First, let’s talk about spurious scholarly journals. The Financial Times reports on a palace revolt of academics against a private publisher who made some changes to a presumably (and understandably) unprofitable academic journal (“Academics Boycott Wiley Gender Journal After ‘Anti-Woke’ Shift,” March 15, 2024):

Academics are boycotting a leading gender studies journal owned by New York-listed publisher Wiley after its editors and policies were changed in what they characterise as an “anti-woke” drive against radical views in the pursuit of profits.

Nearly 500 advisers, reviewers, contributors and readers have written resignation letters to Wiley in protest at the “mainstreaming” of the Gender, Work and Organization journal by changing its aims, including the removal of references to queer theory on its website.

A description of the journal on Wiley’s website explains what it is supposed to be after the changes:

Issues of critical importance as Gender, Work & Organization moves forward include feminist knowledge and practice, feminist philosophies and praxis, diversity, intersectionality, transnational, postcolonial, and decolonial feminisms, feminist ecology, postfeminist humanism/posthumanist feminism, embodiment, affect and organising, gendered power, resistance and activism, gender and global labour markets, critical analyses of neoliberalism, postfeminism, femininities and heroic versus post-heroic leadership approaches.

It does not look very scholarly, does it? It is at least unclear how this sort of discourse advances the search for truth and our knowledge of how society works. It is of course desirable that anybody who wants to defend the positions of Gender, Work & Organization be free to do it, with his own resources or those he levies among voluntary partners and donors.

Wiley’s incentives (and its competitors’) are to make the most profits by supplying what consumers are willing to pay for. Similarly, we can understand the incentives of academics—especially those who defend obtuse theories of the flat-earth type—to deal with government bureaucracies rather than with private firms: it is incomparably easier for them to be subsidized by invisible taxpayers. Why can’t these academics create and sell, or otherwise finance, their own journals? The question is all the more relevant as their academic salaries and perks are already partly or, for those in public universities, totally subsidized by governments, which in large part explains how academic journals can get free articles.

Second, let’s put these issues in an educational perspective. Education is, as many goods more or less, what economists call an “experience good”: you cannot know how much you will enjoy it, if you enjoy it at all, without actually consuming it. You could not know before learning Latin how you would enjoy reading Virgil in his language. You could not know before learning economics how many secrets of the social world you would discover from reading (and understanding) Anthony de Jasay or John Hicks or so many others.

Hence the idea that it is good to educate children at an age where the opportunity cost of learning is low—this low cost being partially explained by the plasticity of their minds. Even in the case of young adults, who should of course not be forced to be educated, it is a good idea to try and persuade them to continue their education, if they have the required mental capacity and the opportunity cost of their time is not too high. In these conditions, anyone will nearly certainly, later in life, be happy he (or she) learned more. At any event, it must be easier, if one later so desires, to forget what one has learned, than to learn from scratch what one has no idea of.

One potential problem is that the suppliers of education (the producers of education services) have their own self-interests and incentives. They try to “maximize their profits” in the pecuniary sense and also possibly for the pleasure of ideological activism. These two motivations explain their greed for trade unions armed with extraordinary privileges from the state, and for conventional tenure, too. The danger is that they will deliver education not according to what consumers will later wish they had learned, but according to their interests as producers. So education becomes a club or cartel of producers instead of a market for the services that children’s parents or young adults want. For sure, other motivations may be present like a teaching “vocation” and a sense of duty, but they will be overruled if more practical incentives counter them.

Any economist will know that competition is the way to avoid the club-of-producers danger. If many suppliers of education (schools, universities, teachers from different schools of thought) compete, none of them will have the power to exploit consumers. It’s like for “ordinary” trade: the consumer is unlikely to be exploited if he can buy his wares from several sources and no supplier is regulated out of the market. Protectionism is a way for suppliers, assisted by the secular (coercive) hand of the state, to transform international trade into a club of national producers. Similarly, government regulation and subsidization are the means by which education suppliers can transform their market into a club of producers. Education then becomes what the educators want to propagandize, which will typically align with what politicians and bureaucrats (the ones who write the checks) want their subjects to learn.

Isn’t this what education has become? So-called scholarly journals such as Gender, Work & Organization are one illustration in higher education. They would not exist if taxpayers were not forced to pay educators to spend their time reading these spurious journals, writing in them, and pushing their institutions’ libraries to subscribe. Or, more exactly, these journals would be webzines published on private websites by eccentric theorists. It is good that eccentrics exist (see John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty). Who knows, they may be right. But they should compete on the free market of ideas without extorting subsidies and other privileges.


The featured image of this post, created by OpenAI’s DALL-E, represents the sad but fictional story of a Professor of Queer Theory (he could also be a DEI university administrator) who was laid off after a reduction in government subsidies to “higher education.” Fortunately, he was able to find a job as a McDonald’s burger flipper, upgrading his life from exploiting his fellow humans to serving them.

Fictional woke academic laid off after a reduction in government subsidies to higher education