Arnold Kling  

Intellectuals and Capitalism: Honeymoon and Divorce

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To put it baldly, since capitalism undermined aristocracy, it was a good thing from an intellectual's point of view.
That is from Alan S. Kahan, Mind vs. Money: The War between Intellectuals and Capitalism. quoted in a review by Daniel Klein.

Kahan's history is that as long as aristocrats at birth were important, intellectuals as a class had something to gain by bringing down these aristocrats, and promoting capitalism did that. Once the birth aristocracy weakened and a strong business class emerged, anti-capitalism became the more natural ideology of the intellectual class. Remember the Masonomic view that politics is about relative group status. Intellectuals aspire to the status of the clergy and aristocracy in Kahan's view. Klein raises the question of what accounts for those of us who claim to be intellectuals yet are pro-capitalist. Well, we're outliers.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Most intellectuals arrogantly believe they should be in charge because they know so much more about the world than everyone else. "Aristos" means "best," and thus the intellectuals see themselves as having been cheated of their deserved position as earned aristocrats (vs. born ones, which they opposed). They don't see business people as being the best, either, and so are offended by their success, which they think is justly deserved by them -- and which they lack more often than not.

There are a few intellectuals who understand complex systems well enough to understand that they are more ignorant than knowledgeable (they know what and that they do not know and, as such, are wise, according to Soacrates). The truly wise are thus not anti-capitalist, understanding it as a complex system, and that they, as intellectuals, can never know enough to control it or anyone's lives.

josh writes:

I first heard this theory of the "Brahmin" from moldbug.

William Barghest writes:

What are the risk factors for being a pro-capitalist intellectual? Below are some suggestions.

1) Having a technical education.

2) Not working for the government
(including the formal educational system).

3) Being male.

4) Having family members who run businesses or who have military careers.

Lori writes:

You're not outliers, you're economists. In your field, those who are not free market fundamentalists are outliers; politely referred to as 'heterodox.'

Not working for the government includes the formal education system but doesn't include military careers? Most of what passes for anti-government thought is merely anti-public-sector.

Having a technical education means treating learning as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing intellectual about it either. Also note that while 'liberal' education encourages exploration in the form of electives, distribution requirements and multiple majors, most of the more careerist programs have a locked-in curriculum for each of the eight (or however many) terms and a locked-in timetable for completion. Like blinders on a horse. To some extent this issues from credentialism and other entry barriers. Perhaps in a better world exploratory technical learning wouldn't be an oxymoron.

Then there's the 'publish or perish' model vs. the 'proprietary information' model, which also discourages curiosity i.e. intellect. Now they've even got proprietary schools, which look to me like indenture traps.

ajb writes:

William Barghest is on the right track, but his risk factors are also LESS likely to make someone an intellectual. So you need someone who ends up an intellectual but still appreciates capitalism. That usually suggests:

Some degree of social isolation or independence (perhaps a sign of nerdiness or something Aspergery or it could be genuine independence),

A semi-aristocratic background or degree of financial independence freeing him from monetary concerns, or

Some random shock that made a more conventional career unavailable (this was true of East Bloc intellectuals who might have been tycoons instead of thinkers if the world had been different).

Daniel Klein writes:

Whether you consider "relative status" or "the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters" (Smith TMS), you cannot disconnect that from the factors in deciding what that character is to be. Those decisions are not themselves explained by relative status, or not entirely. We are not liberal because we reckoned that being liberal would enhance our relative status as conventionally construed. Rather, becoming liberal belonged to a decision as to what arbiters would matter to us.

Enlightenment isn't a synonmy for "accuracy" or "correctness." It refers to a power, a force. It should be part of our explanations.

William Barghest writes:

@Lori
"Having a technical education means treating learning as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself."

I would have included scientists, mathematicians, and (most) economists in this category, and these folks do seek pointless knowledge. I think some engineering students want to build cool stuff even though it's not necessarily useful, which I would consider learning as an end.


Lori writes:

Of course. Liberal vs. technical is not a dichotomy. Also, the characteristics I ascribed to technical education are perhaps more characteristic of a third category we'll call professional education. I always considered scientists, mathematicians and economists to be part of liberal arts. Engineering is a gray area. If engineering students are building cool stuff, it's as likely as not extracurricular. The engineering curriculum is certainly far more prescriptive and structured than any liberal arts or sciences curriculum. Engineering somehow manages to straddle the chasm between liberal and professional education.

To quote John Lawrence: "The only college degrees worth having are in the 'thousand year old professions' such as law, architecture, civil engineering, medicine."

It's strongly implied that engineering disciplines other than civil are not among the thousand year old professions.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

The desire for lifelong learning need not be associated with being an intellectual. Part of lifelong learning is about finding answers for questions, part of it is about the times when we simply need to retreat from the world for whatever reason, so that we will not just repeat the same experiences or habits over and over again. I worry about the stigma of the 'intellectual', because this stigma tends to devalue knowledge at an aggregate level. Part of the present uncertainty is indeed the not knowing what role knowledge may actually play in the near future.

