Op-eds, Opinions

Shemano ’19: In defense of the Political Theory Project

Op-ed Contributor
Friday, March 2, 2018

Over the past few months, we have seen the narrative that Brown’s PTP is a corrupted right-wing think tank at the mercy of the Koch brothers gain acceptance on campus. This narrative alleges that the “Koch-backed” Political Theory Project has an agenda to manipulate helpless Brown students into supporting free market economics. As a Brown student who has engaged in PTP programming, I find these allegations to be not only erroneous, but also insulting. The PTP serves a valuable role in cultivating a forum for vibrant and rigorous intellectual discourse on our campus.

The argument underlying this narrative is that the PTP is a pawn of a Koch brothers-funded scheme to “convert” Brown students into right-wing ideologues. The accusations are made on the assumption that Koch brother donations carry with them a certain contingency — that the PTP engage in the espousal of a “right-wing agenda.” These accusations are demonstrably false. As Professor Tomasi explained in his recent op-ed, “The PTP publicly states the principles of philanthropic partnership on which we are willing to accept financial support. … The PTP allows donors no input regarding any of our activities. … If any donor wishes to support the PTP, they must do so entirely on our terms.”

The narrative also implies that the scholarship output of the PTP is decidedly one-sided and biased, intended to further the Koch-backed right-wing agenda. In his October column, Herald opinions editor Anuj Krishnamurthy focuses on two papers from 2010 and 2011 and argues that they, in their advocacy of deregulation, are indicative of a conflict of interest. Krishnamurthy points to these papers as clear evidence that the scholarly output of the PTP is driven by Koch brother interests. In my view, this argument is false and incomplete — two finance-focused papers from seven years ago hardly constitute compelling evidence of deep-rooted Koch brother influence. In reality, the aggregate scholarly output of the PTP is diverse and nuanced, focusing on a range of topics and disciplines. For example, Associate Director Daniel D’Amico focuses his research on the comparative analysis of criminal justice systems across societies to study the structural economic and political incentives that determine the extent to which nations jail. Indeed, one could survey the PTP’s current collection of professors and post-doctoral research associates and find that its scholarship is largely independent of any  Koch-inspired agenda.

Ironically, in Professor Tomasi and Professor D’Amico’s class, POLS 1150: “Prosperity: The Ethics and Economics of Wealth Creation,” my classmates and I were able to participate in a direct conversation with Charles Koch during which I had the opportunity to question Koch’s perspective on climate change and policy. Koch made himself entirely open to constructive criticisms and questions. In giving us this opportunity for open debate, both the director and associate director for the PTP made clear their commitment to allow room for pushback. This contradicts the theory that the PTP’s sole reason for existing is right-wing indoctrination.

As a student, I have thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful courses taught by the PTP’s professors, as well as its Janus Forum lectures. Not only are these events intellectually stimulating, but they are predicated on a commitment to exposing students to a diversity of perspectives and helping them form their own opinions. I have greatly appreciated how committed the PTP is to presenting multiple rigorously informed perspectives on a range of issues. The fundamental purpose of the Janus Forum lectures is to give opposing voices time to make their case and debate one another.

The mission and practice of the PTP is not only admirable but also vital to facilitating thriving intellectual discourse. It is of the utmost importance that students are able to expose themselves to diverse academic scholarship so that they can come to their own well-informed conclusions. Through its funding of freethinking student publications like the Brown Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Economics and the Brown Political Review, as well as its sponsorship of campus lectures and programs, the PTP is undeniably a foundational treasure of our campus. The PTP ought to be celebrated for its commitment to academic rigor and free thinking, rather than falsely framed as a manipulative pawn of dark outside forces.

Daniel Shemano ’19 can be reached at daniel_shemano@brown.edu. Shemano is the founder and the managing editor of the Brown Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, which is funded by the Political Theory Project.