colleagues) rarely publish.
10.10.2007 12:34am
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, I think you'll find libertarians in economics, business, and computer science, maybe a few among scientists, and that's about it.

I think, based on considerable experience, that libertarians are common among nonliberal political scientists, economists, and political philosophers. They are probably less common in other fields. But notice that these fields are among the most important WRT to political relevance.

Even with law I think you're overestimating; you are probably about right when it comes to the most prolific and prominent right of center professors, but I think there are a fair number of at least moderately conservative Republicans out there who aren't familiar to you because they are older and (like their liberal colleagues) rarely publish.

That may be true. But even if I have overestimated the number of libertarians twofold, that still implies that they are about 1/3 of all nonliberal law professors, which is quite substantial. I tend to doubt that there are a lot of nonpublishing conservative Republican lawprofs out there (or at least not many more than nonpublishing libertarians), but I admit you probably know more about this than I do.
10.10.2007 12:49am
Siona Sthrunch (mail):
Somin makes a good point that libertarians are likely misrepresented by these kinds of studies. Certainly, more study of the issue would be warranted.

Let me broaden the discussion here by suggesting several mechanisms by which the the statist/leftist control of the humanities and soft sciences in academia has become so prevalent.

Perhaps the simplest mechanism is to assume that faculties seek to maximize metrics of their productivity, typically the ability to procure grants. In academic fields of specialization that lack objective indicia of correctness or quality, like the soft sciences, grant procurement is necessarily mainly based on subjective and political factors.

Those faculty more likely to get bigger grants are also thus more likely to favor a more intrusive governmental control because they succeed in an environment where political factors are paramount.

The second mechanism that might induce the phenomenon is evolutionary: we assume the statists - who by assumption put political considerations first - will only hire other statists, and the independent thinkers hire only based on perceived merit. Assume as well hiring is by vote. Then eventually the statists will control the academy completely, as they gradually hire more and more of their own.

These mechanisms seem to me to be ineluctable and unstoppable, absent dramatic change to the underlying structure of academia, which is very unlikely. Therefore, not matter what happens, leftist control of the universities cannot be forestalled or wrested away; rather, that control is simply inherent in the definition of "leftist" and in the academic structure.
10.10.2007 12:53am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Ilya, we can agree to disagree on this, but not every professor is really an intellectual (or necessarily interested in political philosophy), and the conservative-libertarian ratio among those who either aren't intellectuals or aren't especially interested in political philosophy is heavily skewed toward the latter. Plus, there are lots of religiously motivated conservative professors, especially at Christian colleges.
10.10.2007 1:11am
VC Rita:
Let me broaden the discussion here by suggesting several mechanisms by which the the statist/leftist control of the humanities and soft sciences in academia has become so prevalent.

A side point, but unless you are ruled by your pocketbook, why do you associate "more intrusive governmental control"/"statism" necessarily with leftism? The American right is obviously quite interested in it as well--I don't think laws banning sodomy and sex toys are favored by most humanities faculty members.
10.10.2007 1:11am
DavidBernstein (mail):
I meant, skewed toward the former (conservatives)
10.10.2007 1:15am
Ilya Somin:
Ilya, we can agree to disagree on this, but not every professor is really an intellectual (or necessarily interested in political philosophy), and the conservative-libertarian ratio among those who either aren't intellectuals or aren't especially interested in political philosophy is heavily skewed toward the latter. Plus, there are lots of religiously motivated conservative professors, especially at Christian colleges.

All of this is probably true. But noninentellectual professors and those who don't care about political philosophy are more likely to be common in fields that aren't politically relevant. They are far less common, I suspect, in politically charged disciplines such as law, humanities, and social sciences - which are the ones where the ideologies of professors actually matter.
10.10.2007 1:23am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Last point--generally agreed, but (1) the overall percentage the authors get includes ALL professors; and (2) even in law, you, e.g., tax profs who tend not be very ideological; in history, people studying ancient Athens are not necessarily going to find modern politics very interesting; and so on.
10.10.2007 1:37am
Elliot Reed:
I think it's worth considering that these days libertarians are very definitively members of the right-wing coalition. While there are left-wing libertarians (Liberty & Power seems to have several), libertarians in the academy generally seem to be of the right-wing sort who disagree with the social conservatives about abortion and gay marriage and very little else. I don't think right-wing "libertarians" who (e.g.) not merely voted for Bush but gave his campaign the maximum permissible contribution, have been longstanding Federalist Society members, supported the Iraq war, wrote blog posts in support of the President's detention and "harsh interrogation" policies, etc. should be exempt from being counted as conservatives. Also, people who self-identify as "libertarians" are sometimes just regular pro-business conservatives who want a label that doesn't make them sound anti-abortion and anti-gay.

