Politics, Top Stories

Against Intellectual Rent-Seekers

It has become almost trite to comment on the venomous and divisive character of debate around and within academia today, with innumerable YouTube and Twitter personalities firing salvoes of “rekt,” compilation videos, accusations of various -phobias and -isms, and the increasingly omnidirectional epithet of ‘snowflake.’ Readers of this article are likely well acquainted with these terms. Those who aren’t would do well to look them up for a quick primer on the low level of discourse in the simmering culture war. This article will leave such vagaries to the experts in favour of a brief examination of a peculiar weapon used by some of today’s culture warriors.

‘Intellectual rent-seeking’ is a devious tactic, capable of achieving aims without indicating directly what those aims might be, and it allows its practitioners to act in a way that stops short of alerting too many people to its use. Economic rent-seeking sees the leaders of one entity try to outdo their competitors, not through innovation and the delivery of a superior product, but by lobbying for changes in the playing field to tilt it against those competitors. The example of taxi licensing should suffice to illustrate the point. A city’s patricians lobby their municipal administration to require that taxi drivers acquire strictly enforced and rationed licenses. These urban worthies then buy up all of the licenses and rent them out to working class men and women as a prerequisite to employment. In the end, the license holders have a legally enforced source of passive income; one that requires nothing more than a campaign donation which represents only a fraction of the potential profit.

In the same way, intellectual rent-seeking sees the proponents of certain ideas – often those that are difficult to support with reasoned arguments – attempt to make opposing ideas unpalatable by a variety of illegitimate means. In the case of Charles Murray, an attempt has been made to disqualify his social science scholarship and destroy his reputation with allegations of racism; for Jordan Peterson, it is alleged that his ideas about innate gender differences and campus speech codes will cause irreparable harm; and as the inquisitorial interview of Lindsay Shepherd demonstrated, rent-seekers will claim that exposing students to ideas they oppose runs contrary, not only to campus policy, but to Canadian law itself. The common thread that runs through all of these cases is the instrumental use of society’s laudable opposition to racism, harm, and criminality to disparage and discredit those who espouse ideas they dislike.

A stark (and illustrative) example of this tactic comes in the form of the continuing debate over the theories laid out by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their 1994 book The Bell Curve. The book’s critics, whose passions are enflamed by a relatively short section of the book examining correlations between race and IQ scores, haunt Murray to this day (Herrnstein died in 1994, shortly before the book was released). The most recent outburst against Murray occurred at Middlebury College last year. Murray had been invited by a student group to speak about the premise of his latest book Coming Apart. Those who came out in opposition of Murray felt that his arguments didn’t bear hearing, let alone debating, and a group of protestors disrupted the event by drowning out the speakers, pulling fire alarms, and turning out the lights in the event hall. Upon leaving the building, Murray and Allison Stanger, the moderator of the talk, were swarmed by the hostile mob and Stanger was physically assaulted.

The practical upshot is that Murray’s ideas and hypotheses have been disqualified from the arena of reasonable debate, at least on Middlebury campus. So decisive was the repudiation that, a year after the fracas that attended Murray’s talk, the editor of the campus newspaper had to issue an apologetic explanation just for using a photograph of Murray to illustrate an article looking back on the controversy. Murray’s opponents have ensured that his views – on race or anything else – may not even be uttered, let alone debated or entertained as plausible. In the marketplace of ideas they have eliminated the competition so that their own ideology commands a monopoly of thought.

The use of intellectual rent-seeking is by no means confined to just one side of the political divide. It has been used to great effect by both sides of the debate surrounding abortion. Due to the intractable constellation of moral and ethical problems presented by the issue of abortion, intellectual rent-seeking has become the nuclear device with which an ideologically possessed individual can annihilate (though not defeat) any argument his opponent might offer. Those who oppose abortion must hate women; those who support it are sanctioning the murder of innocents. So, the problem becomes that neither side tries to improve their argument, opting instead to smash their opponents apart in bitter zero-sum wars of attrition. This style of debate – far from winnowing away the overwrought emotion, superstition, and magical thinking characteristic of bad ideas – instead results in a stalemate where both sides glower at one another with hostility and suspicion, confident as they are in the evil of their opponents and the virtue of their side. Consequently, progress shrivels on the vine.

