When it comes to equality, the rising generation of liberal leaders may talk the talk, but they’re unlikely to walk the walk. At least that’s what a new study recently published in Science suggests. Elite opinion among a younger, left-leaning cohort favors economic efficiency over equality, and they’re more inclined to be selfish than fair-minded when compared to the population at large.
Authored by economists Raymond Fisman, Pamela Jakiela, and Shachar Kariv, along with law professor Daniel Markovits, the research is based on surveys of three cohorts of Yale Law students, one in 2007, another in 2010, and a final one in 2013. The most selective law school in the nation, it’s not only elite; it’s also overwhelmingly liberal. Among students surveyed, self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ten to one ratio. Fisman and his colleagues rightly assume that these students represent the new liberal meritocrats, the people likely to occupy important positions in government, exercise influence over public policy, and set the tone for establishment institutions.
The survey was designed to expose two ranges of preferences. The first concerns how individuals rank their self-interest as compared to the interests of others. A fair-minded person sees them as equal. A selfish person is more likely to prefer his own interests. An “intermediate” person (the term the research paper uses) falls in between. The second preference concerns the relative importance of equality as compared to efficiency. A person who favors equality is willing to accept lower efficiency, while those who favor efficiency focus on growing the pie rather than cutting it evenly.
About half the Yale Law students are intermediates, people who give themselves a bit of a preference. The other half tilts strongly in the direction of the selfish. When it comes to equality or efficiency, which is to say, pie growing, the Yale Law students overwhelmingly opt for the latter.
To illuminate these results, the researchers did some comparative work. They mined data about undergraduates from the University of California at Berkeley. Then they looked at Americans in general.
The comparative results are fascinating. Undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley tilt even more strongly in the selfish direction than the Yale Law students. They’re also efficiency-focused, though less so. The general population, by contrast, shows markedly different preferences. They’re significantly more likely to be fair-minded than selfish. They’re also more likely to favor cutting the pie equally rather than emphasizing efficiency to grow the pie.
What are we to make of this?
First, capitalism will not be threatened anytime soon. Remember, Yale Law students are overwhelmingly liberal. The law school faculty is also very liberal. The university as a whole is liberal. And yet its denizens have their eyes on efficiency, not equality.
Which is not surprising. In all likelihood, the rising generation of liberals think themselves smart and well trained. They believe their successes will benefit everyone. Trickle-down economics may be widely mocked by liberals today, but they believe in it nonetheless, even if their conviction that their personal success improves things for everyone is sometimes reframed as a gushing enthusiasm for start-ups that will “change the world.” This belief in efficiency reminds us that our conflicts over economic policy are not deeply ideological. What distinguishes the American left from the right are assumptions about long-term efficiency. The left worries about the negative externalities of things such as global warming, while the right worries about the disincentives of high taxation and regulation.
The remarkable preference for efficiency we see in the overwhelmingly Democratic student body at Yale Law School also sheds light on today’s progressive priorities, which focus on identity politics, especially sexual identity. Gay rights are favored by rich liberals in large part because they’re seen as a cost-free way toward greater equality. There are lots of well-educated gays and lesbians who look, act, and think just like other elites. Sexual orientation “diversity” requires no bending of meritocratic rules, no set-asides, and no expensive, large-scale government programs.
The recent vote in Houston to push back against transgender rights evoked saber rattling about corporate boycotts. Yet when it comes to young black men being killed, not a single company has threatened to do anything, anywhere. Fifty years of extensive programs and expenditures have taught liberals like those who attend Yale Law School that even small gains in racial equality come at a high cost. Perhaps this explains why recent polling indicates that younger liberals are less likely than older liberals to think we need to do more to promote racial equality.
Americans in general are much more likely to choose equality over efficiency. This explains the significant demand for equality rhetoric in today’s political environment. Conservatives seem determined to ignore that demand. The left is happy to satisfy it in the form of a still greater emphasis on LGBT rights. It’s a low-cost way to be egalitarian.
When the Supreme Court came down on the side of “marriage equality,” it deprived the left of an equality agenda congenial to its efficiency-oriented leadership. Thus the shift toward transgender rights, the next stage of equality rhetoric for liberals. The New York Times editorial page has made transgender rights a priority. I now see why. Political activism in areas of sex and gender does not threaten the priorities of liberal elites, which are a combination of a selfish sense that meritocrats merit their rewards and a technocratic concern about efficiency.
