The Courage to be Utopian
In “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Nobel laureate F.A Hayek shows how ideas gain acceptance in modern society. More importantly, he shows how to win the battle of ideas against supporters of big government. His thoughts provide us with an Independence Day meditation.
Over the long run, public intellectuals—Hayek called them “professional secondhand dealers in ideas”—wield an “all-pervasive” influence on public policy and politics by shaping public opinion.
A public intellectual need not be an original thinker, scholar, or expert in a field. He need not possess special knowledge or be particularly intelligent. But a public intellectual can readily talk and write on a wide range of subjects and he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than others. They serve as intermediaries in the spread of ideas.
Such intellectuals include journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists; radio, television, and online commentators; writers of fiction, cartoonists, artists, actors, and even scientists and doctors who speak outside their fields of expertise. “It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us,” Hayek wrote, “which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.”
Public intellectuals are the gatekeepers of ideas in modern society, and voters tend to follow them in the long run.
“It is no exaggeration to say that, once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. . . . It is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses.”
True scholars, scientists, and experts find that such intellectuals understand “nothing in particular especially well,” but it is a huge mistake to dismiss them because, “it is their judgment which mainly determines the views on which society will act in the not too distant future.” So intellectuals must be won over, not ignored, but how?
Since a public intellectual tends not to be an expert on a particular issue, they judge new ideas “by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced.” In today’s politics and public policy, the preconception that guides intellectuals is that central planning and central control is always better than decentralized, individualized approaches. To the modern intellectual: “Deliberate control or conscious organization is in social affairs always superior to the results of spontaneous processes which are not directed by a human mind; or that any order based on a plan laid down beforehand must be better than one formed by the balancing of opposing forces.”
So how does one change the preconceptions of intellectuals that are undermining the foundations of a free society? Hayek contended that, primarily, it is not self-interest or evil intentions, but “mostly honest convictions and good intentions which determine the intellectual’s views.” Hayek advised liberty lovers to play into those good intentions and borrow a page from the playbook of socialists.
“The intellectual, by his whole disposition, is uninterested in technical details or practical difficulties. What appeals to him are the broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises.” Thus liberty lovers must play into this visionary character and have the “courage to indulge in Utopian thought.”
Hayek warned liberty lovers not to be consumed entirely with current policy debates, but instead they should also dive into long-run speculation that is the strength of socialists and which appeals to intellectuals. Classical liberals must be willing to be seen as “impractical” and “unrealistic” by the current political leadership in order to grab the imagination of intellectuals, who are essential to spreading ideas.
Rather than focusing exclusively on piecemeal improvement of current legislation, liberty lovers must offer grand reconstructions and abstractions that will appeal to the imagination and ingenuity of intellectuals. They must provide a clear picture of future society at which they are aiming without overstatement or extravagance, but which inspires the imagination of intellectuals.
To change the views of intellectuals, one must demonstrate the limits of government planning and control and why it becomes positively harmful if extended beyond these limits, so harmful that it undermines the very ideals that intellectuals hold dear. The key is to focus on ideals because ideals arouse the imagination of intellectuals. For example, “freedom of opportunity” is an ideal. “Relaxation of controls on opportunity” is a political compromise and best left to politicians. “Equality under the law” is an ideal. “An important step toward equality” is a political compromise.
Hayek was realistic about the challenges ahead: “It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.” To avoid this we must make the task of building a free society as “exciting and fascinating” as any socialist scheme by making it an intellectual adventure based on enduring ideals that when put in practice improve human well-being. This will take time.
“Socialism has never and nowhere been at first a working-class movement. It is a construction of theorists” and spread by intellectuals, wrote Hayek.
It took a long time for intellectuals to persuade the working classes to accept this construction and lovers of liberty likewise must take the long view, with their eyes on the prize. If they have the “courage to be Utopian” and boldly follow Hayek’s battle plan, the road to serfdom could well reverse course. Something to ponder on Independence Day.
 First published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1949, when socialist totalitarianism, led by the Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China, was on the march worldwide.