The practical effect of intellectual rent-seeking is to damage public debate by ruling it inadmissible, thereby diminishing of the arena of boisterous social ferment from which true social progress springs. Surely, the gains made by the Freedom Riders, the Stonewall Rioters, or the Suffragettes were not brought about by an insistence that discussion of their issues be silenced, but by persuading the wider society of their arguments’ irrefutable logic – that black people, gay people, and women were the legal and intellectual equals to white people, straight people, and men.

A solution to this problem would need to include a number of different things. To begin with, people on all sides need to acknowledge that many of their ostensible enemies hold the same fundamental goals and ideals as they do. To recall the abortion example: advocates of both pro-life and pro-choice views have a commendable aim at their core, which is the betterment of human life. Where they differ is in their diverging definitions of that life and the life and welfare they prioritize in the process of reproduction. Debates about fraught issues such as this one demand an acknowledgement of their complexity; the case for neither side is as straightforward as its proponents prefer to believe.

Most importantly, sparring partners must always remember to extend the same compassion and charity to their foes as they do to their allies and friends. One of the most destructive aspects of the modern culture war is the habit of dehumanizing opponents. Honest actors on every side of debate in our society must commit themselves to heeding Bret Weinstein’s call to shift from debate to dialectic; that is the use of discussion in pursuit of greater understanding rather than victory. The Trump era has produced deep splits on both the Left and the Right, but this has had the encouraging effect of producing some convergence in the political centre. People who hold traditionally right- and left-wing views are now being brought together by their shared interest in freedom of expression and opposition to authoritarianism and radical populism.

This convergence provides grounds for cautious optimism, and a number of writer and public intellectuals – most notably the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt – have become preoccupied with figuring out how we overcome our tribal biases and polarizing hatreds. A quick scan of the traditional media in Canada, meanwhile, yields evidence of calm and balanced views of the recent culture war clashes there, hopefully signaling that the extreme polarization present elsewhere in the Anglosphere can eventually be turned back. There is a long way to go, however, and it would be naive to expect everyone to immediately abandon the expedient and convenient tactic of intellectual rent-seeking in favor of the more laborious task of honest and candid public debate. But every journey begins with a single step.


Kevin Leach is, a freelance writer based in Toronto. He doesn’t tweet, but you can find him on Twitter at @RealKevinLeach.


  1. I think you have to use violence to suppress other voices when your ideas are contrary to the empirical evidence and cannot be subjected to rational appraisal. Given that Leftism is wedded to a narrative of oppression conspiracy theories (patriarchy, institutional racism, et. al.), which depends upon a faith based commitment to the blank slate, a faith-based position with less support than the virgin birth of Christ (which has the benefit of at least being a one-off event).

    I don’t think “centrism” can ever defeat religious fanaticism combined with a will-to-power and a commitment to political violence.

    It’s sort of like “moderate Muslims”–its not that moderate Muslims don’t exist, its that whatever compels a person to strap explosives to themselves and blow up civilian targets, that compulsion will never be satisfied by moderate Islam.

    In a world divested of meaning, some people have found meaning in what amounts to joining a vegan version of ISIS. Unfortunately, the only solution is to purge the extremists before they purge you, which is not a job for moderates. [In the Roman Republic, the Office of Dictator was specifically designed to invest absolute power in a figure in order to defend and protect the Republic from internal or external threat. Obviously, such an office is deeply problematic, as it undermines Republican values and institutions, but unfortunately necessary in the real world.]

    • 2dogs says

      The answer here is autonomy. Bad ideas are not destroyed persuasion, but rather by being allowed to fail.

