The Corner

The Pope Center’s Debate Over Free Market Centers on Campus

Over the last several years, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing among leftists over the efforts of the Koch Foundation (and others, such as BB&T, but nothing angers the Social Justice Warriors like the mention of the Koch name) at establishing programs on college campuses aimed at teaching about the virtues of free markets and the harm done by government economic meddling.

Last week, the Pope Center sponsored a debate over this question. We asked Ralph Wilson of the group unKochMyCampus (which I think is the best-known opponent of outside funding for such programs) and Hillsdale College economics professor Gary Wolfram (whose department is not dependent on Koch funding) to share their thoughts.

We published Wilson’s piece on Wednesday and you can read it (along with the numerous comments) here. Professor Wolfram’s piece was published Friday and the link is here.

In brief, Wilson contends that institutions of higher education should not accept funding from the Koch Foundation because the people behind it have a political motive. They would like to see the U.S. move away from reliance on the state and more on markets and civil society. To “progressives” that is movement in the wrong direction and ample reason to say that schools should turn away the money and the malign influence.

On the other hand, Wolfram maintains that the substance of the material taught in these programs is not merely educationally sound, but socially desirable. Americans need to hear about the virtues of economic liberalism and academic centers like those funded by the Koch Foundation bring that knowledge to many who probably wouldn’t otherwise hear it.

My two cents on this dispute:

The political desires of the funders should be irrelevant to college officials and the sole question should be whether the proposed academic content is worthwhile.

Suppose that a leftist foundation were to propose a center for the study of climate change. Now, it might very well be true that the people behind it ultimately hope to affect the political climate so that the country will adopt more “green” policies, but as long as the material to be taught is scientifically valid, there is no problem.

Similarly with programs devoted to teaching about how markets work, how government often brings about perverse incentives and bad results (i.e., Public Choice theory), and related issues, the only question should be whether they are academically sound. Since there is nothing intellectually amiss with having students learn from the likes of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan and other thinkers in that tradition, then there is no reason to reject programs that bring them to students. Who puts up the funds and what their political goals might be is not relevant.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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