Scholarship and its dissemination among the broader public

Opinion by Dylan Schuler
Dec. 13, 2020, 5:01 p.m.

I have been following the Hoover Institution’s Human Prosperity Project, an ongoing research effort which compares and contrasts the benefits of capitalism and socialism, since this summer.  While catching up on the research papers I missed during fall quarter, I read Victor Davis Hanson’s contribution to the project, “Our Socialist Future?” Coincidentally, the day after reading Hanson’s paper for the Human Prosperity Project, his op-ed in The Daily (“Denigrating Hoover,” Dec. 2, 2020) was published.  

As a Stanford undergraduate with left-wing economic and political views, I am conflicted about the current iteration of controversy regarding Stanford’s relationship with the Hoover. On the one hand, I have certainly benefited intellectually and politically from the work of fellows at the Hoover by having my views consistently challenged by the positions expressed in their work, such as through the essays, discussions and videos created as part of the Human Prosperity Project.  On the other hand, it is precisely knowing that the positions taken in the Hoover fellows’ research will be of a fixed disposition that concerns me, as this stands in contrast with Hanson’s observation that universities should, “encourage inductive reasoning to investigate challenging issues, not to dismiss them when they don’t fit political agendas.” As a think tank producing research of an ideological bent, the Hoover fulfills an important niche in the political landscape by proliferating discussions on political topics.  However, this is markedly different from the role of the university to provide the groundwork for these discussions by dispassionately uncovering new information.

To illustrate this point, I think it will be useful to examine Hanson’s paper that was published by the Hoover Institution as part of their Human Prosperity Project. Additionally, Hanson states in his recent op-ed, “Scholarship, and its dissemination among the broader public, are the major criteria by which all Hoover senior fellows are annually reviewed.”  Thus, analyzing an example of the scholarship published by the Hoover can also give an indication of the standard used by the institution to determine what it publishes.

In “Our Socialist Future?” Hanson rejects “a socialist theme: those who had more should not have had more and were obligated to give much of it back to those from whom it was taken.” To build his case, Hanson walks the reader through an array of historical, political and cultural examples of the socialist theme he rejects, and I similarly invite you to walk with me through Hanson’s arguments.  

After briefly discussing aspects of socialism in ancient Greek societies, Hanson turns his attention to more recent revolutions and writes, “As we saw in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war (1917–1923) and China during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s sellout, as socialism seems a starting point that is quickly overtaken by its cousins communism, anarchy, and nihilism.”  While it’s not entirely clear what Hanson is attempting to prove here, saying that socialism leads to totalitarian government and to no government and to a rejection of life having meaning is as nonsensical as saying a river can flow both forward and backward at the same time.  Furthermore, this claim is unsubstantiated by either citations or further argument.

Instead, Hanson immediately jumps to discussing how the European Union is socialist.  To support this claim, Hanson states, “Indeed, if defined by its meager defense budget, high taxes, generous entitlements, and loud egalitarian rhetoric, the European Union is socialist.”  While I suppose “a meager defense budget” is somewhat closer to anarchy than a large defense budget, I don’t understand why these European socialists would care to have generous entitlements, if their socialist tendencies would lead them towards nihilism. It seems, then, that Hanson has already discarded his previous claim about socialism’s “cousins” and instead lists off a variety of attributes to craft a new, ad hoc definition of socialism.

Continuing his critique of the status quo in Europe, Hanson next argues, “Socialist Germany does not appear to its ideologically kindred satellites in the European Union to be very socialist but, rather, devilishly self-centered in recalibrating the EU to allow Germany pan-European power to implement its continental ambitions in a way that proved impossible after 1870, 1914, and 1939.” After extending my humblest condolences to the rest of the Hoover fellows that reunified Germany has not, in fact, become capitalist but socialist, I feel obliged to report that, no, Germany is not extending the same control over Europe that it did during World War II (at least that’s how I interpret the lack of a military occupation in much of Europe and the absence of a puppet dictatorship in France).  

