Against all odds, generally speaking

Posted: Feb 13, 2005 12:00 AM

In the Gambling Capital of America, Las Vegas, Nevada, a professor of economics is being hounded by the city's proud university, his employer. The university's bureaucracy has risen from its swollen haunches to "defend" a student with a complaint. The professor had not singled out the student. Nor had he called anyone names. He had been trying to explain a technical concept ? one, amusingly enough, that helps explain why people gamble ? and had dared discuss homosexual men and women in that context. He is at risk of public reprimand and loss of a pay raise.

Now, you might think that an institution in Las Vegas, of all places, would be built on a strict idea of contract, with all the traditions of freedom that implies, including a great deal of academic freedom.


Well, Nevada was the first gambling state, and the argument for legalizing gambling comes straight from the freedom of contract. Even a contract as one-sided as between a gambler and a casino is still a contract. If you want to risk your money for a trivial reason, go ahead ? it's your money; just don't make me risk mine.

But at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, such a respect for the right to contract ? and thus speak ? apparently doesn't apply to college professors.

Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe was explaining to his banking class one day what "time preference" was. If one has a high time preference, one plans less for the future, preferring to spend money now rather than save for it later. A person with such a time preference would be more likely to smoke, less likely to invest, more likely to climb mountains, less likely to buy health insurance, more likely to drink alcohol and drive . . . or be promiscuous.

The terminology comes from the Austrian School of Economics, to which Prof. Hoppe belongs, but has become standard stuff in many disciplines.

Now, Hoppe went on to explain how different groups of people ? with different sets of interests, opportunities, life situations, etc. ? exhibit differing time preferences:

Very young and very old people, for example, tend not to plan for the future, he said. Couples with children tend to plan more than couples without. . . .
Another example he gave the class was that homosexuals tend to plan less for the future than heterosexuals.
Reasons for the phenomenon include the fact that homosexuals tend not to have children, he said. They also tend to live riskier lifestyles than heterosexuals, Hoppe said.

None of this is shocking from an economist. Most social scientists talk like this, using groups and statistics to track how varying individual behaviors affect real-life situations. The discussion of homosexuality was not even very controversial, and it might even be true. There is, after all, some evidence for it. For example, it seems to be the case that homosexual men and women smoke much more than heterosexual men and women (not in actual numbers, of course, but as percentages of population).

Hoppe did push on one extra degree, however, that strikes me as more than a bit dubious:

He said there is a belief among some economists that one of the 20th century's most influential economists, John Maynard Keynes, was influenced in his beliefs by his homosexuality.

And Hoppe quoted the famous Keynesian quip, "in the long run we are all dead."

But attributing Keynes's incautious inflationism to his homosexuality seems suspect on more than one count.

First (as if anyone wanted to know), Keynes was bisexual. As a member of the Bloomsbury Group his sexual eccentricities were well known. But during the Great War, with most of the boys off to fight, he married a ballerina. So one wag wrote in a newspaper "Apparently even the Higher Sodomy is subject to the laws of supply and demand."

Second, his lack of children could explain his policies' weighting of near-term gains over long-term costs.

Third, and most importantly, Keynes was a politician. He was in the business of dealing with politicians and devising policy. He felt himself the master of the age, and as such could risk much. Hubristically (as his colleague F.A. Hayek might have put it), he thought he could handle it all. Now and "in the future."

Of course, this is the future, and Keynes is very dead.

But one Michael Knight, student at UNLV, is not. He was offended by Hoppe's discussion. "I just couldn't believe he took something like that and generalized it," he said. (Apparently he wasn't offended by the dubious Keynesian thesis, but instead by the standard talk of groups and statistics.) Intimidated by Hoppe's classroom demeanor, he complained via email to the dean of the College of Business and also to the chair of the Economics Department, rather than confront his professor directly. The usual machineries of university politics got rolling, and Hoppe was instructed to apologize. Unfortunately, Hoppe's response didn't satisfy the offended student:

Knight said that Hoppe conducted himself in a way that seemed he did not take the complaint seriously. "It was like a slap in the face," Knight said.
According to Knight, Hoppe brought it to the class's attention that he had offended a student, but did not offer an apology or acknowledgement of any insensitivity on his part.

Hoppe, in class, explained that of course he was "speaking in generalities":

As an example of what he meant, he offered this: Italians tend to eat more spaghetti than Germans, and Germans tend to eat more sauerkraut than Italians. It is not universally true, he said, but it is generally true.

The student's response? "His choice of words was unacceptable." So young Mr. Knight changed his complaint from informal to formal. And UNLV's thought police went into full gear, threatening Hoppe with a reprimand and the forgoing of his next pay increase.

Hoppe did not cave. Instead, he contacted the ACLU, and now another PC scandal is on full boil.

There's more than one lesson here.

UNLV is one place I will definitely not send my daughters; they deserve the uncensored thoughts of their professors, even if they might be shocked from time to time. Like any parent, I'm concerned with my daughters' feelings, but the university has taken in loco parentis to a degree quite loco.

One could extrapolate the philosophy behind the censorship, of course. Bending over backwards to protect students from offense, even if doing so does actual harm to a contracted employee whose very job it is to challenge said students, doesn't that say something about the principle of "challenging students"?

Students are indeed customers, and one hopes a university seeks to please rather than offend its customers. But the complaint is from one customer. What about all the other customers seeking the free flow of ideas? And the school's standing as a place of academic freedom? Seems that to serve its customers, UNLV should abide by its contract and respect Hoppe's right to say what he thinks, provided, as in this case, he is not being abusive.

It should go without saying ? but doesn't, I bet ? that to defend Hoppe's right to teach as he sees fit does not mean that one agrees with said professor. I am familiar with his work, and regard a few of his arguments with complete, open-mouthed incredulity. But that's irrelevant. When we defend a professor against the tyranny of pampered students, we are defending the principle of contract. Liberty is what's defining here, and it's being trumped, on college campuses, not by Mill's principle of "harm to others," but by a much more vague and dangerous principle, "offense to others."

People can take offense at nearly anything. It is, therefore, scarcely a reason to abridge freedom, ever. Harm, maybe. Coercion, surely. But offense? No. This common sense approach to freedom should be more common (as I think subscribers to my Common Sense e-letter will agree).

Finally, doesn't it seem strange that, in a state that depends for so much of its livelihood on the high time preferences of gambling-mad visitors, a student in its leading university could take offense at a theoretical discussion of time preference and get the university to side with him against his professor?