So basically I don't think it's substantively correct to say that self-identified libertarians should be exempt from being counted as conservatives. On the other hand, not all of them should be counted as conservatives; it would be interesting to see how they break down. Perhaps they could have had a checkbox-type question for "libertarian" along with "radical" and "Marxist"?
10.10.2007 1:38am
DavidBernstein (mail):
I don't think right-wing "libertarians" who (e.g.) not merely voted for Bush but gave his campaign the maximum permissible contribution, have been longstanding Federalist Society members, supported the Iraq war, wrote blog posts in support of the President's detention and "harsh interrogation" policies, etc. should be exempt from being counted as conservatives.
The Federalist Society is explicitly, officially, and in practice, an organization for conservatives and libertarians, it's right there in the mission statement. Any self-described libertarian who is a huge Bush fan isn't really a libertarian, but someone who supported him as the perceived lesser of two evils certainly can be. (As I revealed on this blog, I wrote my own name in for president in 2004.)
10.10.2007 1:43am
Ilya Somin:
libertarians in the academy generally seem to be of the right-wing sort who disagree with the social conservatives about abortion and gay marriage and very little else.

At the very least, you would have to add the war on drugs, regulation of pornography and "obscene" speech, Bush's education and medicare plans, cloning, stem cells, and a minimum of 6-7 other issues to this list. And I'm sure I'm missing some. Some other issues that unite social conservatives (e.g. - the Iraq war) split libertarians.
10.10.2007 1:51am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Your point is well taken, but it is not just libertarians whose position is not adequately represented by the usual single dimensional scale. For instance, I take a much stronger position on individual rights than most people on the left and tend to agree with libertarians on such issues. However, in other ways I end up on the left because I think that libertarians and economic conservatives overestimate the freedom and efficiency of the market and underestimate the danger to freedom posed by business and other non-governmental concentrations of economic power.
10.10.2007 3:27am
Roger Schlafly (www):
Yes, libertarians have their own peculiar views, but they ultimately voted for either Bush or Kerry. Hardly anyone voted for the Libertarian Party. Like it or not, Libertarian votes can be ignored as insignificant.
10.10.2007 4:02am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Yes, libertarians have their own peculiar views, but they ultimately voted for either Bush or Kerry. Hardly anyone voted for the Libertarian Party. Like it or not, Libertarian votes can be ignored as insignificant.

Yes, but the topic under discussion here is not presidential elections, it is the political positions of university faculty, whether this reflects bias, and whether it affects education. Advocates of minority views often vote for the closest candidate they think can win rather than for the candidate who most closely reflects their views, so elections do not reflect the actual distribution of political positions very accurately.
10.10.2007 4:30am
Paul McMahon (mail):
I see that the response rate for this study is only 51 percent (though how they calculated that is anyone's guess). Thus, we can expect the non-sampling errors to be considerable. The authors tried to adjust through post-stratification to the NCES database.

The authors' call-back of 100 non-respondents was a nice touch, and it certainly suggests that there are some moderate problems even after the weighting is in place. It isn't clear, though, that the differences between the respondents and non-respondents is statistically significant.

It would have been more interesting if this call-back operation had also been applied to the respondents, addressing another non-sampling issue, actually.

But 51 percent response? Weak results indeed. Federal surveys require designs for 80 percent.
10.10.2007 9:01am
jacksecret:
The trouble with this commonly used ideological scale is that it isn't based on any principle at all and only covers from center to left. Notice that conservatives and liberals both hold fundamentally leftist views. The criterion for this scale of left vs. right has to be based on the principle of individual rights. So that would make conservatives leftist based on their social views and liberals also leftist based on their economic views. Both are in roughly the same location on the correct scale. It's only one random grab-bag of ideas vs. another. The correct scale has people who support the rights of the individual in all social and economic circumstances on the far right while Hitler, Stalin and Mao are on the far left, with conservatives roughly 40% and liberals about 50% toward the left from center. This unprincipled and meaningless way of looking at left vs right is what leads people to actually believe Hitler and other fascists are far right, a laughable notion at best.
10.10.2007 12:10pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I'm with Elliot Reed. Ilya, what percentage of the Conspirators do you think voted for Bush over Kerry? If, as I suspect, the answer is "all or almost all," isn't it fair to say, as Elliot Reed does, that libertarians in the U.S. are generally part of the conservative coalition?

