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The Intelligentsia Takes a Hit

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Last night's surprising result left Trump supporters elated, Clinton supporters dejected. Most libertarians have long given up hope that the electoral process can bring substantial improvements to US policies. But there is an important silver lining to this year's election season. Public skepticism of the establishment media, think-tanks, academics, and other members of the intelligentsia is at an all-time high.

The statist bias of the intellectual class is well-known; what surprised many people, courtesy of Wikileaks, is how actively and directly CNN, CNBC, the New York Times, and other outlets coordinated their coverage with the Clinton campaign. Reporters and commentators sent drafts of their stories to the Clinton team for approval, gave Clinton debate questions in advance, and asked for help with interview questions for Trump and other Republicans.

Even beyond these direct attempts to favor one side, the more subtle forms of bias were — well, not so subtle. Even those sympathetic to Clinton’s views were surprised how openly the media expressed its preference for one side. As a Times editor noted, with an admirable lack of self-awareness, “I hope that Mr. Trump’s asymmetric, weirdly brazen dishonesty has broken reporters of the bad habits of false equivalency, euphemism and forced balance.” Yes, no danger of that. 

Academics are worried about losing their influence, though they mistakenly conflate anti-intellectualism per se with opposition to intellectuals as a class. As Wellesley sociologist Thomas Cushman put it, "this election outcome . . . represents a failure of academic social science, the media, pollsters, and just about everyone in the ranks of the 'cognitive elite.' And this includes the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans. Trump has broken a lot of things, and will likely break many more, but he has also broken the intellectual/expert class and this election is a day of reckoning for that class."

Note that while the media and intellectuals typically identify as “left,” and with the Democratic party, their bias is more accurately described as pro-state. Recall that during the Iraq war, mainstream journalists — especially those “embedded” with the military — simply repeated, without question, the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein, about Iraqis welcoming US soldiers with open arms, about the mobile weapons trailers, and so on. Eventually there were mea culpas, and the worst offenders, such as Judith Miller, were forced to resign. But then, during the financial crisis, the same pattern emerged. Fed Chair Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson said the financial system was about to collapse and that massive government bailouts were needed, and the media solemnly repeated these claims as if they were investigative reports. It didn’t matter that the people in power were Republicans or “right-wingers.” Intellectuals and reporters are attracted to power, and do whatever it takes to earn the favor of those with political authority.

No one explained the symbiotic relationship between intellectuals and the state better than Murray Rothbard. In several books and articles, he pointed out that the state needs intellectuals and the media to give it legitimacy, and the intellectuals and the media need the state to give them resources and influence. Political journalists, for example, depend on access — invitations to news conferences, contact with anonymous sources, copies of leaked documents — and any journalists who are overly critical of persons in power will find that access revoked. Hence the need to curry favor, whichever party happens to be in control at the moment. That is the journalistic version of pay-to-play, the model perfected by Hillary Clinton.

As Rothbard explained:

The ruling elite, whether it be the monarchs of yore or the Communist parties of today, are in desperate need of intellectual elites to weave apologias for state power: the state rules by divine edict; the state insures the common good or the general welfare; the state protects us from the bad guys over the mountain; the state guarantees full employment; the state activates the multiplier effect; the state insures social justice, and on and on. . . .

We can see what the state rulers get out of their alliance with the intellectuals; but what do the intellectuals get out of it? Intellectuals are the sort of people who believe that, in the free market, they are getting paid far less than their wisdom requires. Now the state is willing to pay them salaries, both for apologizing for state power, and in the modern state, for staffing the myriad jobs in the welfare, regulatory-state apparatus.

In past centuries, the churches constituted the exclusive opinion-molding classes in the society. Hence the importance to the state and its rulers of an established church, and the importance to libertarians of the concept of separating church and state, which really means not allowing the state to confer upon one group a monopoly of the opinion-molding function.

In the 20th century, of course, the church has been replaced in its opinion-molding role, or, in that lovely phrase, the "engineering of consent," by a swarm of intellectuals, academics, social scientists, technocrats, policy scientists, social workers, journalists and the media generally, and on and on.

Fortunately, thanks to the rise of decentralized, internet-based journalism, institutions like Anonymous and Wikileaks, and general public dissatisfaction with “establishment” media, the opinion-molding class is losing its power to mold opinion. Something to be thankful for! 

Peter G. Klein is Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and professor of entrepreneurship at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business. Contact: email, twitter, facebook.


Contact Peter G. Klein

Peter G. Klein is Carl Menger Research Fellow of the Mises Institute and W. W. Caruth Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business.

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