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Hayek and the Intellectuals

  • Friedrich Hayek

In the past week there has been a hugely entertaining brouhaha on Peter Boettke’s Facebook page concerning the most fruitful approach to promoting libertarian social change. It seems to have been precipitated by an irritated Boettke hectoring youthful libertarian activists for adopting a populist “flattened structure of production” model of propagating libertarian ideas while ignoring Boettke’s preferred IHS model of an elitist, top-down “intellectual structure of production.” In the populist model, broadly libertarian ideas are directly absorbed by people in all professions and walks of life and directly “messaged” to their peers. In the IHS-elitist model the only libertarian ideas worthy of dissemination are those that are created and approved by scholars, invariably academics, at the pinnacle of the intellectual “pyramid of social change” and then carefully prepared for public consumption by the” lower-stage” intellectuals in libertarian-leaning think tanks, libertarian media “communicators,” and designated top-level activists or “actuators.” The blueprint for this IHS model is commonly attributed to Friedrich A. Hayek, who purportedly developed it in his 1945 article, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” As Boettke’s argues:

Hayek is pretty crystal clear in that essay in his desire to inspire a new generation of philosophical thinkers to explore the foundations of a free society…. If you have doubts let’s go to the text. Second-hand dealers are a by-product of philosophical thinkers and policy results when the climate of opinion shifts. Re-read the text carefully PLEASE.

Now my purpose is not to adjudicate between the claims of these competing positions. I wish only to correct some of the profound distortions of Hayek’s views embodied in the Boettke-IHS position. Boettke exhorts his young opponents to re-read Hayek’s article carefully. But when one does so, it is clear that Boettke has gotten Hayek’s position exactly reversed. The intellectuals, who Hayek refers to as the “secondhand dealers in ideas” are not a “by-product” of the scholars, experts, and scientists who originate and refine ideas. To the contrary, according to Hayek, the intellectuals are an independent and powerful class, who create or suppress the popular reputations of the scholars by “exercising their censorship function” in choosing which new ideas to present to the public.

As Hayek (p. 376, 372-73) explains :

It is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the intellectual that he judges new ideas not by their specific merits but by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced. . . . As he knows little about particular issues, his criterion must be consistency with his other views and suitability for combining into a coherent picture of the world. . . . It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, 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.

Consequently, as Hayek (p. 373) notes, “every scholar can probably name several instances from his field of men who have undeservedly achieved a popular reputation as great scientists solely because they hold what the intellectuals regard as ‘progressive’ political views.”

Hayek goes on to describe the attitude of the originators of ideas toward these intellectual gate-keepers:

It is not surprising that the real scholar or expert and the practical man of affairs often feel contemptuous about the intellectual, are disinclined to recognize his power, and are resentful when they discover it. Individually they find the intellectuals mostly to be people who understand nothing in particular especially well and whose judgement on matters they themselves understand shows little sign of special wisdom. . . . Yet it is not the predominant views of the experts but the views of the minority, mostly of rather doubtful standing in their profession, which are taken up and spread by the intellectuals.

Hayek includes in the class of intellectuals journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction cartoonists, and artists as well as scientists and doctors who pronounce on matters “outside their own fields.” Hayek (p. 372) leaves no doubt about his own attitude towards the intellectual, describing him in less than flattering terms as someone who

. . . need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he be particularly intelligent to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those to whom he addresses himself.

Hayek even considers the abolition of copyright laws as a means of reining in the influence of the intellectual class. Thus he writes:

One of the most important points that would have to be examined in such a discussion would be how far the growth of this [intellectual] class has been artificially stimulated by the law of copyright.

Hayek goes on in a footnote to express doubt that an open debate on this issue could take place in a society in which the intellectual class itself controls the media:

It would be interesting to discover how far a seriously critical view of the benefits to society of the law of copyright, or the expression of doubts about the public interest in the existence of a class which makes its living from the writing of books, would have a chance of being publicly stated in a society in which the channels of expression are so largely controlled by people who have a vested interest on the existing situation. [This footnote does not appear in the electronic version of the article , which is the abridged 1960 reprint of the original article circulated by Students for Liberty. The full article with the footnote can be found on p. 178 in Hayek's book Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, University of Chicago Press, 1966.]

Contrary to the Boettke-IHS claim, then, Hayek does not maintain that original thinkers subsist in a harmonious relationship with the intellectual class within a nicely integrated “pyramid of social change.” But there is an even greater problem with the IHS pyramidal model of idea dissemination and social change. This model is an analogy to the Hayekian triangular production structure in which original resources like land and labor are progressively transformed through a series of time-consuming stages of production until they attain their final form as consumer goods. But the production of ideas is unlike the production of other scarce goods, because once originated by the scholar, expert, scientist, or whomever, they can be immediately consumed by other minds. This is, of course, not to deny that the production of the ideas themselves require time and scarce complementary resources like computers, books, laboratories, office space, mental energy and so on. But ideas, once produced, are no longer scarce and are nearly consumption ready, awaiting only their expression in some form. Thus, as David Gordon pointed out to me, the originator of the idea may just as readily disseminate his “product” as the intellectual. In other words the “secondhand dealer in ideas” is superfluous and the structure of production is relatively flat. And, indeed, nowhere in his article does Hayek, the great production-structure theorist, ever refer explicitly or implicitly to anything resembling a pyramid of social change. Rather, his remarks quoted above seem to imply that the originators of ideas and the secondhand dealers in ideas are not “vertically” related to one another in cooperative production of the same product, but “horizontally” related with each offering very different products in rivalrous competition. Thus to take an example from economics, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the ideas of the Keynesian New Economists and of John Kenneth Galbraith were riding high. These ideas were disseminated by the New York Times, Time Magazine and other such “respectable” opinion-molding organs and were far different products than the ideas being directly propagated to the public by Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and Murray Rothbard.

It is also worth pointing out that, in his article, Hayek (379-383) spends more than four pages providing an insightful sociological analysis of the reasons why intellectuals in a market society are strongly inclined to socialism. Hence Hayek entitled his article “The Intellectuals and Socialism” rather than, for example, “The Intellectuals and Social Change.”

So let us sum up Hayek’s views in “Intellectuals and Socialism.”

1. Hayek did not conceive the spreading of scientific knowledge and the process of social change as the product of a rigid, top-down pyramid analogous to the structure of production of scarce goods within a market framework.

2. Hayek did not envision intellectuals as an essential part of the transmission process of scientific ideas about society and the economy to the public at large. In fact he viewed intellectuals in a market society as almost invariably “progressive” or socialistic and standing athwart the promotion of sound ideas in the social sciences. Indeed, Hayek promoted discussion of a possible avenue for suppressing the intellectual class via abolition of copyright laws.

3. Hayek, therefore, did not propose a pyramidal model of classical liberal or libertarian social change, with libertarian scholars at the peak originating ideas and visions that were then mixed and molded into a digestible stew by think tanks, and finally spoon-fed to a passive public by the likes of John Stossel and other libertarian-leaning media personalities In fact Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and The Counter-Revolution of Science as well as his post-Nobel Prize booklets, pamphlets and interviews on monetary reform in the 1970s are magnificent examples of the relatively flat structure of production of idea dissemination by which Hayek attempted to short-circuit the intellectual elites and directly influence public opinion. In this respect, Hayek was just like Menger, Mises, Rothbard, and many other eminent free-market economists throughout history who throughout their careers attempted to effectively convey their ideas directly to the public.


Contact Joseph T. Salerno

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

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