The public choice of public choice

by Henry Farrell on May 1, 2018

Years ago, I joked about coming up with “a simple public choice explanation for the emergence of public choice”. Now this:

In defending its financial ties to the Charles Koch Foundation — some $50 million worth, as of 2016 — George Mason University has cited its academic independence from donors.

Yet George Mason is less independent than it has let on, according to documents released last week via an open-records request, and amid an ongoing suit about donor transparency brought by student activists.

Angel Cabrera, university president since 2012, shared the news with faculty members in an email, saying, “I was made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.”

The gifts, in support of faculty positions in economics, “granted donors some participation in faculty selection and evaluation,” Cabrera said, noting that one such agreement is still active (the rest have expired).

All 10 of the now-public agreements relate to the university’s Mercatus Center for free market research, a locus of Koch-funded activity. Three of the agreements involve Koch. The two most recent, from 2007 and 2009, stipulate the creation of a five-member selection committee to select a professor, with two of those committee members chosen by donors. The other Koch agreement, from 1990, also afforded Koch a role in naming a professor to fund.

George Mason also allowed Koch a role in evaluating professors’ performance via advisory boards. And while the agreements assert that final say in faculty appointments will be based on normal university procedures, the 2009 agreement says that funds will be returned to the donor if the provost and the selection committee can’t agree on a candidate. … The university has consistently said that the foundation is a private entity and that compromising the confidential nature of donations through that avenue by releasing such documents could chill giving. Koch was a joint, $10 million donor on the law school deal.

Barring the unlikely release of some exonerating evidence, this looks pretty bad. The job of university development offices is to raise money for the universities, and in many disciplines and departments, scholars who bring in large grants will be smiled upon (in most of the sciences, grant raising is more or less part of your job description). This obviously creates cross-pressures between the general role of the university, which is supposed to engage in more or less disinterested inquiry, and the incentives of individual employees and subunits within the university, as well as a gray area in which the political motivations of potential donors and the political motivations of academics may coincide.

The ordinary protection against conflict of interest, and against donors using the university’s reputation as an ideological/financial cutout or flag of convenience is to build institutional firewalls, which allow donors to provide large money with broad conditions attached (such as: this money should be used to hire an endowed professor carrying out research and teaching on Topic X) but without specific controls on who that professor is. This is at best imperfect – but it at least somewhat curbs the voracity of development officers and individual academic “entrepreneurs.”

It would appear that any such firewalls were comprehensively breached at George Mason University (which is a public university, with consequent public obligations). The ferocity of the university administration’s efforts to keep the arrangements secret suggest the reputational damage that the university now faces. It’s also worth observing that many GMU faculty have suspected something like this for a long time, but weren’t able to get straight answers from the administration until its hand was forced by this lawsuit.

Finally, it’s notable that the person representing the interests of an as-yet unnamed big donor to the law school is Leonard Leo, who is the Federalist Society officer largely responsible for the ideological vetting of judges for the Trump administration. That doesn’t say great things either.



cervantes 05.01.18 at 1:14 pm

There are more than a few economists in the world who do not seem to be engaged in science, but rather in propaganda on behalf of the wealthy. One is inclined to wonder if there are more such arrangements in other places.


Martinned 05.01.18 at 1:43 pm

On the other hand, it is George Mason. They hardly need any more encouragement to say things that the Koch brothers like.


eric 05.01.18 at 2:47 pm

What did Tyler Cowen know and when did he know it?


grumbles 05.01.18 at 3:14 pm

Honestly, I assumed it was something like this. These people are smart consumers; they expect accountability from their servants.


bruce wilder 05.01.18 at 3:36 pm

For all the pearl clutching, I fail to see anything but routine hypocrisy. Firewalls?! What university has “firewalls”? Did anyone really think Mercatus was not purpose-driven?

Probably half of the research grant money available to academic economists comes from private foundations with ideological conditions. In the generation now nearing retirement, grants from the John M Olin foundation jump-started many careers and provided early financing for the Federalist Society.

Politically oriented gadflies and activist alumni have always played powerful roles. Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese made a career out of it after leaving office in supposed disgrace with great influence on faculty appointments at many institutions, including his own Yale. The Hoover Institution no doubt embarrasses many Stanford faculty, but there it is.

The University of Chicago’s troubles with the Pearsons are the kind of reputational damage development offices fear. George Mason will go on.


Sebastian H 05.01.18 at 5:23 pm

I’m torn. I like norms, even if they are mostly aspirational. So breaking down good norms is bad.

But in terms of reporting, this is pretty much how it works. Firewalls are notional, not super-effective, especially in the donor/university world.

It is similar to how in the government contracts world, you often get requirements that can only be met by one particular vendor, and that isn’t an accident.

Or with internal hiring for jobs that ‘require’ public posting, the job requirements always seem to exactly match the internal hire.


bruce wilder 05.01.18 at 8:54 pm

@ Sebastian H

Are these norms? Or the mere pretense of norms? If we had norms, this is what they would look like, so let’s pretend we have them and deny that we would ever violate our pretended norms. Style our pretense in ways that flatter donors and beneficiaries and legitimate their deeply corrupted work. That will be profitable.

