Academics and Small-Government Conservatives: Two Arguments Cut from the Same Cloth

by johnmccreery

On the anthropology lists where I hang out there has been a lot of complaining about universities run along corporate lines by overweening and growing administrative bureaucracies. We have just endured a campaign season in which small-government conservatives, a.k.a., Tea Party folk, have been raging about big government and overweening and growing government bureaucracy. When I step back and due the ethnographer’s trick of looking for shared assumptions, I note that both academics and Tea Party folk feel oppressed by bureaucracy. Then, I find myself wondering, if the ground for both sets of arguments doesn’t lie on the fault line that divides measurement and judgment.

Measurement, as a tool of science, has as one of its functions the elimination of arbitrary judgments. Extended to the moral and political realm, arguments for measurement usually turn on fairness and the need to avert the injustice of arbitrary judgments based on prejudice of one kind or another. But isn’t there a point at which trying to measure everything becomes an intolerable burden? In a complex and muddled world, is denigrating judgment by assuming that judgment implies prejudice the way we want to go? Where is the proper balance here?

What say, ye, Voles?

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5 Comments to “Academics and Small-Government Conservatives: Two Arguments Cut from the Same Cloth”

  1. This is something I deal with all the time, because I’m a faculty member in Texas, which is a pioneer of bureaucratic accountability schemes at the K-12 and now higher ed levels. The thing to remember is that conservative Texans and other small government folk are fine with intrusive bureaucracies to oversee public services and distribution of public goodies (e.g., drug testing food stamp recipients); what they don’t like are intrusive bureaucracies that regulate “private” concerns like real estate development or environmental pollution. Just look at the level of regulation experienced by public colleges vs. for-profit schools, in terms of graduation rates, loan defaults, etc. So the anti-bureaucratic discourse is limited to “public” entities.

    Having said that, there is something we might call “disciplinary or professional autonomy,” which is the fiction that an unfettered discipline/professional can solve problems and answer questions better than any “soulless bureaucracy.” Academics feel this way, when they think about themselves in their all-mighty departments, but so do doctors who wish that HMOs and now corporate hospitals would let them get their jobs done. Professionals will maintain this even in the face of the evident failure of their own profession to solve problems or police itself (how many doctors or lawyers will report their colleagues for ethical lapses?). So there is some need for the autonomy of the professional or the disciplinary expert, but just as clearly some need for some public accountability for what they do. Measurement is the only way we know how to assess the impact of those groups on a wider scale.

  2. I don’t know about the Tea Party comparison (I’m not in academia), but the measurement point is interesting to me as a member of a profession (software development) where measurement as a means to productivity has been a series of failures.

    The golden rule of measurement for me is that measurement is not an end in itself, and should be a slave to incentive building. Very often measurement leads to the wrong incentives — police forces that feel pressure to hit arrest targets is one really scary example. At the very least, measurement should have clear goals and often clear time limits.

    One thing that I think people often forget is that as frustrating and non-optimal as bureaucracies can be, they have been quite successful, for many of the reasons that Dave Mazella states above.

  3. Dave, Asher, I agree with everything you say here. A sane approach will be case-by-case, taking into account both the benefits of regulation and the demerits of overregulation.

    What caught my eye was the similarity in broad cultural framing of the academic and Tea Party arguments. But there is, of course, a difference between minimizing regulation to approximate absolute freedom and whatever will count as sufficient and effective governance in the case in question.

  4. I like your observation, John, and Dave’s disambiguation. And since I just dug up this quote for a conversation some of us are having along these lines at my uni, and it’s in my clipboard anyway….

    Each official goal lets loose a doctrine, with its own inquisitors and its own martyrs, and within institutions there seems to be no natural check on the license of easy interpretation that results. Every institution must not only make some effort to realize its official aims but must also be protected, somehow, from the tyranny of a diffuse pursuit of them, lest the exercise of authority be turned into a witch hunt. — Erving Goffman, Asylums (1961)

    Goffman was talking about what he called ‘total’ institutions, in this case the asylum but maybe schools qualify. A special, intensified case of bureaucracy. The danger of measurement ideology looking for things to measure within such a system is a certain cognitive closure, a kind of feedback loop of power.

  5. Thinking further on this, and again agreeing with all points above, it occurs to me that tea-partiers, academics and doctors all think of themselves as the sole legitimate authorities on their own doins, and therefore experience any kind of scrutiny as a goffmanesque threat to this literal autonomy, as Dave notes (other favorite images include Big Brother and the Nanny, depending on where the scary Big Other is located in one’s psyche).

    One way to handle this is with the ethnographic generosity John starts with. Maybe the locals do in fact know more about their doins, and more intricately, than can adequately be captured by the machineries of measurement and assessment. But in the schools we certainly wouldn’t dream of treating the students this way. Their feral perceptions and intuitions may be worthy of respect, and have to be worked with no matter what; but they’re gonna have to get over all that or they’re not gonna pass this class.

    And along these lines I’m constantly struck by my own don’t-wanna response to assessment. I assess students all the time, and believe in standards of better/worser to do so. I think obsessively about how to do that better myself. I certainly see the value of being systematic and not just waving my hands around my raw feels, and I loudly sing the virtues of perspective-shifting to avoid the perils of cognitive tunneling. Yet, get away from me with that assessment, you nasty assessers.

    The especially odd thing is that, at least at my uni, they’ve been practically begging us for years to articulate our own standards and develop our own means of assessing ourselves accordingly. It’s all as friendly and collegial as you could possibly imagine. Yet we turn up our noses, drag our feet and demonize the poor well-meaning schlug who’s stuck with wrangling the data collection. Eventually they’ll come up with something generic and ham-handed and ‘impose’ it on us out of desperation, at which point we’ll begin a new phase of intensified lamentation and vituperation about The Man’s tyranny yada yada.

    So far, knowing this has not helped me have a better attitude about it all. I can rationalize that by pontificating about Foucauldian disciplinary systems and power-knowledge regimes, and quote Goffman about the dark trammels of total institutions, but is the institution actually total like that? Hardly, and neither is the federal gov’t, or capitalism, or any other of the big nasties we frighten ourselves with.

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