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Biases of the Intellectual Classes

November 15, 2002

Based on a presentation made at The Scholarship of Liberty Conference, The Twentieth Anniversary of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, October 18–19, 2002.

Western civilization, having achieved the highest standard of living in the world, is almost alone in having created and nurtured a large intellectual class: a group of people whose professions consist of working with and expounding ideas. This class includes college and university professors, administrators, commentators, a few journalists, activists, writers, artists, cartoonists, and so on, including those of us who do the lion's share of our work in research institutes or "think tanks."  

To what can we attribute the high standard of living that gives rise to an intellectual class?  To capitalism, of course. Even to the limited extent expansionist government has allowed capitalism to be practiced, it continues to be an engine of wealth creation and distribution.

Now I need hardly point out that many members of the intellectual class despise capitalism—sometimes passionately. Of course, many university professors and others who identify with the intellectual class subsist at the expense of the state, which means at the expense of taxpayers. This in itself inclines many of them to political and economic philosophies that favor expansionist government instead of economic freedom. But behind this bias there are others.

Karl Marx once said (in Theses on Feuerbach) that "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."  

This statement, to my mind, offers important clues to two different categories of intellectuals. It isn't the difference between those who only want to interpret or understand the world and those who want to change it, although there are plenty of the former (they can be found, e.g., in departments of physics). Most intellectuals who turned their attention to questions of philosophy, economics and politics somewhere along the line did so because they wanted change.

One of the things that makes a person become an intellectual is dissatisfaction with the world in which he finds himself. If you are dissatisfied, you want change. But this begs the question: change toward what?  And what things need to be taken into consideration when trying to get from point A to point B?  The change we Misesians want is change toward more freedom, of course, instead of more statism.

Here is where things really get interesting. Consider Marx's remark more closely. It actually presents us with a false dichotomy. Constructive, hopeful change calls for understanding the world. The two aren't separate. This idea goes all the way back to Bacon's dictum that "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."  This applies to human nature as well. Thus there are intellectuals who want to understand the relevant aspects of our world, and human nature, because they see this as a necessary condition for any sort of change that will make things better. Then there are those in the intellectual class who simply detest the world they find themselves in.

Many of the latter have ended up in universities because they would be unable to earn a living anywhere else. Whatever understanding they present amounts to rationalization for changes they think they can impose on the world in accordance with some theory—often one that, whether out of scorn or mere indifference, mostly ignores human nature as it is. Cultural Marxism is a perfect example.

Mises, of course, belongs in the former group, those who believe we have to understand the world in order to change it. Thus in Human Action and elsewhere he sets out to explain, starting from foundational premises and working upward, what capitalism is and how it works. He integrates an understanding of the world and human nature into a seamless whole.

In Mises's view, capitalism involves acting man, pursuing his ends, trading in value-for-value exchanges, because each believes he will benefit from the transaction. The market is a process coordinating millions of such exchanges. It is a constellation of millions of people buying, selling, hiring, working, and so on, trying to satisfy their needs and wants. The market process communicates to the observant what ought to be produced and in what quantity, what wages workers ought to be paid, and so on. The study of this process is called economics.

Now what is it that so many intellectuals of the Marxian stripe find so detestable about all this? As Mises observes, most clearly in his slim volume The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, capitalism allows the masses to satisfy themselves. Under pure capitalism, the masses trade with one another freely. They are not dictated to by an overlord who establishes what is to be produced and how people should spend their money.

Capitalism is the only system in history structured this way. It gave us a middle class—the much-despised bourgeoisie of Marxist ideology. Marx correctly noted that prior to the rise of capitalism there was no bourgeoisie. The free market created it, by freeing people's creative potential. Those who are most effective at reading what the market "says" and delivering something their fellows want will get rich—possibly even despite having been born into poverty.

Thus in capitalism we have an economic system developed that actually allows the poor to raise their own standards of living by their own efforts, by dealing with their fellows freely. Market processes do not coerce; they send signals. Some read these signals. Some don't. Some can't. Some simply won't.

Here we return to the intellectual class and its biases. Many intellectuals look down their noses at the masses. Intellectuals by nature share an interest in, and belief in, the power of ideas. They are right, but that isn't the issue. They don't perceive any such interest or appreciation in the masses.

It is true that the common man doesn't have a great deal of intellectual curiosity. Nor does he question the accepted practices of his society unless he perceives them going in the wrong direction (as many ordinary people do today). So the intellectual class separates itself from the masses and holds them in contempt. This contempt then transfers to the economic system that has done the most to benefit the masses by providing what they want and elevating the economic status of the providers.

