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A student proves my point about universities and socialism

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Last week, Andile Zulu penned a lengthy rebuttal to my recent column on why socialism thrives nowhere except at universities. In it, he reluctantly concedes my point, but goes on to try to defend the status quo anyway.

Last week in the Mail & Guardian, Andile Zulu, an undergraduate student of political science and religious studies at KwaZulu-Natal, wrote an article in which he challenged as “unproductive engagement” my view that universities are a hotbed of Marxism, socialism and critical theory, and that this ill prepares students for a rational, unbiased assessment of the virtues and shortcomings of free-market capitalism and classical liberalism.

It is a well-written response, and appears to be largely reasonable and cogent, but has some glaring flaws. Zulu summarises my argument well and goes on to “somewhat agree” with my observation, before climbing into a lengthy critique of classical liberal values and the impact of free-market capitalism upon the world.

It would take too long to fisk the piece in line-by-line detail, but there are a few issues that deserve a response.

He argues that I am making a moral claim about which political ideology should have ascendance in universities. I don’t propose that classical liberalism displaces other ideologies, or ought to be taught to the exclusion of all else. I make the claim that the opposite is true at present: that left-wing ideas dominate and crowd out opposing ideologies at universities, and I explained why they do so. I think it is that bias that is “factually incorrect and morally dangerous”.

He upbraids me for the “scarcity of empirical evidence” to support my claim. I provided evidence that faculty members in universities in the US lean strongly leftwards, but Zulu says that country has “its own particular cultural and political climate in tertiary institutions, distinct from our own”.

He never explains how it differs, or why our own academics would be any less left-leaning. He certainly doesn’t counter my argument that the left-wing bias that developed at universities during the 20th century was amplified in South Africa because of the liberation movement’s traditional alignment with the communist bloc, before the fall of both apartheid and communism.

Ironically, he goes on to say he “somewhat agrees” with my observation, and himself points to an article that references a number of studies that largely confirm my claim of a strong leftward political bias in universities.

For example, in a 2016 study, the ratios of registered Democratic Party voters to registered Republican voters in various social science disciplines at US universities were 33.5:1 for history, 20:1 for journalism, 17.4:1 for psychology and 8.6:1 in law. Even in economics, the ratio was a staggering 4.5:1, making the average in the social sciences, according to that study, 11.5:1.

Another study cited in the same article supports my claim that left-leaning people tend to self-select for academia, while right-leaning people tend to leave for jobs in the private sector.

Sure, specific South African data would be useful, but I strongly doubt that it would substantially undermine my claim. I also doubt that an assessment of the curricula of social sciences departments would contradict my claim that ideologies such as Marxism, socialism, critical theory and topics such as developmental economics strongly overshadow classical liberal or free-market capitalist ideologies. In some cases, entire courses are dedicated to left-wing ideas, without much balance being provided elsewhere.

Zulu then spends a surprising amount of space berating me for not clarifying the difference between “liberals” on one hand, and “socialists” or “leftists” on the other. That may be because he uses the term “liberal” in the modern sense, to describe left-leaning voters who are not socialists, or “social liberals”.

By contrast, I explicitly used it to refer to the post-war liberal democratic political order, and called it “classical liberalism”. To be even more clear, I listed the values that these post-war liberals espoused: the virtues of democracy, limited government, peaceful co-existence and trade between states, individual and civil rights, free-market capitalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

If I’m guilty of conflating political labels, it would be that I did not draw clear definitional distinctions between Marxism, socialism and left-wing thought in general. In an in-depth academic work, I certainly would have done so. In an article about socialist bias at universities, aimed at a general readership, the distinctions are more a matter of pedantry than fundamental importance, in my view. But, as an inveterate pedant, I agree, I probably should have made my article longer by defining exactly what each one is, and how they differ.

Having failed to challenge my basic premise, and actually “somewhat agreeing” with it, he proceeds with a laundry list of critiques against free-market capitalism and classical liberalism, as if this somehow justifies the anti-capitalist and anti-liberal bias that we agree exists at universities.

He says many freedoms and other desirable social outcomes, such as child labour laws, universal healthcare, universal suffrage, the 40-hour work week, and women’s rights were hard-won by left-wing activists, in opposition to capitalists.

That may be so, but most of those were won before the establishment of the post-war liberal democratic order I described, and they do not contradict classical liberal values or the free-market capitalist principles of private property ownership and voluntary exchange.

In particular, none requires a view of the world as motivated primarily by perpetual class struggle, or a world in which the factors of production are owned by the state or the proletariat. Equal rights and democracy are inherently part of the classical liberal values I described, and in fact, all the freedoms or rights Zulu describes were achieved within liberal, democratic political systems.

Moreover, as I described in my article, Marx opposed the very notion of human rights altogether, such as the right to religious freedom, the right to free speech, the right to own property, the right to security and the right to liberty because while there was a state, they could be granted or denied at the whim of the sovereign, and when the state withered away, those rights that weren’t selfish would be redundant.