Sure, there are issues on which you differ from other parts of the conservative coalition, but there are differences in the liberal coalition too. That's why they are "coalitions."
10.10.2007 12:44pm
bittern (mail):
The poor authoritarians (i.e., non-libertarians) are apparently biased out of The Academy. The effect seems more pronounced than the difficulties of the abject conservatives, so the bias must be appalling. I await Ilya's proposal to address barriers to authoritarian scholarship.
10.10.2007 12:47pm
frankcross (mail):
I find Ilya's point rings true. The academy has many "liberaltarians." By this, I mean people who lean toward libertarian positions, if not fully libertarian. But then tend to prioritize the social libertarian issues that are liberal over the financial ones that are considered more conservative. Because of this relative preference intensity, they seem more liberal. By contrast, much of the libertarian movement seems to prioritize the financial issues, which makes them seem more conservative. But, aside from different preference intensity, there's a fair amount in common.

Of course, this varies by discipline and it seems there are statist types in some fields
10.10.2007 12:52pm
Adeez (mail):
This post resembles a noticeable minority of posts on this site in that it discusses a topic that centers on a label, but does not define the label. It makes for some good commenting fun, but for lack of a better word, is just dumb.

Professors, you can talk about "God" and "intelligent design" and "liberals" and "conservatives" ad infinitum. But w/o first making clear what these terms mean for purposes of debate, the "debate" is meaningless. These terms mean different things to different people. Thus, arguing who's left or right and arguing about faith becomes a futile exercise. However, it does provoke passionate commentary, so if this is your main goal, it's working.

This is why I visit this site despite being a self-described "liberal," who's purportedly in the minority here. As a proud "liberal," I can respect conservatism and libertarianism as competing ideologies. And in my crazy evil liberal mind, I believe we're all brothers and sisters whose similarities far exceed our differences. It's also why I cringe when self-described libertarians or conservatives associate themselves w/the neocons in power. To those who do so: you're smearing the name of real conservatives and libertarians! These fuckers are neither: they're most properly identified as Authoritarians. Those who sheepishly follow them are Authoritarian followers, and those in charge are Authoritarian leaders.

It's also why there should be more posts about real liberals like Kucinich, and real libertarians like Paul.
10.10.2007 1:50pm
happylee:
A true sign of the times is that the worst, most vapid and self-important pinko academic (typically without any significant publications, student teaching awards, public service, etc.) can express freely the most pernicious intellectual garbage without consequence. Meanwhile, someone like Charles Murray points to the emperor's nekkidness, and he banned from academia for life.

So relative numbers is only one sign of the times. The real dead canary in the mine is the absolute self-righteous domination of academic frauds. And these people fight dirty; hence few up and coming libertarians or true conservatives.
10.10.2007 2:09pm
Matt Finlay (mail):
All of this is interesting to debate, but not terribly compelling, since the study involves self-definition.

More compelling is an analysis of the facts - particularly the voting records of faculty. I think it was AEI who published a study several years ago which confirmed, through an analysis of Presidential voting by college faculty, the liberal monolith which is higher education. We don't need to debate these facts, only to figure out what to do about it.
10.10.2007 2:36pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Visa-a-vis SSM, abortion, sodomy, drugs, porno, and various other "social issues" they were not banned by what we would call contemporary New Right conservatives. In the case of SSM, sodomy, porno, etc., outlawry occurred many centuries ago when the contesting "parties" bore no resemblance to today's groupings. And as hard as it is to believe, abortion and drugs (including alcohol) were banned as part to movements towards safety regulation that were either explicitly part of the progressive movement or (abortion) based on the same active government theories.
10.10.2007 3:54pm
Solon Simmons (mail):
I would first like to thank the authors of these posts and comments for their interest in our survey. There is little doubt that there is good reason to study the social and political attitudes of professors and to inquire into the effects of these views on personnel issues, teaching and intellectual life.

This will not be the time or place for me to clarify my views on these issues, but I would suggest that the idea that libertarian views are excluded from the survey is off the mark. The more interesting and underreported aspect of the survey is the deliberative ideology section in which we examine clusters of attitudes in issue domains. Here I refer reader to the later parts of the paper. The dimensional scales are a simple way to communicate ideas in a wider sphere in a way that can be compared directly to authoritative survey data on the general population. We are acutely aware of the tendency, going back at least to the Vietnam era, to distinguish two dimensions of belief and to highlight one of the poles as libertarian.

To my knowledge, there is no distinct libertarian cluster that emerges in the statistical examination of data. As a result of this and other discussions, I can promise that I will look for views in this persuasion more closely. If I have one regret on this score, it is that we did not include libertarian as an potential identity in our array. It was from this array that we made our claims about radicals, activists and Marxists. If anyone on this list would like to discuss these matters in person, I teach in Arlington and would be very willing to meet in the spirit of open communication and full transparency.
10.12.2007 12:13pm