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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Looking in the Mirror

Quite frequently, I hear, “How do you justify working at a state university and holding libertarian views? That’s hypocritical!”

The question is not as easy to answer as I would like–a fact that makes the accusation understandable (but, I hope, in the final analysis untrue).

My employer, George Mason University, is indeed a government-created and -owned outfit. And I indeed spend most of my time decrying government interference in people’s lives as well as decrying the taxation necessary to fund that interference.

How do I justify myself?

The easy answer is that our world isn’t ideal. In a less-than-ideal world, navigating reality requires compromises. After all, would you have me also not drive? Roads and highways are almost all government-owned and -operated.

Given that it is nearly impossible to live as part of society without consuming some government-supplied goods and services–and without helping to pay for those things (which is to say, without helping to encourage the state provision of those things)–each libertarian must make compromises with this reality. Each libertarian must do his or her level best to decide where acceptable compromises with the State begin and where they end.

Because so many universities are state-owned and -operated, and because almost all but a tiny handful of the “private” universities receive vast sums of government largess, working for a state university is, for me, an acceptable compromise. This compromise is even more acceptable when I reflect on the fact that the department of economics at George Mason University is by far the best department for the kind of economics I admire and I strive to do. I can best contribute to the scholarly endeavor and to the great cause of human freedom by serving on the GMU faculty of economics.

The above isn’t a bad argument. I believe it. But I confess that it’s not fully satisfying. Do I believe that argument only because by believing it I’m able to rationalize my employment at GMU?

Government-Issue Moral Dilemma

I think that the answer to the last question is no, but I’m really not sure.

Principles, after all, are ideals to uphold even when–indeed, especially when–doing so is personally costly or difficult. For me to resign my position at GMU Econ would be difficult (because I put great store in being part of a faculty that so deeply understands markets and values freedom). So perhaps I’m not as principled as I fancy myself to be.

On the other hand, resigning from GMU would not be costly to me in a monetary sense. A few private universities have offered me jobs with salaries higher than what I earn at GMU. My reason for rejecting each of those offers is that I feel a deep commitment to GMU Econ and the iconoclastic and pro-market role it plays in the economics profession as well as in public discourse. So by remaining at GMU despite more lucrative offers at private schools, do I demonstrate my commitment to the ideal of sound economic teaching and research? Do I demonstrate my commitment to the brand of liberalism that is so prominently featured and furthered at GMU Econ? Or do I demonstrate hypocrisy by continuing in the employ of the state?

These questions aren’t rhetorical. I myself cannot answer them with any great confidence. I’m pretty sure that, were I to resign from GMU (which is the largest university in Virginia), fewer young people would be exposed to my teaching and my writing. Given that my comparative advantage (such as it is) lies in introducing students to the economic way of thinking, would I harm the cause that I so profoundly believe in by resigning from GMU? Or would I further that cause by demonstrating my commitment to the principle of separation of school and State?

And does it matter that I have my 12-year-old son in private school? My wife and I pay the substantial tuition each year not so much because the government schools in Fairfax County are lousy (they’re not), but because of our principled objection to government schooling.

Blurring the Line

The larger lesson is that the State does more than act to protect us from violence–so much more, in fact, that it blurs the distinction between itself and society. I have no doubt that, were the government completely out of education, excellent private schools would flourish at all levels, from pre-K through post-doc. And I have no doubt that the quality of education would be greatly improved.

But the State is involved, and heavily. This involvement makes it artificially difficult for private schools to thrive. So should educators and researchers who oppose such involvement as a matter of principle content themselves to teach only at the very small number of schools that get no government funds? And should those libertarian educators and researchers who can find no employment at such schools find some other occupation, even if it’s likely that they can contribute more to the cause of freedom by teaching and researching than by abandoning that career?

I wish that I had unambiguous answers to these questions, but I don’t.

No Easy Answers

Another consideration turns on the distinction between choosing rules and choosing how to act within a given set of rules. It would be a clearer case of unethical behavior on my part if I voted for further government involvement in higher education than if I simply accepted the reality of that involvement–a reality unlikely to be changed any time soon. I can legitimately say, “I would arrange education differently, but because that power is not mine, it’s okay for me to work for a government school even though I would prefer that such things not exist. I don’t make the rules.”

This argument, too, has some merit. But it also has a weakness: Society’s rules often are changed by persons who refuse on principle to accept what seems inevitable. “Playing by the rules” is not a free ticket to violate your ethical norms.

The bottom line is that I don’t believe that I violate my libertarian principles by working for GMU Econ, which happens to be a state institution (although one that also receives a good deal of private support). But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for anyone to question me strongly and skeptically on this matter.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.