Alberto Mingardi  

Again on intellectuals and capitalism / 3 of 3

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Social media have democratised the way in which public opinion takes shape. There are a number of non-vocational wordsmiths that compete with professional ones and, when it comes to creating and maintaining a "following", it is not clear that the professionals are more successful than the non-professionals.

social media.jpg I've written that the question "why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?" was considered an important one by some giants of 20th century classical liberal thought. But does it continue to be?

One problematic point about Nozick's "wordsmiths" in the world of social media is that they were so "by vocation". Hayek's emphasis on the need to convince "second-hand dealers in ideas" assumed that ideas were not merely "originated" by professionals but also propagated by people whose job was to educate others and communicate ideas.

Hayek's insights shaped the strategy followed by many organisations which tried to convince intellectuals of the virtues of a freer market. Jeremy Shearmur wrote a fascinating paper on the London Institute of Economic Affairs entitled "Lunching for Liberty". The leaders of the Institute, Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, built "a distinctive kind of (closed) public forum, in their offices, in which there was a free - and pleasurable - exchange of views over long luncheons". In England, key-decision making was concentrated in the city of London, and so were the major newspapers. When the IEA was established, British culture was still rather "clubbish": this suited rather well its model of disseminating ideas through personal contacts with influential opinion makers. While the Institute never made classical liberalism popular among academics or intellectuals at large, it was almost single-handedly responsible for it gaining attention and respectability.

But what about today?

Social media have democratised the way in which public opinion takes shape. There are a number of non-vocational wordsmiths who compete with professional ones and, when it comes to creating and maintaining a "following", it is not clear that the professionals are more successful than the non-professionals. Such a growing supply of "social media gurus" influences the way we see the public debate, particularly through our Facebook timelines and our Twitter accounts. We sense that the influence of high school teachers is fading away, while that of social mediaists, in aggregate, is on the rise.

Still, I would tend to believe that even social-media ideas are not independent of the vocational wordsmiths. The stories we hear in our formative years, the books we read, the movies we see, make us more receptive to this or that political message, too. In this regard, vocational wordsmiths do still play a role. However simplistic an understanding of the industrial revolution may be, for example, is it not based upon some understanding of history or economic theory?

Still, a competing thesis may be mentioned. Dan Klein wrote a rather interesting paper a few years ago, "Resorting to Statism to Find Meaning". Dan treats "high-strata," "low-strata," and "all-strata" statist biases, and suggests that classical liberalism is "a rather intellectual affair", which "does not make for mass political meaning". This is based upon another insight by Hayek, who advanced the thesis that support for social justice may be an "atavism". We evolved with morals fit for the small band, and we struggle to adjust to an extended order. (Herbert Spencer argued things not very different.) Political movements often atavistically tap into the band ethos and mentality.

Resorting to statism to find meaning is consistent with a bent for simpler, older way of looking at phenomena, searching invariably for visible hands. This also explains the success of conspiracy theories, which provide people with a culpable wrong-doer for whatever social ills.

Would such a view be incompatible with the idea that intellectuals tend to be hostile to capitalism? I think that is the case only superficially. In fact, wordsmiths are human beings like anybody else, but they devote far more time than anybody else in thinking about social facts, and define themselves by the time and effort they put into such activity. For, if such a tendency is profoundly deeply rooted in human beings, choosing a profession in the production of words won't excise it. Quite the contrary, as in the case of many social scientists, they may end up choosing such a profession precisely because they "feel" strongly about a certain set of social facts.


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture




COMMENTS (7 to date)
Gareth Morley writes:

2 problems. First you don’t even establish the truth of the explanandum (wordsmiths are more hostile to markets than anyone else), and even admit this, but proceed to explain anyway. Then your explanans (ppl like to see intention even where it doesn’t exist) only works if this tendency is more prominent for the treatment group (wordsmiths). But you don’t establish this either and it doesn’t seem plausible.

You say wordsmiths are more likely to think about social facts. This might explain why whatever ideas they have about social facts are more strongly held (magnitude of the vector) but it doesn’t explain why they would be more anti-market than anyone else’s (direction of the vector). Which of course is a fact not in evidence.

Gareth Morley writes:

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Thaomas writes:
Would such a view [that many people are "atavistically" attached to some form of social justice] be incompatible with the idea that intellectuals tend to be hostile to Capitalism?

Not unless they thought that "Capitalism" had no room for public expenditures financed by progressive taxation aimed at improving the lot of low-income or otherwise disadvantaged people, to offset negative externalities, etc. This may be the view of some Libertarians -- we might designate it "Capitalilsm-L" (and even Hayek saw room for state provision of health insurance), but Liberals do not view Capitalism that way and so are not hostile to Capitalism.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Mr. Mingari:

Having waited for all 3 parcels:

In Part 2 you say:

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.

In that, and in preceding text, you touch, not only on potential errors which seem to guide not only "Intellectuals," but most others, in considering what ought to be [Nozick, again] the causes of what is "wrong" (dissatisfying?) about the economic and social phenomenon labeled "Capitalism."

What most consider as "Capitalism" is (pace Schumpeter, et al.) a resulting condition. it is not a "system."

Regardless of the impacts on that resulting condition which may be observed from interventions and intrusions (constraining and otherwise) in the social and other economic relationships; the now truncated studies of North, Wallis & Weingast demonstrate the effects of "Open Access" on the formation and operation of associations, together with the displacement of interpersonal with impersonal relationships; all affecting the resulting condition - but; not arising from the operation of a system.

The resulting condition occurs from certain levels of freedoms of choice (freedom from and freedom to), which have largely been individual and required individuals to have particular regard for one another in order to cooperate and flourish separately. Efforts to replace that requirement in forms of collectivist structures (including states) have failed.

Academic, and much other, training instills habits of considering relationships, functions and many "operations" as systems. So the error of considering "everything" in "system" terms may be enhanced in the approach of those so trained.

But, we still have access to Buckley's Boston telephone directory.

I have really enjoyed your series. Have you considered Helmut Schoeck? I think his take on envy meshes well with Hayek’s theory of atavism. Intellectual's usually don't get rich so envy of those who do is probably pretty high, especially since intellectuals think so highly of themselves.

Hayek had another explanation, too, in Fatal Conceit: socialists place too much value on intelligence and not enough on tradition. As a result they think they can control everything and so they want that control.

For, if such a tendency is profoundly deeply rooted in human beings, choosing a profession in the production of words won't excise it. Quite the contrary, as in the case of many social scientists, they may end up choosing such a profession precisely because they "feel" strongly about a certain set of social facts.

I agree and I think that is why Schoeck is so important to the discussion. Jonathan Haidt's research in his Righteous Mind confirms Schoeck. I think Haidt does the best job of recent writers in explaining how socialists think.

But I'm also impressed with what Bastiat wrote almost two centuries ago. He shows in his pamphlet on academics and degrees how veneration of classical antiquity created modern socialism. The early socialists all praised the socialism of Sparta and Plato's refinement of it in his republic.

Paul Marks writes:

Many "intellectuals" have hated producers and traders since the time of Plato (if not before). It is not really about economics - so showing that they are mistaken about economics rarely works. It is a MORAL (ethical) error - the intellectuals want to RULE (to order everyone else about) and they really despise the ordinary people they pretend to love.

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