    • Chester Draws says

      Suicide bombing was brought to the modern world by Tamils, not Muslims. It’s the different attitude to suicide that makes it appeal to Muslims, rather than extremism as such.

      Meanwhile US nutters shoot up schools. I’m not convinced that’s much better.

      I think your argument, such that it is, needs quite a lot of work.

      • I think your analogy needs a great deal more work than 2Dogs argument.

        Suicide bombers are doing so for political or religious terrorist reasons. School shooters, are well proven to be mentally ill. There is not the slightest similarity between the two.

  2. Bruce says

    I found this characterization of the abortion debate as two sides who want the betterment of humans, but merely disagreeing on what a human is and how to define betterment to be a fairly useless statement. You could say the same thing about nazism, they were trying to improve humanity, they just had a certain opinion on how to do it and who counted as human, that’s all…. it’s like, no, who counts as human and how to better humanity are fundamental issues.

    The abortion debate is almost entirely a zero sum game, restricting abortion constrains the liberty of women, not restricting it results in the destruction of human life. Both sides saying “we’re trying to help” doesn’t create common ground.

    • Abortion is a simple thing. We must admit it is murder. It is good that women feel pain from this immoral act. It is not optimal that we do not feel enough pain as a society from this immoral act. We must create a better society where such murder is much less frequent with a better birth control protection and ability to extract the fetus and put in on Ice until the mother or someone else wants to give birth to that potential child. Abortion is a tool we use in our current imperfect society. We need a better society and better tools since both sides of the debate are correct

    • “it’s like, no… ”

      It’s bad enough that adults use that expression in speech, much less in writing.

  3. ga gamba says

    A flawed truth teller is worth more than a million perfect liars. This explains why the ideologically possessed swarm with ad hominem attacks on truthful dissenters. It’s Alinsky’s rule #13: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

    Those dogmatic idealogues are no longer satisfied with those million perfect liars to shout the lies when the agnostic, i.e. those too cowed to say anything, remain silent. Increasingly we see demands imposed on the unconvinced centre that they too must partake in these ideological sensing sessions. You’ll be screened for conformity in a job interview: “Tell us about your commitment to diversity.” When employed you’ll be required to partake in implicit bias training and write statements of self-criticism and denouncement – this is what did in James Damore because his statement dissented. As an employer you’ll face pressure from outside advocacy groups and consultants to demonstrate your commitment to inclusion and diversity by hiring their services.

    A quick scan of the traditional media in Canada, meanwhile, yields evidence of calm and balanced view of the recent culture war clashes there, hopefully signaling that the extreme polarization present elsewhere in the Anglosphere can eventually be turned back.

    I think Mr Leach’s optimism is misguided if not entirely warranted. We can look throughout the Angloshere and find punditry calling for enough of these antics. Further, only the US demonstrates a strong commitment with its seemingly immovable First Amendment; elsewhere speech rights have been eroded under the pretext of offence and people have been prosecuted, fined, and even imprisoned.

    There are the institutions of opinion and sense making, such as newspapers, and there are the institutions of rule. Let’s not ignore the latter. Canada has governmental institutions such as the provincial Human Rights Tribunals (HRT) whose legal remit is to enforce right think. Not only do they investigate alleged violators and sanction the convicted, their very existence causes members of the public to suppress their speech. These bodies silence the people, which is genuine “silencing” vice the imagined one progressive activists shriek about using bullhorns. Listen to what Dr Janice Fiamengo has to say about her HRT experience. Further, the quasi-governmental provincial Law Societies have imposed an obligation to equality, diversity, and inclusion on their members and compel written statements to that effect. Refuse to bend the knee and you’ll be stripped of your licence. It is an irony – a very perverse one – that a Law Society declares its white members guilty of racism, implicit or not, without proof, which flies in the face of our well-established legal tradition of the presumption of innocence. One wonders what’s being taught in law schools and how competent will be the legal representation for a member of an oppressor group.

