Jane Mayer is a writer for The New Yorker who knows her audience. It consists mostly of elitist progressives who like reading that their enlightened transformation of America is imperiled by greedy conservative villains. She has written many articles and most recently, a book entitled Dark Money on that theme.
The February 26, 2016 issue of Chronicle Review (the companion publication to The Chronicle of Higher Education, but much more overtly political) contains an essay drawn from that book, “How Right-Wing Billionaires Infiltrated Higher Education.”
To leftist readers, that’s certain to sound frightful. Higher education, after all, is supposed to be the domain of highly intelligent, far-sighted, compassionate scholars—the sort of people they admire. How awful to hear that it has been infiltrated by malevolent billionaires, who have (as the cover of the issue puts it) “tugged academe to the right.”
In the essay, Mayer recounts the tale of how this dastardly deed was done, beginning with the John M. Olin Foundation’s “offensive to reorient the political slant of higher education to the right.” That so-called offensive meant funding a few scholars at major universities who dissented from the prevailing leftist notions about the impact of government. Those scholars were all of a classical liberal bent, their thinking informed by the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.
That intellectual tradition has always been present in American universities, but following the New Deal, progressives who could see nothing but good in the expansion of the state came to dominate most faculties. For many students, contrary ideas could only be found if they ventured into the dusty shelves of the library. Was there a case against socialism, for instance? Students would probably never hear that there was unless somehow they chanced upon a reference to Ludwig von Mises’ great 1922 book.
What Olin and other foundations wanted was to revive an intellectual tradition that was out of favor with the elites who thrive on government control. They weren’t “tugging” higher education in any direction, but merely trying to add to a voice that was mostly going unheard. If a philanthropist put money into sponsoring a series of string quartet performances, we wouldn’t object that he was tugging the music world toward the classics.
But Mayer knows that she needs to keep her readers edgy, so she throws in lines like this, a quotation from a “progressive political strategist,” who says of Olin and other conspirators, “What they started is the most potent machinery ever assembled in a democracy to promote a set of beliefs to control the reins of government.”
That isn’t within light years of the truth. The objective of Olin (which spent itself out of existence ten years ago in keeping with the benefactor’s wishes), the Koch Foundation, and many smaller foundations is not to take control of the reins of government but instead to suggest to people that we’d be better off if the reins of government were loosened.
Mayer wants readers to think that some sort of coup is in the making, but all that’s happening is that a rather small number of students will get to hear one or two professors who think critically about the impact of government.
Critical thinking is supposed to be something colleges encourage. Mayer is opposed to letting “right-wing billionaires” encourage it with regard to the effects of government policy. She can’t resist name-calling and wails about “a tiny constellation of private foundations filled with tax-deductible gifts from a handful of wealthy reactionaries.”
That’s both nasty and false – the people behind this movement are only “reactionaries” if that word now means anyone who thinks government has grown too big.
If Mayer wanted an accurate title, she might have written “How a Handful of Classical Liberals Added Some Intellectual Diversity for Students to Consider.” But that wouldn’t scare her readers.