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Friday, April 24, 2015

Should Taxes Fund Philosophy?

The cost of subsidizing state philosophy departments is hard to justify

In the past few days, philosophy bloggers have been writing with concern about how more philosophy departments around the country are closing, and how various Republican state legislators are trying to pass bills that cut many philosophy faculty. Most of the bloggers I’ve read seem to assume, unreflectively, that such cuts are a bad thing.

To my surprise, philosophers rarely seem to reflect on the opportunity cost of funding philosophy departments.

Let’s say East Podunk State spends $2 million a year funding a small philosophy program, which graduates 10 majors per year. Suppose (contrary to fact) that this was funded entirely through taxes on corporate profits, with free tuition, room, and board for all philosophy majors.

Is this a good deal? To know, we’d need to do some cost-benefit analysis. The problem here is $2 million spent on philosophy is not $2 million spent on all the other things worth spending money on.

Daily Nous recently had a thread on this, and I made a similar point:

I’m not convinced studying philosophy teaches people how to think. Educational psychologists have been studying “transfer of learning,” and there’s now a lot of evidence that the assumptions upon which liberal arts education is based are false. Most students don’t apply what they learn in class outside of class. We don’t actually succeed in teaching student soft-skills. They don’t use the tools we give them for anything outside of writing essays. Etc.

Richard’s answer, that philosophy has intrinsic value, is more plausible. But then this still leaves open cost-benefit analysis questions: There are lots of intrinsically valuable things out there worth doing. Why spend tax money on this thing (philosophy) rather than on some other intrinsically valuable thing (e.g., public death metal concerts open to all)?

Further, even some things are intrinsically valuable (such as philosophy and death metal concerts), we have to ask why these things should be funded through taxes rather than left to individual choice. You don’t have to be a libertarian to think that not everything worth having or doing is permissibly done/best done by government.

I love philosophy, and I believe most people would benefit greatly from understanding it and applying it outside of its domain. But that doesn’t mean that it’s worth funding many or most philosophy departments in public universities.

After all, the evidence about transfer of learning seems to show that students usually don’t get the value out of it that we hope they would. And even if you’re a resolute statist, you’ve got to ask why it’s worth spending hundreds of millions on philosophy in public universities, when that money could have gone to funding children’s hospitals, repairing infrastructure, or Opeth in the Park.

Jason Brennan is Assistant Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University where he teaches ethics, political economy, moral psychology, entrepreneurship, and public policy. As well as writing many books, Brennan also blogs at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, where this post first appeared.

  • Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair at Georgetown University. He blogs regularly at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.