After this discussion of European politics, Hanson moves on to the history of socialism in America. He writes, “Other than a few failed small-scale flirtations with socialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America never seriously embraced collectivism, despite an array of New Deal resuscitative policies that mostly prolonged the Great Depression and were aimed at diluting more radical competing socialist agendas, popular during the Industrial Revolution and Depression and mostly advanced by Samuel Gompers, Huey Long, and Eugene Debbs.” While Eugene V. Debs (with one “b”), five time Socialist Party presidential candidate, certainly was a powerhouse on the left during the early twentieth century, he died in 1926, three years before the beginning of the Great Depression, and six years before FDR won the presidential election. Samuel Gompers died two years earlier than Debs. Thus, crediting them with pushing FDR’s policies to the left is rather ahistorical. However, Hanson could be arguing that they created a mass base of support for socialism in America that continued at least a decade after they died, but this would contradict Hanson’s declaration that America has never supported socialism, except for a few “small-scale flirtations.”

Hanson then turns to Bernie Sanders… and the French Revolution. As he writes, “Apparently, the implied preferred model for millions of Americans recently has become the all-encompassing French Revolution, which sought to implement egalitarianism of result and fraternity at any cost, rather than the American Revolution’s emphases on individual freedom, personal liberty, and protections of private property.  For example, in 2016 socialist Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination—a milestone that no prior socialist presidential candidate had come close to reaching. And Sanders, for a while, led the primary candidates again in 2020.” While Bernie Sanders did run for president, and such an action is technically included in the all-encompassing term “any-cost”, the “cost” of running a campaign according to the U.S.’s republican model of government is certainly not the same cost as beheadings during a reign of terror. To suggest otherwise sensationalizes disdain for a particular candidate, in this case Sen. Sanders.

After citing the name of Jacobin magazine to support his previous comparison of Bernie Sanders and the French Revolution, Hanson then argues that Jacobin seeks to echo, “the influence of his [Robespierre’s] Jacobins on movements such as the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.” In a 180-degree reversal, Hanson has gone from praising the, “individual freedom, personal liberty, and protections of private property” of the American Revolution, to indicating that the Haitian Revolution, a successful slave uprising against French rule, was an unsavory event to have influenced. Keep in mind that the Haitian Revolution ended with Haiti becoming the only nation in which slaves themselves outlawed slavery, which seems to be the exact sort of action a proponent of “individual freedom” would praise (though I suppose it does violate the “protection of private property”).

The next argument that deserves attention is Hanson’s research on young people’s happiness. He writes, “Lots of young people claim to be socialists but are instead simply angry because they were not able to afford a home, buy a new car or nice things, or start a family in their ‘woke’ urban neighborhoods during a decade of muted economic growth (2008–17) and high unemployment. The combination of nonmarketable degrees and skills with burdensome debt altered an entire generation’s customs, habits, and mentalities.” Hanson immediately continues past this paragraph, turning his attention to ads run in favor of Obamacare, and he offers neither citations nor evidence to prove these generalizations. Given that this portion of Hanson’s research is an evidenceless riff off the classic “the kids these days” sentiment, I think we can move along.

To wrap up his research paper, Hanson returns to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of this past summer. He says of the protestors, “They characterized their movement as a cultural rather than just a political revolution, and so spoke of it as being ‘holistic’ and ‘systemic.’”  Importantly, Hanson never argues why changing the culture is less preferable to changing the political system, which renders this point meaningless. Furthermore, the existence of a system of policymaking and the lack of a parallel system of culture-making indicates that using the term “systemic” refers to a political rather than cultural revolution, invalidating Hanson’s assumption anyway.

All in all, I encourage you to read Victor Davis Hanson’s paper in full, as I only addressed a selection of remarks made in the research paper.  Even from the points I was able to cover, it is clear that weighty claims are left unsubstantiated and uncited, various arguments are openly contradictory, and in several passages sweeping generalizations are passed off as fact without evidence provided. Keep in mind, this piece was published by the Hoover as part of a formal academic project and thus meets the institution’s standard for research.

The key issue this highlights is: In what scenarios should the weight of Stanford University’s name be used to credential work? The simplest answer is when the researcher is held to the standard of academic rigor set by Stanford for its professors and researchers.  Hanson clearly stated in his op-ed that the Hoover Institution has set similar criteria to review Hoover fellows’ work.  The question for Stanford is whether it approves of those criteria. If not, then the continued affiliation of the Hoover Institution with Stanford University serves as a loophole to attach Stanford’s name to research that doesn’t meet the University’s standards.

Contact Dylan Schuler at schu8991 ‘at’

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