The Obama administration is now requiring school districts to allow troubled boys who see themselves as girls to play sports and shower with females. It’s drastic, to be sure. But from the perspective of a liberal who wants to win elections, it makes sense as an extension of a long-running equality trade that includes talking about the “war on women.” Sexual orientation and gender equality seem to cost very little. That agenda does not disrupt the smart-people-like-us-should-run-things mentality of liberal leaders.
The problem, however, is that the general public is becoming aware of the costs. Liberals complain about conservative political scare tactics that focus on the dangers of men using women’s bathrooms (though they thought nothing of evoking Selma to convince the public that gays and lesbians were about to be denied hotel rooms in Indiana). To my mind, the boys-in-the-girls’-room message dramatizes something middle-class communities sense, which is that the entire LGBT project and allied movements undermine social norms for boys and girls and try to put in their place unworkable gender ideologies.
Living in rich enclaves and sending their children to tony private schools, Yale Law School graduates are relatively unaffected. We should expect them to be undeterred by the Houston vote. LGBT rights provide a crucial way for efficiency-loving liberals to congratulate themselves for their commitments to equality. It seems cost-free, and if there are costs, they’re paid by ordinary people, not them. Expect the Obama administration to double-down on transgender rights. But it won’t be pressuring Apple or Facebook to hire black Americans in proportion to their representation in the population at large. Too costly.
Some institutions are very rich, however. At Yale and other elite universities, administrators know how to be “empathetic listeners.” The president of Claremont McKenna College, Hiram Chodosh, announced, “I stand by our students,” and pledged to hire a special administrator to promote diversity and inclusion. Yale President Peter Salovey issued a long letter to the Yale “community” detailing redoubled efforts: more money for minority hiring, more money for various cultural centers, more money for mandatory diversity training, more money for new administrators to promote diversity.
Chodosh and Salovey are singing out of the post-sixties songbook, as will most administrators facing this round of student unrest. One can’t rise in academia without developing skills as a community therapist and diversity manager. Unlike the ill-fated Timothy Wolfe, who had a career as a businessman, creatures of academia such as Salovey and Chodosh know the Kabuki dance of aggrieved protest and multicultural affirmation. They’ll promise to “do better.” Expect new Centers for the Study of Microaggressions.
Student protests are not challenging the system. What we’re seeing is more of the same, not something different. At Georgetown, students gathered to “call attention to” racial discrimination and disparities. Students demand the renaming of Mulledy Hall. (Thomas F. Mulledy, S.J., was an early nineteenth-century Georgetown president who sold slaves to raise money for the school.) They want plaques for currently unmarked graves of slaves buried on campus, an annual program to discuss the role of slaves at Georgetown, mandatory training of faculty in diversity and identity, segments about black history on Georgetown campus tours, and funds to hire more “black identifying” professors. (Rachel Dolezal, update your resume!) Aside from “black identifying,” this list of demands could have been presented in 1975.
All of this seems more than a little surreal. Baltimore, Maryland, is on track to register more than three hundred murders in 2015. The death rate for poorly educated, middle-aged whites is rising. More than one hundred people were killed by terrorists in France. Meanwhile, students at Yale tear up because they feel unsafe, unaccepted, and inadequately affirmed.
But I’m being unfair to the students, with whom I sympathize far more than I do faculty and administrators. Elite American universities are cold, soulless places. That’s because they’re run for two purposes, both of which treat students as means, not ends in themselves. The first is to provide legitimacy to the American ruling class. The second is to promote the greater wealth and glory of the university itself.
There was a time when elite universities were elite because elite people, which is to say WASPs, went to them. But the WASP elite lost confidence in its right to rule. Over time, success in the meritocratic competition for college admission became a key measure of status, not WASP identity. But an identity-blind meritocracy alone isn’t adequate. Elite institutions seek to maintain an adequate representation of certain ethnic groups, especially blacks. They’re also anxious to make sure the children of the really rich and truly powerful have their places. This leads to the current system’s uneasy combination of meritocracy and affirmative action.
The tensions this produces are obvious. Undergraduate admissions officers at highly selective universities work hard to achieve the “right” balance between getting the smartest kids (you’ve got to have them to nail down “excellence”) and those whom the institution needs to maintain its social justice legitimacy. And then there are the children of the rich and powerful, who must be included as well, for obvious reasons! (The latter poses a less visible challenge to the official meritocratic rhetoric because of the effectiveness of elite private education in polishing young people to the brightest possible sheen.) Finally, there’s the ambition elite American universities have to become global brands, which means getting the right foreign students.
