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Harvard Press Leans Left, Economists Say

Harvard University Press’s output during the last decade has leaned heavily to the left, according to an analysis published this week in Econ Journal Watch. The press’s slant embodies and reinforces ideological disparities in academe, the paper argues, because faculty members are rewarded for publishing with prestigious presses like Harvard.

David Gordon, a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and Per Nilsson, a Swedish consultant, scrutinized—but did not always actually read—494 titles Harvard published between 2000 and 2010 in economics, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology. They used a 10-point schema to categorize the books politically. Only three of the 494 titles, they concluded, were written from a “classical liberal”—that is, antistatist and pro-market—orientation. One hundred and ninety-three titles, meanwhile, were characterized as “left.”

A bit of context here: Econ Journal Watch is edited by Daniel B. Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University. Klein, a libertarian, has written a long series of papers documenting what he describes as left-wing political groupthink in the economics profession and in academe at large.

Whether or not one shares Klein’s political commitments, his papers on this topic are refreshingly blunt about his true concerns. He does not spend much time tsk-tsking about “balance” or “bias.” He is worried about social-democratic hegemony in academe because he believes social democracy is wrong and free-market economics is correct. (See, for example, the conclusion of this paper or the “Critique of Bryan Caplan’s ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter,’” which can be found near the bottom of this page.) Much as Noam Chomsky has spent 40 years pondering why elites and the public have failed to embrace his obviously-correct indictments of American foreign policy, Klein wants to understand the cultural, psychological, and institutional forces that have prevented scholars and the broader public from endorsing an obviously-correct set of free-market ideas.

Gordon and Nilsson’s paper is written in the same vein. The problem with the Harvard press’s political slant “is not that it is ideological, but that its ideology is predominately leftist,” they write.

How well their analysis of the 494 books will stand up to scrutiny remains to be seen.

One Harvard author, Harold Luft, has already submitted a comment that correctly notes that his book Total Cure: The Antidote to the Health Care Crisis is not written from the “left.”

In an Excel spreadsheet that accompanies the paper, Gordon and Nilsson give capsule sketches of all 494 titles. In some cases, particularly for history titles, it is hard to discern why they categorized the books as they did.

For example, their description of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market says simply, “Study of the slave market in pre-Civil War America. Shows the dehumanizing effect of treating people as chattels.” Presumably that is an argument that could be endorsed by scholars in all 10 of Gordon and Nilsson’s political categories. It’s impossible to see here why they tagged the book as “left.” Maybe some statist or anticapitalist argument runs through Johnson’s book, but if so, Gordon and Nilsson don’t tell us anything about it.

Editors at the Harvard press declined to comment.—David Glenn

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