Alberto Mingardi  

Minogue on intellectuals and politics

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LIberty & Enemies.jpg On Liberty and Its Enemies is a posthumous collection of essays by the late Ken Minogue. When Ken died, right after the 2013 Mont Pelerin meeting in the Galapagos Islands (the paper he gave there is included in the book), he was working on a book on the concept of liberty. This collection, edited by Tim Fuller, is the best surrogate to a book we'll never read. Readers will appreciate how Ken's reflections on the conditions that make liberty possible was nurtured and grew over the years--by constantly revisiting and reworking his arguments.

The book includes an essay on "The Intellectual Left's Treason of the Heart". Minogue defines intellectuals as "people who have read a lot of books and take up positions on public affairs" and considered "the occurrence of folly and illusion among the intelligent, where one might expect it least" as "an under-explored aspect of the political life of our time". Minogue thinks that on a variety of issues (for example, their judgment on the market system) these bookish types tend to be wrong, whereas ordinary electors tend to be right. This view is perhaps very British-specific.

Why is it so? Minogue seems to think that, on the one hand, an intellectual gets extra points for being critical of the status quo (regardless of which status quo) and, on the other, she is quite a more gregarious character than she would admit.


Sometimes illusion leading to superficiality results from a rhetorical game in which intellectuals must exhibit their identity as above all 'critical' thinkers, and this is done by indulging in a merciless view of what has been set up as 'conventional wisdom'.

Intellectuals are "often trumps in the propaganda contest" and "bring their wisdom to bear upon current affairs by signing up to collective positions".

Minogue was not concerned exclusively with why intellectuals oppose capitalism. The piece is largely a review of David Pryce-Jones' Treason of the Heart, which I haven't read. The book considers intellectuals who took sides, as ideologues, against their own countries. Minogue was interested in the phenomenon, insofar as it made intellectuals end up as PR officers for dodgy regimes: "Foreign despotisms only have to declare their passion to improve the condition of the poor, and many an academic is lying with his back on the floor waving his paws in the air".

Minogue points out that some of these positions were driven by the illusion that good rulers (or even better, good revolutionary rulers) could just fix all of a country's problems by fiat. But he also underlines how little this ostensibly humanitarian posture is concerned with the good of some _individual_ people, while on the other hand it tends to consider "collective entities thought to be in the process of being born". This was the case with the enthusiasm for some of the "national liberation" movements all over the world.

I guess the main point of Ken's essay is that "critical" thinkers sometimes are far less "critical" than they think. This little essay is a splendid read and quite thought-provoking, as the whole book is.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Thaomas writes:

This "explanation" of "leftist" positions seems wrong to me.

I see the "collectivist" trajectory of policy on many issues as a result of an absence of "non-collectivist" solutions being offered to problems.

Take the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the harm that is expected to flow from it. Liberals present taxing emissions as the closest analogy to what might result from the judgement in global a global tort suit. But either the harm itself is denied or even a tax is rejected as too intrusive on the market with the result that even more intrusive measures are adopted such as energy set-asides, specific regulations on technologies that may be employed, or subsidies to specific firms with "green" activities.

This pattern of non-response by those who dislike "collectivist" to other problems can be seen in one area after another: food, drug, and occupational safety, health insurance, poverty, inability to fund many kinds of research with the profits of its application.

Mark writes:

Thaomas,

On pollution, you have a (sort of) valid point, but the problem is that many prominent Republicans and even libertarians (John Cochrane and Greg Mankiw come to mind) have supported the idea of a carbon tax as a substitute for regulation. *Leftist*, rather, seem to reject this policy position; regulation of CO2 is a sine qua non.

On other issues you mention, you have much less of a point, because the very idea that we are all obligated to provide certain services to others itself rests on the collectivist assumption that we are responsible for other people's lot in life (even though progressives are not willing to give us corresponding control over the life choices of others that play a role in determining their well-being).

Minogue seems particularly concerned with the role of people's choices in determining their well-being. He likely believed that poverty was largely a product of poor choices and irresponsibility. So, one might dispute that it is even a 'problem' at all that poor choices lead to a decline in one's welfare. And the collectivist 'solution' of requiring everyone to insure everyone else against the consequences of their poor choices is far from being a solution; rather, it exacerbates the problem by eliminating discincentives for irresponsibility.

So, I'd say he's largely correct in assessing leftist positions. It's not a matter of favored solutions (or no solutions). It's how they characterize the phenomenon they call a problem. Specifically, they tend to attribute poverty (other undesirable phenomena) to 'society' while viewing the people who suffer them as having little or no agency.

