Current Events, Academic Philosophy

How Politics Corrupts Scholarship

I teach at a law school. It is quite common for legal scholars to switch back and forth between academia and government. In my discipline, international law, this has happened recently in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Leading scholars from prestigious universities have joined the administration in prominent positions. The same occurs in other legal fields such as constitutional law, administrative law, tax law, among others. Both law schools and lawyers approve of this practice, and those who engage in it acquire social prestige among the chattering class. These academics thereby enhance their resumés, increase their consulting opportunities, and so on. I assume this happens in other disciplines as well, such as political science and economics (less in philosophy, I would think), but I don’t know how pervasive the practice is outside my field.

These are scholars I know and respect for the most part. Yet, applying a theme developed by Bas van der Vossen in his seminal paper, In Defense of the Ivory Tower, I claim that when scholars foray into government their scholarship becomes corrupted. In various ways, academics who join government abandon their commitment to the truth for different, truth-insensitive, objectives.

Consider the production of scholarship at three different stages: before these scholars’ appointment to government positions, that is, during the application process; during their government tenure; and after they have left government.

Before their appointment these scholars must compete with other applicants for coveted government jobs. One obvious way to do this is to publish in order to maximize their chances of appointment. The scholar who wants the job acts irrationally if she publishes opinions that offend those who make the decision to hire her. During the scholar’s tenure, she has to follow her bosses’ instructions. Rulers want people who will support their agenda, not people who might tell them inconvenient truths. They have their own electoral incentives and will reject advise that, while sound, may not align with those incentives. Finally, after they leave government these academics will usually spend time trying to justify the policies they supported while working there. It is easy to find examples of all of these situations, but I just state the claim in this general form to avoid personalizing the problem. People may have good intentions, but, once in politics, the incentives to deviate from disinterested argument are just too strong.

Now I do not claim that these academics do not improve the world. Surely sometimes they do. My claim is that their scholarship is corrupted. If you are a scholar, your goal should be to seek the truth. If you join government you abandon that goal. Therefore, there is no reason why we should treat your writings as anything other than the rationalization of someone else’s policies.

  • Does not something similar go on within academe itself? Academic disciplines are subject to fads and fashions. Anyone seeking to advance his academic career would need to do work that is going to be looked on favourably by his contemporaries, particularly those in senior positions, who are usually subscribers to, or leaders of, the prevailing orthodoxies; and once he obtains a senior position he will naturally feel the need to try to justify the crap that he has been writing and to promote like-minded people. This is not purely rational incentivisation either. There is a strong tendency for intellectual types to have a religious mind-set, to accept a set of doctrines uncritically and defend them dogmatically, regarding criticism of them as a kind of sacrilege. Philosophy Prof. Timothy Williamson said in a quite recent interview that it is only in recent years that it has been possible for a philosopher to criticise, or even raise doubts about, Wittgenstein without throwing away his career. Outside of contemporary academic philosophy, who even thinks that Wittgenstein was a philosopher? He was an obscure mystic who inspired devotion in the sort of people who go looking for a prophet (i.e., a critical mass of academic philosophers). But Wittgensteinianism is just one example.

    It’s not just the humanities either. Kuhn noted it in the history of the physical sciences, and he seemed to accept it as satisfactory (‘normal science’). Popper was aware of it, too, and railed against it. He thought the remedy was to improve the institutional framework of science to increase competition, incentivise criticism and encourage new ideas, i.e. a free-market approach. Easier said than done.

    • I had a look earlier for the Williamson interview but I could not find it. The reason was that it was not an interview. It is a paper, available here:

      See pp. 28-31. Some excerpts:

      “What may be less obvious is how wary even those who barely mentioned [Wittgenstein] were of plainly saying that he was wrong about something. One knew that doing so incurred the automatic charge of shallow misinterpretation. It was best to step quietly around, and let sleeping dogs lie.”

      “in about 1994… Susan Hurley read a carefully reasoned paper against the Private Language Argument to an audience that included many leading Oxford philosophers. The audience divided by age. Roughly, those over fifty did not take the possibility seriously that Wittgenstein’s argument was fundamentally flawed, although they also did not explain how it worked or what it showed; those under fifty were more sympathetic to Hurley’s objections… [At] a large graduate class on philosophical logic shortly after my return to Oxford in 2000[, o]ne student kept pressing the Wittgensteinian line that contradictions are meaningless rather than false. I kept giving the standard responses, that contradictions have true negations while the negation of what is meaningless is itself meaningless so not true, that the compositional semantics generates meanings even for contradictions, and so on, whose effect was merely to elicit variations on the same theme that did not meet the objection. Eventually I became exasperated and said ‘Maybe Wittgenstein was just wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time’. There was a collective gasp of shock. I have never again witnessed such a reaction when Wittgenstein’s name was taken lightly.”

      “In the 1970s, even non-Wittgensteinian philosophers were often AFRAID to speak out against Wittgenstein.”

    • M Lister

      Williamson is a very good philosopher and extremely smart, but this view is, at best, hopelessly parochial. While it may have been true of the UK (even there, I doubt it was as strong as he thought) it was certainly not the view in much of the US for a very long time, if it ever was. Now, certain departments have certain strong tendencies, but, for example, many leading US philosophers (Quine, David Lewis, David Kaplan, Alvin Goldman, etc.) had no use for Wittgenstein (for good or ill), and they were top figures in philosophy for many, many years. If anything, Wittgenstein might have a stronger reputation outside of philosophy today than inside it. So, this example really doesn’t work. (In my experience, most claims like this are more sour grapes than anything else.)

      • Actually, Williamson says he is talking about Britain and that Wittgenstein’s influence in North America was never as great as in Europe (p. 28). My apologies for not spelling that out.

  • LLC

    Mr. Teson’s assertions certainly seem to be self-evident truths, the human critter being what we are.

  • M Lister

    This certainly seems common enough, Fernando. (A particular former recent dean of Yale Law comes to mind as a depressing example, I’d say.) But, I’m not sure that government involvement always or necessarily corrupts scholarship. In my own field of immigration law, I think of Stephen Legomsky, a professor (now retired, I think) at Washington University in St. Louis, who was, for some time recently, chief council at USCIS. My impression is that Legomksy was a harsh critic of many immigration law practices before and during his tenure, but in the areas where he seemed to change his mind, this seems to be a result of learning more about the inside workings of the immigration bureaucracy. I don’t think he changed his views on any fundamental issues, but he did, I think, change around the edges in a way that seemed very much to me to show learning, inquisitiveness, and humility of the sort that benefits a scholar. I don’t doubt that this is rare, but it’s certainly not unheard of, nor is it impossible.

  • CJColucci

    Why, when Prof. Teson undoubtedly knows large numbers of legal scholars who spent time in government, do we get a freshman economics explanation of why their scholarship must be corrupt instead of what should be a simple empirical demonstration that it actually is? Like Prof. Teson, I also know many legal scholars who have spent time in government. I can think of a number of fields where I wouldn’t take seriously the views of someone who never served in government. I have read their scholarship and I know them as human beings. In my experience, scholarly corruption of the sort Prof. Teson talks about is rare, and not noticeably more common when it does exist than the corruption of legal scholars who consult for private interests and know who butters their bread. In fact, I know of many legal scholars who served in government whose scholarship bites the hand that fed them — quite uncommon among those who consult for private interests — and there is plenty of incentive to do that. Name names or go home.