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The Boy graduated just in time.

Apparently, the University of Virginia is considering developing dashboards to monitor the political beliefs of students and faculty. The ostensible rationale is “balance.”

As an experienced college administrator with a doctorate in the history of political thought, I can attest with confidence that this is a spectacularly bad idea, both practically and philosophically.

I’ll pretend for a moment that the idea is being advanced in good faith. What does “balance” mean in this context?

It means that there’s a given range of ideas, and a correct distribution of their adherents. Presumably, if an “imbalance” is discovered, it would need to be addressed. Concretely, that would mean basing admissions, hiring, renewal and tenure decisions in part on people’s stated or inferred political beliefs. Anyone straying from what politically appointed trustees consider the party line would have to recant or find someplace else to study or work. If, say, the dashboard indicated too many liberals, we could expect a slow-motion purge coupled with aggressive recruitment and hiring of conservatives. Or the reverse.

There’s a glaring First Amendment issue here, of course; a public university has no business policing the beliefs of its students or employees. But the Supreme Court offers little reason for confidence at this point, so simply pointing to the plain text of the Constitution may not work. And even if the court got it right, it might take years to get there, during which time a great deal of damage could be done.

The assumptions underlying the proposal are false. There is not a single linear spectrum of political ideas, nor is there a “correct” balance of them. For example, prior to the late 1970s, many conservatives in the U.S. were pro-choice on abortion. Over time the “conservative” position shifted. Would employees have to shift their views accordingly in order to keep their jobs? President Nixon proposed a negative income tax, which is a version of a universal basic income; now, that idea is much more popular among libertarians and some leftists. Same-sex marriage was considered too far left even by Barack Obama in his first term; now it’s common sense among young voters. Someone’s label can change without their views changing. Should they be fired because the parties switched positions without them noticing?

Of course, someone’s views can change through lived experience or even persuasion. But that’s much less likely to happen if loyalty to one camp is a condition of employment. As the saying goes, it’s hard to get someone to understand an idea when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it. The point of the “lively debates” supposedly championed by the advocates of the dashboard is to enable people to refine, or even change, their views. Otherwise, debates are just verbal forms of professional wrestling. But if I’m hired to represent one political camp, I’d be endangering my career by opening my mind. That isn’t likely to lead to honest searches for truth.

Of course, the conservative-to-liberal spectrum is only a small slice of the world of political ideas. Where does populism fit? Fascism? Libertarianism? Monarchism? Anarchism? Socialism? Producerism? Corporatism? Theocracy? Each of those contains its own variants and subvariants, and they cross-pollinate. What do you do with people whose views don’t map neatly onto the popular categories? Or, and this is real, among people who don’t pay much attention to politics at all?

There’s also a basic measurement question. How do you know what someone’s political beliefs actually are? After all, they could lie on a survey, and party identification is notoriously unreliable. (For instance, most “Independents” actually vote consistently for one party or the other.) Loyalty oaths have an ugly history. The Palmer raids of the late 1910s and the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s should have taught us by now of the dangers of political thought policing. If free speech means anything at all, it means having the right to disagree with those in power.

UVA president Ryan indicated that he’s open to a dashboard. That’s alarming in itself, though it could indicate a plan to appoint a committee to discover that the idea is every bit as bad and destructive as I’ve indicated here and eventually tank it. If so, as the parent of a new alum, I’d be happy to help.

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