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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Free-Market Pariah: Reflections of a Young Graduate


December 15, 2012, was a unique day. At noon I found myself behind a curtain. Dressed in a black robe and adorned with blue and gold chords representing honors, I confidently walked across a stage. Toward the front of the stage stood the president of my university, offering both a handshake and a diploma. After three and a half years I had graduated from college. As I returned to my seat to watch fellow graduates walk, I had a realization: By walking across the stage, we were all more valuable in the eyes of society—at least, conventional wisdom would say so. Throughout college, however, I held a much more skeptical view.

Some Background

My father began instructing me in the ways of free markets and liberty on the way to hockey practices when I was just 10 years old. He encouraged me to get involved with a group known as The Foundation for Economic Education. I attended three FEE summer seminars following my high school graduation. While the knowledge and reading materials obtained at the seminars have been priceless additions to my development, the greatest reward has been the opportunity to form friendships with like-minded individuals. 
That’s why I wanted to write this piece: I want to assure those liberty-minded individuals already pursuing their degrees that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to prepare liberty-minded individuals for the trials ahead in continuing their education. Thinking back, I recalled three unique classroom events that should illustrate how mainstream educators react to arguments based on principles of liberty and free markets.

Privilege and Pillage

The first took place during my freshman year. The class fulfilled a generic requirement and focused on different life choices. We also looked at society as a whole. As innocuous as that sounds, the class devolved quickly into demagoguery toward markets and the perceived “privileged.” The source of inequality and injustice was declared to be a marketplace devoid of government stewardship. We covered all the familiar bases—environmental, economic, and social “justice.” All required government action, or the consequences would be pillaging by the privileged in a zero-sum world. 
In one particular instance, the professor invited a guest speaker. The speaker showed us a YouTube video called “The Story of Stuff.” To save you time and frustration, the punchline of “Stuff” is: too much production, too much consumption, the poor are disenfranchised by the rich, and we all rape and sully the environment. Squirming in my seat, I thought up a few questions that would make my point in a respectful manner. The speaker mentioned that most of the purchases an American makes do not last one year. My question was, “Does that stat take into account durable versus non-durable goods?” She looked puzzled and asked for clarification. I expanded, “As a student, my biggest purchases are housing, food, and gasoline; none of which last a year.” She nodded, scanned the classroom, and admitted she didn’t know the specifics of the stats in the video.

Business School?

The second story I want to relate occurred in business school, of all places. In this class we focused on purchasing and logistics strategy. While reviewing a story from The Wall Street Journal in class, the professor presented us with a standard scenario where quantity demanded suddenly doubles. “What do you do?” he asked. 
While my classmates generally agreed that a waiting list should be established, I proposed a different strategy. By using basic supply and demand economics, I suggested a tiered pricing strategy that would respect the oft-forgotten value of time: “Charge higher prices to those that need the product now, and offer the original price to those who can wait for delivery.” 
From an economic and business standpoint, this solution made tremendous sense to me. You charge for the urgency because those who have a greater need for the product place a higher value on it. (This certainly is not an original business strategy.) But my classmates and professor disagreed. The students decried this strategy as taking advantage of misfortunes and therefore unethical. The professor declared that “supply and demand are not relevant.” After a short exchange, I concluded the argument for my plan with a concise statement. 
“In the short run,” I said, “we can only raise prices OR ration our products; we can’t increase production. So either everyone waits, or those that have an immediate need pay for the urgency.” The class ended without settling on any final course of action, but I left with a valuable lesson: Very few people learn how to combine economics and business to make sound decisions. 

“Critical Thinking”

The third example comes from a political science class. It was described as a course in “critical thinking” and was conducted online, so I never met the professor or any of my classmates. The students were assigned two articles per week to critique and debate. The articles covered the usual university topics: identification requirements for voting, racial bias against President Obama, and so on. The assignments also included some new topics: cockfighting in Puerto Rico and religion versus science. Students generally followed party lines in their debate contributions. The liberal students repeated the usual left-wing rhetoric, while conservative students repeated the usual right-wing rhetoric. 
The real test came during our writing assignments. When asked to write a short essay regarding the topics in discussion, I supported the limited government and free market system that I have long believed in. I wrote short papers about gun control, recycling, foreign policy, and current events. The feedback from the professor was less than encouraging—especially after grades were posted. Normally a mechanism designed for improvement, the professor used the feedback format largely to attack my viewpoints and my cited sources. “Improvement” meant starting to write the things the professor wanted to read. Here is an example of actual feedback on a paper regarding the Federal Reserve banking system: 
However, the thing that struck me is that on the one hand you want to maintain the virtue of a free market economy and then dismiss one of the few means of controlling the inherent inefficiencies and non-rational anarchic character of the free market. This seems to be a common theme for you. The social consequences of accepting the unmitigated results of market play have been consistently rejected by pretty much ever[y] liberal since the great depression. I’m not sure how you can argue that mechanism[s] of control are so bad. What would happen without them? The fed provides foresight to an otherwise radically out of control force.
And there you have it. My professor did not want to see that my arguments were valid and that my logic was sound—that is, that I exhibited true “critical thinking.” The professor wanted to convince me not only that the market could be controlled, but that it must be controlled. 

Lower Education

There are countless examples like the previous three that go beyond just my experience. Schools, both K-12 and college, have a vested interest in an interventionist, “do something” government. And the reverse is also true: Just think how many government bureaucracies rely on these activist education programs. Any student proposing limited State action is at odds with the system itself and is immediately dismissed. He or she is perceived as a virus. And a reputation—a stigma—develops that spreads and lingers among the faculty. 
Some professors have resolved to eliminate in-class discussion entirely, relying on PowerPoint slides to cover lessons. Other professors go so far as to ban classroom recording devices under penalty of a failing grade in the course. The system is certainly geared against those who speak in defense of liberty. This situation should not surprise us. And, of course, the professors most receptive to messages in support of markets and voluntary association are exceedingly rare. 

Advice to Rising Students

My message to current and future college students with leanings toward liberty is this: 
  • Consider your classmates and professors as stones upon which to sharpen your debating and reasoning skills; they are opportunities rather than obstacles. 
  • Pour your energy into becoming the best at what you study. There are 35,040 hours in a four-yeartime span; spend 10,000 of those on your most marketable skill (read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for more on this recommendation).
  • Meet people and stay in touch. You never know when paths will cross again.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity. College goes by fast–faster than you might think.