The role that knowledge gets to play in the future, ultimately depends on the degree to which we are actually willing to allow everyone to exercise knowledge itself.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"What are the risk factors for being a pro-capitalist intellectual? Below are some suggestions."

5 - living in a country with a strong communist party: you begin as a leftist intellectual, join "the Party" and, after some time, you are expelled/leave by some reason and you become a strong anti-communist after that.

MernaMoose writes:

Lori,

Having a technical education means treating learning as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

I don't think you understand those of us who choose to get technical and engineering educations.

Many of us happen to find it "cool" and fun and personally satisfying to design and build things that -- coincidentally or not -- happen to also be useful. So what, does this make us "un-intellectual"? A-intellectual? Doing "cool, fun, and personally satisfying" is an end in itself. Many non-technical types miss this fact about us engineers.

Engineers do have a lot of leeway as to what courses they take in their latter junior and senior year (though admittedly, more at some schools than others), plus far more latitude at the graduate level.

Whatever label the world wants to give us, I sat through my share of humanities courses with liberal arts majors that I wished someone would teach the basics of rational thinking, because these people couldn't see the utter contradictions in their own ideas.


It never occurred to me before that someone would choose their career in terms of "is it useful?" or "is it not useful?". ?? I thought people choose to do the things they actually love to do.

Whether or not your work is "useful", as in "something that people outside a government agency (university or whatever) are willing to pay for", is an entirely separate matter. Engineering professors, especially at the top ranked universities, pride themselves on the fact that they don't do research on anything that's actually going to be of use to anyone for at least another 20 years, if then.

As a mathematician or scientist, you can choose paths that make you "useful" (i.e. employable in the private sphere), or not. I've known plenty of both types. And by the time you start doing R&D at the high end of the scale, the distinction between "engineer", "scientist", and "mathematician" frequently blurs beyond recognition. We all end up working on the same "stuff", together.

If there's a correlation here, it's that people who choose to make themselves "useful" are more likely to be free market types. The most staunchly (and consistently) anti-free market types, are most often among the "useless" class who couldn't find employment if it weren't for the existence of whatever government agency they work for.

What predisposes one to be for or against free markets, is another matter entirely. But in today's world I find it amazing there are so many free market types left. Because the educational system in this country did its very best to insure that I would not come out in favor of free markets.

Troy Camplin writes:

Wow, I don't fit any of the crteria listed (at least one of which I think is completely off the mark, as I'll note below) for being a pro-capitalist intellectual.

Starting with Barghest:

1. Half true. B.A. in recombinant gene technology. But well balanced by M.A. in English and Ph.D. in Humanities.

2. I teach adjunct at two public community colleges, so I guess technically those are working for the government

3. This one is true. I am male. (But my quite female wife with a M.A. who is a teacher is also a pro-market person -- primarily from her experiences as a social worker).

4. No business people in my family at all. My father is a pro-union coal miner with an 8th grade education and no military experience at all.

Now, as for abj:

the first one is the definition of all intellectuals/scholars, not just pro-market ones.

for the second one, see number 4, above. Still have no money, and I work at a hotel at night (in addition to the classes at the two colleges, though for the summer it's just the hotel gig).

as for the last one, no such shock other than boredom with the simplicity of molecular biology.

Troy Camplin writes:

Forgot my promise about the one I thought was off the mark. The one listing "A semi-aristocratic background or degree of financial independence freeing him from monetary concerns" is completely off, because people who have that description are almost the definition of those with an anti-capitalist mentality.

Miguel Madeira writes:

If by "semi-aristocratical" we mean "having considerable assets that provide him/her with sufficient capital incomes", I think this correlate with being a pro-capitalist intellectual (usually the anti-capitalist intellectuals earn their money nor from capital assets but from their activity as intellectuals)

John Fast writes:

I completely agree with everything in Troy Camplin's post.

Lori wrote:

You're not outliers, you're economists. In your field, those who are not free market fundamentalists are outliers; politely referred to as 'heterodox.'
I politely disagree, unless you have a very inclusive definition of "free market fundamentalist."

Would you call Mickey Kaus a free market fundamentalist? Most economists, or at least most academic economists, in the United States are moderate Democrats, to the left of Kaus on social issues, and fairly close to him on economic issues.

Maybe Kaus isn't the best example: how about Bill Clinton as someone that the average (i.e. moderate Democrat) economist was very comfortable with?

If you consider the economic policies of Clinton and Kaus to be "market fundamentalism" then I think your terminology is very skewed.

If you do *not* consider them to be "market fundamentalists" then I think your factual knowledge of economists as a group is mistaken.

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