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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.

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