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Universities, Anarchism, and Control

June 11, 2009

Via Rad Geek I came across this old piece by Roderick Long: A University Built by the Invisible Hand.  The story:

As for its founding, nobody ever really started the University — it just sort of happened. The University of Bologna arose spontaneously, through the interactions of individuals who were trying to do something else.

In the 12th century, Bologna was a center of intellectual and cultural life. Students came to Bologna from all over Europe to study with prominent scholars. These individual professors were not originally organized into a university; each one operated freelance, offering courses on his own and charging whatever fees students were willing to pay. If a professor was a lousy teacher or charged too much, his students would switch to a different professor; professors had to compete for students, and would get paid only if students found their courses worth taking.

But being a foreigner in Bologna had its disadvantages; aliens were subject to various sorts of legal disabilities. For example, aliens were held responsible for the debts of their fellow countrymen; that is, if John, an English merchant, owed money to Giovanni, a Bolognese native, and John skipped town, then innocent bystander James, if James were an English citizen, could be required by Bolognese law to pay to Giovanni the money owed by John.

The foreign students therefore began to band together, for mutual insurance and protection, into associations called “nations,” according to their various nationalities; one “nation” would be composed of all English students, another of all French students, and so on.

In time the different “nations” found it useful to spread the risk still more widely by combining together into a larger organization called a universitas. This was not yet a university in the modern sense; the closest English equivalent to the Latin universitas is “corporation.” The universitas was essentially a cooperative venture by students; the professors were not part of the universitas. The universitas was democratically governed; regular business was conducted by a representative council consisting of two members from each “nation,” while important matters were decided by the majority vote of an assembly consisting of the entire membership of the universitas.

Once the universitas had been formed, the students now had available to them a means of effective collective bargaining with the city government (rather like a modern trades-union). The students were able to exercise considerable leverage in their disputes with the city because if the students decided to go on “strike” by leaving the city, the professors would follow their paying clients and the city would lose an important source of revenue. So the city gave in, recognized the rights of foreign students, and granted the universitas civil and criminal jurisdiction over its own members. Although the universitas was a purely private organization, it acquired the status of an independent legal system existing within, but not strictly subordinate to, the framework of city government.

How did the universitas of Bologna become the University of Bologna? Well, after all, this new means of effective bargaining with the city could also be used as a means of effective collective bargaining with the professors. The students, organized into a universitas, could control professors by boycotting classes and withholding fees. This gave the universitas the power to determine the length and subject-matter of courses, and the fees of professors. Soon professors found themselves being hired and fired by the universitas as a whole, rather than by its individual members acting independently. At this point we can finally translate universitas as “University.”

The professors were not completely powerless; they formed a collective-bargaining association of their own, the College of Teachers, and won the right to determine both examination fees and requirements for the degree. A balance of rights thus emerged through negotiation: the obligations of professors were determined by the students, while the obligations of students were determined by the professors. It was a power-sharing scheme; the students, however, continued to act as the dominant partner, since they were the paying clients and collectively carried more clout.

This quasi-anarchistic setup was eventually brought to an end when the city government took over and began paying professors directly from tax revenues, thus converting the University of Bologna into a publicly-funded institution. Whether we interpret this move as public-spirited altruism or as a cynical power grab, in either case the result was that professors became dependent on the city government rather than on the students, who lost their earlier leverage as power shifted from the student body to the Bolognese politicians.

While Long describes it as “an example of how the spontaneous-order mechanisms underlying market anarchism … can operate in a university setting”, given the ending, I have a different take.  It seems a classic example of the phenomenon of spontaneous order arising, working for awhile, generating power worth controlling, and then taken over and centralized.  The almost inevitability with which this seems to happen to anarchic systems is rather depressing, and it seems to me that it behooves us to understand it if we wish to change it.  What shall we call this phenomenon?  The word that comes to my mind is “hardening”, which conveys the brittleness and lack of flexibility of a centralized system, but I’m open to other terminology.

Now, for the general case of political power, I have a theory and a solution.  But while this is the most important area, it is not clear to me whether other examples of hardening such as the Bolognese ones are merely reflective of operating in a hardened political environment, or whether they would arise even in a dynamic political system.  If this were Adam Smith University in Seastead City, would it have reached the phase where students and professors were each unionized, and then stopped?  Or would it have continued to harden from there?  Would the balance of rights between the two unions have been a stable and efficient system, or would it be better if it did not even harden to that degree?

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  1. June 28, 2009 4:04 am

    Fascinating history, thank you.

    In thinking about an African free zone designed to fund educational projects, it occurred to me that if a university was funded substantially through revenues tied to free zone growth, then the professors would have an incentive to support the economic growth of the free zone. In Singapore, civil servants receive annual bonuses based on rates of GDP growth the previous year, thus creating a public choice mechanism designed to support those policies that increase economic growth.

    Yes, ideology does matter, but if one started with libertarian-oriented university that was funded by government, one would predict that the ideology of the professors would drift towards statism, whereas if the same university was funded by free zone growth, I would predict that the professors would more likely find reasons to believe that growth-enhancing policies were good.

    While all of this could take place anywhere, I am working on free zone projects in Africa, and Africa is also in urgent need of far better universities than they have at present. Imagine a whole continent in which dozens of free zone funded universities were established, an entire academic eco-system that was pro-market.

    Non-western universities are just beginning to obtain their own distinctive intellectual voice. There are regions of the world, such as Russia, where there are stronger pockets of resistance to global warming alarmism than elsewhere. I predict that if the world begins to put real pressure on China to reduce emissions, we will see more and more academic work coming out of China that argues against global warming alarmism.

    Bit by bit we will see the breakdown of the curious disciplinary monopolies based on the notions of existing elite universities in Europe and the U.S. May some of these breakdowns be in the direction of new academic cadres of libertarian thought.

  2. A.B. permalink
    June 12, 2009 3:03 am

    Funny, I had never heard of these universitas but I blogged on something quite similar a while ago

  3. June 11, 2009 11:36 pm

    I think ideology makes a difference too. A lot of these spontaneous-order medieval situations emerged within, and despite, a context in which the ideal of central control was widely taken for granted.

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