Not Every Intellectual Gunman Is a Hired Gun

A venerable guide in political analysis is “follow the money.” Not many people need to be taught this idea; indeed, in popular journalism and political discourse, it is taken for granted. So, the standard way to discredit one’s political enemy is to expose that he is being bankrolled by a nefarious interest group or a notorious person. Having thereby smeared the opponent by showing that he is anything but disinterested and public-spirited, one gains an important advantage in appealing to the electorate. Of course, both sides can and do play this game. Hence, political contests consist in large part of mud-slinging competitions in which the more muddied candidate operates under a dark cloud of suspicion that he is, at least, more corrupt than the other guy.

In part as a spillover from the world of politicking, this same approach has come to prevail in the evaluation of competing public-policy ideas. Thus, muckraking journalists seek to gain evidence that, say, a think tank whose studies lend credence to policy X is in fact only an intellectual prostitute paid by interest groups, corporations, or persons who stand to gain from the implementation of policy X. Journalists and commentators on both the left and the right play this game, although because the great majority of journalists are leftists and because big corporations are (incorrectly) believed to be almost always supporters of the Republican Party, the greater part of such follow-the-money smearing arises on the left.

Many non-academics have come to believe that even in the supposedly ivory-tower precincts of academia, such mercenary corruption dictates the conclusions reached by writers and researchers in the social sciences. Therefore, if an economist writes that, say, government regulation of tobacco products is inefficient, someone is likely to look into whether this economist has received support for his work from tobacco companies or their front groups. If he has done so, his research is likely to be dismissed entirely, regardless of its intellectual quality.

Over the years, I have sometimes been accused of being a hired gun because of my affiliation with the Independent Institute. I have always been torn between irritation and amusement by these accusations—often made as if they are nothing more than obvious facts about my intellectual dishonesty. I am amused because, truth be known, I am not a wealthy man, and I might have put a big payoff to very good use in the support of my family; yet no such payoff, big or small, was ever offered to me. My counter-claim in no way dissuades my accusers, however, because they will present evidence (or a claim that purports to be factual) that the Independent Institute at some time has received a donation (no matter how trifling the amount) from Corporation X, and that my writing has been such that it might well have pleased Corporation X. Q.E.D., the accuser supposes. The fact that I have always chosen what to write about and how to write about it, with no intervention whatsoever by anyone at the Independent Institute, carries no weight, or even any credibility, with such accusers. The Independent Institute received money from Corporation X; I received money from the Independent Institute; I wrote something that Corporation X might like; end of story—the story of my utter intellectual corruption. Mine is hardly the only such case. I daresay that hundreds, if not thousands, of other writers and researchers have found themselves in similar circumstances.

When this sort of “exposure” pertains to university professors, it is often even more ludicrous. People outside the universities greatly misunderstand why professors believe and write as they do. Background, training, personal political tendencies, methodological preferences, personal animosities, and most of all ideological convictions—these things may shape what a professor writes and how he writes about it in the social sciences, the humanities, and the law schools. But a definite link between the source of the university’s or the writer’s income and the content of the writer’s work is usually very difficult to document. And even when a link can be shown, the (far more likely) possibility remains that the financial supporter chose to support Professor Y’s work because Professor Y was already working along congenial lines, rather than vice versa. Professors are scarcely disinterested intellectual gods, as I know well from twenty-six years spent in academia. Yet only a few, at most, are simply hired guns willing to reach whatever conclusion the highest bidder will pay them to reach. Exceptions only illustrate the rule.

Libertarian non-academics often assert that academics are overwhelmingly statist because they work in government-supported institutions. This belief has little foundation. I worked in a large state university for fifteen years. No one ever complained about my anti-statist writings or made any attempt whatsoever to punish or reward me on the basis of my free-market tendencies. I worked also in private colleges for eleven years. The general leftishness of the professoriate there was at least as marked as it had been in the state institution—which, by the way, maintained, among major research universities, one of the world’s most free-market-leaning economics departments during my employment there. Professors in the humanities, the social sciences, and the law schools in the United States are overwhelmingly leftish and statist. But no one has to pay them to elicit these ideological tendencies. They are simply fortunate that people like them can find paying employment in institutions where no one will interfere with their self-chosen statist research and writing. The people who fund and administer the public universities are remote from what specifically goes on there and have little interest in whether 90 percent or 60 percent of the faculty are statists. (They do care about the football team, however, because in many cases it is a major cash cow and the only thing that keeps the alumni supportive of the institution.)

No doubt, many non-academics will find the foregoing statements hard to swallow. Libertarians in particular seem highly disposed to believe that their ideological opponents must be on the take. In this regard, they display the same sort of bias as leftish journalists and muckrakers, only with the direction reversed. But facts are hard things to wish away. The world of think tanks and universities is awash with objectionable activities and modes of thought, but simple intellectual prostitution is a much smaller problem in this world of ideas than most outsiders imagine.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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