Young people at places like Yale are intelligent enough to grasp their situation. When they arrive, they sense they’re part of a minutely engineered freshman class. How could they not? And so students half-know they’re being used. They’re admitted because they serve the university’s project, which is to ensure that the establishment’s power remains legitimate, and that the university itself remains supereminent (and well funded). By and large, most students don’t mind. For some, their courses of study are engaging and rewarding. The artificiality recedes and they enter into the Republic of Letters or Fellowship of Science. Those who don’t can at least expect to be rewarded with their own places in the ruling class. If they’re cut from the same cloth as Chelsea Clinton, they’re comfortable with their roles as celebrity ornaments. Meanwhile, the children of the super-rich have ample resources with which to palliate their recognition that their role is to ensure the ongoing flow of large donations.
To be part of an engineered community rather than an organic one can be alienating, however, especially when it’s obvious. I think this alienation explains why so many students feel “uncomfortable” and “unwelcome.” Were I a black undergraduate at Yale, I’d recognize my main role on campus is to provide “diversity.” I’d also be aware that Yale’s ability to brag about its “diversity” allows an almost entirely white ruling class in America to claim to be “inclusive,” and thus legitimate. No matter how smart or accomplished I might be, these realizations are unlikely to be happy ones.
Others probably feel a similar alienation, though less acutely. Nobody “belongs” at today’s elite institutions. That’s because there’s so little to belong to. Yale and places like it are ersatz communities, not real ones. They lack a common good around which to rally. (“Diversity” serves as the pseudo-common good.) This emptiness is being compounded by the student-led efforts to purge historic universities of morally suspect memories. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but misguided. Given our fallen nature, only a community without a history can be pure. But a community without a history is artificial, not organic, and thus not a community at all.
Multicultural retooling contradicts meritocratic rhetoric, but university administrators invariably affirm both. That’s because, in tandem, they promote the legitimacy of our ruling class, and so places like Yale are entirely untroubled by the tension between the two. Is it any wonder students are alienated? They’ve been admitted to institutions transparently organized to serve a political end—to maintain the legitimacy of the system—rather than educational ones.
The irony, of course, is that the protesting students ask for still more engineering. Calls for greater minority “recognition” and heightened multicultural “awareness” play into the elite project of highlighting “diversity.” The functional meaning of this term (which is otherwise undefined) is found in the identity politics of our time, not in any academic pursuit. Being “diverse” is a political asset in the contemporary project of securing the right to rule. It can be employed to de-legitimize challengers. (Critics lack “diversity.”) Which is why the student protests aren’t revolutionary. They’re asking universities to double-down on the rules of the legitimacy-seeking game that has characterized post-WASP elite culture for the last fifty years.
I regret that places like Yale now use young people in such transparent ways: minorities bring “diversity,” rich kids keep the money flowing, foreign students facilitate the formation of a new global network, and meritocratic winners ensure “excellence.” There’s something intrinsically ugly about engineered “communities,” especially ones engineered for the purpose of maintaining and extending power. (Why would anyone concerned about the future of our society give money to these universities?)
So I wish Yale President Peter Salovey the worst. May the universities continue on their trajectory toward becoming rigid, mechanical, and artificial communities dominated by rent-seeking faculty, populated by alienated students, and governed by feckless administrators. Such institutions cannot attract loyalty, and they cannot create a culture for the future.
Douthat and the Professors
On Monday, October 26, Ross Douthat delivered the twenty-eighth annual Erasmus Lecture, “The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism,” which we’re very happy to have in this issue. On that very day a group of Catholic professors published an open letter criticizing Douthat. Here’s what they said:
On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.
A number of commentators fixed on the arrogant “Aside from the fact” dismissal, including me. It reflects the stultifying presumption that one must have a PhD in order to have informed views about what’s going on in the Catholic Church.
But upon reflection, the most remarkable feature of this ill-considered intervention concerns the accusation that Douthat makes Catholicism “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative.” Huh? The column in question concerns only the intra-Catholic debate about divorce, remarriage, and the reception of Holy Communion. What’s politically partisan about that? It seems that the letter-writers think Douthat makes Catholicism ideological simply because he uses terms such as “liberal Catholicism” and “conservative Catholicism.”
For scholars who insist on scholarly credentials, this objection is laughably uninformed. The term “liberal” has a long history of use in theology. The Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, an influential reference work from an earlier era, has a monograph-long entry titled “libéralisme catholique.” For more than a hundred years, people have spoken of liberal Protestantism. How can those who signed the letter criticizing Douthat imagine that he’s politicizing theology when he’s using standard theological terms?
