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Academic Freedom Is a Key American Advantage over China

Without robust and broad freedom to read, write, speak, and research, American students and universities might lose what makes them dynamos of innovation and growth.
October 13, 2020
Academic Freedom Is a Key American Advantage over China
TAIYUAN, CHINA - APRIL 25: Students wearing face masks read books on a playground of Pingmin middle school on the first day of its reopening on April 25, 2020 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province of China. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 195,000 lives and infecting nearly 2.8 million people. (Photo by Wei Liang/China News Service via Getty Images)

The debate over freedom of speech on campuses has been raging for many years, and there’s been plenty of discussion of why limitations on speech constitute a dangerous trend for students, universities, and society more generally. Yet these debates too often overlook the real economic damage that can be done in the education market by de jure or de facto speech codes: They, like everything, have a cost. And that cost could be the United States’s edge in its competition with China.

The U.S. has one comparative advantage over China and every other totalitarian country: intellectual freedom. Despite being one of the most expensive countries in the world to study in, American universities continue to attract the best and brightest students from around the world, including from geopolitical rivals. More than 350,000 Chinese students alone attend tertiary educational institutions in the U.S.

It has long been feared that China could one day overtake the United States in education and research. China already has the advantage of cheap labor, and if it were also to gain an advantage in research and development, it’s hard to see how the U.S. could retain its spot as the world’s premier economic power.

Yet even as countries like China invest more in education and Chinese universities continue to rise in international university rankings, the outflow of Chinese students to the U.S. showed no signs of abating before the pandemic. And while there may come a day when Chinese universities are as well-endowed as the likes of Harvard and Yale, that won’t mean that Chinese students won’t still prefer studying in the U.S.

Generally, students and researchers in the U.S. can speak freely, read freely, write freely, and research freely. They don’t have to worry about whether the conclusions of their research contradict the party line. They can discuss contentious or sensitive topics without having to worry that a colleague might inform on them to the authorities. They can write articles without checking the party manifesto—or, even worse, the unwritten rules enforced with extralegal punishments.

The attractiveness of intellectual freedom to intellectuals has redounded to the benefit of American colleges and universities. Thought international students made up 12 percent of the total student body in 2015, they accounted for 30 percent of revenue from tuition at public universities. At private universities, international students often pay the sticker price of tuition, allowing for more generous financial aid for their American peers—hence why colleges and universities went to great lengths to try and protect these students from the effects of COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s threats to effectively cancel student visas.

Geopolitically, the brilliance of a comparative advantage in freedom is that authoritarian countries like China and Russia would have the hardest time trying to replicate it. Dictatorships are built on the silence (or collaboration) of smart people. One of the very first human rights abuses of the Soviet Union was the deportation of free-thinking academics on the appropriately named Philosophers’ Ships. In “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel famously identified the threat that even one free-thinking green grocer posed to a totalitarian regime. Free-thinking intellectuals, like Havel himself, proved even more dangerous.

There are only two ways the U.S. could ever lose this comparative advantage. One is if the likes of China were to become Western-style democracies. To the misfortune of over a billion people, this is unlikely to happen in the near future.

The second possibility is if the U.S. were to choose voluntarily to abandon freedom of speech, forfeiting its own advantage.

This, unfortunately, is already happening on college campuses all over America. Since private universities are not legally bound by the first amendment, they are free to restrict the speech of their students and employees, muzzling those whose opinions they deem to be hurting the university’s image. All too often, it takes just a small mob of activist students demanding that the administration punish a wrongthinker. Sometimes, a petition will do the trick.

There are a million arguments against safe spaces, no-platforming, and censorship. But one that has not been made often enough is how these practices degrade the image of America’s universities, and indeed America itself. There is a reason why state propaganda outlets in Russia gleefully cover stories of cancel culture in American universities—it makes the U.S. look just as bad and just as repressive as Russia. The message they want to send to their own young people can be summed up as, “You don’t like not being able to speak your mind? Well that’s certainly no reason to look to America; they’re just as bad!”

If you’re a progressive, you may protest that the censoring that you support is different—you have a noble cause; you just don’t want anyone to be able to voice disapproval of other peoples’ human rights. You’re not trying to silence political opponents because you don’t like hearing them; you’re just doing it to protect the vulnerable members of society. You may even cite Karl Popper, who famously proposed that a tolerant society must be intolerant of intolerance.

