Barry Lynn is an outspoken critic of the concentration of power in Silicon Valley. As of this week, he is more than that. He’s a dissident, rousted out and crushed by the might of Big Tech’s accumulated economic, political and intellectual power.
Lynn, who is a professional colleague, worked for a major Washington think tank – New America – which publishes policy recommendations on how to regulate the tech industry. It receives a considerable amount of money from Google, a company which Lynn and his team have repeatedly criticized. That uncomfortable fact is why his dismissal made waves in Washington DC and beyond.
The extensive corporate funding for ostensibly ‘independent’ research is well-known. Scandals about the degree to which the imprimatur of august DC institutions is for sale have made headlines periodically in past years. In Lynn’s case, we have its corollary: a researcher who questions those funders, and is silenced.
This harks back to a series of academic scandals from the late 19th century, the last time economic power was as concentrated as it is now. Prominent economists Henry Carter Adams, Richard Ely, Edward A Ross and others were hounded out of their university positions (or suffered close calls) for advocating views at odds with those of their institutions’ benefactors.
Adams was quietly dismissed for teaching that workers had a property right to bargaining power in negotiating over wages with their bosses. Following the labor unrest during the Haymarket Riot in May of 1886, he had argued that employers were cynically using xenophobia as justification for stifling the free speech rights of radical immigrants. Having lost his position at Cornell, the president of the University of Michigan required Adams to recant his teachings in writing in order to be assured of a position there.
Ely was publicly challenged by a member of the Wisconsin Board of Regents, as part of a campaign orchestrated by ideological opponents in the popular press. Accused of teaching socialism to impressionable college students, as well as a flimsy charge that he had consorted with a union organizer, Ely had the backing of his own university and kept his job, but at a cost: he defended himself by denying the allegation, implicitly conceding that if he had taught socialism, he deserved dismissal.
Ross’s case looks less compelling from a contemporary vantage point, but in its day he garnered the greatest sympathy from his peers and the public. He was given the pink slip by Stanford University for inflammatory comments about Chinese and Japanese immigrants who he thought undercut “native” Californian workers.
At the time, Stanford’s sole trustee was Leland Stanford. Her late husband’s railroad and fortune, and the university they endowed, were built on the backs of cheap immigrant labor. She instructed the university’s president to see to it that Ross was expelled, which he did. This sparked an academic boycott, and eventually, caused the founding of the American Association of University Professors to protect intellectual freedom.
Several patterns unite these cases with Lynn’s.
First, the facts are often more insidious than the standard David-and-Goliath narrative might have it. The funders make known their displeasure with varying degrees of explicitness, and the retainers they’ve installed in administrative positions carry out the sentence.
The fact that the retainers are most often appointed from among the professional colleagues of those who bring down the funders’ wrath only sharpens the sense of betrayal and grievance. It is precisely by directing that fire upon themselves that those retainers clarify their worth to their benefactors, and are rewarded for it.
Second, Goliath always wins. Even when scandals regarding intellectual freedom make it into the public debate (and most victims keep quiet), the establishment battens down the hatches and rides out the storm.
There is simply no contending with dominant concentrations of wealth and power, intellectual and political. Fearing for the fate of their colleagues, the academics left standing tend to redraw the boundaries of their discipline in such a way as to ensure the same fate never befalls them, by excluding ideologically problematic research findings – even when they are true – in fact, especially when they are true.
That is why, for many decades, most research on inequality was to be found outside mainstream economics, and the economists who did research it tended to assume it was caused by a “skills gap” – effectively blaming the victim, a stance far more amenable to the powerful than blaming the perpetrator.
Third, the only way we have ever given effective protection to intellectual freedom is when we recognized that it was a public good and treated it as such in policy. Goliath wins because offending voices on their own are no match for accumulated wealth and power. But the government is. Over the past 40 years, we have developed an ideology that denigrates all things public, but especially public education.
We’ve come up with ways to erode the grand edifices of the state that arose out of the Progressive, New Deal and Civil Rights eras – land grant colleges, for example, finally enshrining tenure in statute in response to the censorship battles of the Gilded Age. Or federal funding for independent research. And we have dismantled the policy apparatus designed to break down accumulations of private power – most especially, antitrust policy, the exact theme on which Lynn lost his job.
Lynn’s firing only shows that he is right, and the same ideology that dismantled antitrust policy dismantled protections for intellectual freedom, for the very same reason – both challenged their power.
So now any challenge to the status quo can be snuffed out at will, or at least kept very far from exercising power in its own right. This episode tells us that where one man stands no chance, a populist movement aimed at reclaiming power for the people is our only hope.
Marshall Steinbaum is a Fellow and Research Director at the Roosevelt Institute, where he researches market power and inequality