These “revelations” are merely technical footnotes to Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains or Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. No norms are breaking down here. This is just pulling back one single curtain among thousands hiding the operation of the machinery.


LFC 05.01.18 at 9:45 pm

B Wilder and Sebastian H poo-poo the notion that firewalls actually exist or do anything, and yet on Daily Nous the other day I spotted a post about a conservative N. Carolina foundation giving money to UNC, specifically to its undergrad program on philosophy, politics, and economics. A commenter asked whether there were ideological strings attached, and a UNC philosophy professor (I think the chair of the dept) replied that there were none, implicit or explicit. How things will work out w.r.t. the additional hires I don’t know, but a firewall is precisely what allows a professor in good faith to say that there are no ideological strings attached. Who knows, they might even end up hiring someone whose political or scholarly views or inclinations the donor doesn’t much like. It’s not inconceivable, though it may be somewhat unlikely.


Sebastian H 05.01.18 at 10:15 pm

I’m not arguing that gifts without strings are impossible. Many one time donors give them. I’m arguing that repeat donors often have strings, and that they aren’t practically firewalled well. And I don’t think that is controversial at all. It’s kind of a “Liberace is gay” open secret. Lots of people didn’t know that, but lots of people did.


bruce wilder 05.01.18 at 11:37 pm

A commenter asked whether there were ideological strings attached, and a UNC philosophy professor (I think the chair of the dept) replied that there were none, implicit or explicit. . . . .

Doesn’t that fall under the Mandy Rice-Davies rule — “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”??

Really it is almost inconceivable that he would say anything else, no matter what the quid pro quo, explicit or implicit.

It would not make much sense to characterize the donor as a “conservative” foundation if that foundation did not have a purpose and a strategy driving its gifts. And, that strategy might include giving the university some degree of plausible deniability, the better to legitimate the desired outcome. Hypocrisy honors virtue in the breach, but no one pays for virtue — they pay for the breach.


ph 05.02.18 at 12:14 am

There are always strings attached – the most important being how much funding can a hire and her/his research bring to the department/institution. This string is virtually unbreakable – I’d be delighted to hear of any academic at any level who is not required to rattle the cup and simply commit to pure research. Law faculties are in particular need of funds, as any regular reader of various (ahem) legal blogs can attest.

As others have noted, Mercatus (check the board) is run by the Kochs irrespective of any firewalls. I don’t personally see intellectual diversity as a problem.

Can cash tilt the focus of academic research? Yes, it can. The Chinese government is far more active in using cash to influence the activities of university departments studying various Asian cultures which is why they’ve been shown the door by the more discriminating. Henry is right, however, to raise the issue of strings-attached hiring at a public research university.


Sebastian H 05.02.18 at 12:29 am

To be super clear, when I say “not controversial at all” I mean the idea that endowments often come with strings and that firewalling them is often ineffective. Whether or not that reality is OK is different. I wish that firewalls in such situations were more effective than they are. I’m merely speaking to the how the world currently operates, not how I’d like it to operate.


LFC 05.02.18 at 12:51 am

@ b wilder

I don’t think we disagree all that much. I just suggest that, in terms of reaching judgments about specific arrangements, a case-by-case approach may be more warranted than a blanket assumption covering all cases and contingencies. And w/ that, I think I’ll leave the thread.


BroD 05.02.18 at 12:58 am

I’d be careful about overdoing the “it’s standard operating procedure” (as S. H. Sanders puts it). Norms eroded by cynic acid are more easily breached.


Lobsterman 05.02.18 at 2:20 am

What eric said — What did Cowen know and when? This is right up his alley, the dishonest but socially adept schmuck.


Sebastian H 05.02.18 at 2:21 am

BroD, I agree. I have the same argument with the legal realists who suggest that judges just vote their political preferences. Even if true, our system requires higher aspirations than that. So I’m 100% open to that part of the discussion. I sort of (but could be talked out of it) think that the university case outlined above is way less important than the judges case.

I guess my position is something like —this is a slightly more blatant than usual departure from the norms of how things are supposed to look (and function). This is a violation in appearance that is consonant with lots of violations in actuality. But it isn’t (in my understanding) a big departure in practical reality. So if we think it is important, we should deal with the actuality, not the cosmetics.


cjcjc 05.02.18 at 6:54 am

So the SCANDAL is that the donor who endows a professorship (which otherwise would not exist) may have a minority (2/5) say in the appointment?
Something tells me this is not the most glaring abuse of power in the academy…


Zamfir 05.02.18 at 9:48 am

Norms eroded by cynic acid are more easily breached.
Is that really true? This feels like a case that could have used more acidic cynicism, or other cynicism. The cynics have always taken for granted that GMU/Mercatus economists are effectively PR spokespersons for the Koch brothers, and should be given the same attention as you would give to PR announcements .

If that cynic view was more widely accepted, there would be little reason for the exercise in the first place. It’s surely cheaper to just have a PR agency send out missives. Apparently it’s worth many millions to create this plausible-denial layer in between (same goes for think tanks etc). It blunts the cynicism.

Marginal Revolution is on the blogroll here, while “Announcements from the Koch family” would not. Even though our hosts are quite aware of the situation, and presumably suspected everything in these documents already for many years. Cjcjcj above is still playing the faux-naive game.

