Milton Friedman on the Intellectual Laziness of the Left

Over at Econlog, David Henderson presents a quote from Milton Friedman:

In 1964–to the disgust and dismay of most of my academic friends–I served as an economic adviser to Barry Goldwater during his quest for the Presidency. That year also, I was a Visiting Professor at Columbia University. The two together gave me a rare entree into the New York intellectual community. I talked to and argued with groups from academia, from the media, from the financial community, from the foundation world, from you name it. I was appalled at what I found. There was an unbelievable degree of intellectual homogeneity, of acceptance of a standard set of views complete with cliche answers to every objection, of smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group. The closest similar experience I have ever had was at Cambridge, England, and even that was a distant second.

The homogeneity and provincialism of the New York intellectual community made them pushovers in discussions about Goldwater’s views. They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own. As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: “You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do.

This phenomenon of intellectual laziness and smugness bread of political homogeneity is one to which all conservatives and libertarians who have spent significant time in higher education can attest.  While it is both unpleasant and unattractive, it is actually one of the advantages that people on the right have.  As Friedman indicates, people on the left have often not either heard the arguments or taken them seriously, and that causes their responses to be weak.

In the legal academy, however, people on the right have made a significant impact in a variety of fields and therefore this phenomenon is much less present in those fields than it once was.  In the early 1980s, the principal arguments used against originalism was that it was unsophisticated and didn’t lead to results that liberals liked.  (That is not to say that there were not better arguments made — as, for example, by Paul Brest — but they were rarely voiced.)  Over time, though, as originalism has gained prominence, it has been taken more seriously and the arguments against it have become stronger.

Of course, I don’t think this phenomenon has anything to do with the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of the views of the left and right.  If the right ever comes to dominate the academy, I would expect the same phenomenon to afflict it.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. libertarian jerry says

    Even in 1964 the Cultural Marxist “Long March” through the universities was well entrenched in American Academia. When I was going to college back in that period I could see the arrogance and smugness on the faces of most of my Leftist professors. During class discussions these same professors berated me for not regurgitating the Keynesian collectivist dribble. Instead,I spoke,to their dismay of free markets and property rights. So here we are 50 years down the line,with a bankrupt,bloated out of control government watching our civil liberties and Constitutional Rights being shredded. We are in an economic inflationary depression in which there is no way out. And the end results of those 1960s and 70s professors are the buffoons who are trying to “run” the American Economy along top down,central planning,collectivist lines. The more these fools “run” things the worst the situation becomes. The old saying of “that which you sew you shall reap” comes true in today’s world with the destruction of the American Economy,its productive Middle Class and the eventual debt serfdom of 90% of the American population. It looks as if those college professors of 50 years ago did their jobs well and its the American people who will have to suffer and pay for it.

  2. says

    ” If the right ever comes to dominate the academy, I would expect the same phenomenon to afflict it.”

    I had a post along those lines on my blog a while back, titled ” The Rice Christian Cycle.”

    Rice christians were Chinese who converted because the missionaries had rice. The more successful a political movement, the greater the incentive for rice christians to join it. The more rice christians in an ideological movement, the lower its quality. Hence the cycle.

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