Alberto Mingardi  

Again on intellectuals and capitalism / 2 of 3

Ideological Turing Test: Ca... Spot the Irony...

Instead of anti-capitalism we might talk about "economic orthopedics."
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"Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?" is a central question for 20th century classical liberals, and I think confronting answers is a good way to clarify what makes for different "styles" of classical liberalism.

Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter, Nozick and Coase all attempted to provide an answer. Of these scholars, Mises placed his argument in the context of a broader analysis of anti-capitalism. Coase used irony (in his essay on the market for goods vs the market for ideas), Hayek made it a big strategic concern (how to convince the second-hand dealers in ideas?), Schumpeter looked for historical trends (the rationalist and critical ethos of modernity bites the hand of the bourgeoisie), and Nozick suggested that intellectuals, accustomed to being elevated from their school experience, resent the labour market for not doing so. I know I'm not doing justice to these giants: I just want to point out that they treated opposition to liberalism as something to be explained. 
I've already quoted Nozick's definition of "wordsmiths", which helps in defining the boundaries of our field of inquiry. 

By intellectuals, I do not mean all people of intelligence or of a certain level of education, but those who, in their vocation, deal with ideas as expressed in words, shaping the word flow others receive. These wordsmiths include poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors. It does not include those who primarily produce and transmit quantitatively or mathematically formulated information (the numbersmiths) or those working in visual media, painters, sculptors, cameramen. Unlike the wordsmiths, people in these occupations do not disproportionately oppose capitalism. The wordsmiths are concentrated in certain occupational sites: academia, the media, government bureaucracy.

Yet anti-capitalism comes in degrees too. Some wordsmiths may believe that capitalism ought to be reformed via political action, some may dream that the status quo is blown away all together.

Instead of anti-capitalism we might talk about "economic orthopedics." People that are OK with the status quo may appreciate some fruits of capitalism as we know it, but believe that governmental "orthopedic" interventions are needed to steer capitalism to further the common good. People that despise the status quo may think that it has to be rethought completely, but once (just for the sake of the argument) central banks are abolished or bail outs are prohibited or the industrial-military complex is wiped away, the need for intervention will be limited. What is more anti-capitalist?

Nozick spoke of those who are wordsmiths "in their vocation." Such wordsmiths think a lot about political issues; it's how they make a living, nurses and wine merchants not necessarily so. Some groups of workers may have specific issues (I blame Chinese imports for me not getting a salary increase in quite a while), but they are less likely to think about systems: that is, to generalize their concerns into an indictment of the market economy. By saying so I do not mean that nurses and wine merchants have a better understanding of economics, or that they are necessarily more libertarian-leaning. I mean that they are less interested in dreaming about overcoming a "system", than in improving their lot, if necessary by resorting to politics.

We wordsmiths assume that wordsmiths eventually contribute to changes in attitudes, to changes in political demands, and to changes in public policy. This contention was more reasonable years ago than it is now, when it seems that world leaders do not pay much attention to what wordsmiths smith. Yet wordsmiths are still indirectly responsible for shaping the boundaries of conversations: for equipping conversation with what it says. But I'm open to the idea that the chain between the world of ideas and the world of politics nowadays is far different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

In short, I would maintain intellectuals are still typically more anti-capitalist than any other group. Moreover, I think most are not like the tinkering "market-failure" economists. Rather, anti-capitalist wordsmiths denounce "the system" and want to replace it with something else.

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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Weir writes:

Cicero wrote about "servile and demeaning employment" when there was still, almost, something novel to say, something that hadn't been said.

But only almost, because Cicero himself quoted from the playwright Terence, who counted "fishmongers, butchers, cooks, poulterers, fishermen" among the many base and ignoble trades. Being paid is distasteful, exchange is unclean, and "there can be nothing well bred about the workshop" either.

In other words, what the ruling class does is always right and pure. Everyone else is always wrong and bad. Writers today are just epigones of aristocratic Athens and Rome.

Thaomas writes:

Rule # 1 in intellectual discourse: never ask WHY X exists before having shown THAT X exists. (It is a species of begging the question.)

I think that “Intellectuals oppose capitalism” can be supported by defining “capitalism” extremely narrowly that excludes all real-world mixed economies. The evidence advanced, therefore, is evidence for opposing that narrow concept and supporting in its stead some variant of mixed economy – US capitalism, Swedish capitalism, post war UK capitalism, Chinese capitalism, etc.

A.West writes:

Ayn Rand directly addressed the question of why intellectuals are anti-capitalist.
See this quote below from her book "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal". The link is that modern intellectuals are pro-collectivism, pro-altruism, and fundamentally anti-reason (though mostly due to their subjectivism)

"It is often asked: Why was capitalism destroyed in spite of its incomparably beneficent record? The answer lies in the fact that the lifeline feeding any social system is a culture’s dominant philosophy and that capitalism never had a philosophical base. It was the last and (theoretically) incomplete product of an Aristotelian influence. As a resurgent tide of mysticism engulfed philosophy in the nineteenth century, capitalism was left in an intellectual vacuum, its lifeline cut. Neither its moral nature nor even its political principles had ever been fully understood or defined. Its alleged defenders regarded it as compatible with government controls (i.e., government interference into the economy), ignoring the meaning and implications of the concept of laissez-faire. Thus, what existed in practice, in the nineteenth century, was not pure capitalism, but variously mixed economies. Since controls necessitate and breed further controls, it was the statist element of the mixtures that wrecked them; it was the free, capitalist element that took the blame.

Capitalism could not survive in a culture dominated by mysticism and altruism, by the soul-body dichotomy and the tribal premise. No social system (and no human institution or activity of any kind) can survive without a moral base. On the basis of the altruist morality, capitalism had to be — and was — damned from the start."

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