Almost nobody likes faculty meetings. So why do they always seem to run on forever? If we all hate them so much, why don’t we just stop?

I have a theory. We all hate sitting through faculty meetings. But what we really hate is sitting through faculty meetings listening to other people talk. If we have to be there, we might as well make the time more enjoyable by sharing our own opinions on the subject. After all, we all tend to think our own opinions are good – reflections of the wise, clever, humane and generally virtuous person to whom they belong. Other people, meh. Not so much.

So how do we really feel about faculty meetings? I think that many of us hold the following preference ranking, where (1) is our most-preferred option, and (4) is our least.

  1. I talk at the meeting, everybody else listens quietly.
  2. None of us talk at the meeting.
  3. All of us talk at the meeting.
  4. I listen quietly at the meeting while everybody else talks.

I take it that (1) and (4) are obvious, from what I’ve said above. But what about (2) and (3)? Why do we prefer nobody talking to everybody talking?

Well, because if nobody talks, we all get to go home! Or, at least, we get to go back to our offices and work on things we actually care about, and can actually make a difference with. Faculty meetings last a long time because and to the extent that the faculty who are present at those meetings won’t shut up. But “what if they gave a faculty meeting and nobody spoke?”

So why do we talk if talking keeps us from doing what we really want to do? Well, think about it this way. Every time you speak you increase the length of the faculty meeting by a bit. But it’s a pretty small bit. And, besides, you’re busy talking during that bit so it doesn’t really bother you. Your talking creates costs. But those costs are mostly externalized onto other people. The benefits, on the other hand, are almost entirely internalized to you. We all love to hear ourselves talk. (Other people, meh. Not so much) Talking at meetings is like polluting the air by driving your gas guzzling truck to work. You get all the benefits. And the costs? Well, that’s why exhaust pipes are on the outside of the car.

When you put those things together – externalized costs and internalized benefits – you’ve got all the makings of a classic tragedy of the commons. We all over-consume some common resource – a grassy pasture, the capacity of our atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide, each other’s time – because we personally gain by doing so, and because somebody else is picking up the tab. None of us really wants the common resource to wind up over-consumed. But as individuals, there’s not really anything we can do about that. Given the incentives, other people are probably going to wreck the commons whether you contribute to that wreckage or not. Individual temperance isn’t going to change the ultimate outcome – all it’s going to do is ensure that whatever benefits the commons had to offer wind up in other people’s pockets.

So, what’s to be done? Traditionally there are three different ways of solving the tragedy of the commons. The first, beloved by libertarians, is to internalize the externalities of consumption by creating institutions of private property. That works pretty well for a grassy pasture. It’s less clear how it’s supposed to work for atmospheres. Nor for other people’s time in a department meeting. How do you put fences around time?

The second solution is third-party regulation. The goal here is the same as that in the first approach – to internalize the costs of over-consumption. But the mechanism is different. Rules are set defining permissible levels of consumption. And violations of that rule are punished swiftly and severely by the Leviathan. This solution does seem like it would translate pretty well into the faculty meeting case. The only real trick is making sure you pick the right person to invest with the powers of sovereignty.

Finally, there’s what we might call first- (or second-) party regulation. Rather than being regulated by some external power, we regulate ourselves. In a small group, especially one with repeated interactions and a strong sense of community, this can often work. Informal norms emerge which serve the same function as Leviathan’s laws, but which are formed and enforced in an informal, decentralized manner. Think angry glares and ostracism instead of fines and imprisonment.

We talk in faculty meetings because our own talking wastes other people’s time, not ours. But everyone else does exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reason. And so faculty meetings go on forever. It’s hard for me to imagine a market-like solution to this problem – strong leadership or informal norms seem better suited. But perhaps I’ve underestimated the ingenuity of the market? Should we charge a fee to speak at meetings, and distribute the proceeds to everybody else in attendance?

What do you think?

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At first I honestly thought that this was a satire, and not a very well-conceived one. Satire, to be effective, has to be somewhat plausible, at least at the outset.

Consider this excerpt:

I described the case of a Brandeis professor disciplined for saying “wetback” while explaining its use as a pejorative. The word was replaced in the transcript by “[anti-Latin@/anti-immigrant slur].” Discussing the teaching of “Huckleberry Finn,” I questioned the use of euphemisms such as “the n-word” and, in doing so, uttered that forbidden word. I described what I thought was the obvious difference between quoting a word in the context of discussing language, literature or prejudice and hurling it as an epithet.