    Should one avoid ad hominem attacks on the ideologically possessed? For the most part yes. Smears like libtard, feminazi, and snowflake don’t win the day, and they’re kind of stale. Devote your effort to sound and solid arguments – those are the killers. Better still, don’t engage them man to man. It’s unlikely you’ll exorcise the possessed anyway; your speech should be to the undecided audience, whether present physically or reading your comments online. Speaking to them reduces the temptation to use hot invective and they are the ones you want to sway. Being both informed and reasonable is the shrewder tactic.

  4. Mary says

    This is obvious in the vaccine controversy. Those with vaccine concerns are labelled ‘crazy anti-vaxxers’ and those who are pro vaccine get labelled ‘paid pharma shills’. Sensitive, legitimate, substantive, public debate on this topic is desperately needed and yet not permitted. Statements like, ‘there is no debate’ and ‘the science is settled’ are both untrue but yielded to instantly end conversation.

    • JVF says

      This incorrect assertion (science of efficacy of vaccination is entirely settled – no rational objection exists) raised what is to me an essential point. Not everything should be debatable, right? Someone who claims the earth is somewhere around 6,000 years old, or that the sun revolves around it, or that its flat, shouldn’t have a podium at an institution of learning, right? The essential question is: how do we distinguish between items in this category and, say, whether The Bell Curve is a racist missive?

      • Mary says

        You have just proven my point by immediately dismissing this topic as ludicrous without conversation! Please consider the hundreds of studies referenced by Robert KennedyJr.in his book, ‘Thimerosal-Let the Science Speak’ about mercury in vaccines. You could also look at aluminum studies by Professor Chris Exley from Keefe University. Another researcher that has studied vaccines is Dr. Teresa Deisher who has looked extensively at aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines. These are just a few of the scientists who are asking legitimate and substantive questions about vaccines. You may not agree with their findings but it is not fair to dismiss them as ‘flat earthers’

        • JVF says

          Mary has, probably unintentionally, demonstrated why her assertion is of a kind with those of the tin-foil hat crowd; a brief review of her cited sources quickly reveals all one needs to know in this regard. While I have less than zero desire to legitimize the anti-vax crowd by debating such a non-issue, my question remains: what is the proper way to distinguish between claims that shouldn’t have a podium in institutions of learning and those that should?

          • Mary says

            JVF, you of course are entitled to disagree with and challenge and criticize the findings and methods of the three individuals I mentioned. Everyone should be thoughtfully critical of anything they read or hear. I don’t think it is fair though to describe a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology from Standford (Teresa Deisher), a Professor in Bioinorganic Chemistry (Chris Exley) and an environmental activist and lawyer (Robert Kennedy Jr.) as the tin foil hat crowd. That doesn’t make sense.

          • THE-ONE-CROBC-METAL says

            JVF, there is a fundamental difference btw. e.g. Flat Earth “theories” vs. concerns about vaccines.
            Flat Earth theories are purely unscientific, in that they completely fail to do what is required of scientific theories. That is, to make predictions consistent with what is already observed, and to make new testable predictions.
            OTOH, rejecting vaccination concerns outright is also unscientific. Because to assert that any medicine has been proven completely safe is making the claim that science has successfully proven a negative. This is not something that science can do. So there remain open and valid questions: To what extent is it justifiable to politically force people to be vaccinated? Should legal recourse be denied to those who experienced adverse reactions to vaccines? Is it possible that researchers have overlooked some possible outlier mechanisms by which some individuals may be harmed by vaccines or ingredients included in vaccines?

            That said, there should be no basis within a free society to justify the use of government force to forbid discussing even nonsensical theories such as Flat Earth, and likewise for even the most unpleasant political views.
            Conversely, no institution should be obliged to accommodate such views by affording someone public speaking opportunities.
            However, if public speaking “platforms” are extended to those with unpopular positions, the law should maintain order and prevent those who disagree from being able to get away with attempting to use violence to suppress the speakers and/or the audience.