Thus many intellectuals deeply resent a system that lavishes rewards on those who in some way serve the masses and withholds rewards from those who see themselves as above such things. They hate it when the marketplace makes Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez rich girls. They grit their teeth at how Danielle Steel sells more books than they could ever dream of selling.

How can a system be just, they go on, when professional athletes who didn't even finish their underwater-basketweaving university degrees sign multi-million dollar contracts while they, with their Ph.D.'s, languish in relative poverty?  Is it fair, they demand to know, that Bill Gates is worth more than entire third world countries?  Intellectuals blame capitalism for all this, and much more.   

Capitalism rewards celebrities, however, because of the purchasing power of the masses, people the intellectuals see as beneath them. They cannot admit that they either can't or won't participate in this system and that the fault is theirs, not the celebrities or the masses. They believe this system rewards the "wrong" values, and this leads them to want to impose their values on the system as a whole—whether in the name of more tasteful music (by their favorite artists or composers, of course), better books than Danielle Steel's (theirs, perhaps), a better operating system than Windows (we're waiting), and so on.

The intellectuals can't see this, of course. They want to shift the blame from themselves onto the system that rewards pop stars and romance novelists, and they blame the "stupidity" of the hopelessly ignorant masses. The more sophisticated create entire systems to rationalize their disdain for capitalism and those it rewards.

Marxism is the most obvious example. Marx predicted that capitalism would be destroyed by its own "internal contradictions."  His was really a theory of history, not an economic system. He had very little to say about socialism. Most of his and more recent Marxist writings are about capitalism. These say that capitalism created great wealth but also massive poverty.

The response is that there has always been poverty. Until capitalism, everyone but a tiny, hereditary elite lived in poverty. Capitalism has lifted more and more people out of poverty. By the early decades of this century it was obvious that capitalism wasn't going to destroy itself; left to itself it would get stronger. The worker-heroes of Marxist mythology were not going to launch a revolution against the bourgeoisie because they wanted to be bourgeois.

Astute observers of capitalism such as Mises realized that many of the real problems plaguing capitalism—the "booms" and "busts" of business cycles, for example—were not caused by anything intrinsic to capitalism but by government and central bankers' interference with the market process. Marxists couldn't admit that their worldview was refuted by facts. Something must be wrong with critics' perceptions of the facts. Hence the appearance of notions like "false consciousness" and other Marxian epicycles.

Freedom vs. Power

But what Marxist intellectuals really wanted—and still want—is power: the power to impose their vision of society on everyone. This becomes clear when we consider the strategy they employed following Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who saw most clearly that there wasn't going to be any proletariat revolution. It was Gramsci's idea to capture the culture and subvert it from within—especially by subverting the Judeo-Christian morality that had always been the best guide to personal conduct whether in the marketplace or in one's personal life.

It is to Gramsci we owe the "long march through the institutions" that enabled Gramscian cultural Marxists to take control of the universities, portions of the media, the legal system, etc. Now all we have to do is look at these institutions to see what happens whenever intellectuals of this sort get their hands on institutional power. They immediately suppress points of view other than their own, and it has reached the point where not even the more intellectually honest liberals (e.g., Tammy Bruce, author of The New Thought Police) can stand it anymore.

Now I should make a few things clear. I am not defending what Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez do, or applauding the fact that superstar athletes become instant multimillionaires. But those who blame capitalism for this have picked the wrong target. The blamers should look to the various factors that have interfered with the workings of the free market and captured the culture. Government has been plundering the market for decades now, producing, e.g., the government schools that have been captured by forces hostile to individualism.

The free market, moreover, is not an animate force. It does not have a mind or will of its own. It is just the arena in which myriad exchanges take place; it is the process of exchange writ large. Markets deliver what people want; they don't guarantee that people will want the "right" things. People critical of what markets deliver should therefore look to those factors of society (tax-exempt foundations, for instance) that have funded the absurd educational fads (OBE, for example) that have dumbed down government schools, producing so many people who only want to absorb passive entertainment or indulge the prurient tastes of MTV.

The point is, the things that are wrong with contemporary American culture cannot be laid at the doorstep of capitalism. The tastes of the masses will always be lower than that of the intellectuals. That is a given. Also, in many cases, the intellectuals who have sought to control populations have no one to blame but themselves—or their antecedents—for the current sorry state of much popular culture. They instituted an agenda decades ago, and now that agenda has snowballed.