Cynicism sounds like a good cure to me. If it vaguely looks like you are paying to get academic whitewashing for your PR, then cynic opinion will discredit the whitewashing academics, your money would be wasted, and as result there will be less attempts to buy whitewashing, which is good.


Lee A. Arnold 05.02.18 at 10:48 am

Some of the Mercatus agreements also establish Advisory Boards to recommend REMOVAL if the hired professor doesn’t comply with the objectives of promoting “free market” principles. This is stated in some of the PDFs of the various “Mercatus Center/Economics Professorship Agreements”. The links are down the right side of the page at UnKoch My Campus:


Joe 05.02.18 at 1:48 pm

My interactions with the Mercatus Center have always been a bit weird. They listen politely to things that don’t align with libertarian ideology, but are apparent in the data. Then they continue resolutely on their way, unaffected. I suspected they had ideological constraints on their work. Now I know those were formal, not just ambient conditions.


steven t johnson 05.02.18 at 2:45 pm

CT already has it on good authority that Nancy MacLean is the real problem, who has libeled many fine and noble scholars. It is no doubt merely unscholarly, even malicious, to see this sort of thing as reality confirming a thesis.

One source for this wisdom is the Niskanen Center’s Teles. I gather Teles wrote a history examining how conservatism recently rose to influence in the US legal system, though I don’t think it covers Roger Taney or Melville Fuller. (I confess, no doubt to earn the fitting condemnation: I would have thought a serious history of the US legal system would have found it more instructive to examine when and how the US legal system could be deemed liberal in the sense meant as “left.”)

Also at Niskanen: Jacob T. Levy I’ve seen short pieces from Bleeding Heart Libertarians. They seem kind of wooly, more committed to good manners than his co-bloggers there, Jason Brennan and Fernando Teson, more like Matt Zwolinski and Kevin Vallier. I don’t quite remember anything of them.

Brink Lindsey perhaps publishes the most popular books? Against the Dead Hand explains how governments are interfering with global free markets, depriving humanity; Antidumping Exposed explains how taxing good alleged to be dumped rips off consumers; The Age of Abundance explains how post-WWII economic freedom gave us the prosperity so that we can now all be refined consumers aiming at the higher things in life, which happily combines left and right in the libertarian synthesis; most recently, The Captured Economy explains how government is the source of monopoly rents that oppress the consumer and distort the market, including such notorious evils as zoning and licensing.

The two top leaders, Jerry Taylor and Joe Coon, were no doubt well trained at Cato Institute.

Of some of the adjunct fellows, “David Bailey has 35 years experience in managing energy related issues around the world. He has worked at literally every level of the coal and oil and gas industries, from the UK National Coal Board during the economic and labor upheavals under the Thatcher government to responsibility for ExxonMobil’s climate policy.” He is plainly well suited to advancing human freedom.

“Dennis McConaghy is the former Executive Vice-President of Corporate Development at TransCanada Corporation. Previously, he was Executive Vice-President, Pipeline Strategy and Development. Dennis joined TransCanada in 1998, and has held senior positions in Corporate Strategy & Development, Midstream/Divestments, and Business Development.
He has more than 25 years experience in oil and gas, including responsibility for Keystone XL.”

“Harvey Sapolsky is Professor of Public Policy and Organization and recently retired from teaching political science and directing the MIT Security Studies Program. Professor Sapolsky completed his B.A. at Boston University and earned a M.P.A. and Ph.D. (Political Economy and Government) at Harvard University. He has worked in a number of public policy areas, including health, science, and defense, and specializes in analyzing the effects of institutional structures and bureaucratic routines on policy outcomes. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. In the defense field he has served as a consultant or panel member for Commission on Government Procurement, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of Naval Research, the Naval War College, the U. S. Army, Draper Laboratory, the RAND Corporation, John Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, the National Research Council, and the Department of Energy. His current research focuses on three main areas: U. S. defense politics including especially inter-service and civil/military relations; the impact of casualties on the use of force; weapon acquisition policies, military innovation, and the structure and performance of defense industries.”

PKVerleger LLC is a Limited Liability Corporation registered in Delaware. It was formed to provide economic consulting to firms, governments, and individuals on energy and commodity markets.

“The key principal is Philip K. Verleger, Jr.
The firm’s main focus is the economic behavior of energy and commodity markets as deduced from economic theory and analysis.
The firm engages in three primary activities:
Specialized consulting to clients on markets
Support in legal disputes (usually in conjunction with economic consulting firms that specialize in litigation support)

Tahmina Watson: “Watson Immigration Law is a Seattle-based law firm with immigration attorneys practicing exclusively in the area of United States Immigration and Naturalization law. We can assist you with all investment visa matters, as well as all family-based and employment-based immigration matters.”