  5. You mention that Sam Harris is trying to overcome tribal divide. This is the man who attacks both Trump and Religion. He does not try to understand, validate, and bridge divide between different perspectives like Jon Haidt does.Sure Harris has some decent conversations with other progressive elites but I do not see him trying to understand the common man and respect and respect his contribution to humanity. He instead sees them as backwards like too many of the progressive elite.

  6. There’s a difference between trying to understand why someone might vote for Trump – which is something Harris does – and remaining silent on Trump’s obvious deficiencies as a President and as a human being.

    And despite being a persistent critic of religion Harris has supported moderate reformers such as Maajid Nawaz.

    Tribalism isn’t having a point of view. It’s refusing to engage with people who have a different point of view.

    • I would put Sam Harris smugness at 8/10 and genuine understanding of Trump at 2/10. I would also put Haidt at 9/10 for understanding and working to bridge tribalism.

      You: “Tribalism isn’t having a point of view. It’s refusing to engage with people who have a different point of view.” Me: this is just wrong. You can engage with people in a way that increases division: liberal smugness and reactionary trolling.

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  8. Colin says

    I guess I just don’t buy that intellectual rent seeking is a universal problem. As with most tactics that involve state power and coercion, it’s really just elements of the left that utilize it.

    Where are the pro-lifers that ‘no-platform’ pro choice proponents? Where are the conservative school admins that censor and suppress leftist narratives? Where are the pro-lifers that are using their political power to actually silence their opposition? The prochoicers who have lost their job, or been ruthlessly harassed, threatened and fixed? I don’t see them, but there are just endless examples of the reverse being done. Even though pro-lifers make up nearly half the population, it’s pretty absurd to suggest they have anything close to the political clout as the prochoicers.

  9. I just get concerned when I hear the Mensheviks saying that we outnumber the Bolsheviks, our views are more moderate, and we won the election, so things are bound to turn out in our favor.

  10. Scott says

    The broader critique of Charles Murray in academia is that his statistical methods for his research were terrible. His book wasn’t even submitted for peer review prior to publication. It was not a scholarly piece of work.

  11. markbul says

    I don’t see how the economic concept of rent-seeking – a very simple one – is useful when discussing/describing what happened to Charles Murray and many others on American and Canadian college campuses. A demand for a veto over ideas just doesn’t relate to ‘tipping the playing field’ in any way I can see. Tipping does not equal shooting the messenger.

  12. JVF says

    ah Mary – you’re providing unintentional comedy – 1) i don’t need to evaluate the work of the two scientists you cite, as their peers already have, and dismissed the ‘work’ with ill-concealed laughter – i can find you a ‘scientist’ or two asserting a geocentric solar system,several more asserting a young earth, and several more than that suggesting that the concept of anthropogenic climate change is a commie hoax – no one here should feel any obligation to listen to either you or me on this matter any further – what’s relevant is scientific consensus, when it exists, which it does, overwhelmingly, in the matter of flat earlh, young earth and the anti vax hysteria – 2) required reading for this discussion, including citations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccine_controversies – those who dismiss this condensation as a pharma conspiracy will find their tin-foil hats waiting for them in the foyer –

    (to the rest, i guess) my question remains – what is the proper way to distinguish between claims that shouldn’t have a podium in institutions of learning and those that should?

