The Augean Stables of Academe

How to Remove the Authoritarian Bias in Universities

By J.C. Lester

 The “free world” was the political rhetoric used during the Cold War in contrast to the “communist” countries. However, the “free world” was manifestly never free: the state considerably interfered with people in their persons and their property. And the “communist” countries were manifestly never communist: there was no common ownership of the means of production with the absence of social classes, money, and the state. It would have been more accurate to call them the “authoritarian world” and the “totalitarian world”. Today the “free world” is sometimes still used, but Western countries remain authoritarian in terms of taxation and restrictive legislation. The, by implication, “unfree world” is largely only somewhat more authoritarian. Why does this continuing authoritarianism exist in the West?

One significant proximate cause is academia. The states in western countries use aggressive coercion (they do not merely defend people and their property) to more or less monopolise the university-and-degree systems and also, to varying degrees, to fund them. There may be ‘competing’ universities, but they are mostly within the state’s monopolised system (including the half dozen or so private UK universities; although their independence of tax-funding is a step in the right direction). There may be income from ‘voluntary’ payments to that monopolised system, but taxation remains a very substantial source of income (varying with the university and the country). The result is that most professional intellectuals have privileged status and income thanks to the state. In fact, very many of them do not really pay taxes at all. For it is a book-keeping pretence to pay them and ‘tax’ them when their income comes from taxation (if their jobs were to disappear, then the state would have more money). Such academics are, in effect, pursuing their personal hobbies or political hobbyhorses at the expense of all those people without (net) privileges and tax-subsidies.

It would be naïve to think that academics are disinterested scholars who cannot be influenced by the source of their privileges and income. Inevitably, this system creates a powerful pro-state bias in academia and its intellectual output: it both attracts intellectuals more likely to be sympathetic to the state and then reinforces that outlook by its endemic culture. And that is precisely why it exists, of course: it is a version of imperial China’s strategy of employing all the potentially-dissident intellectuals in its bureaucracy. So it is not an invalid ad hominem criticism to point out that a tacit system of pro-state monopolisation and bribery exists. Asking most academics what they think of the state is akin to asking Roman Catholic priests what they think of the Church of Rome. Even self-described ‘libertarian’ academics often give the appearance of having gone native. They may advocate more liberty here or there, but they will rarely make a fuss about ‘nationalised’ (politicised) academia itself (perhaps they want to avoid conflict with their colleagues or superiors and to achieve promotion or at least security). Most academics honestly believe that the state is maintaining educational standards and providing an essential service that the free market would not. Thus they are honestly mistaken. One cannot keep up standards by using aggressive coercion both to abolish competition and also to subsidise most of the ensuing (near-)monopoly. And if the free market would not provide higher education, then why is it necessary to make it illegal for it to try?

What is the solution to the Augean stables of academe? Adapting Heracles’ approach, it is to divert the rivers of freedom and liberty to flow through them. Simply repeal any legislation that restricts who can set up a university or award degrees and end all tax-funding. The free market, philanthropy, and charity will do the rest. It is unlikely that the best universities will perish; although they may have to make some changes to survive and thrive. One consequence is likely to be a significant reduction in average student fees, which would be a vote-winner: students and their parents far outnumber socially-parasitic academics. Some people may accept that this analysis is about right for the arts and social sciences, as these are largely consumer goods, but worry about the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. However, insofar as these are perceived as genuinely useful or desirable, departments and students will undoubtedly find funding from a plethora of competing sources. Instead of politically motivated allocation and direction, there will be economic efficiency (which includes funding for science and the arts as ends in themselves, but on a voluntary basis).

Won’t this simply change the bias from being towards the state to being towards entirely voluntary institutions? Yes, but the cultural change will not happen overnight (even the founder and Master of the private New College of the Humanities, A. C. Grayling, was confused enough to say, “Education is a public good [sic] … it shouldn’t be necessary to do this”). In other words, there will eventually be a change from an authoritarian outlook to a libertarian one. Such a change is eminently desirable. In time, we might even live up to the label “free world”

J.C. Lester is an independent philosopher and the author of four books on libertarian philosophy. (Links to books and articles here:


  1. When I toured Russia and Eastern Europe in the summer of 1972 I was surprised to learn that even the Russians did not claim to have achieved “communism”. They thought they had achieved “socialism” and were on a path to communism.

  2. I spent many years on the staff in two universities. I often talked with retiring academics about their wish that they could set up a genuine university where they were free from government and could just impart knowledge. In short not unlike the colleges of Oxford did for their first eight hundred and fifty odd years. If hard science and engineering are required by the government and industry, they should be taught in tertiary schools, hopefully partly funded by industry. There is no need for a university degree in engineering. Yes the subject/s should have exams and titles and maybe those schools/polytechnics could award their degrees.

  3. Though I can appreciate the author’s point, I’m not sure if I agree completely. Although public funding and academic freedom do present a paradox, so does private funding when paired in the same way, and if there are tensions and conflicting priorities in the former case, so must there be in the latter. It is, I believe, a mistake to think that ‘private’ will equate to operative neutrality or some desirable but abstract (and, in my view, ultimately impossible) Platonic ideation concerning academic and artistic pursuits. If anything, public funding ought to be a guarantee of standards by shielding academics from market pressures – but this requires wider civil and financial arrangements that protect vital areas of the public sector as Platonic castles, funded by the public but independent of the state. That, in fact, is the status that universities and the BBC, and similar institutions, are supposed to have.

    I think the reasons for the enlargement of the state in Britain are entirely separate to the public sector itself. It is, paradoxically, the private sector that is responsible for enlarging the public sector and the state, killing vitality and excellence in the public sector in the process.

    In short: I see no necessary contradiction between an active public sector in different areas – the academy, broadcasting, health – and the pursuit of maximal freedom as a political object. You could, conceivably, keep these public sector organisations, and have them well-funded but operating at arm’s length from the state.

    The article is quite correct with its observation that the USSR and Eastern Bloc were not communist – the first time I have seen anybody other than myself point that out on here. Nor are today’s “communist” states: North Korea, PRK China, Cuba, etc. These are all state-capitalist countries.

  4. Tom, you seem to be intoxicated with the state but as Jan says above, it is intrinsically anti-social. Politics is cold war and a vote is coercion against other people thus it scotches social liberty. It may only be a slap rather than a punch or still less use of a gun but it is gratuitous coercion nevertheless.

    State funding requires coercive taxation. Taxation crowds out liberty.

    It is not clear what Plato has to do with anything here.

    Market pressures are such to satisfy the customers freely in trade.

    The BBC are corrupted by state support.

    Public schools were public but not state owned. Ditto the BBC in its first few years.

    Communism cannot solve the problem posed by the economic calculation argument. See _From Marx To Mises (1992) D.R. Steele.

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