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Opinion >  Column

Tyler Cowen: What’s wrong with wokeism

Why is “wokeism” such a widespread and growing ideology? I’ve read many criticisms of it over the last two years, and I agree with most of them. Yet they don’t go very far in explaining why the numerous excesses of the woke movement persist.

The end result is depressing: The proposed antidote to America’s institutional sclerosis is an ideology that is at least as stupid and inflexible as the institutions themselves.

Consider the problems that talented women have in academia and science. “Compared with men,” a recent study found, “female scientists are more educated, half as likely to marry, one third as likely to have children, and half as likely to survive in science.” The reasons are no mystery. The current academic tenure system, which was designed well before women were so numerous in academia, does not fit well with women’s biological clocks.

I have suggested that current tenure systems be scrapped in favor of a more flexible and diverse system of labor contracts for researchers. I concede it is a radical proposal, and academia has many entrenched stakeholders who oppose such significant changes, for reasons of both ideology and self-interest. Inertia and status quo bias are extremely strong in U.S. nonprofit institutions, most of all universities.

That makes most problems difficult to solve. So America has set down the path of making marginal changes. Tenure clocks can be stopped for an additional year following pregnancy, or extra research funds might be available for women (and men on paternity leave), or some researchers will be given preferred teaching assignments.

These changes are better than nothing. But by now it should be obvious that they are not going to overturn the fundamental inequities and inflexibilities of the system. Female faculty members have disproportionate committee assignments, for example, out of a desire to achieve more fair representation. Yet those committee tasks are themselves a significant work burden.

The male-female imbalance in academic life should be treated as a kind of emergency. But the institutions that address it are slow and bureaucratic.

Now enter the philosophy of wokeism. One way to think of the woke is as a bunch of people who scream about various injustices. But sometimes they don’t have a good plan to address a particular imbalance – and along the way they can inflict a good deal of unjustified damage, for instance by canceling people who make the wrong remarks about gender imbalance or other issues.

These and other criticisms of the woke may well be correct. Still, at the end of the day it has to be recognized that an unresponsive society will generate a lot of unproductive (and unresponsive) screamers. So simply dissecting the weaknesses of woke tactics and arguments misses the point. When practical solutions do not seem to exist, many people will resort to screaming.

This leads to the conclusion that wokeness won’t be defeated as an ideology until there is a more convincing and practical vision of how to undo institutional sclerosis. When that vision comes, it may not be so closely allied with wokeness, which is not excessively concerned with effective administration and incentive compatibility.

Sometimes it even seems that woke forces are effective. Recently some major museums have announced that they are sending back their highly valuable West African bronze sculptures to their countries of origin. Many of those sculptures were stolen by British colonial occupiers, and their restoration would reunite those countries with a significant part of their cultural heritage. This justified change would probably not have occurred without pressure from wokeism.

There are genuine questions about how well Nigeria and Benin can care for such returned sculptures. But these kinds of skeptical standards are generally not applied to other acts of cultural restitution, such as when paintings taken by the Nazis during World War II are returned to their owners. Furthermore, the works in question survived just fine until their theft in 1897.

The thing is, there are still numerous stolen West African (and other) works held in Western museums, including some of the highest quality Benin sculptures. It is all too easy to imagine those institutions, on their own, continuing to talk a good game but never overcoming their inertia and sending the works back on any specific date.

So you can expect pressure from the woke to continue – and, having won some number of victories, it may even intensify. The correct way to respond to this kind of screaming is to advocate for a positive program for change.

The institutional defects of not-so-woke society are all too real. Alas, so are the deficiencies of the movement that so loudly points them out.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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