Sarah Myhre….OT, but, two links that may be of interest for different reasons:

“Brandon Fuller is Deputy Director and Research Scholar at the Marron Institute. Fuller is also part of the founding team at the Urbanization Project, a Marron-affiliated research center at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The work of the Urbanization Project is focused on rapid urbanization in low and middle income countries. Fuller chairs the Board of Directors for Refugee Cities, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the options of displaced people by promoting special-status settlements in which they can engage in meaningful, dignifying, and rewarding work. He is an adjunct scholar in the Niskanen Center’s immigration department. Fuller is also an advisor to Utopia, an urban planning and design firm focused exclusively on slums. Prior to joining NYU, Fuller was Director of Charter Cities, a non-profit that focused on the potential for new cities to advance reform in rapidly urbanizing countries. Before that, Fuller was part of Aplia, an education technology start-up founded in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aplia provides interactive online problem sets and experiments designed to increase student effort and engagement in brick-and-mortar college courses. Fuller started his career as an adjunct professor of economics at his alma mater, the University of Montana in Missoula.”

Radley Balko is well known.

The advisory board: ADVISORY BOARD
National Taxpayers Union
Journalist and Author
Brookings Institution
Hoover Institution
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Relations
Mercatus Center
University of California, Berkeley
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University
Stand Up Republic
Senior Editor at The Atlantic
Brookings Institution
Atlas Network
R Street Institute
National Affairs
McGill University
Conscious Capitalism
Stand Up Republic
Author & Scholar
Author and Columnist
National Review
Hoover Institution
University of San Diego
Rutgers University
Brookings Institution

Such a collection of scholars, thoroughly trained, eminent in their achievements, socialized by their life experience, surely must be wholly dedicated to the impersonal discovery of truth, save for its disinterested application to the welfare of humanity.


Henry 05.02.18 at 4:11 pm

CT already has it on good authority that Nancy MacLean is the real problem, who has libeled many fine and noble scholars. It is no doubt merely unscholarly, even malicious, to see this sort of thing as reality confirming a thesis.

One source for this wisdom is the Niskanen Center’s Teles. I gather Teles wrote a history examining how conservatism recently rose to influence in the US legal system, though I don’t think it covers Roger Taney or Melville Fuller. (I confess, no doubt to earn the fitting condemnation: I would have thought a serious history of the US legal system would have found it more instructive to examine when and how the US legal system could be deemed liberal in the sense meant as “left.”)

God bless your reading comprehension. I don’t think that there’s much point in pointing stuff out to people who really don’t want it to be pointed out, but here goes, for the sake of form …

Yet again, the problem with the MacLean book is not that it says that the Kochs are bad people, or that right wingers, the Kochs included, funded public choice and its cousins. It is that it is bad history. MacLean claims on the basis of no factual evidence whatsoever that public choice was inspired from the beginning by Buchanan’s desire to protect the Southern way of life. She describes Buchanan as the architect of Pinochet’s constitution, on the basis of wishful thinking. She grossly and demonstrably misinterprets a speech in which Koch is praising his own batshit philosophy as the smoking gun proof that Buchanan provided Koch with the ‘technology’ that has since powered the right wing movement. If any of these enormous empirical claims were backed up by evidence, it would be big news. They are not – and they are the key linchpins of her story.

In an ideal world, I at least would prefer purported books of history to be based on “facts” rather than “ideologically pleasing horseshit.” Your tastes apparently differ. MacLean’s shoddy book tells us nothing significant that we did not know about the relationship between right wing funders and public choice from e.g. Mayer’s excellent book on the Kochs, and has done a quite substantial amount of damage to the future study of the origins of the right. And if you want to find out more about Teles’ work on law and economics, a ten second scan of the right hand side of this webpage will do you wonders, while not providing a substitute for reading it (although heaven forbid that any such pedantic considerations of knowledge and such should get in the way of your free opinionating).


Sebastian H 05.02.18 at 4:42 pm

“Radley Balko is well known. ”

I love how you can dismiss the person who has done more to call attention to and fight police brutality and ‘justice system’ injustice in the US than literally anyone else. He has done more for that progressive cause than probably anyone regularly commenting or posting on this site has usefully done for any cause. Tribalism at its finest…


grizzled 05.02.18 at 10:19 pm

While MacLean may not meet your standards of evidence, she is nonetheless correct.


ph 05.03.18 at 12:46 am

@24 Mixing provably wrong and poorly sourced claims with more reliable data corrupts the entire mass – allowing the cynical to toss out whatever may be true in Maclean’s book with all that is bad. That’s forgivable, instructive, and worth correcting in the paper of an undergraduate. The ‘textbook’ example of this Iris Chang’s horrific account of Nanking.

The sfgate piece provides excellent background to the results of Chang’s emotionally charged account. If you haven’t read Chang, it’s an excellent example of the material mastering the writer, rather than the opposite. She is, perhaps, too close to her topic.

Stanford Historian David M. Kennedy details the strengths and weaknesses of her book

MacLean possesses the training and skills that Chang did not. We can and must expect better. One can easily correct the errors in MacLean’s book. One can and must stipulate clearly for the reader the distinctions interesting hearsay, (sourced whenever possible), supposition (and its foundations) and evidence – and the problems associated with each.

That’s the baseline – and not a demonstration of excellence.


John Quiggin 05.03.18 at 1:59 am

@5 As a general rule, as soon as I encounter phrases like “pearl clutching” and “virtue signalling”, I stop reading. I did so this time, and subsequent comments suggest I was right to do so.