The problem is that censorship is always backed up by such appeals to the common good and to the well-being of the weak. (The word “censor” itself comes from the Roman office which “had the regulation of the conduct and morals of Rome.”) If you’ve grown up in a totalitarian country, you’ve heard all of these excuses before.

Adding to the problem, many international students hold views—on matters of race, culture, sexuality, and gender—that differ from the American mainstream, and are often at extreme variance from the views most common on an average U.S. college campus. But although their holding and expressing such views sometimes creates uncomfortable moments, those moments could, if handled more deftly than they tend to be nowadays, create learning experiences for both the international students and their American peers.

The universities and the American economy aren’t the only beneficiaries of intellectual freedom in the academy. In a real economic way, the students themselves stand to benefit as well.

One of the reasons a college education has economic value is that it increases labor productivity. Students learned some useful things while in school, so they can produce more widgets per hour than you could before, and more widgets means more money.

But another important component in the value of a degree is signaling. Anyone who’s ever been on either side of a job interview knows that it’s hard to tell just by appearance whether someone is a high-productivity or a low-productivity worker. (For simplicity, we’ll assume these are the only types of workers.)

Obtaining education is one way to signal high-productivity to prospective employers, because earning a degree requires some of the same skills and work ethic that being a productive worker does: showing up on time, keeping track of deadlines, managing time, processing and applying new skills and information, etc. Maybe the degree is irrelevant to the job you apply for, maybe it doesn’t help you make widgets faster, but that’s not important—the value of the degree lies in the signal it provides.

Students might not learn more at an American university than they would a university in China or elsewhere, yet the degree is far more valuable simply because the only way to earn it is through performance. This is not the case everywhere. In many countries it’s common either to buy degrees outright, or to slip a professor a brown envelope in exchange for a higher mark. These lax norms of academic integrity are common in China, where even plagiarism is by and large not even considered an academic offense.

Thus, even if a Chinese university and an American university were to teach the exact same curriculum and confer the exact same increase in labor productivity to their respective students, the students from the American university would receive a higher return on their education, since the signaling value of an American education is so much higher.

Unfortunately, the very same people who are throwing away America’s free speech advantage are also reducing the signaling value of a U.S. college degree. The more factors that are introduced into the degree-granting equation that don’t have bearing on what kind of worker the student will be, the less stock potential employers can put in the signal the degree is supposed to send. In the most extreme case, this becomes obvious: If degrees were granted randomly to some students and not to others, they would be worthless.

Yet in the name of social justice, some in academia propose complicating the equation with variables related to race and ethnicity. Beyond the decades-old practice of affirmative action in admissions, students at UCLA and the University of Washington demanded that black students receive special “no-hard” dispensation on exams. Such a practice would likely hurt exactly those it claims to help. If special leniency in grading is only awarded to minority students, and this is public information, only the grades and degrees of minority students—those who, arguably, stand to benefit the most from higher education—will lose value.

This also affects the United States’s attractiveness as a destination for international students. Many international students, are after all people of color, and the vast majority of them are looking to earn a degree—not be handed one as part of a misguided scheme to enhance racial equality.

What happens when education loses its signaling value? Employers will of course still look for clues that might reveal an applicant’s productivity, and applicants will seek other ways to signal that they are highly productive workers, such as extracurriculars (many of which require access to capital beyond what the education itself requires) or having a good network and/or an influential family. This is seriously bad news for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of race or ethnicity, since they tend to lack connections and may not have time or resources for the extracurriculars necessary to make it in a world where their degree is no longer a bright, clear enough signal.

There are, of course, non-economic criteria by which to judge the limits of intellectual freedom in academia. But in as far as the American economy is driven by human capital and innovation, the potential costs of degrading the value of an American degree—both to the student and to society—are too great to overlook.

The U.S. is facing a daunting challenge over the next century, having to confront a geopolitical rival with more than four times its population. If this is to be the new American century, the U.S. will need every genius it can get from every corner of the world. This, more than maybe anything else, needs to be the cornerstone of America’s higher education policy.

John Gustavsson

John Gustavsson (@Nationstatist) is a conservative writer from Sweden and holds a Ph.D. in economics from Maynooth University in Ireland.