Thaomas writes:

@ Mark

If the difference between being a "friend" and not an "enemy" of liberty, is seeing huge differences in incomes or in specific kinds of consumption (like having health insurance) as entirely a matter of individual effort, then, I and most other people are indeed, "collectivist" enemies of liberty.

@ Boudreaux

It is of course an exaggeration to say that non-collectivists" never propose non- or less-collectivist alternatives to collectivist, but I think it is infrequent.

Take the minimum wage issue. How much non-collectivist ink is spilled proposing alternative ways to raise the incomes of low-paid workers, compared to the amount going toward showing that a minimum wage has some drawbacks as a way of advancing that goal?

Jon Murphy writes:

@Thaomas

How much non-collectivist ink is spilled proposing alternative ways to raise the incomes of low-paid workers, compared to the amount going toward showing that a minimum wage has some drawbacks as a way of advancing that goal?

How are the two different? If Policy A purports to raise Joe's income, but in reality lowers Joe's income, arguing against Policy A has the same effect as raising Joe's income. You're raising it from a potentially lower level.

Furthermore, as Don points out, these "non-collectivist" proposals do increase income as compared to other options. That is key here.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Thaomas: I submit that the physician who warns a patient that that patient's belief that smoking will reduce that patient's risk of dying from lung cancer does that patient a good service even if that physician offers to that patient no specific recommendations for other ways to reduce the patient's risk of dying from lung cancer. To point out that action X will not only not achieve the result that some believe X will achieve, but in fact will achieve a result that's quite the opposite, is useful even if nothing further is said.

Mark writes:

"If the difference between being a "friend" and not an "enemy" of liberty, is seeing huge differences in incomes or in specific kinds of consumption (like having health insurance) as entirely a matter of individual effort, then, I and most other people are indeed, "collectivist" enemies of liberty."
I'll take your word for it.

If you believe income is basically just a lottery; that being intelligent, hard-working, and self-disciplined (or stupid, lazy, and hedonistic) mean little or nothing, and that punishing economic virtues while rewarding economic vices have no impact on behavior, I guess you would see little reason to let people keep what they make instead of redistributing it elsewhere.

I would note that it does not have to be "entirely a matter of individual effort" (something I never said) for redistribution to be more harmful than good (minimum wage is a bad example, btw; even if redistribution is justified, direct controls are virtually always more harmful than good); if individual effort (or lack thereof) plays a significant role at all, then redistribution does indeed end up punishing good behavior and rewarding bad behavior, imposing significant costs (and new unfairness) on the system.

Lastly, I'd say it's pretty clear nearly everyone (whether they admit it or not) is on my side in this question. If they weren't, they would all deliberately raise their children to be lazy hedonists, since hard work and delayed gratification don't increase their chances of winning the lottery. They wouldn't value education, or encourage their kids to get jobs, to obtain experience.

But the reality is, most people don't behave like they're just playing the lottery. Nor do you I expect.

Thaomas writes:

@ Don and Jon

I do not think we are looking at this in the same way. I see low incomes of people earning current minimum wages as a "problem;" most peple want each and every one of them to earn more. A minimum wage if the elasticity of demand for labor is low, will raise the wages of most of these people, but a few will lose their jobs. More power to Libertarians for calling attention to the unfortunate effect of the minimum wage on those who will be harmed.

But that harm ipso facto is not a good enough reason to oppose a minimum wage in my view. Some people benefit and some people suffer but ANY policy will have that effect. To oppose a minimum wage I think one ought either 1) to argue that the net effects are bad relative to the status quo -- the benefit to those that retain jobs at higher wages is not worth the harm to those who lose jobs (and lower returns to owners of the relevant firms and/or the customers of these firms who may pay higher prices), or 2) that there is another policy that will produce the similar benefits but with less harm. It is the second kind of policy that I think that Libertarians are remiss in not advancing.

Thaomas writes:

@ Mark

I think (and I do not feel that I'm unique in this) that income is neither entirely a lottery NOR a entirety a return to character and genetic characteristics. Therefore redistribution will have both an "economic" and "moral" cost: some good behavior (which will benefit others as well as the actors) will be marginally discouraged and some bad behavior will be encouraged.

But it will have some benefits, too. Some people will be able to consume more that they could have as a result of their "bad luck." Therefore I think that each policy that has a unique mix of effects needs to be considered on its merits and demerits.

If "friends of liberty" can never find any redistribution worthwhile, I and others will wonder it it is really with "liberty" that their friendship lies.

john hare writes:

@Thaomas

Yes the alternative way of raising the minimum wage is discussed extensively. It is just not referred to in those terms for the most part. Every reference to "get an education", "get some experience", "find a better job", and "learn a trade" is an explicit instruction on means of raising he wages of those on the bottom. That there is most definitely an element of luck or lottery involved does not detract from those simple elements of advice.

