Those ubiquitous libertarians

Paul Krugman asks a question about the influence of the Koch Brothers in academia. It’s something that I’ve been wondering about as well. After all, given how incredibly expensive American politics has become, investing in academia is ridiculously cheap. I know from experience that philosophers will fall over themselves trying to get donations in the $50,000 range, which is of course peanuts by the standards of political donations.

Anyhow, I got to thinking about this earlier in the year, when I had an “I’m so naive” moment of kicking myself. I was invited to give a talk at an American university, in a series of lectures aimed at engaging both academics and the general public. When I got the list of speakers that they had planned, I was surprised to see that more than half were libertarians. When I was there giving the talk, I casually asked someone, “What’s up with all the libertarians?” “Oh,” I was told, “we got a call from the Koch Foundation. They wanted to fund a lecture series.”

That was when I had my “I’m so naive” moment. I was there, it turned out, as the token non-libertarian, to give the series a more academic character. (I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for libertarianism, but my views on the market are sufficiently friendly that I am considered by many to be “within the pale” as an interlocutor.)

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague (who happens to be a “friend of liberty”), who sent me out for lunch with some students when I was in town. When I expressed some surprise that we were going to one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, he said “Don’t worry, the Koch brothers are paying.”

Now I’m starting to wonder how much of this has been going around. A while back I did a post on libertarianism, noting that they seem to be all over the place, particularly on the internet. But it’s also true in academia, everywhere you turn there seem to be libertarians.

Part of this has to do with the University of Arizona, which is sort of a powerhouse department in political philosophy, and seems to turn out libertarians like some kind of assembly line. Much of this seems to be due to the oddball magnetism of David Schmidtz – whom not many people realize is Canadian (although with a name like that, how could he not be from Saskatchewan?). (David Schmidtz, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, Gerry Cohen – is there some reason that ex-pat Canadians dominate these debates? Meanwhile, all of our domestic libertarians are transplanted Americans.)

Anyhow, now I’m starting to wonder how many libertarians in my field are not taking Koch money. Of course, the Liberty Fund gravy train has been around for a while and people have sort of gotten used to it. (They put on these lavish invitation-only conferences, where you get paid something like $1000 just to attend. Probably the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten was at Tojo’s in Vancouver, courtesy of the Liberty Fund.) But if there’s going to be a Koch brothers gravy train now too, that’s starting to get a bit much.

At very least, it seems to me that, within academia, there should be disclosure of where people are getting their money from. For example, I’ve often wondered about the libertarian Institute for Liberal Studies in Waterloo. They get most of their money from donations from “other charities” – I’d be curious to know which ones those are. Donner, Liberty, what else?


Those ubiquitous libertarians — 5 Comments

  1. Perhaps one reason why there are so many libertarians in academia these days, especially within the U.S., is that the Kochs have been providing funding for ‘liberty-loving’ graduate students for a few decades now via the ‘Institute of Humane Studies.’

    When I was a graduate student in the U.S. in the late 90s and early 00s, I was surprised at how many of my peers were libertarians or libertarian leaning (not a majority, certainly, but far more than I was expecting based upon my previous experiences at the Universities of Toronto and Oxford). Many of them received funding from the IHS. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and didn’t realize that the IHS was an ‘arm’ of the ‘Kochtopus’ (I wasn’t even aware of the Kochs back then). When I returned to teach in the U.S. in 2008 (after a few years in Ireland), I was struck again by how many libertarian academics there were.

    So maybe one reason for the ubiquity of libertarians within U.S. academia is that over the past few decades they got the funding that made graduate school a (more) viable option for them, thanks to the (Koch-funded) IHS?

  2. One of my friend attended the “Freedom Week” event in Waterloo and I can confirm it was funded by the Koch.

  3. As a grad student at the IHPST,* I’ve often joked that the path to the big bucks would be to form an “Institute for the History and Philosophy of Oil.” Now, unfortunately, the joke seems a little too close to the truth.

    * For those who don’t know the acronym, it stands for probably the longest departmental name at U of T: The Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

  4. The University of Arizona is not just “sort of” a powerhouse in political philosophy. Pretty certain it is *the* powerhouse program in political philosophy.