    • Mary says

      JVF, the term ‘scientific concensus’ doesn’t make sense. There is a scientific method that is either carefully applied when doing studies or not and all studies should be evaluated on that. There is no ‘boardroom diplomacy’ to reach a conclusion. Also-what majorities believe isn’t necessarily that which is true. Sometimes it is but not always. The belief in vaccination I would argue is more of a cultural or even quasi religious phenomenon. That is why we (myself as well in the past) submit to it even without knowing what is in that vial-where it comes from-how it’s made-it just makes us feel like we are being good responsible citizens and are ‘good to go’ to be at school or in the workplace. While it is ‘scientifically’ true that a particular disease can be delayed through vaccination, it cannot be indefinitely prevented- hence the need for boosters-even though the language is always, ‘Vaccine-preventable’ disease. Also, just because a particular disease can be delayed, does that mean that it should? Is it good that measles and chicken pox for example have been pushed out of childhood? The more important question then is, are vaccines safe? The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that vaccines were ‘unavoidably unsafe’ Why?

      Back to science-I am more interested in what the outliers say. There are those who have risked everything to say that which is unpopular in the scientific world. See the work of Dr. Judy Mikovits, Dr. Stephanie Seneff, Dr. Yehuda Schoenfeld, Dr. Tetyana Obukhanych, Dr. Suzanne Humphries, Dr. Toni Bark, Dr. Luc Montagnier. These are smart people doing important work in the area of vaccines but they are generally not permitted to speak to a broad audience so most people haven’t heard of them. Why not have an open mind and check out their work? To say, ‘they’re just quacks’ isn’t a substantive argument.

      If you are a movie person, then why not watch, ‘Shots in the Dark’ or ‘Trace Amount’ or ‘Vaxxed’ or ‘Greater Good’ or ‘Vaccine Syndrome’?
      You may not like or agree with the content but you may at least gain some empathy for those with vaccine concerns.

      This is a painful and polarizing topic and it would be great if public debate was permitted on this topic so that debate wasn’t relegated to comments sections on Quillette between strangers and Facebook and Twitter…sigh. (That being said, there are important debates happening in state legislatures as state governments have brought forward legislation mandating vaccines for school, health care workers, etc and local organizations have been pushing back)

      IMO, to your last point, almost everything should be discussed in a University setting-especially unsetttling topics like vaccination, abortion, the death penalty…firearms, international conflict, immigration…it needs to all be on the table. We have to be able to hear a variety of viewpoints. Good information from a variety of sources should be brought forward and different sides should be explored and given ample time. It is how empathy for a side other than your own develops-isn’t that the point of this article? Aren’t we supposed to be regularly challenged out of our comfort zones to be able to see the world differently than we have in the past?

  13. Lisl says

    This is not very helpful. Adding a new meme to the culture wars, and a senseless one. By repeating “rent-seeking” like a mantra 40 times in an essay, you do not make this entity real. It is not.

  14. Lisl says

    I meant, Mary, that in this context rent-seeking as defined by Tullock – does not really apply.
    What happened with Murray is abominable. But it has no connection to rent-seeking.

  15. I rather like the idea of intellectual rent-seekers. The issue is that the left doesn’t believe in truth. They have idiotic philosophical ‘reasons’ for this belief (ironically, a truth statement of its own) and use this as a mask to prevent them from needing to debate or even hear about the ideas of others.

    Yelling, screaming, and violence are all they have to do, to prevent them, or anyone else from gaining knowledge about anything they reject on its face.

    The long-term result of this is not pretty. Sooner or later, they will be confronted by remarkable violence on the part of both conservatives and rightists.

    The police is abrogating their responsibility to maintain their monopoly on violence. When the police will not act in an even handed and fair way to prevent violence as you describe a vacuum is formed. That vacuum will be filled by others who will use violence to get their claims heard. Leftists should remember that conservatives and rightists are always better armed than they are. The results will be blood in the street, and potentially a descent into anarchy and martial law. Not good outcomes for anyone.

    The issue comes down to the idea of ‘hate speech.’ This idea allows both governments and groups to prevent anyone from saying something that governments and groups consider to be hateful.

    Personally, I think the idea of ‘hate speech’ is stupid. Speech that incites violence is a different thing, from speech that asks others to hate a group or individual. Talk is cheap. Actual speech that causes violence is easily dealt with by various laws, including riot acts.

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