Professors on America’s college campuses are politically quite liberal compared with the general public. A 2005 study that was discussed widely in the popular press at the time reported that perhaps as many as 70 percent of college professors were self-described liberals. A similar 2007 study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons reported that roughly 10 percent of faculty members described themselves as far left while virtually none self-identified as far right. The Gross and Simmons study also showed that in the Social Sciences, roughly 17 percent of the faculty identify as Marxists.
It is not obvious why American college faculty members have such strong liberal political views. Many conservatives argue that it is due to discrimination in hiring and that the students receive a sharply biased education as a consequence. I don’t think that the intellectual capacities of conservatives are below that of liberals but I suppose it could be a possible explanation. My own guess is that it is due to selection on attitudes towards accepting received wisdom as truth. As I mentioned in a previous post, academics are encouraged to break new ground or even to overturn established ideas. Einstein is an excellent example of such a thinker. So are Stephen Hawking, John Maynard Keynes, Alfred Blalock, etc.* Deliberately setting out to tear down established parts of your field requires a certain mindset and this mindset might be more common with people who have liberal political views. (While it is clear that faculty on American college campuses are quite liberal I am not convinced that we need to do anything about it. If the best chemists and physicists also happen to be Democrats then so be it. Particularly if they confine their teaching to their area of expertise, I wouldn’t think political bias by itself should be a problem.)
Another possibility is that, as Paul Krugman has written on a few occasions, “the facts have a well-known liberal bias.” I’m not entirely sure I know what he means by this. It could be that Krugman is thinking mostly about the tension between facts and far-right positions. Creationist ideas don’t really survive close contact with the facts. Extreme supply-side economic ideas don’t either.
The 2005 study presented results on political views by department. As a field, economics ranks as one of the least stereotypically liberal, and most conservative, fields on campus. While I cannot think of a single Republican in my own department (and no, I’m not a Republican), it is quite common to hear faculty members emphasizing the benefits of limited regulation, the gains from trade, and the harm caused by market intrusions like minimum wages, capital taxation and import tariffs. I am quite sure that many of the economists in my department would be viewed as radical right-wing conservatives by members of other departments at Michigan. Let me use Paul Krugman, a self-proclaimed liberal, as an example again. If you read Peddling Prosperity or Pop Internationalism you will find this self-proclaimed liberal touting the virtues of trade and the folly of poorly thought-out market interventions being discussed at the time. Krugman is not an outlier either. My colleague Miles Kimball’s blog is titled Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal – disclosing both his liberal motives and his more libertarian/supply-side/conservative perspective.
I suspect that the relatively high proportion of conservative views among economics faculty is largely due to contact with the data and with standard economic analysis. In economics it seems like the facts and the analysis have much more of a conservative slant than a liberal one. It really is true that taxing labor income reduces labor supply (a little). It really is true that extending unemployment benefits encourages people to delay looking for a job (a little). It really is true that taxation can reduce employment demand; that excessive business regulation seems to be correlated with reduced levels of business formation; that union concentration has a detrimental effect on industries and on and on. Moreover, the theoretical analysis seems to fit with the observations. Now of course, a liberal’s response to this would normally be “OK, perhaps these effects are there in the data, but the magnitude of the effects is usually pretty small.” That’s often true. It’s certainly true with the minimum wage. At its current level, and I suspect at the proposed new $10.10 level, the effects of the minimum wage on employment will probably be modest. Republicans tend to describe the minimum wage as though it is a “job killer” that could cripple the economy – a description which is completely over the top. That type of exaggeration is not really serving them well and it might be what Krugman has in mind when he says that the facts have a liberal bent.
Nevertheless, many basic empirical patterns and basic economic ideas have a fairly conservative profile. I suspect that one of the major reasons why faculty in economics departments are so much more conservative than faculty in other departments is that they are constantly confronted with these facts and with reasoning that runs counter to stereotypical liberal positions, and it is difficult to maintain these positions when one is faced with the analysis in the field. Economics constantly impresses on its students the benefits that flow from allocations guided by self-interest while stressing the lost opportunities associated with poorly planned government interventions, even when the intentions are good.
The 2007 study’s findings about Marxism are notable. I suspect that the Marxists in the Social Sciences and elsewhere on campus are, for the most part, not in economics departments. Marx is just not taken very seriously by economists anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time. In most economics departments you are much more likely to find the ideas of Friedman than of Marx. (And that’s a good thing.)
Of course, not all free market ideas fit neatly into the standard conservative talking points. Economists almost surely are more open to legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc. They are also more likely to see the benefits that come from allowing free immigration. None of these are staples of conservatism.
On the whole however, it would seem like the “facts” in economics don’t really have a strong liberal bias. On balance, they probably break the other way.
* OK, Alfred Blalock seems a bit out of place on this list. Who is Alfred Blalock you might ask? He is actually one of the pioneers of modern heart surgery (though I understand that the famous procedure named after him – the Blalock-Thomas-Tausig shunt – isn’t, technically speaking, heart surgery). The reason I know about Blalock is that I recently saw the movie “Something the Lord Made” which is about Blalock and the legendary surgical technician Vivian Thomas who was instrumental in developing the procedure. I *highly* recommend this movie. The performances by Alan Rickman and Mos Def are both outstanding and the movie provides a compelling look at both race relations at the time, and medical history.