Two of the panelists challenged me. The audience of 300 to 400 people listened to our spirited, friendly debate — and didn’t appear angry or shocked. But back on campus, I was quickly branded a racist, and I was charged in the Huffington Post with committing “an explicit act of racial violence.” McCartney subsequently apologized that “some students and faculty were hurt” and made to “feel unsafe” by my remarks.

The idea that colleges should be, or in fact can be, “safe” is itself unsafe.  After three weeks of my PPE Gateway class, every year, every single year, at least three students come up after class and say shyly, “I am so confused.  And that’s very interesting.  I’m not sure that I believe what I used to believe.  This class has been unsettling.  Thank you.”  You are most welcome, friends.

Or this, by a kid from my “Econ for Non-majors” class.

Music.  Music to my ears.  But definitely not safe.

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Murray Rothbard famously argued that parents have the right to neglect or abandon their children because they have acquired no obligation to care for them.  In my forthcoming book, I take on Rothbard’s specific argument, but this way of viewing things unfortunately lives on among other libertarians. A good example of this kind of misguided thinking about children’s and parental rights is this passage from a 2012 blog post by Wendy McElroy, even as she tries to avoid earlier in the post the very conclusion Rothbard came to:

As a legal matter, neglect and cruelty present a problem. Common decency rebels against abusing an infant, even non-violently. But the fact remains that the bad treatment is non-violent. If a parent does violently aggress against a child, then it is criminal matter and a 3rd party has the same right to intervene on the child’s behalf as on the behalf of someone being mugged in an alley.

The uncomfortable fact, however, is that libertarianism does not recognize positive legal obligations except as established by agreement. That is to say, there is no positive obligation that legally forces  a parent to provide sustenance or shelter. Only if the parent has entered into an agreement with the infant can such positive obligations be enforced. But, clearly, until the infant reaches the age of consent, an agreement with it is not possible. Positive obligations cannot be enforced.

This way of thinking of the matter is wrong-headed. The parents’ obligation to care for the child isn’t about making an agreement with the child, and the lack of such an agreement with the child does not mean the parents have no obligations. The parental obligations come when parents engage in the positive act of treating the child as theirs by asserting their parental rights, and thereby accepting the corresponding obligations. This is most obvious with the legal acquisition of parental rights in adoption, but is no different when biological parents bring a child home from the hospital, or make other positive steps to exercise parental rights by treating the child as theirs. “Treating the child as theirs” is a kind of public declaration of the exercise of parental rights, and those rights come with corresponding responsibilities and obligations.

You can think of taking a child home from the hospital as analogous to homesteading: you are declaring to others (not to the child) that this child is yours and that you thereby accept the responsibilities to care that come with exercising those parental rights. If you created that child and do not wish to care for it yourself, you have an obligation to arrange for its care by finding someone else who wants to acquire those rights.

Children must be cared for, and infants cannot consent to their caregivers.  Therefore the “agreement” parents enter into is not with the child, but with “the rest of us” by engaging in de facto exercises of parental rights that then create de jure obligations to care for (or to arrange for the care of) those children. With great rights come great responsibilities, and such is the case for parents too.

And this is the reason that even “non-violent” (as if violence is the only form of aggression, I might note) abuse or cruelty or neglect should be actionable in a libertarian world. Infants are helpless, and this is relevant not just because it means they can’t consent to their caregivers. It is relevant because it means that accepting parental rights but refusing to accept the corresponding obligations to care for a helpless child is form of breach of contract. Again, the contract is not with the child, but with “the rest of us.” Given the helplessness of infants, someone has to provide that care and those who act in ways that exercise parental rights simultaneously announce their willingness to accept the obligation to care.

In essence, exercising parental rights and accepting parental responsibilities is one or more adults publicly saying to the rest of the adults: “I/we am/are agreeing to care for this child.” Throughout history, we’ve seen various religious traditions capture this idea through ceremonies such as baptisms, baby-namings, and namakarans. Those have endured because of the importance of that public declaration of acquiring parental rights and accepting parental obligations.

It says something about the nature of much libertarian thought that the helplessness of children is understood primarily as relevant to their inability to consent to an agreement to be cared for, rather than as requiring that someone take on the obligation to care for them.

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