On Nicholas Kristof And The Liberal Blind Spot

Multiple people have brought to my attention two op-eds over the past few weeks by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one from May 28 titled "The Liberal Blind Spot," and the other from May 7 titled "A Confession Of Liberal Intolerance."  The theme of the two articles is that Kristof has somehow discovered that the in the world of academics, nearly all calling themselves "liberals" and seemingly priding themselves on their boundless tolerance, there is remarkable intolerance for conservative thought and opinion.  

In very gentle terms, Kristof points out to his progressive academic comrades that perhaps it might be a slight tactical mistake to insist on complete ideological conformity in their ranks:  

We desperately need academics like sociologists and anthropologists influencing American public policy on issues like poverty, yet when they are in an outer-left orbit, their wisdom often goes untapped. . . .   We liberals should have the self-confidence to believe that our values can triumph in a fair contest in the marketplace of ideas.

The May 28 column is particular interesting in noting that thousands of liberal commenters on the earlier article had been near unanimous in agreeing that he was "dead wrong" and that conservative thought should properly be ignored if not ostracized:

It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.  “You don’t diversify with idiots,” asserted the reader comment on The Times’s website that was most recommended by readers (1,099 of them). Another: Conservatives “are narrow-minded and are sure they have the right answers.”  

Well, good try Nick.  But I think it's hopeless.  What you fail to recognize is that modern liberalism/progressivism is essentially a religion, and under the tenets of that religion conservatives are not just people with whom our crowd respectfully disagrees; rather, conservatives are immoral and evil.  If people are immoral and evil, you don't welcome them into your institutions and encourage them to propagate their immoral and evil ideas.

If you want to understand where your comrades are coming from, I recommend that you start with the Manhattan Contrarian About page.  The specific subject there is current Manhattan political orthodoxy, but the simple principles apply equally to academic orthodoxy as well:

The central tenet of that orthodoxy is that all personal problems of the people in society can be solved by government taxing and spending.  The obvious corollary is that since all problems can be solved by taxing and spending, therefore they must be solved by taxing and spending, and anyone who stands in the way of those solutions is immoral.

All progressives instinctively know, just know, that the right government programs and spending can solve all significant human problems.  Poverty?  The right program (or 500 of them) will fix it!  Income inequality?  Same.  Education shortcomings?  You just need more money for smaller classes and more unionized teachers in the government schools!  Inequality and discrimination between and among races?  Big enough bureaucracies can fix that -- they can order businesses to behave, and prosecute them when they don't!  Housing in trendy cities is too expensive?  A bureaucracy can order that it be made "affordable"!  World temperatures seem to have crept up by a degree or so over the past century?  That can be fixed by a bureaucracy to put the coal industry out of business and ban "fracking"!  Transgender people feel uncomfortable in their assigned public bathrooms?  A bureaucracy can order equal bathroom access for all!  Healthcare too expensive?  Fix it with a 2000 page law, vast new bureaucracies and spending and endless new rules and mandates (Obamacare); or even better, make it free (with government spending)!  College too expensive?  Make it free (with government spending)!  Retirement income too low?  Double social security!  Market swings, bad guys, and natural disasters keep imposing downside risk on life?  The government can fix it all with thousands of pages of new bank regulations and infinite insurance for everything, from bank deposits to hurricanes to terrorism to crop loss!  Obviously, I could go on (and on, and on, and on).

There is actually an important distinction between the Manhattan and academic variants of the progressive orthodoxy adherents.  The Manhattanite is basically a working stiff.  S/he is making good money, and thinks that there is plenty of money in the world to solve all the human problems, but at the same time s/he is way too busy personally to figure out the solutions to so many things.  The easy answer is to outsource solving the problems to the government.  The government can hire a bunch of experts to get the job done -- just like I do at my job.  Meanwhile the government bureaucracies put out a steady stream of propaganda about how if they are just given a few more big new programs and big annual budget increases all the problems will magically be solved.  It takes a lot of work to look critically at the performance of all these bureaucracies and figure out how ineffective they are.  Everybody else around here thinks the government can solve these things.  Why should I buck the consensus?

The academic is in a very different position, and is far more deeply committed, both intellectually and financially, to the progressive orthodoxy, and to suppressing dissent from it.  Academics are the people who have created, designed and advocated for the government programs that are supposed to be solving these problems.  At the prestigious universities with the fancy professors, essentially everyone is living off government grants, all of which to some degree are used to subcontract to academia the solving of the vast array of human problems that the government is supposed to be solving.  Many prominent academics regularly go into and out of government.  These people (whether currently in or out of government) know that they are the very best and the very brightest, and that the helpless people have entrusted to them the great and weighty responsibility to fix the world.  Obviously the solutions devised by the best and the brightest, by these greatest and most scintillating luminaries of the intellectual world, will be the best and most perfect solutions that could possibly be devised!  How could any sane person doubt that?  And to stand in the way of our solutions is to advocate that the poor starve, that babies die, that income inequality persist, that education remain inadequate and underfunded, that dominant races and genders suppress the non-dominant races and genders, that the planet be desecrated, and so forth.  Can't every thinking person see that that is the very essence of evil?

And then come along those pesky "conservatives" to point out that the whole enterprise is wildly expensive and doesn't work; and indeed that most aspects of the enterprise are counterproductive and make worse the problems they are supposed to be solving.  People like the Manhattan Contrarian (and, fairly speaking, many right-side bloggers and think tanks, and such "conservative" academics as continue to exist) point out things like: anti-poverty spending on progressive-designed anti-poverty programs actually makes measured poverty worse; measured income inequality is worst in the jurisdictions where government spending supposedly designed to improve income inequality is the highest; race- and gender-based mandates and set-asides only worsen and prolong racial and gender inequality and resentments; government "affordable housing" programs make housing more expensive; massive government spending on healthcare has hugely driven up the cost of healthcare without improving health outcomes; government subsidies to colleges and student loans have only made college more expensive and have burdened young people with huge amounts of debt; the deeper countries go into pervasive government and bureaucratic solutions to all problems, the poorer they become, with economic collapse in the most extreme cases (sometimes going by the name "socialism"); and, worst of all, that voluntary transactions among free human beings (sometimes going under the name "capitalism") provide far better solutions to all of these problems than do government bureaucracies and their academic allies.

So to the progressive academic, the conservative is not just immoral and evil, but even worse.  S/he is posing an existential threat to the entire enterprise.  S/he is putting the income and career of everyone around here at risk.  S/he is giving the know-nothing Congress ammunition to cut funding to a degree that could leave this place looking like Dresden after the blitz!

Because the position of the Manhattan progressive groupthinker really just stems from intellectual laziness, there is hope that that position can be subject to change through persuasion by facts and reason.  The academic?  Sorry, Nick, but I don't think so.