Libertarians have historically had an ambivalent and sometimes even antagonistic attitude toward higher education, in part because academics and administrators are overwhelmingly leftist, many of whom have a deep antipathy for libertarianism. This hostility, of course, is sometimes mutual.
Some libertarian criticisms of universities are well-founded. But it is also important that libertarians (and others) recognize that the net effect of higher education is to make people more libertarian! A new large-scale study by political scientist Ralph Scott of British university graduates confirms and extends earlier findings from the United States. Here is his summary of the results:
An individual’s level of education is increasingly important in explaining their political attitudes and behaviors, with higher education being proposed as a new political divide. However, there is little evidence for the causal effect of college on political attitudes, due to self-selection into educational pathways. To fill this gap, this paper estimates the shift in political values that occurs among university graduates by applying longitudinal modeling techniques to data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, overcoming the selection problem by accounting for time-invariant confusion. It provides the first causal estimate of higher education in particular, finding that obtaining a degree reduces authoritarianism and racial prejudice and increases right-wing economic attitudes. This has important implications for the study of politics: as populations become more educated on average, we should expect a continued shift in aggregate value toward lower levels of authoritarianism and racial prejudice, with important consequences for political behavior.
By “right-wing economic attitudes,” Scott essentially means support for free markets and limitations on government spending and regulation. By “authoritarianism” he does not mean support for dictatorship, but “support for social order rather than individual freedom”, including on such things as weakening protections for the accused and media censorship to enforce traditional moral standards. This use of the term “authoritarian” is common in academic social science, although it may be confusing to non-experts. “Racial prejudice” means much the same as in common usage. Among the questions Scott uses to measure it is opposition to interracial marriage and people of a different race moving into your neighborhood.
On all three dimensions, Scott finds that higher education pushes people into more libertarian positions, even though he does not use that term. For obvious reasons, libertarians oppose most government intervention in the economy and on “social” issues. Libertarianism is also deeply at odds with racial bigotry, which is both inherently hostile to an ideology that emphasizes individual rights rather than ethnic group loyalty (Ayn Rand has rightly called racism of “the lowest and most crudely primitive form of collectivism”), and a major source of oppressive government policies.
In each case, the impact of higher education holds true, even after controlling for other variables, including the student’s family background and pre-college attitudes.
As Scott notes, these results are consistent with previous research on the impact of higher education in the United States. Much of this latest research is summarized by libertarian economist Bryan Caplan in his landmark 2018 book, The case against education (which I saw here). As its title suggests, Caplan is far from indifferent to higher education. But he recognizes his libertarian impact.
Scott discusses some possible reasons why higher education leads to more libertarian attitudes. As for racism and “authoritarianism,” one obvious reason is that these ideas are decried by most academics and university administrators. Additionally, going to college can expose students to people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds with whom they share common interests. They can take classes together, participate in extracurricular activities, etc. This can lead them to realize that they have more in common than previously thought, thus breaking some of the natural human tendency to suspect members of “out” groups.
Perhaps the most surprising finding of this and previous studies is that a college education reinforces pro-free market economic beliefs. Of course it’s do not the opinion of the vast majority of faculty and administrators, and probably not the effect most wish to have on students.
The causes of this trend are far from fully understood. But one factor may be the economics and finance courses, which many students take. The data indicates that the study of economics increases pro-free market attitudes among students, even though the vast majority of economics professors are far from libertarian. Even left-liberal economics professors typically cover a variety of free-market ideas in their courses. Many of them are counter-intuitive and go against the tendency to believe that the economic world is a zero-sum game in which government intervention is systematically necessary to protect some groups against others.
Clearly, the vast majority of British and American university graduates are not libertarians. Studies like Scott’s don’t show that higher education makes people full-fledged libertarians; it only has this effect on a small minority. On the contrary, the fact is that it tends to make people After libertarian than they otherwise would be.
For libertarians, the implication of this research is not just that we should have a more favorable view of higher education, but that academia is potentially fertile ground for recruiting new supporters. A group (students) that is already moving in a progressively libertarian direction on many issues can more easily be influenced to go further than most other segments of society. This factor goes hand in hand with the fact that young people are, on average, less set in their opinions than older people, and therefore easier to persuade to consider new ideas. Libertarians would do well to increase their investments in groups like Students for Liberty and the Institute for Humane Studies, which focus on outreach to students and young scholars.
Another useful lesson for libertarians here is that, at least among young people, support for economic freedom tends to rise alongside racial and ethnic tolerance and support for social freedom. Around the world, ethno-nationalist and socially conservative political movements tend to view economic freedom with suspicion, if not outright hostility to it. They fear (often rightly so) that economic freedom undermines certain traditional values, and also breaks down the ethnic and cultural barriers dear to nationalists. Thus, it is not surprising that the American Republican Party has become more hostile to free markets and property rights as it has become more nationalistic. Right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, such as Viktor Orban’s movement in Hungary and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France (formerly known as the National Front) are also economically statist.
The link between conservative nationalism and statism was noted long ago by the great libertarian economist FA Hayek:
Tied to conservatives’ distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its propensity for strident nationalism…. It is not a real argument to say that an idea is anti-American or anti-German, any more than a mistaken or vicious ideal is better because it was conceived by one of our countrymen. .
Much more could be said about the close link between conservatism and nationalism. . . I will simply add that it is this nationalist bias that often bridges conservatism and collectivism: thinking in terms of “our” industry or resource is only one step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest. [by the government].
This does not prove that there can never be useful co-operation between libertarians and conservatives. Even less does it prove that the latter will always agree with the political left. But it does suggest that cosmopolitan liberals have more affinity for free markets than nationalist conservatives.
None of the above should cause libertarians to ignore the many flaws of the higher education system. It remains true that there is a lot of wasteful spending in academia, that many professors and administrators misbehave in various ways, and that too many of them are intolerant of opposing points of view (including, in some case, the libertarians).
These results don’t even prove that libertarians (or anyone else) should necessarily want to increase the percentage of high school graduates who earn college degrees. For many people, the benefits of higher education are likely to be outweighed by the costs. There is a lot of truth in Bryan Caplan’s critique of the education system along these lines.
But libertarians need to be aware of the ideological impact of higher education and how it helps our cause. And we must adapt our political strategy accordingly.
While Scott and other scholars’ findings on the effects of higher education should make libertarians happy (who haven’t had much else to cheer about in recent years!), they’re bad news. for right-wing nationalists. The latter’s growing hostility towards academia is somewhat understandable. Not only is academia filled with people who oppose their values. It also tends to influence students against them.
For leftists, the conclusions are equivocal. They should be happy to see that going to college moves people in what they see as the right direction of “authoritarianism” and rejection of racism. But, of course, they are likely to decry the impact on students’ views on economic policy.
UPDATE: I corrected the originally incorrect link to Ralph Scott’s article.