Fundamental(ly conservative) facts of life

Glenn Harlan Reynolds channels his inner Margaret Thatcher (who was famous for saying “the facts of life are fundamentally conservative):

Last week, ironic juxtaposition came to San Diego. University of San Diego Law Dean Stephen Ferruoloissued a statement critical of one of his faculty, Larry Alexander, who had committed the sin of coauthoring an oped with Amy Wax of Penn Law School. The two professors praised the “bourgeois virtues.” Also in San Diego that week, crews began hosing things down with bleach solution in an effort to halt a hepatitis A outbreak spread by people pooping in the street.

Ferruolo apparently thought there was something racist, or at least anti-multicultural, in the Wax/Alexander oped, which opened like this:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

Quelle horreur! But I suspect it was this line that provoked the most heartburn among the academic left: “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. “

This broke two major taboos in the academy: It showed respect for, rather than deriding, the traditional middle class, and it denied the major tenet of academic multiculturalism, which is that all cultures are equal. But on both of these, the academy is full of hypocrisy. Nobody really thinks that all cultures are equal. If they are, why tear down those Confederate statues?

And deriding the bourgeoisie is de rigeur in the academy, as Deirdre McCloskey notes in her book, The Bourgeois Virtues. Partly that’s because the gentry liberals of the academy, who together with the press and most of the political class, which McCloskey refers to as today’s clerisy, see themselves as smarter and more moral than ordinary Americans.  (Part of it too, I suspect, is a subconscious desire to get revenge for being unpopular in high school, as the clerisy seems oversupplied with student-government and student newspaper types.) But mostly, I think, it’s because a large and secure middle class places firm limits on what the political class can do, and no political operator likes being constrained.

As Fred Siegel notes in his The Revolt Against The Masses, “The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. ‘Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,’ Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, ‘and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.’” So it’s about power, and maybe a return to a sort of pre-industrial aristocracy.

But this contempt is doubly hypocritical since the academy exists largely because others still embrace bourgeois virtues of hard work, education, and upward social mobility.  Relatively few students at the University of San Diego Law School are there solely to improve their minds, I suspect. Rather, they hope that they will improve their lives if they work hard and try for success. The faculty — and dean’s — salaries are paid by this phenomenon. If students only went to law school out of intellectual curiosity, there would be a lot fewer law schools.

And within the academy itself, the bourgeois virtues are seldom praised but often practiced. Nobody is better at deferring gratification than a graduate student or junior professor. In their own lives, most professors are quite temperate and hardworking. Their children are almost always encouraged to work hard, go to good schools, and get good jobs, and academic parents are inclined to brag when they do. (The original “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua, is herself a law professor.)

These same behaviors, as spelled out by professors Wax and Alexander, are even more valuable to people whose social and economic status is poor. Upper middle class families have a lot of social and financial capital to draw on when a kid flunks out, loses a job, gets pregnant outside of marriage, or gets in trouble with the law. For people with less, these experiences are likely to be disastrous and life-ruining. To suggest otherwise is to engage in a monstrous and damaging deception.

University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter has called on Ferruolo to apologize or resign for his attack on Alexander and Wax. Leiter writes:  “As Dean, his job is to defend freedom of speech and inquiry, even when it is unpopular. He has failed.”

Ferruolo has indeed failed his faculty. But he has also failed the very people he purports to care about, the less-fortunate who would be much better off in a society that encouraged the behaviors that Wax and Alexander promote. Whether or not he resigns or apologizes, I hope he at least spends a moment reflecting on that.

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