This is the third in a series of essays about Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. His series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.
Steven Teles is Professor of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the author of The Captured Economy: How The Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequality (With Brink Lindsey); Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration (With David Dagan), and The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law.
I consider Jon Rauch to be among the most serious, thoughtful and innovative liberal thinkers of our time. His 1994 book Demosclerosis was a genuinely profound application of the thought of Mancur Olson to the problems of American governance, and a significant influence on my book with Brink Lindsey, The Captured Economy. Kindly Inquisitors, published just a year earlier, understood the nature of the threats to free inquiry and debate well before anyone else did. Along with Andrew Sullivan, Jon was one of the first thinkers to make the case for gay marriage from within a framework of profound sympathy for the institution of marriage.
I say all this by way of preface because I hesitate to ever disagree with Jon. He has the track record to make me assume he is much more likely to be right than I am. And yet, despite my profound agreement with elements of his new book, I do think that—at least in terms of emphasis—he has gotten one big thing wrong. It is undeniably the case that liberal societies require institutions to structure the pursuit of knowledge, and that is a first-order insight. But from my vantage point within one of those institutions I am concerned that our problems arise from the growing homogeneity of our professions, and the disinterest of their leaders in affirmatively encouraging intellectual diversity, as attack from without. This is a problem bigger than “cancel culture,” which Jon rightly points to as a threat to liberal inquiry. It is something closer to a fundamental flaw in the DNA of the constitution of knowledge.
The most important insight in The Constitution of Knowledge is that a properly functioning marketplace of ideas depends on the existence of a dense institutional network. A free society creates and nurtures a wide range of structures that create effective norms of deliberation and authentication, and that train participants into the habits of knowledge production. Just as important, those institutions protect and even reward disagreement and reduce incentives toward groupthink. When done well—about which more in a second—such institutions help to limit the human instinct to simply confirm our biases, and as a result ensure that knowledge production, at a collective level, is progressive.
It is not just the marketplace of ideas that requires functioning institutions to operate. A wide range of other markets also count on non-market structures to succeed at a high level, including those that are shielded directly from market competition. For example, school choice advocates (of which I count myself as one) used to rely on naïve models of the operation of markets, in which the only thing that was necessary in order to improve schools was to open the doors to market entry. But we know now that effective school choice requires institutions like strong chartering authorities, in order to counter the problems of asymmetric information between providers and parents and outright grifting.
All well and good. But there is at least a tension built into the Constitution of Knowledge. The institutions that create the processes and norms that structure the search for knowledge are run by actual people. They are not self-actualizing. Institutions that work have rules, like “you have to submit your work to the fact-checker before it is published” or “you have to go through peer review before publishing your findings.” In addition, institutions have barriers to entry—incumbents largely determine who gets to become a journalist, a scientist, a doctor or an academic historian. It is precisely that control over entry that creates the power to enforce norms.
The tension here is that institutions like this only work if those barriers to entry are accompanied by strong norms against using them to protect incumbents. The reason for such a norm is simple. The Constitution of Knowledge depends upon conflict, albeit mediated by strong norms of how the methods by which that contestation occurs. The Constitution of Knowledge, if properly organized, actually turns the vice of motivated cognition into a virtue. It is precisely those who disagree, for whatever reason, with the dominant conclusions of a particular branch of the Constitution of Knowledge who put those conclusions under pressure. Ambition, you might say, must counter ambition.
Those who disagree are the ones motivated to ask the hard questions, to look in new places, to search for alternative modes of analysis, and to collect new data. An ideologically committed libertarian is more likely to question the assumptions behind the case for regulation, assumptions that those on the left will be less motivated to scrutinize. That is why one of the most important norms of the Constitution of Knowledge is aggressive openness to entry by a diverse set of members, especially those with priors that put them at odds with the conclusions of particular fields. Diverse priors plus norms by which dissenters engage in challenge is the secret sauce of the Constitution of Knowledge.
The problem is that while institutions are necessary for the operation of a knowledge ecosystem, they also tend to be characterized by creeping homophily, or in simpler terms the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. The mechanisms for institutional homophily are variable. The first is that openness to the norms of knowledge-producing institutions may in fact vary across groups, leading to an initial sort into institutions that leads certain groups to become more prevalent. The second is that, once that initial sort occurs, there will be a tendency for those institutions to take on the culture of the dominant groups, which will attract more of the dominant and increasingly repel outsiders. Universities, for instance, have a culture that makes those on the left feel “at home” while conservatives feel, at the least, like outsiders. Even conservatives who are deeply committed to disciplinary norms of inquiry are likely to wonder if university life is for them.
The third mechanism of homophily is that the increasing insularity of institutions may eventually lead the norms of inquiry themselves to include agreement with the substantive positions of the dominant group. The liberal public health scholar Harold Pollack, for instance, has recently made the case for affirmative action in public health, precisely because of the near-total identification of his field with the social justice beliefs of the left and the lack of critical debate it has generated.
Rinse and repeat these mechanisms and you have a prescription for a homophily spiral. As Neil Gross has argued in his book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, this process—rather than anything like classic discrimination—is at the root of the increasing monoculture of university faculties. I suspect something similar is at work in other parts of The Constitution of Knowledge.
When those institutions of knowledge become deeply homophilitic, especially in an environment of partisan polarization, our politics itself becomes a conflict in which those institutions are a participant rather than a referee. I completely agree with Jon that the Republican party and the conservative movement have become deeply committed to a political strategy of disinformation warfare, along with an effort to attack the legitimacy and authority of knowledge-generating institutions. But it is not false equivalence to say that this strategy is so much more attractive because information warfare under conditions of institutional homophily is highly unlikely to produce friendly fire. When fields like academia and public health have few conservatives, attacks on them will also find few of those on the right to rebut the assault and make the case for the society-wide benefits of professionalized knowledge production.
Rebuilding the strength of our Constitution of Knowledge must be a Janus-faced enterprise, directed both at the enemy from without and the enemy within. I have no ideas on repelling information warfare more clever than those that Jon himself presents. But on the enemy within I do have some thoughts.
All of the institutions of the Constitution of Knowledge are overseen by people who are responsible for the maintenance of their legitimacy and the preservation of norms of internal contestation. Those institutional stewards should be in a state of outright alarm at their decreasing degree of internal conflict. The increasing urgency that they have in diversifying demographically must be met with an equal concern for ideological diversity. Just as they are increasingly scrutinizing their institutions for “structural racism” in an effort to expand the kinds of questions that get asked, they need to ask whether their institutions also lead to differential recruitment and promotion along ideological lines.
Those two missions need not, I think, be in tension, although in practice they often are. But finding ways to do both simultaneously is essential if we are to pair the maintenance of norms in the constitution of knowledge with the internal conflict that leads dominant beliefs to be challenged. If the editors of our great journalistic institutions, university presidents and leaders of learned professions do not actively lean into recruiting those with challenging normative priors, the trend toward homophily—and the vulnerability to challenge that it encourages—will only continue. This is the challenge that those of us inside the Constitution of Knowledge need to take as our special responsibility, even if at this moment it may not seem as urgent as the threat from the outside.