John Quiggin 05.03.18 at 2:16 am

There are some big problems here for FIRE, which also receives funding from the Koch Foundation. FIRE claims not to be influenced by this, but its obviously problematic to take money from a group that acts in ways directly opposed your purported goals. More here
And another recent instance where FIRE did not exactly cover itself in glory, initially standing up for free speech, and then lining up with a Republican definition of “free speech” as being polite to conservatives


ph 05.03.18 at 2:49 am

@27 There are some problems with FIRE. However, absent a liberal protection of free speech it falls to conservative organizations to ensure the speech rights of all are protected from this:

Check the video. The Kochs believe universities are not willing to protect intellectual diversity and free discussion. And whether its black-glad ‘activists’ torching buildings, or punching people they don’t like there’s ample evidence of the need to take some action. Again, it shouldn’t fall to a minister in the May government to protect free speech rights.
Ya think?


bruce wilder 05.03.18 at 3:40 am

John Quiggin @ 26

On occasion, when I have disagreed with you, you have suggested that I haven’t read what you wrote. Now, I think perhaps you were projecting. (“virtue signalling” made its first appearance in this thread in your comment.)

In any case, I put it to you that personal insults over matters of style — particularly unexplained ones — do not contribute to the quality of discussion regarding matters of substance. Nor does scorn for comments you do not read.

If you do not want to read one or more of my comments, that’s fine. If you disagree with the ideas or sentiments I have expressed and want to explain why, that’s more than fine — that’s why we’re here, I want to read your considered view. What you have done @ 26 is just an empty and pointless insult.


Sebastian H 05.03.18 at 6:25 am

This kind of thing could be problematic for FIRE but since there isn’t a left wing organization willing to police our own it’s what we have.


John Quiggin 05.03.18 at 10:15 am

@29 “Pearl clutching” is an insult. As I interpret it, it means something like “(contemptibly) expressing concern over behavior which is admittedly wrong, but which you should be tough enough to ignore because everyone does it [or some other excuse]” . It’s a form of argument I invariably dislike, made worse by obvious sexist overtones.

I mentioned “virtue signalling” because it’s a specifically rightwing version of the same, which has become popular as the right’s lack of any virtue has become undeniable (paging Bill Bennett here).


ph 05.03.18 at 10:54 am

@29 All admonitions are not insults. And in many cases the insult is in the ear, or eye of the listener/beholder. Taking exception to a particular phrase is a free choice and a decision. Irrespective of etymology of ‘virtue signalling’ a great deal of what we read here and elsewhere is ‘virtue signalling’ according to one linguist

“Clunky or not, virtue signaling has proven useful in discussing self-glorifying online behavior, regardless of politics. As lexicographer Orin Hargraves pointed out by e-mail, “It aptly describes what a lot of people’s Facebook status updates are about (probably mine, too).” Hargraves called the term “an artifact of the profusion of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, in which there is no barrier to entry for anyone who wants to broadcast a sentiment (or ‘send a message,’ to use the familiar cliché).”

I’m aware you’re very clever and a person of many talents, so perhaps you can explain why Orin Hargreaves (a lexicographer) is wrong, while you (a non-linguist) are correct on the use of the term ‘virtue signalling.’

I’m under the impression that many, you included, believe that the right lacks all virtue, or I am a misunderstanding your ‘the right’s lack of any virtue?’ How is your comment and many others like it not explicit virtue signalling – exactly as Hargreaves describes it?

Finally, you certainly seem to be insulting all commenters who posted after @5 with your sweeping “As a general rule, as soon as I encounter phrases like “pearl clutching” and “virtue signalling”, I stop reading. I did so this time, and subsequent comments suggest I was right to do so.” Which comments specifically ‘suggest’ you were right, and why?

Your @26 certainly looks like an explicit insult directed at BW, and an implicit/explicit insult directed at nameless others.

What exactly does your @26 add to the discussion?


ph 05.03.18 at 10:55 am


Lee A. Arnold 05.03.18 at 11:20 am

Joe # 20: “Now I know those were formal, not just ambient conditions.”

Although “ambient” has nice wide connotations to it: “fuzzy, repetitive-drone, snowflakey”. Even “sedative”.


DDOwen 05.03.18 at 11:56 am

@28: I really, really wouldn’t take the Daily Mail as an authoritative source on anything, let alone UK universities (which it hates). The apparent contradiction between the government’s apparent absolutist stance on free speech versus the ways in which eg. the current implementation of the Prevent program tends to restrict free speech has caused some mild bemusement amongst UK academics.


Collin Street 05.03.18 at 12:30 pm

What exactly does your @26 add to the discussion?

It’s terrible, innit, people trying to bully others out of conversations out of concerns at their rhetorical style.


ph 05.03.18 at 12:55 pm

@35 Thank you for confirming that you’re so sanguine about physical violence, and also indifferent to coercion by a vocal minority. Unfortunately, large swathes of the public disagree.

The fact that this physical violence by a tiny minority, against practically anyone, is usually inflicted on the right allows the Mail and the conservative government to further blacken the reputations of universities. I very strongly suspect you’d be dismayed, at the very least, to be physically assaulted and then mocked for complaining. But you’re not being assaulted, are you? And until you are there really isn’t a problem, is there?


