Reintroducing Liberty Into the Academic Debate

November 20, 2012

When IJ’s strategic research initiative began six years ago, the primary goal was to create high-quality social science research that would show courts the real-world impacts of laws we challenge. When the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court cited our research in his opinion striking down Arizona’s Clean Elections scheme, we knew we were making real progress in meeting that goal.

Meanwhile, a second goal was to interest other researchers in IJ’s issues and generate additional studies, particularly in areas largely bereft of quality research. To do so, we regularly submit scholarly versions of our studies to peer-reviewed social science journals where they are most likely to be read by those in the research community.

To date, we and the researchers we have worked with have published 12 articles spanning all four of IJ’s pillars: economic liberty, property rights, school choice and free speech. The journals have included Urban Studies, one of the world’s leading urban affairs journals, and Journal of Criminal Justice, a top-tier journal in that field, as well as Economic Development Quarterly, Journal of School Choice, Journal of Applied Business and Economics, and American Journal of Entrepreneurship.

On two occasions our work fomented scholarly debate, which gave us opportunities to broaden our arguments and put even more of IJ’s work before academic audiences. Even academics like to watch a colorful debate, and perhaps particularly so. For example, a co-author and I published an article in Urban Studies on the disproportionate effects of eminent domain on poor and minority communities. A sociologist from Hofstra University penned a critical essay, focusing not on our methods, which he thought were sound, but on our emphasis on individual rather than “communitarian” rights.

In our response, we drew on other IJ research, Castle Coalition work and IJ’s unparalleled expertise in property rights to refute our critic’s overestimation of the alleged benefits of eminent domain for private development. We pointed to real-world examples to puncture his naïve notion that so-called “community benefit agreements” can make amends for people losing their homes and livelihoods. While the conclusions we drew in our original research article needed to stick close to the specific findings, in our response we had latitude to make a full-throated defense of property rights:

[W]e believe that protecting the rights of individuals—including and especially their property rights—does more to protect against even more savage inequalities that come from marrying the inherently political processes of communitarian vehicles with the power of the state to take and redistribute property to cronies, insiders, activists and the politically and socially connected. The ability to say ‘no’ without fear of the state taking what is yours is, ultimately, the great equalizer.

By engaging in such scholarly debate, we can bring a message of individual rights to an audience often unaccustomed to reading it in typical academic journals, and other measures show that strategy is paying off. Much like citations in judicial decisions are a measure of influence, so too are citations in scholarly articles. The number and diversity of citations of our work show we are making steady progress toward meeting our goal of building academic interest in IJ issues. Our work has been cited more than 70 times by other authors in journal articles, books, law reviews and even student theses, with disciplines ranging from economics to political science, education to public policy. Some examples include Economic Affairs, Harvard Law Review, Public Choice and Supreme Court Economic Review.

On a landscape of scholarship ambivalent if not outright hostile to liberty, we have a lot of ground to make up. That’s why, with one article forthcoming, four others currently under review and two more on the cusp of submission, we have no intention of slowing down the pace.

Dick Carpenter is a director of IJ’s strategic research.

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