Universities on the dole

Jack Balkin had a good exchange with Juan Non-Volokh the other week on whether universities should receive public subsidies, an argument motivated partly by the idea that the government should have no role in judging ideas with political import and partly on the idea that the market can do it better.

I think its pretty safe to say, judging from how much per-student costs run at the most prestigious universities over and above the exorbitant tuitions that this is one of those situations that the market would slash to pieces. A good education is not synonymous with good economic results, although its outcomes certainly are.

As to the other question , the issue is the value judgment of ideas, and whether the government is required to abstain from judgment in intellectual work that it funds, or whether it should take a hands off approach to the whole enterprise. Balkin has the right idea:

The question is not whether government may not prefer some ideas or viewpoints over others, but what methods the government may properly use to prefer certain viewpoints and ideas or-- and this is a somewhat different objective-- to promote public expression, debate, and the exchange of viewpoints. In general, government may not punish people through criminal fines or civil penalties because of the viewpoints they express. This is the central meaning of the free speech guarantee in our Constitution. On this Glenn and I presumably would agree. But a healthy system of freedom of expression involves much more than securing this basic guarantee. It requires an educated populace and the opportunity for people to express themselves and participate in the culture in which they live. It requires a rich and vibrant public sphere. That public sphere will not be produced without government subsidy or government provision of important public goods. If government got out of that business entirely, we might still have a formal liberty of expression, because no one would be thrown in jail or fined for stating unpopular viewpoints. But our system of free expression would be much much poorer.

The government's commitment to freedom of expression is more than simply not jailing citizens for unpopular speech, it is the burden of creating spheres where public expression can be cultivated with full faith that it is the result of a democratic process. In a capitalist democracy, where money is given free rein to influence and promote ideas, it is imperative that we carve out certain spaces where 'good' ideas, the winners of pure intellectual inquiry and not the distorting effects of the market can be sheltered. Not to say that the market doesn't produce any good ideas, far from it, but the ideal market will isolate only thought that is synonymous with profitability, and democratic ideals dictate that we offer a counterweight to that process.

Another effect is similar but subtler: the dissemination of models for democratic exchange. It is generally agreed that the government has a responsibility to develop and maintain the integrity of the democracy beyond simply telling people where they should go to vote, i.e., ensuring candidates don't have unfair advantages over each other, that individuals' votes carry equal weight, and that elections proceed as honest contests of each candidate's merits. I'm not saying it always works, but that's the idea. The principles at play here are the basis for creating democratic outcomes, and the citizenry benefits by having these principles widely instilled in society, hence the founders' mandated right of association. By creating spheres based on these principles, the state encourages a broader segment of the population to retain its autonomy against tyranny, whether by the state or by powerful individuals. We see evidence of the adoption of these principles in examples such as ethical codes of journalism, professional associations which codify expertise, and labor unions (no, really).

When conservatives complain their ideas are not taken seriously, that all of these spheres are invalidated by fascist leftist cliques at their helms, and then argue the only way to restart democracy is to set up their own shadow institutions, they are demeaning democratic culture itself. When you unhinge the free flow of ideas from the spheres and standards which have been carefully nurtured for several centuries to ensure democratic debate, narrow political interest trumps the only mechanism we have to protect equal thought. The canard that these ideas are not 'represented equally' misses the whole idea of democratic outcomes. Democracy don't mean every idea is as good as every other. That's communism, guys. It merely means that controls are in place to encourage the best idea to emerge based on its merits. Its a system that doesn't brook sore losers well. I would agree with some conservatives that the excesses of identity politics in the academy has had some unfortunate effects, and I think the system is gradually stabilizing, as it is designed to do, following landmark shifts in consensus, as occurred following the cultural turmoil of the 60s and 70s.

This process, which is neither easy nor quick is nonetheless the best we have. That's democracy for you. When you look at the shadow institutions conservatives would replace the academy and the media with, and see them for the thinly veiled echo chambers they are, you realize just how little their complaints have to do with improving democracy. Rather, they are simply an ingenious ploy to circumvent fundamental institutions in the interest of one group's political agenda.


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