Lee A. Arnold 05.03.18 at 1:11 pm

In the US at least, statistics show that most violence related to speech and politics is coming from the right. A trend which has accelerated in the last year or two.

As for free speech on campus, surveys show that US college age students are quite tolerant of freedom of speech, except in the case of racist speech.


Collin Street 05.03.18 at 1:38 pm

PH: I read your daily mail article.

… I had a very good education, government-funded, and I’ve got stacks of familial cultural capital. So the problems with the article you posted are obvious to me, and to be honest I’ve had enough difficulties communicating across skill and training gaps [both ways!] that I know it’s difficult for me to judge how things look to others. But… it’s a really badly written article, ph. Like, it… no, it’s just terrible, if you can’t see it for yourself my pointing it out isn’t going to help.

And we teach kids that stuff from year seven here, and this… I don’t think the faked-up samples we used for baby’s-first-media-studies-class were that blatant, not as I remember. Like, a thirteen-year-old who isn’t actively struggling at school is supposed to be able to at least recognise the broad-detail problems, here. It’s on the curriculum and all.

Are you actually worse at media studies and critical reading than three-quarters of victorian thirteen-year-olds?


DDOwen 05.03.18 at 2:07 pm

@37: I was not aware that there was a significant problem with black bloc activists setting fire to things on university campuses in the UK — I work in a campus in the UK, I think I would have noticed. Your conflation of different situations in the US and UK in this discussion and citation of a dubious, frothing at the mouth tabloid in support of your position probably isn’t doing you any favours when it comes to convincing other posters of your viewpoint, is what I’m saying.


bruce wilder 05.03.18 at 7:46 pm

JQ @ 31

I did some google-searching to see what others think is connoted by ‘pearl clutching’ and I have to say your interpretation seem crucially idiosyncratic. I found at the Cambridge dictionary online,

To react in a scandalized or mortified manner to once-salacious but now relatively common things, events, situations,


having a very shocked reaction to something, especially showing more shock than you really feel in order to show that you think something is morally wrong

The phrase does express scorn by introducing comic ridicule, since the metaphoric image is comic: an upper-class church lady in an exaggerated pose of propriety. The essence is calling out the pose of shock and surprise as falsely implying shared norms, standards or customs that no longer really prevail, if they ever did and calling into question whether one should really be surprised. If you had read my comment(s) to establish context, you would have found that I made explicit arguments consistent with those connotations.

Your definition has several elements that I do not think are properly attributed to common uses of the phrase.

(contemptibly) expressing concern over behavior which is admittedly wrong, but which you should be tough enough to ignore because everyone does it [or some other excuse] [emphasis added to highlight where I think your definition goes astray from what I understand to be common usage] I am just confused by the introduction of “contempt”. “tough enough” seems bizarre — I don’t see how one could be “tough” in this context. “admittedly wrong” is the most problematic as it goes against the main implication of the phrase, which is that the behavior in question is neither surprising nor contrary to established custom.

You did not read my arguments the first time around and it seems churlish to re-iterate them just to vindicate my stock use of a stock phrase. My stance here is that the alleged norm is, at the present time, mere pretense and maintaining the pretense is counter-productive. Other commenters expressed more ambivalence. I think the momentum and organizational strength of Movement Conservatism is genuinely alarming and it behooves us to be realistic in our assessments and recognition of its manipulative and sinister character.

I did not use the term “virtue-signalling” in this thread, but I have found it useful in the past. As you suggest, the Right may wear it out before I have any desire to use it again. I thought this essay, from some time back, leveraged the term to lay out an insightful political analysis:


ph 05.03.18 at 11:11 pm

Hi Colin. I actually rather hope that you’re a fine teacher, and that we both (all) recognize when a student is dodging a question. So, I’ll repeat it: what does @26 add to the discussion?

Regarding your theories regarding the right, which creep into practically all your comments and which seem rooted entirely in bigotry, anecdote, and very dubious pseudo-psychological quackery you’re on far weaker ground.

Feel free to return to insult, because as far as I can see that’s all you ever produce usually without much evidence, or reason. In that way, you’re quite exceptional! Congrats!


ph 05.03.18 at 11:31 pm

@41 That’s a fair complaint.


Peter T 05.04.18 at 2:26 am

The term “institutional firewalls” is so bland it obscures the central issue: why can economics and a few other subjects be bought, and not others? If, say, Shell wishes to fund a professorship in petroleum geology, then I doubt they would ask to be consulted on the occupant. Their interest is in having more and better expertise in petroleum geology, not in some one position or other in the arguments in the field. Likewise for most academic subjects. If it’s worth buying economics departments, that says something about economics and its place in our society.


Collin Street 05.04.18 at 3:07 am


Your basic approach is musguided. 26 adds nothing to the conversation, you’re right. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless, because excluding things from conversations also has value.

As you recognise, because that’s exactly the same thing you’re trying to do with your question, “what does this add”. You want to exclude some things, JQ wants to exclude some things… what matters, what we judge on, isn’t the fact of “trying to push things out of the conversation” but the substance of that that’s being excluded.


Faustusnotes 05.04.18 at 3:21 am

I get the feeling everyone taking umbrage at John quiggin has completely misunderstood his comment.