Working a minimum wage job should be an incentive to find a better way. Better ways exist. Perhaps a meme should be emphasized that the way to force companies to pay more is to improve the value of the individual to the point that the company that does not increase their wages is going to lose valuable human capital.

Conceptually, millions of quality jobs could be created in this country across the next few years. Incentives to individuals that work alone due to the complexity of dealing with employees could be a national effort to reduce that complexity. Very small companies can work with the individuals as individuals instead of interchangeable parts. This would put a lot of pressure on the mega-corps to retain the valuable people.

One problem is that many people on the bottom rung bring no value, or even negative value to the table. At extreme, you wouldn't hire a child molester to baby sit your children. Less obvious, you can't afford thieves, liars, or violent people anywhere near your company or family even at zero wage. Behavior must have consequences that cannot be addressed with a minimum wage.

john hare writes:

@Thaomas

I may have went off on a tangent on my last comment. Minimum wage cuts off some of the bottom rungs of the ladder people need to climb to improve their lives. It adds to the distraction that it is someone else to blame for the problem. As long as someone believes that someone else is to blame, they have much less drive to fix their own problems.

The ones that my little group has tried to help fall into two categories more or less, those trying to help themselves, and those that throw away every opportunity. Society could do more to help those on the bottom, but it has more to do with removing obstacles than redistributing wealth.

I wasn't smart enough to be born on the right side of the tracks so I have probably associated with the disadvantaged more than many readers of this forum. I have seen the seamier side of redistribution and thinking it is someone elses problem first hand. A small percentage of people with less than me have done better than I have. Many with more have done less even with the odds in their favor.

The seamier side involves some government employees protecting their jobs by keeping people dependent. Some religious people preaching envy and guilt. Drug addicts having kids to get a government check when they have no intention of raising them responsibly. People that consider jail to be just another aspect of life that doesn't affect their behavior much. etc

Fred Anderson writes:

This is a nice little discussion, but isn't it rather disconnected from the article we're supposedly commenting on?

Wasn't Minogue's point that being an "intellectual" has a large element of the poseur to it? (Sounds about right to me!) That any true intellectual wouldn't be so naive or dishonest as to accept the title?

What have I missed?

Ken writes:

Thaomas,

"Take the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the harm that is expected to flow from it. Liberals present taxing emissions as the closest analogy to what might result from the judgement in global a global tort suit. But either the harm itself is denied or even a tax is rejected as too intrusive on the market"

"Liberals" (they're not liberal) deny the benefits expected from accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The ONLY action "liberals" have is to deny people ever more of their liberty, the right that resulted in the cleanest healthiest human existence in all of human history.

"This pattern of non-response by those who dislike "collectivist" to other problems can be seen in one area after another: food, drug, and occupational safety, health insurance, poverty, inability to fund many kinds of research with the profits of its application."

First off, if you have to lie that there is only "non-response" to the attempted usurpation of people's wealth and rights, then your argument is weak tea.

Second, it is only right and just to resist such usurpations. ALL actions of "collectivists" that seek to deny people their right to liberty, with the result of making people serfs dependent on the patronage of powerful politicians, should ALWAYS be resisted. Politicians don't have more information wrt food, drugs, occupational safety, health insurance, poverty, etc, than anyone else. That doesn't stop them from pretending they do and that they can fix these "problems". All citizens have to do is give up more of their hard earned money and liberty.

Ken writes:

Thaomas,

"I see low incomes of people earning current minimum wages as a "problem;""

It's not, but even if it was, you don't have a solution for it, nor do politicians. Citizens shouldn't be made to give up their unalienable rights and wealth to fund the extravagantly luxurious lifestyle of the political elite because they, like a snake oil salesman, claim to know what's needed, all we have to do is give up our liberty and wealth.

"if the elasticity of demand for labor is low"

Note the "if". Also, it's been empirically been proven wrong for a long time. Your problem is you base policy on assumptions that have been proven wrong.

"But that harm ipso facto is not a good enough reason to oppose a minimum wage in my view. Some people benefit and some people suffer but ANY policy will have that effect."

This argument amounts to "it's okay to economically hold down the most economically vulnerable because holding them down economically benefits those marginally less vulnerable". It's a repulsive view to have.

Further, the fact that we have an unalienable right to liberty is all that's needed to argue against preventing people from getting jobs, unless they can convince an employer to pay them a politically dictated minimum. Minimum wage laws are the unconstitutional, and immoral, usurpation of citizens' liberty.

Foo Bar writes:

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