(By Michael Munger, FEE) Many intellectuals dislike capitalism. Thirty-five percent of respondents with high school, or some college, said they had “favorable” views of socialism, according to Pew Research Center. But more than 40% of those with post-graduate studies had favorable perceptions of socialism; for people who had finished PhDs, the “I like socialism” rate is more than half.
The form of the “dislike” takes many forms. Some intellectuals want to regulate and control market processes, others want to “abolish” (whatever that even means) markets and private property all together. (Note: Earlier, I tried to distinguish “markets” and “capitalism,” but for present purposes I’m going to use them interchangeably.)
Since I live among the tribes of the intellectuals, and often attend their primitive ceremonies and celebrations, I have had many occasions to observe their customs and folkways. A few years ago, I argued that the alternative that many intellectuals prefer to capitalism actually does exist, but like the image conjured by the word “unicorn,” it exists only in their minds. The problem is that “I can imagine it” is enough, since intellectuals are all about the power of imagination and mentally envisioning things.
A number of scholars have taken up the question of why intellectuals favor complex top-down designed systems to the emergent (apparent) chaos of market processes. In 1949, Friedrich Hayek wrote (in the University of Chicago Law Review) that:
In every country that has moved toward socialism the phase of the development in which socialism becomes a determining influence on politics has been preceded for many years by a period during which socialist ideals governed the thinking of the more active intellectuals. In Germany this stage had been reached toward the end of the last century; in England and France, about the time of the first World War. To the casual observer it would seem as if the United States had reached this phase after World War II and that the attraction of a planned and directed economic system is now as strong among the American intellectuals as it ever was among their German or English fellows. Experience suggests that once this phase has been reached it is merely a question of time until the views now held by the intellectuals become the governing force of politics.
By “intellectuals,” Hayek did not mean smart people, or even educated people. What he meant was “secondhand dealers in ideas,” people whose job, vocation, or obsessive hobby was to discuss and evaluate the ideas of others, and advocate for one or another of these great systems to be implemented. Their reasons always have to do the positive results that they imagine will follow; while some autocrats may seek power and use ideas as a pretext, intellectuals are true believers. It is for that reason that intellectuals are effective.
What qualifies a person as an “intellectual?” In Hayek’s sense, it is their role as a broker or intermediary, occupying a position or role in society which confers a large comparative advantage in the dissemination of what appear to be authoritative ideas. He notes that he means:
journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists,” but also professionals, “such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge on their own subjects, are listened to with respect on most others. (emphasis added)
Nearly 50 years later, Robert Nozick wrote his famous piece, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the insight can really be distilled to a name: Al Czervik, the low-class, but rich, real estate developer from Caddyshack. (If you don’t get the reference, here’s a short video refresher). Nozick notes that intellectuals were always the sort of kids who were nerdy and got good grades. The Al Czerviks of the world sat in the back of the class and played cards. But now they have started businesses and sell real estate or automobiles. Any system that rewards entrepreneurship instead of good grades and helping the teacher clean the erasers after class is obviously unfair.
Intellectuals imagine that in a socialist system, experts and technocrats such as themselves (or as they think of themselves) will clearly be in charge. In fact, of course, the intellectuals are wrong twice: First, people who create value deserve to be paid more than people who can quote “great thinkers” verbatim, especially since we have Google™. But more importantly, there is not a single case in the history of socialist governments, the actual kind of governments that govern nations, to make us think that anyone but aggressive thugs and autocrats will be in control. As Hayek noted, “the worst get on top” in socialism. The intellectuals are rounded up and shot.
To be fair, though, intellectuals are smart. Why do they repeatedly fall for this seductive unicorn? I was listening to Bob Dylan the other day, and was suddenly struck by part of his lyrics that I had heard a thousand times, but never really understood. In his 1963 song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan asks: “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly | Before they are forever banned?” How are you going to enforce a ban on cannonballs, if no one has cannon balls?
The answer appears to be that the good people, the smart people, the intellectuals, they will have the cannonballs, and they will enforce the ban on the rest of us. Libertarians tend to think that the right of self-defense belongs to individuals; intellectuals think that if the ability to defend oneself is taken away from everyone, so that power is concentrated among intellectuals, then the problem will be solved. And since capitalism diffuses power, among the many people who acquire wealth, capitalism must be replaced by a system that concentrates power.
What it comes down to is this: In capitalism, wealth is power over goods and services that I want. That kind of power is not “zero sum,” because I can have it, you can have it, and Al Czervik can have it. Al Czervik may have more than you and I have, but we can all be prosperous.
Intellectuals, however, favor socialism, which reverses the causal arrow. Whereas in capitalism wealth makes you powerful and able to buy what you want, under socialism it is power that makes you wealthy. Party apparatchiks and technocratic functionaries have enormous power to make production and distribution decisions.
But power, by which I mean political power, is always zero-sum: If the intellectual elite has it, you and I don’t have it. And Al Czervik is driving a garbage truck, because he insulted an intellectual in 4th grade, and the intellectual told his daddy the party boss. Under socialism and state ownership and control of enterprises, the comparative assessment of status becomes important. If I’m powerful, you are not. Socialism is a way of building envy into the system, on the assumption that elites— “people who are educated, like me”—will come out on top.