J-D 05.04.18 at 4:19 am


I get the feeling everyone taking umbrage at John quiggin has completely misunderstood his comment.

The personal context in which I understood the comment was this: I figured out for myself some time ago, from my own experience, that when somebody uses the expression ‘political correctness’ it is far more often than not an indicator of muddled thinking and that, although it may be possible to disentangle what was actually meant, most of the time it’s probably not worth the effort.

In that context, John Quiggin’s comment helped me to figure out that much the same is true of the expression ‘virtue signalling’, and for this I am grateful.


Faustusnotes 05.04.18 at 9:57 am

Exactly JD. But I get the feeling some people think John was accusing the commenter of virtue signalling.


ph 05.04.18 at 11:01 am

This study just came out. Doesn’t change Henry’s questioning of the Koch contribution, but context:


LFC 05.04.18 at 12:47 pm

@Peter T
What it says to me is that a fair amount of contemporary political debate revolves around economic issues. The different sides in these issues will thus be interested in recruiting economists to support their positions, as Henry F’s linked post from 2011 suggests.


Jeff H 05.05.18 at 1:13 am

A few years back a colleague pointed me to an op-ed in the WSJ by a George Mason economics faculty member. It could be whittled down to the simple statement that liberals don’t understand how the economy works. I pointed out to him that a significant percentage of the guy’s CV came from stuff published on his own website and that statements asserted as inarguable facts were, in fact, debatable- the relation between raising minimum wage and job losses , was one example he stridently professed was undebatable. So that’s how the circle is completed. The Cokes get their faculty, who with the with bragging rights of being members of the 60 something ranked economics department in the US (as I recall, at the time) get to pontificate with the authority of their positions in the WSJ.


Ben V 05.05.18 at 2:06 am

I’ve FOIA’d GMU Law re: the Scalia renaming, and Cabrera’s announcement strikes me as an attempt to inoculate GMU against criticism for its more recent grant agreements. The ones related to renaming the law school include a “mission” statement pledging GMU Law’s fealty to Law & Econ ideology, and a paragraph that strongly implies that maintaining that ideology and keeping Dean Butler (its principal defender) on is a key to continued funding. GMU Law’s ideology is not just an ivory tower issue: they sponsor several conferences each year for federal and state judges and officials to be indoctrinated, at resort accommodations paid for by corporations, in Law & Econ jurisprudence. Having the cover of a public university law school helps them deflect the criticism they rightly deserve from these reeducation camps.


John Quiggin 05.05.18 at 3:09 am

GMU lost any credibility for me with the Wegman case.


bruce wilder 05.05.18 at 4:12 pm

Peter T @44

You raise what is the most interesting issue: what is the role of ideas in politics? what was Buchanan doing with “Public Choice”? what are the Kochs doing with their networks? what are the levers? what are the channels? pick your metaphor

I suppose it is possible to imagine investing in academic economics as in geology, with the aim of developing a more powerful discipline and training more skilled professionals, with practical application. It could be a matter of producing ideology and agnatology, making the society dumber and bureaucracies or politicians palsied.

If you were an imaginary malefactor of great wealth, you could want, say, a Ben Bernanke waiting in the wings to be called on stage to competently manage the central bank in a predictable crisis, and you could also want a Greek Chorus of Clowns to proclaim nobody cude knowd. The effect of doctrines and notions of political economy on politics are many layered, many channeled. Not least of those effects is shaping the “common-sense” of political discourse and the short-hands of ideology that give a vocabulary to world-views.

The Virginia School that developed Public Choice demonstrates many such layers. I think there has been genuine and impressive intellectual achievement there. Elinor Ostrum! I admire Buchanan’s intellect. In common with the Chicago School thru the ages, Buchanan could combine brilliant classroom analysis with reactionary cafeteria talk. In one place, he sounds like Rawls; in the other, the resentful old guy hanging out at the barbershop. The most powerful contribution of the Virginia School to the public discourse might be “rent-seeking” along with a tendentious narrative that blames the government and democratic politics for all evil.

I do not share Henry’s anger at Nancy MacLean. I think her scholarly integrity is just fine. And, I think she is probably right in her general outline. But, she does not prove she is right. She presents the Chicago Boyz in Chile argument that Hayek and company, for all their talk of liberal “freedom” really want Pinochet. She shows Buchanan went to Chile and gave talks. She does not show that Buchanan’s influential but highly abstract ideas about “constitutional political economy” have anything to do with the architecture of Pinochet’s constitution for Chile and its super majority requirements. She is a good enough scholar to admit that she looked for evidence that Chile meant anything to Buchanan in later years and failed to find it.

People are complicated and always embedded in societies and cultures in which they are in dialectic and it is really hard to know what they really mean, or trust they themselves know. Mother Teresa hung out with the Duvaliers — what does that mean?

We have mental barriers to simply witnessing the machinations. “Conspiracy theory” is meant to shut down discussion. Lots of people have psychological defenses that come into play when the untrustworthiness of authority figures comes into play.

