A Tale of Two Economists: Hoppe and Summers

This is a tale of two economists, Larry Summers and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. They have much in common, in addition to their adherence to the dismal science. Each is quite prominent in his field. Summers was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration, and is now President of Harvard. Hoppe is a professor of economics at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a preeminent leader not only of the Austrian School of Economics, but also of the libertarian school of political philosophy. Both are associated with the right wing of the economics profession; although this is far more true of Hoppe than Summers, neither can properly be considered as a socialist or "progressive." I have heard tell that in any given room that Summers finds himself, he is much the brightest person in the group. From my own experience, this also applies, in spades, to Hoppe. They are even not too far apart in age, Hoppe at 55 and Summers at 50.

But the most important thing they have in common is that each has been in the news of late for uttering views incompatible with the Thought Control mania that has swept academia like a virus.


Summers speculated about possible explanations for the scientific glass ceiling: for the failure of females to be anything like equally represented with males in the highest reaches of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and other hard sciences. He opined that this might have something to do with the fact that women have a lower variance of these sorts of abilities than men, and that this might not be unrelated to genetics.

Hoppe’s violation of thought control was the view that homosexuals, along with others who tend not to have children, have a higher than average time preference. They are willing to trade more future income for present gratification than others, such as parents.

Neither of these claims is at all unexceptionable — within economics. Both would be widely agreed to within this profession. Certainly, neither would raise any untoward number of eyebrows within this discipline.

It would be readily understandable, moreover, that each of these economists could have stated the other view. It is easy to imagine, for example, that Hoppe would have weighed in on male-female intellectual differences, and that Summers could have speculated about interest rate determinants; e.g., different time preferences for different categories of people. Nothing much of substance would change if this "switch" were made.

The most dramatic similarity in the experiences of these two economists is of course the reaction accorded their remarks from academia. In Hoppe’s case, the administration pounced on him, making all sorts of threats. They would (and did for a time) dock his pay, place in his file a note forbidding him from offering "opinions" in class as opposed to "facts," summoning him to all sorts of kangaroo school court hearings, where his views on interest rates, time preferences, etc., were judged by people completely innocent of the complexities of economics. Although Hoppe has tenure, and thus cannot be fired except under very special and limited circumstances, his job was still put at risk by administrators anxious to punish him for his "transgressions."

The UNLV Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity Officer recommended that Hoppe receive a reprimand and be suspended without pay for one week. A grievance committee recommended that Hoppe be reprimanded and forfeit merit pay for the current academic year. On February 9, 2005, Hoppe received "a non-disciplinary letter of instruction" from Raymond W. Alden, III, the university’s Executive Vice President and Provost, affirming the decision of the grievance committee, stating that Hoppe had created "a hostile learning environment" in his classroom, and instructing Hoppe "to cease mischaracterizing opinion as objective fact in the educational environment."

Summers, too, was hounded. By the press, by outraged feminists, by his arts and sciences faculty which gave him a vote of "no confidence" (interestingly, but not unexpectedly, this was the only faculty at Harvard to do so). Summers was raked over the coals by the nation’s editorial writers, sob sisters, and assorted "progressives." Both these men suffered the loss of vast amounts of precious time, when they could and would have been involved in far more productive pursuits, in the efforts to defend themselves against these respective onslaughts.

It is here that their paths diverge. Each took a very different stance in response to the venom they had innocently unleashed. Summers apologized, groveled, debased himself, apologized some more, and then groveled again. He didn’t really mean it. He was misquoted. He will now set up all sorts of programs to hire and promote female scientists. (Why, pray tell, when they are likely to be less distinguished than their male peers, according to his own theory? This would drag down the level of instruction and research at Harvard, surely something that no president of that institution should look upon with equanimity.)

Hoppe, in sharp contrast, and to his immense credit, stood his ground. He gave up not an inch of intellectual territory. He insisted that what he said was correct, and that even, per impossible, if it were not, UNLV’s explicitly stated cannons of academic freedom should protect him from the sort of witch hunt to which he has been subjected. He demanded that UNLV cease and desist from committing fraud, by violating their own rules of academic freedom. He was adamant that the administration offer assurances that they had read and still support this document, so that what had happened to him would not be suffered by any of his colleagues in future. He called for an apology. He asked that appropriate punishment be meted out to the high level administrators responsible for this outrage. He requested a year’s paid sabbatical leave, to make up for his all but wasted academic year. He threatened to sue.

As a result of this courageous stance, as of this present writing, the administration has caved in on several fronts. The letter of condemnation has been removed from his file. He is no longer threatened with job loss nor by being docked pay raises to which he would otherwise have been entitled. His other demands are still unresolved.

Summers should have borrowed a leaf from the Hoppe playbook. He should have stuck to his guns (sorry, sorry, I don’t want to get in trouble; maybe I should not have mentioned that word). He should have suggested to that female MIT professor who had to leave the room where he made his remarks because she was "sick to her stomach" that a world class university is a place where one can think and express thoughts — even those outside the box of popular opinion — and that if she finds this so repugnant that perhaps she should seek work in another environment. Maybe she could become a baby sitter. He should have pledged that as president of Harvard he would seek to hire, tenure and promote only the most highly competent professors, regardless of age, race, gender, whatever. He should have told the professors who voted "no confidence" in him for the above that they should seek jobs at inferior universities, like Princeton, which recently hired Harvard castoff Cornell West, who left Cambridge, MA after Summers heroically got on his case for eschewing serious academic work in favor of rap "music." He should have called Hoppe, and maybe through osmosis would have been given an injection of backbone.

If Summers had done these things, he would have made a good start at cleaning out these academic Augean Stables. As it happens, he has sent out the word, loud and clear, that Harvard places thought control above free thought, and eschews the attempt to maximize the quality of research and teaching. He ought to be fired for betraying what once was one of the most sacred principles of higher education.

A tale of two economists. Both started out in their respective ordeals along very similar paths. But one showed courage, grit and determination, the other cowardice. A lesson for all of us.