The great theorist of liberal theology was Friedrich Schleiermacher. In an 1829 letter to his friend Friedrich Lücke, which he wrote in order to defend his approach to dogmatic theology, Schleiermacher posits an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith and completely free, independent scientific inquiry.”
This presumption of harmony between Christianity and modernity defines liberal theology. To be a theological liberal means to insist upon a significant degree of freedom from strict dogmatic formulations and church discipline. This freedom allows for new expressions of faith and modes of Christian practice to emerge, ones that better accord with the sensibilities of modern men and women, or so we’re told.
The threats to Schleiermacher’s eternal covenant have come from many directions. In the nineteenth century, the modern historical-critical project undercut traditional interpretations of the Bible. In the twentieth century, death-of-God theologies presumed that modern science and philosophy make traditional concepts of God untenable. Today, the sexual revolution runs counter to Christian moral teaching, as Douthat recognizes.
Liberal theologies have taken different approaches. But a historian of theology—and a columnist commenting on current events in the Catholic Church—can see a common pattern. Theological liberals invariably regard the modern challenges as legitimate, and then argue that Christianity needs to be reinterpreted accordingly. We need a modern faith for the modern era!
Karl Barth recognized that liberal theologians provide theological justification for Kulturprotestantismus, an establishment mentality eager to adjust Christianity to suit bourgeois culture. As a young theologian, he was horrified when in 1914 his professors, liberal Protestants to the last, signed a declaration of support for the Kaiser and the coming war. Schleiermacher’s “eternal covenant” may seem noble, but it often leads to a Christian surrender to the spirit of the age. This is exactly Douthat’s (and my) assessment of the spiritual meaning of the German bishops’ call for change in church discipline concerning divorce and remarriage.
It was against this surrender that Barth famously insisted upon the unique authority of the Word of God. Theology answers to God’s revelation in Christ. Its task is not to manage and adjust relations between doctrine and modern culture. Just as you cannot serve God and mammon, you cannot serve Christ and the spirit of the age. Barth went on to become the scourge of liberal Protestant theology, subjecting it to withering criticism.
Modern Catholic theology has different terms and different debates. But there has been a Catholic liberal theology as well, which came to be called “modernism.” In its classic usage in the early twentieth century, modernism meant an approach that gave modern historical assumptions authority over church doctrine.
There’s an argument to be made that the opposite of liberal (or modernist) theology is orthodox theology, not conservative. I’m all for orthodoxy, but I’m not convinced that we need to police our terms so minutely. Schleiermacher was a liberal theologian because he thought modernity represents something fundamentally new and positive for humanity, something that stimulates Christian reform, enabling the true genius of our faith finally to achieve full expression. That’s why he sought a covenant with modernity. The Church needs the new culture of freedom just as much as scientific modernity aches for the spiritual balm of faith. In that sense, he embodied what I take to be the essential feature of theological liberalism: the conviction that our task is to midwife a new future, both for Christianity and for the world.
Karl Barth was a creative, innovative theologian, so much so that Calvinists of strict observance question his orthodoxy, and a Thomist-inspired Matthew Rose reads Barth as beholden to modern assumptions (“Karl Barth’s Failure,” June 2014). But nobody imagines him a liberal theologian. That’s because Barth had a fundamentally different view of theology’s vocation. Our job is proclamation, which means transmitting our inheritance in Christ to the next generation. We’re not to midwife a new future. For in the Risen Christ, and only in him, do we have a future.
Political life is not the same as spiritual life, but they are not entirely distinct, either. To be a liberal in politics means participating in the spiritual dynamic that characterizes liberal theology. For a political liberal, the great task of citizenship is to midwife a new future that will, finally, realize the great promises of modernity: freedom, equality, and fraternity. A political conservative is also similar to a theological conservative (or, if you insist, an orthodox one). For him (for me), the vocation of citizenship is to cherish, nurture, and transmit an inheritance to the next generation.
So I return to the ill-considered open letter. John O’Malley, S.J., one of the professors who signed it, is a learned, intelligent man, and an accomplished church historian. I can’t imagine he’s ignorant of the fact that “liberal” is a standard term in theology, and that “conservative,” while lacking the same pedigree, has an obvious theological meaning as well. What could have possessed him to imply otherwise, and to suggest that anyone using these terms is a partisan shill who knows nothing about Catholicism? I suppose, sadly, the question answers itself.
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