I’ve mentioned before that my dad was the mayor of our small town in Kentucky for twenty years, and my brother was a police officer for several years. Once, my mom said she was so glad that all of us were doing things to help others. I said, “Well, yeah, that’s nice, but to tell you the truth, I think that I’m doing about the most selfish thing I could imagine. I “do” literature because it gives me so much pleasure, and I want to talk about it with other people because I love it. I think real sacrifice would have been if I did a job that made me miserable but let me buy fancy stuff for people in my life, or let me fund worthy causes.” I do something that I want to do that happens (I hope) to benefit others and make the world a little nicer. But it’s the fact that I want to do it that brings the recompense.
And that brings me to a question I ask myself on occasion. I’ve joked a few times about the idea that as a rightward-leaning libertarian in the humanities, I’m the kind of diversity the academy doesn’t want. But something I consider from time to time is the fact that a lot of very bright people — including most of the folks with whom I’ve worked over the years — are in political camps distinctly opposed to mine. That’s OK with me, but it raises the question: Why do so many academics/intellectuals lean left, and (if I’m a reasonably bright guy) why don’t I? And if I’m going to be intellectually honest, shouldn’t I wonder about my contrary direction?
This is a question Julian Sanchez addresses over at his place, and his answer — although it may involve a bit of chicken-and-eggery — is interesting. The root of the discussion, he suggests, may come from whether one thinks that the world is improved primarily through private action or public/governmental/political action:
If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. […] If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.
But it was in my ellipsis that we find the QotD:
Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily.
And that brings me back to my point — and perhaps my mom’s as well. Because I’m doing the things I want to do, good comes of it. It’s a good that comes through private action, and for which I find myself well enough compensated (most of the time, anyway). It’s just that some of my compensation is spiritual, psychic, invisible.
In turn, that may bring me to my suspicion of government. All government can really do is manipulate the material. And because I know that isn’t all there is, I think the best solutions are those that allow people to choose the individual paths that compensate them (and indeed, that freedom itself is part of that compensation.) So ultimately, I may be an academic for the same reason that I’m a libertarian/conservative: It’s the payment-in-kind that I value.
H/T: Frequent reader and Facebook friend Kathy Phillips Nanney.