May 29 2013
The Secret Hayek Appreciation Club in British Higher Education
This hilarious post in The Guardian’s political science blog titled “British Higher Education's Hayek Appreciation Club” discusses academia’s enthusiasm for government regulation and oversight in practically every field of human endeavor but one: academia.
Author Stian Westlake notes that while most British academics endorse onerous bureaucratic oversight for most industries, they don't want it for themselves:
When I ask friends in academia about the government's proper role in the economy, they generally tell me the same sort of thing. They say that hands-off, laissez-faire neoliberalism is a sham. That the government should regulate risky activities like "casino" banking, that it should challenge the short-term biases of British industry, and that it should help build the country's industrial base by investing taxpayers' money alongside the private sector in areas where the UK can prosper. Sometimes you'll hear calls for greater intervention, or indeed for outright revolution: British academia is after all a broad church. But some kind of industrial activism is the baseline, especially among non-economists….
Then I ask a different question: what do you think of the management at your university? Your vice-chancellor? The research council that funds you?
Then the floodgates open. Almost without exception, they'll explain how their university is managed by overpaid, idiotic deadbeats; people whose love for red tape is rivalled only by their boneheaded ignorance of the value of research. How their vice-chancellor is at best a well-meaning flesh-presser and at worst a gilded nincompoop, or a brute in a suit….
God forbid that a non-academic try to direct research funding to what are seen as national economic priorities, as the EPSRC did in their short-lived "Shaping Capability" exercise. Academics may disagree on many things, but they agree that they know better than pencil-pushers and meddling ministers what they should be researching.
There seems to be a discrepancy here. If academics believe that shopkeepers and stockbrokers and factory owners can be helped out by the wise hand of government, why are they so opposed to it in their own line of work? Why should enthusiasts for industrial policy suddenly act like members of the Hayek Appreciation Society when it comes to the business of research? I can think of a few possible explanations, but none of them quite rings true. …
I can only conclude that the most plausible explanation for this conflicted view of the world is that many of our academics are members of the British Universities Hayek Appreciation Club, a secret society dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the celebrated Austrian economist. In keeping with the club's omerta, they keep their libertarian views to themselves when discussing the wider world, but when it comes to their own activities, they can't help but follow their ancient free-market disciplines and abjure managerialism and its evil ways.
I find it curious that so many academic advocates of industrial policy are so hostile to it in their daily lives. All I can imagine is that they swear some particularly bloodcurdling oaths at their initiation ceremony.
This double standard is both hilarious and illuminating: why are academics so unwilling to suffer the same indignities they gladly would inflict on others?
In fact, I believe that it is not difficult to find the reason behind this double standard.
Academics see themselves as servants of truth and knowledge, suitably detached from base financial pursuits. Regulation for such paragons is not only unnecessary; it is insulting.
By contrast, the academy tends to see wealth creators, small business owners, bankers, and industrialists as slaves to money and power.
They deserve bureaucratic oversight.
In other words the academy is saying, "Freedom for me, but not for thee."