What professional intellectuals should do is to seek out ideas that work, and that really do improve society—and to realize that their own standing is improved when they set out to understand the world and human nature. They must grasp that a free economy is better than a command economy, and learn how a free economy works. Intellectuals currently see themselves as alienated souls—but this again is their own doing, for having set themselves apart and scorning those over which they would wield power.

The Role of Intellectuals

The response is that the intellectual class does have a role to play in the division of labor writ large that really would be a properly functioning capitalist society. Its alienation could be assuaged by more rigorous study of both logic and economics—the real thing, as opposed to what passes for economics in most textbooks today. They could also do with less self-absorption.

What characterizes the true intellectual is breadth of knowledge, a capacity to speak on many issues, and to have grasped the connections between them. They often have what it takes to be conceptual, "big-picture" thinkers. Intellectuals tend to know more history and more culture in some cases, more science in others, than nonintellectuals. This makes them ideal educators.

Many intellectuals, of course, are educators now. But because of their alienation and their Platonistic belief that their superior knowledge of, e.g., the history of ideas makes them more fit to rule, to use the institutions of the state to impose their values on others by the force, they are presently miseducating.

Most Americans are loyal to what many intellectuals contemptuously label bourgeois society. Bourgeois society is invariably imperfect, because acting man is imperfect. Many intellectuals tend to be perfectionists. They want Utopia and think they are qualified to be its philosopher-kings. They are surprisingly uninterested in pursuing the vastly more significant larger question of what it is about the education of the present generation that has rendered so many incapable of appreciating better music than that of Britney Spears, or better books than those of Danielle Steel.

Such an inquiry would take them right to the doorstep of what should be their real target: the omnipotent state, and those who would use it as an instrument of plunder and control. (It is interesting that James Fenimore Cooper's complex, philosophical novels, for example, sold very well in their day—in the highly literate population of the American republic of the early 1800s before the era of Horace Mann and government schools, John Dewey and progressive education, or Alfred Kinsey and sex education.)  

So what should intellectually honest intellectuals be doing?  

(1) They should take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves, what do I want?  Or perhaps better, what are my values? Do they honestly want an improved society? Or one in ruins?  I need not rehearse the damage Marxist revolutionaries have done. And the stealth subversion of Western culture surely hasn't done contemporary America any good. At one time being a radical meant going to the root. I am not saying intellectuals shouldn't do this. But they must ask the right questions before they do anything else.

(2) Making the charitable assumption that they sincerely want a better society, the second thing intellectuals should do is: learn the rules, both of economics and of culture. Learn, that is, how a free market is supposed to work. Learn what cultural factors and values lead people to support wholesome music and art and what kinds of factors subvert them.

Focusing just on this, intellectuals will have to accept that it is not capitalism that propels a Britney Spears to fame. Mises stated that capitalism rewards those who serve the needs and wants of the masses. He never stated that their wants would be sound, or wholesome. Economics studies the choices people do in fact make, not whatever choices they should make. Such factors lay outside the province of economics. But intellectuals can deal with them provided, again, they learn what questions to ask. (This is another way of saying: there is more to life than economics, something Mises never denied.)   

(3) Learning the rules should teach intellectuals why they must relinquish their need for control. I cannot stress this enough. Most intellectuals see themselves as superior to the masses. But could society do without stockbrokers, forklift operators, truck drivers, auto mechanics, pencil manufacturers and other mostly nonintellectual types?  Obviously not. Could intellectuals do without them?  No, unless they have mastered all the tasks that these people do in society (and of course they have not).

There is no way to list all the myriad tasks that have to get done in any functional society. Capitalism is not planned—except in the sense that we plan to keep government and those who would use government out of the way. In the end, there just isn't any way to design a planned system, because its architects would have to "see from the inside" every one of these occupations, everyone involved in them, and the constantly changing aims and values of everyone needing their services. This, as both Mises and Hayek have argued, is simply impossible.

Moreover, I have met people who work in fields like real estate, insurance and other such professions. Many have struck me as quite intelligent. Intellectuals should relinquish their contempt for those they see as outside their exclusive clubs and realize that society is a division of labor writ large that includes the intellectual work of education but also much, much more.

The masses may not understand Plato's Myth of the Cave but they usually understand their own vocation quite well, and can do it most competently when not being interfered with by those who do not understand it. Society is too complex to be controlled from a central point. The Platonist philosopher-king simply doesn't exist. He is an intellectual myth.

