Events, Field, and the Liberal Skew in Higher Education-Becker
The study by Gross and Simmons discussed by Posner in part confirms what has been found in earlier studies about the greater liberalism of American professors than of the American population as a whole. Their study goes further than previous ones by having an apparently representative sample of professors in all types of colleges and universities, and by giving nuanced and detailed information about attitudes and voting of professors by field of expertise, age, gender, type of college or university, and other useful characteristics. I will try to add to Posner's valuable discussion by concentrating on the effects on academic political attitudes of events in the world, and of their fields of specialization. I also consider whether college teachers have long-lasting influences on the views of their students.
As Posner indicates, the type of persons who go into different fields varies by the characteristics of the field, so that students who become sociologists tend to be more liberal, while those who enter accounting tend to be more conservative-see Table 8 of the Gross-Simmons study on political identification of professors by field. It is also true, however, that the nature of the material analyzed in a field affects the political identification of persons in that field. The late eminent economist George J. Stigler claimed in an article many years ago that the study of economics tends to make the student more conservative because economics emphasizes that the hidden longer run effects of many government policies have much more negative consequences than the initial direct effects. Economists also show how decentralized competitive markets contribute to the general welfare. Similarly, the study of sociology emphasizes the oppressive effects of certain social forces on particular groups, like the less educated and minorities, which influence the attitudes of sociologists toward the prevailing capitalist economic system.
Admittedly, it is difficult to see the connection between the political attitudes of professors in various other fields and the nature of these fields. For example, why do less than 4 percent of historian, according to Gross and Simmons, consider themselves Republicans, whereas 23 percent of nurses do? Perhaps one important factor is that teachers in practical fields, like engineering, nursing, and medicine, see the limitations of what can be accomplished by various types of interventions, whereas those in theoretical fields, like mathematics and literature, can dream of more utopian solutions. Still, the dichotomy between the theoretical and the practical has trouble explaining why a field like history has such liberal academics since many historians deal with various disasters brought about by government ventures.
The differences in political views by age are informative. Generally, younger men and women are more liberal than older ones since age brings experience with the limitations of what can be achieved by grandiose programs. This is captured in the old adage that goes something like "if you are not a socialist when young you have no heart, but if you remain one when you get older you have no brains". Yet Table 15 in Gross and Simmons shows that academics aged 26-35 are significantly less liberal than those aged 50 and older. I suggest that events of the past 30 years are a major reason for this age-reversal on liberal tendencies. The collapse of communism, the growth of the Asian tigers that have emphasized private enterprise and export-oriented policies, the rapid development of China and India after abandoning communism and socialism, respectively, all reduced the attractiveness of Marxist, socialist, and communist ideologies. These events had less effect on the views of older academics since their views were largely determined when older academics were young, but these events had a great influence on attitudes of younger academics since their beliefs were formed while these transforming events were occurring.
Even economists, traditionally more conservative than those in other social sciences, are now much more market oriented and less sympathetic to various forms of government intervention than they were when I was a student many years ago. During the interim, not only did communism, etc collapse, but Keynesian interventionist attitudes also lost favor, and many more studies have shown the harmful effects of different attempts at government interventions in labor and other markets. The retreat among economists from interventionist policies is found not only among American academic economists, but also among younger economists in Europe and Asia, and also to some extent in Latin America. The reason is that the same forces affected economists elsewhere as affected American academic economists. I suspect, but do not have the evidence, that younger academics in other countries are also decidedly less liberal than older ones in other fields as well.
Given the indisputable evidence that professors are liberal, how much influence does that have on the long run attitudes of college students? This is especially relevant since some of the most liberal academic disciplines, like the social sciences and English, have close contact with younger undergraduates. The evidence strongly indicates that whatever the short-term effects of college teachers on the opinions of their students, the long run influence appears to be modest. For example, college graduates, like the rest of the voting population, split their voting evenly between Bush and Kerry. The influence of high incomes (college graduates earn on average much more than others), the more conservative family backgrounds of the typical college student (but less conservative for students at elite colleges), and other life experiences far dominate the mainly forgotten influence of their college teachers.
This evidence does not mean that the liberal bias of professors is of no concern, but rather that professors are much less important in influencing opinions than they like to believe, or then is apparently believed by the many critics on the right of the liberality of professors.