Recently, there have been increasing worries about the role of private money that funds libertarian political philosophy (see e.g. here or here). The role of private money in academic research is not precisely a new problem; it has plagued other fields for decades (see e.g. here for a study of some of the more problematic forms). But it seems to be rather new for political philosophy, or at least it seems to have gone to levels it has not had in the recent past. But what exactly is wrong with it? Isn’t it simply an exercise of freedom of expression to use one’s money to sponsor scholarship one is interested in?
In fact, as an Adam Smith scholar, I had long been aware of some of the institutions, such as the Liberty Fund and the Institute for Humane Studies, that fund lush workshops about the Scottish Enlightenment and other “classic liberal” themes. I know because I, too, went to a few of them – as a wide-eyed PhD student, with no idea about what stood behind them. I remember one night, just having stepped down from a transatlantic flight and feeling almost braindead, finding myself in front of a libertarian PhD student and trying to argue that No, I was not being enslaved by the high tax rate in my European country, on which he seemed to look down in a mixture of disdain and disbelief. But most of the academic debates at the workshops were of high quality, and while I often felt I was the most left-leaning person in the room, there were solid exchanges of arguments. The more I learned about the context of these workshops, however, the more invitations I declined.* I felt uneasy not so much about the workshops as such, but about the role of these institutions in the context of American politics.
So – what exactly is the problem?
The first worry is that instead of serious scholarship, what one gets is shallow propaganda. But that’s too simplistic a picture. It’s not always the case that corporate money sponsors ideologically convenient, but incompetent mavericks. Rather, think tanks and foundations pick out people who happen to defend ideas that are in line with their own worldviews. In this respect, political philosophy is different from experimental sciences: in our field, there are almost always two sides to a debate, and we can rarely completely close a case because of overwhelming evidence in one direction or the other (but note that insofar as political philosophers draw on claims from other fields, they must accept the standards of evidence that are available in them).
This leads to a second worry: the introduction of biases in research. Although there are also left-wing foundations, it seems clear that in capitalist economies more money will be available to those who air views that are convenient to capitalists. But whether or not this introduces a “bias” is not as clear as it might at first appear. An argument that I’ve heard from defenders of such forms of funding is that they create a counterweight to what they perceive as a “liberal mainstream” in academia, held up by academics who are on public payrolls, and hence more inclined towards state action than private enterprise. To counter that argument, one thus would have to defend the claim that those who don’t take private funding are speaking for “the public” from the perspective of impartial spectators, as it were, rather than having agendas of their own. There are certainly academics for whom one can make this case, but it’s not clear that the argument can be generalized so easily. Ultimately, it’s an empirical question what kinds of biases exist and to what extent the infusion of private money is a “counterbalance” or leads to distortions.
The third worry, and one that is harder to reject, is the lack of transparency. Basically, it leads to a labeling problem: is what you get unbiased scholarship, or could it be something quite different? In other academic fields, it is standard procedure to lay open all sources of funding. In academic philosophy, we don’t seem to have shared norms around this (or at least I’m not aware of any). The sources of funding and governance structures of many research centers – e.g. whether or not funders are involved in the selection of candidates, or whether funding is tied to specific topics – are anything but transparent. This is problematic both inside and outside the academic discipline.
Inside the discipline, it has a problematic impact on the distribution of recognition and respect. All too often, we rank others (and maybe even ourselves) according to the numbers of publications, or the sums of grant money, instead of looking at the quality of arguments. Grant money and various forms of “output” seem to stand for academic excellence, or at least hard work (I would question whether they are the same). But this economy of recognition can be gamed by taking money that one receives for the wrong reasons – not for being an excellent (or hard-working) scholar, but for happening to hold views that corporate money finds worth sponsoring. This is in deep tension with the academic ethos.
Maybe even more dangerous, however, is the effect on the general public (and because many undergrads only ever take a few classes in political philosophy, similar issues arise there as well). These people usually expect to get reports that reflect the latest research consensus. What they might get instead might be the elements of a long-term propaganda campaign to shift public opinion, not out of deeply-held convictions, but for self-interested reasons (for some historical evidence on this campaign see e.g. here).
Last but not least, there is a worry about benefitting from injustice. For at least some of the sponsors of academic philosophy, one can raise serious questions about whether or not they should have earned this money in the first place. Some might hold that in a just society, taxes on capital income should be much higher than they currently are. Others might question cases in which that money was earned in environmentally damaging industries, which in a more just (and more efficient!) system would have to pay for the externalities from pollution and CO2 emissions, so that their profits would be far lower. One might thus ask whether accepting such money amounts to complicity or “dirty hands.”
As these arguments make clear, the matter is complex; the worries I’ve raised apply to a greater or lesser degree to different cases I am aware of. But one thing that seems clear is that academic philosophy needs to have an open debate about these issues. We cannot simply hide behind the claim that our work does not have public impact – apparently, at least some donors think that it does have enough of an impact to make the infusion of money worth-while! In a sense, that’s good news. But we urgently need to address the moral questions that come with it!*
* Full disclosure: I accepted an invitation to be on the advisory board of a project on Adam Smith by the Liberty Fund. After having discussed it with other “left-wing” Smith scholars, I decided that it was better to be part of it than not.
** I would like to thank Mark Reiff for very valuable discussions and feedback.