By George Leef

Americans who style themselves as social justice advocates view themselves as working to save a huge swath of the population (women and all “people of color”) from the ravages of the white, male, capitalist world. They routinely denounce business for its nasty habit of “putting profit before people.” When those people advocate solutions on campus, their motives are pure. They merely want to right historic wrongs and bring about a fair society.

At least, that’s the cover story.

One of the central tenets of Public Choice theory (a branch of economics) is that people rarely act selflessly for the public interest, but instead act in ways that advance their self-interest.  In fact, claiming to be an advocate for some noble cause is often an excellent cover for self-interest.

We know, for example, that politicians often support policies such as minimum wage laws, saying they intend to help poor people, when they know that those policies actually benefit special interest groups that will return the favor with campaign contributions. The politicians get to appear to be “compassionate” when in fact they are just looking out for themselves.

What if we applied that same analytical approach to college officials? In a recent article for Claremont Review of Books, law professor George W. Dent did exactly that.

“Public choice theory,” Dent writes, “shows that public servants often act against the public’s interest for their own economic benefit. Similarly, the otherwise anomalous behavior of those who make their living on political correctness (social justice professionals, or SJPs) makes sense if we see them as an industry—the social justice industry (SJI)—acting for its own financial gain.”

Dent has made a vital insight. The SJI thrives on college campuses because that’s where it finds the most lucrative market for its “products.” One is the University of Michigan, where, according to this study, there are more than 90 people employed in various “diversity” positions, with 26 of them pulling down more than $100,000 per year. Considered as a business, Michigan’s Social Justice Industry is doing very well indeed.

“The SJI’s main product,” Dent continues,” is discovering and fighting oppression (real or imagined), so we would expect it repeatedly to conjure new forms of oppression.” And of course, that is just what we have seen over the last couple of decades. Most recently, there’s been a host of campus initiatives aimed at “protecting” transgendered individuals—not against violence or harassment, but to ensure that others use the forms of address and pronouns preferred by the transgendered. “Don’t refer to me as ‘he’ but rather as ‘zhe.’”

Whether or not it solves any true problem for transgendered people to compel others to speak as directed (or to accept other accommodations like bathrooms open to everyone) is beside the point: those policies require the hiring of new administrators. Those administrators will be paid quite well and will have a powerful incentive to make their jobs appear to be very demanding. They’ll find transgender issues abounding on campus and argue that they need a bigger budget and more staff.  Professed concern over the alleged mistreatment of this group makes it possible to make nice money for little work.

But what if the ministrations of these campus officials aren’t cost-effective? That doesn’t matter. In fact, from the standpoint of the SJI, the last thing it would want is to solve its alleged problems and thereby reduce the demand for its people and programs. In that regard, Dent points to one of the big profit centers of the SJI, namely “diversity training.”

Colleges (and businesses too) spend lots of money on such training for faculty and administrators, but does it actually make people think or act any differently? There’s scant proof that it does and some evidence to the contrary. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman declared, “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.” But as Dent argues, “the lack of a real problem and the uselessness of the proffered solution haven’t stopped an explosion of diversity training programs—programs staffed with teams of well-paid SJPs.”

Academic decision-makers are overwhelmingly of a leftist mindset and, crucially, they aren’t spending their own money when they make choices. Their nonprofit world gives them a great deal of freedom to spend on things that they find personally gratifying. The SJI finds them to be easy marks, especially at state universities. On August 29, for instance, Campus Reform reported on the demand for a new “social justice” initiative at SUNY-Plattsburgh. It will add more jobs for SJPs and make leftists on campus feel good, but it won’t make the school any better educationally.

Professor Dent concludes, “Shrinking the social justice industry will be hard. There’s no magic bullet to slay the beast; the campaign must be waged in many small battles. Most Americans, however, loathe political correctness. With sufficient publicity and persistence, the SJI can be beaten.”

I agree, and part of the publicity campaign must include his key point that the SJI is merely a parasitic business operation.