Zulu holds the poverty and exploitation of the “gilded age” of the late 19th century against classical liberalism, without recognising either the dramatic improvement in wages and working conditions at the time, or the great improvements that have occurred since then at times and in countries that did not experience war, corruption, socialism or misguided government intervention in currencies and markets.

On the observation that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism were responsible for a great decrease in poverty, Zulu says my claims are based on the World Bank extreme poverty line of $1.90 per day. I certainly did not mean to limit claims about poverty reduction to just that line, and never explicitly mentioned it.

Zulu correctly says that many people above that line also experience poverty and deprivation. Of course, they do. Living on $3 a day or $5 a day, or even $10 a day (which some manual labourers in South Africa earn) is also hard.

He suggests a “more humane” poverty line of $7.40 per day (which seems pretty arbitrary). Based on that line, he claims a reduction of poverty between 1981 to 2013 from 71% to 58%, which he dismisses as “tepid”.

Yet, no matter where you place the poverty line, the reality is that the number of people who live below that line, as a share of the total population, has declined since 1981:

This holds true for all countries that have avoided war, socialism and corruption. Notable in their failure to do so are the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where progress against poverty has been unforgivably slow – and not due to an excess of “unfettered, unaccountable capitalism”.

He also disputes that the strong correlation between measures of economic freedom and a range of measures of human welfare implies causation, yet he does not make a counter-argument, showing why it is unreasonable to attribute better material conditions, living standards and happiness of people in economically free countries to their economic freedom.

The most severe indictment of capitalism is in how it has made the world better, but far from good enough,” he writes. “In other words, the world isn’t as good as it should and can be, because of capitalism.”

This is absurd utopianism. No, the world isn’t perfect, and holding capitalism – or any other system of political economy – to that standard either demonstrates bad faith, or laughable naïveté. Worse, history shows that much of the world is considerably worse off than it should and could be, because of socialism, communism and left-wing authoritarianism. Zulu’s apparent preference for socialist alternatives will not make the world a better place than classical liberalism and free-market capitalism have made it.

He claims that “[e]xtensive deregulation has enhanced the freedom of corporations to pollute and poison the environment,” but this is the opposite of true. In liberal, free economies, environmental regulations have become ever-more strict, thanks to the demands of their citizens.

This phenomenon operates on two levels. The first and most obvious is that citizens in free countries can and do demand better environmental legislation. Second, with rising prosperity, the most immediate criterion for product selection, price, becomes less important and other values become relatively more important. That includes the environmental qualities of the product, and the environmental behaviour of producers.

Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column showing that both prosperity and economic freedom are positively correlated with a wide range of performance measures on environmental issues.

Zulu writes: “The world is still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, which occurred because of the insatiable profit incentive, propelled by deregulation of financial markets.”

The myth that the 2008 crash was caused by capitalism or deregulation refuses to die, perhaps because universities are steeped in socialist and anti-capitalist convictions. In fact, banking is one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the world.

The 2008 financial crisis was caused by the collapse of an asset bubble (housing) created by easy monetary policy (low interest rates) pursued by central banks in the wake of the previous crash, which was the consequence of the previous asset bubble (dot-com) created by easy monetary policy.

The price of money is determined by government fiat, not free markets. Whenever its price is too low, money flows into the economy, and goes straight into assets like stocks and property. Over-investment in those assets causes their prices to rise, which does fuel greed and corruption, but those qualities are not necessary for the asset bubble, when it becomes unsustainable, to burst.

This cycle, in which government’s supposedly counter-cyclical intervention causes the very booms that lead to busts, prompting yet more “counter-cyclical” intervention, continues to this day. We’ve already seen a massive run-up in asset prices in recent years, thanks to near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing” (printing money). Expect another crash soon, which will give governments yet another excuse to intervene in the markets, setting us up for the next cycle.

And with every crash, politicians and central bankers, who caused the crisis, look for people to blame. Capitalists who took their cheap money and participated in the boom are sitting ducks.

Before the 2008 crisis, left-wing politicians like Barney Frank are on record saying they wanted to “throw the dice a bit more on affordable housing”. It was exactly those “affordable” mortgages (called “subprime” in banking lingo) that went bad and started the collapse. Conversely, free-market capitalists such as Ron Paul predicted the housing bubble and its collapse in astonishing detail as early as 2001.

So, as I wrote almost a decade ago, don’t blame the bankers. Don’t blame those who saw it coming. And if you’re upset with Wall Street, you’re misdirecting your anger. The monetary and fiscal policies of governments, and not free markets, are the causes of economic instability.

Zulu’s article inadvertently demonstrates that as a political science student, he does not get much exposure to these ideas, if any at all. That really was the point of my column.

Universities churn out students who have no idea how the economy really works, how capitalism and liberal democratic values have improved the lives of billions (including the poor), and how socialism has left little but poverty, starvation, and death in its wake.

He reluctantly conceded my main argument, and eloquently demonstrated that socialism thrives nowhere, except at universities. DM


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