In economics as an academic discipline, the Right dominates because they fight out the methodological arguments and wield those like clubs in journal editing as well as grantsmanship and the patronage involved in the hobby shops of the Federal Reserve Banks and international institutions. Buchanan was an old school devotee of methodological individualism and he was ferocious when Card came out with evidence that raising the minimum wage could increase employment. But in other contexts, the quality of methods do not really matter: spreadsheet errors and Wegman are barely the beginning. Economics as a discipline is left mired in dogmatic adherence to empty conventions and solipsism.

The Kochs are not all that secretive. Certain details of the quid pro quo may be obscured, but mostly their minions act openly. But, what exactly is Tyler Cowen up to? What does he do? What is his aim? What are his means? Those are hard questions because it is hard to wrap one’s mind around what drives political discourse and why it matters.


anon/portly 05.05.18 at 5:44 pm

JQ at 27:

And another recent instance where FIRE did not exactly cover itself in glory, initially standing up for free speech, and then lining up with a Republican definition of “free speech” as being polite to conservatives

Following the links provided, the first part of JQ’s formulation – FIRE “standing up for free speech,” or more specifically standing up for the rights of a UN left-wing teacher to protest against a UN right-wing student, is quite clear.

The second part of this formulation – FIRE “lining up with a Republican definition of ‘free speech’ as being polite to conservatives” – is not clear at all. I could find no justification for this statement within the links provided, or by (perhaps inept) googling.

The only thing that’s clear is that (1) the bill was re-written at the last minute with FIRE’s help; and (2) those involved are upset with efforts by some Nebraska legislators to punish the left-wing protestors. What the final bill actually says, why the people testifying against it didn’t like it, the extent to which their concerns were met by the last-minute rewrite, and whether the bill as passed has any connection to the events discussed in the JQ’s second link, are all unclear.

For what it’s worth, here’s more links:


Jerry Vinokurov 05.06.18 at 2:24 am

This “revelation” (for those who didn’t already know that GMU was a bought-and-paid-for propaganda arm of Koch Industries) brings to mind that recent thread about who needs conservative intellectuals. It turns out that it’s the same people who have always needed them: billionaires who need to be told that everything they do is good and right, preferably through publications in peer-reviewed journals. They did make a tactical mistake in putting all their money into a place like GMU; now everyone associated with that place is irrevocably tainted. For a more successful attempt at infiltrating academia, see the Federalist Society.


Dr. Hilarius 05.07.18 at 1:37 am

Jerry @ 56: 100% correct. I’ve long despaired about liberals (progressives, whatever) assuming that their views on abortion, environmental protection, unions etc. are protected by the Constitution as if by laws of nature. The Federalist Society has been developing judges to support its views starting with first-year law students. Lawyers with the proper views are aggressively promoted as “brilliant scholars” for being able to articulate FS talking points. As they fill the federal benches, they get to say what’s constitutional and what’s not. The right in the USA has a whole ecosystem of think tanks, institutes and fellowships to pad the resumes of its members. The left has done little to compete.


reader 05.07.18 at 7:54 pm

George Mason U. isn’t likely to be the only such university. If you assembled a competent staff and were tasked with carving out “disinterested” university-affiliated speakers from “interested” ones, how would you go about doing so, and elevating the former group? Could you do it, in a cash-strapped university that already had some intermingling of the two?


reader 05.07.18 at 8:25 pm

Rethinking my above comment, the unmodified term “disinterested” is probably not the best, since it suggests a preference for unconcern about how well the speaker is communicating their understanding.


reader 05.08.18 at 4:15 pm

Did GMU have a choice, in when to let this information out?
If they did, we might ask what the timing would be auspicious for.


Nathanael 05.09.18 at 12:36 pm

The state board which oversees not-for-profit educational institutions has the legal power to fire the Trustees for behavior like this.

It hasn’t happened since the 19th century. But it’s the remedy available at law.


ph 05.09.18 at 2:27 pm

Hi Henry, this is OT, but this
extended discussion between Musa al-Gharb and Bob Wright is the best scholarly critique of bias by anti-Trump academics by far.

The Kochs are going to Koch, but al-Garb argues that the problem lies elsewhere. Best takeaway – al-Garb argues data indicates Bernie would have won.


ph 05.09.18 at 2:31 pm

Sorry, al Garbi,(sp) failing eyesight. Just finishing end of vlog. Riveting.


MIJ 05.10.18 at 12:45 am

The Koch grant to Western Carolina University supposedly came with no strings attached. I suppose it’s merely coincidence that every new hire has been a product of GMU or another Koch sponsored program.
It’s probably also coincidental that the curriculum comes largely from MRU and focuses heavily on material from Cowen and Caplan.
The biggest problem with the MacLean book is the idea that there’s a conspiracy to insert Public Choice into university curricula. No conspiracy – the Kochs have been rather brazen in asserting their goals. I will say that Burgin, Mayer, Phillips-Fein, and Brian Doherty should be read in conjunction with MacLean.
Having read much of Buchanan and a good bit of other Public Choice literature while writing about the WCU grant I find less brilliance than a rather simplistic reactionary attempt to justify a theory of “I got mine so let’s codify the rules in amber to make sure it stays that way.” Part of that justification seems to be that government and bureaucracies can only muck things up so let’s just keep things the way that sustains our privilege.
It isn’t so much that the insights into human nature found in Public Choice are inaccurate – they are merely cynical and self-serving.

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