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How the Academic Left Caricatures the Right as Defenders of the Status Quo

A now common left-wing defense of the imbalance of right and left in the academy is that the academy tends to be left-liberal because it rewards innovative thinking whereas the right is hidebound and defends the status quo. Here for instance are some of the comments of a law professor on a reprinted version of my piece, The Embedded Left-Liberal Assumptions of the Legal Academy.

Universities attract intellectuals who are willing to entertain new ways of thinking. Conservatives, by definition, are predisposed to think about things the way they have always been thought of. “Gimme that old time religion. It’s good enough for me.”

Elsewhere this critic identifies those on the right as protective of the status quo and thus less intellectually interesting than those who want to change the world. With respect, this dichotomy between the intellectual left and right is such a caricature that it provides yet more evidence of the dire need for ideological diversity so that academics might actually learn something about the political right.

Most of the classical liberal and libertarian right is devoted to reforming the status quo. School choice, colorblindness in governmental action, entitlement reform are all policy ideas strongly associated with the right. They hardly represent today’s status quo and yet they are relatively few exponents in the legal academy of these and other transformative ideas that are prevalent outside it.

And originalism, the interpretive theory embraced by many on the right, is at least in part a theory of law reform. While many originalists believe that originalism has had some previous influence on the Court, almost none think it has sufficient influence today. Moreover, originalists are constantly refining and reticulating the basic ideas of originalism. And if it is objected that some of the right’s reform ideas have antecedents in history, that is surely true of the left’s as well. Indeed, “new” ideas in almost any subject except the hard sciences are at least in part a reworking of old ideas. That is the element of truth in Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

And it is hardly fair even to argue that conservatives (as opposed to libertarians or classical liberals) are satisfied with the world as it is. Indeed, those most dissatisfied are often traditional conservatives, because they believe that the traditions necessary for human flourishing are being dissolved by various contemporary trends, such as progressivism and technological change. At meetings of the Tradition Project, one finds more true radicals than among the conventional thinkers in many faculty lounges.

And even the defense of the status quo can be intellectually engaging. The status quo is too seldom given the defense that is its due, given the constraints of the world and the unintended consequences of policy changes. This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but most changes will make it worse. We need more naysayers in the academy.

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on January 11, 2019 at 11:39:54 am

This is just the Left's attempt to reassure itself. The Left has no standards, no means of evaluating concepts and arguments, other than objection by their political enemies. For the Left, if it's Different, and especially if it is objected to by political enemies, it's Good. Q.E.D. So all manner of absurdities and stupidities emerge from the Left on a daily, nay hourly basis. It's why it has been so easy for people like the PSU professors to embarrass the academic Left with their satires and parodies. And there is no such thing as the status quo. The world is always changing. It was changing at all points in time during antiquity and the Middle Ages. Even conservatives effect change over time by continuous reinvigoration of classical thought, even in the absence of Leftist absurdities needing undoing. What Leftists alive today want (and this has been true of the Left for 200 years) is to be able to see themselves, and to be publicly acknowledged by others, as the effecters of change, together with the public acknowledgement that all change is necessarily Progress. Time is of the essence with them; the content of the actual change is of tertiary importance. They simply want Oompa Loompas of change and they want them NOW! (Portraits of old white men adorning the hallways? Pull them down! Voila! Instant Change! Progress!). And there are too many of them. Too many change agents competing for a scarce supply of status as acknowledged agents of change. Someone else's proposed change is of no use to me; I must offer my own, no matter what it is. Raise this to the tenth power and you have the Academy of today.

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on January 11, 2019 at 15:13:54 pm

The status quo is from where we start; nowhere else has quite that salience. Thus, one can make a case (James Buchanan) that the status quo is an important benchmark in social thinking (Buchanan focused on the effects of interest-group politics). So, we see again the "fatal conceit" identified by Hayek (another Nobel laureate like Buchanan) : apparently, the Right is full of stupid people who won't join "innovative" thought about change that typically argues for special interests without using a benchmark to identify benefits to wider society (social welfare). One good example arises in the common law of contracts. The spontaneously evolved rule for compensation in breach of contract is, broadly, payment of the expectancy (e.g. loss of expected gain) of the victim of breach. The breacher can move resources to higher valued uses providing the well being of the victim is preserved; this is a gain in social welfare (Pareto-type improvement in terms of economics). Many progressive lawyers would substitute a rule where restitution of the breacher's "unjust" enrichment must be made to the victim, which is equivalent to requiring specific performance, ruling out gains from moving resources to better uses because the incentive to do so is removed. The victim and the breacher's welfare levels remain the same under a restitution measure of damages. Thus, the wisdom of the ages, the status quo, can be defended by careful thought showing it promotes increases in social welfare. The "fatal conceit" does not see conservative thought simply because it ignores conservative thought.

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Antony Dnes

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