(4) Similarly, intellectuals should relinquish their contempt for nonintellectuals. This follows from (3). When intellectuals speak or act contemptuously toward nonintellectuals, this invites scorn, especially given that so many intellectuals can sound off on some issue of the day, and a nonintellectual can show that the intellectual does not know what he is talking about. When caught miseducating their children, whether to indoctrinate them into the fictions of political correctness or scare them to death about global warming, intellectuals invite justified resentment that gives all their number a black eye.  

(5) Recognize the benefits of freedom for all. This means doing something intellectuals should excel at: seeing the Big Picture. The intellectual class—including intellectuals who have spent their lives practicing hating capitalism—is better off under capitalism than under any other system (to the extent their spokespeople in the political system have allowed capitalism to be practiced in this country).

Capitalism raises standards of living for all who participate, not by taking wealth away from anyone but by creating it. Thus there is more for everyone. Also, capitalism creates a space for the free exchange of ideas as well as goods. Socialists everywhere clamp down on the free exchange of ideas. Intellectuals in our society who want to exempt certain ideas from criticism invite questions like, what are you afraid of?  Of course, truth is more likely to emerge from free exchanges of ideas than from thought control.

(6) Recognize further that people are more likely to be generous under capitalism.  Libertarian political philosopher Tibor Machan once wrote an article entitled something like, "It Usually Begins With the Poor."  The basic idea, which Professor Machan was disputing, is that capitalism inevitably leaves poor people to flounder. Beginning at least with Marx is the idea that capitalism brings out the worst in people, that it encourages greed and indifference to others. The market punishes greed, however (look at Enron).

As for indifference to others, the dichotomy between serving oneself and serving others is a false one. One must serve others in order to serve oneself. So capitalism encourages those who would succeed to find out what others need or want and then supply it: the exact opposite of indifference to others. The resulting transactions, mind you, are peaceful; none are forced. This doesn't necessitate a system that callously casts out the less-well-off and those who for some reason, say infirmity, cannot work. Again, this is cultural and moral, not economic; it involves rejecting indifference to suffering.

But when the successful have more, and are allowed to dispense with the fruits of their labors according to their own choices, as opposed to involuntarily having to fund a privileged caste of politicians and bureaucratic overlords, they are more likely to be generous—since none of us can take the fruits of our labors to our graves, anyway.

(7) Intellectuals need to strengthen, and in some cases, recover, the respect for truth, as opposed to ideology. Postmodernist academic culture has very much undermined respect for truth, replacing it with superstardom and the political agenda. The results are there for all to see. Intellectuals who proclaim their devotion to ideals like tolerance are the first to shout down those who disagree with them. Their "diversity" means a diversity of faces, not ideas. They will pen books that blatantly and transparently further political programs such as militant feminism (Catharine MacKinnon) or gun control (Michael Bellesiles).

Postmodernist intellectuals seem not to believe there is a culture-independent truth—which if true, would be a culture-independent truth (what else could it be?). In this way, postmodernism is destroyed by its own internal logic. Finally, many educational practices—going all the way down to those used on small children—are designed to instill conformity to the group (otherwise known as consensus) rather than such things as a love of reading, a love of learning what is true, and the zest for life I have observed in entrepreneurs. These are the first truths the intellectuals who can hope to contribute something to the future history of ideas need to embrace.

All of this means reversing Marx's statement above, and instead saying something like, "Marxists have only wanted to change the world, first by revolution and then by subversion; the point, however, is to understand the world and the people in it so that we know what changes to make and how to carry them through."   

The intellectual class has a job to do involving education. This job is an important one. It ranges from teaching the rules of correct thinking or reasoning to the full range of history, economics, natural sciences, and so on. The students of intellectuals rightly expect not just knowledge but honesty.

Intellectual honesty means, at the very least, acknowledging the facts that are before one's eyes: facts about the superiority of a civilization built around the concepts of individual freedom and responsibility, free enterprise, private property rights, and so on, to one built around central planning schemes that have yet to deliver anything except poverty, slavery and misery. When intellectuals teach the children of nonintellectuals to hate their own civilization and regard its achievements as acts of villainy, they only invite waves of understandable anti-intellectual reaction.


Steven Yates, Ph.D.,  is a Margaret "Peg" Rowley Visiting Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute where he is writing a book entitled In Defense of Logic: Against Polylogism and Conventionalism in Education, Science, Culture and Life. He is the author of a previous book, Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (1994) and numerous articles. He is a regular contributor to the news / commentary site LewRockwell.com. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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