Why Are Intellectuals So Opposed to Capitalism?

Robert Nozick

I just found a fantastic article by the late Robert Nozick over at Cato.  It’s titled, “Why do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?”  Nozick was a major proponent of free markets, and has become a go-to guy for many Libertarians like myself who never liked the Ayn Rand side of the Libertarian crowd. 

In this article he’s poking specifically at who he terms “wordsmiths”.  That is, those people who make their living through words: Novelists, professors in the Humanities, Journalists, etc.  But, I’d include most people in the sciences (with the very obvious exception of Economics).  Most scientist skew heavily toward the left by knee-jerk reaction.  I tend to agree with them in certain particulars (acceptance of global warming, heath-care and education as rights, and general environmentalism) but not categorically so. 

When it comes to their feeling about capitalism and free markets, there is a powerful distrust and distain that seems to color any ability to think about it with fresh and rational eyes.  It has often baffled me how otherwise very bright people, who themselves dislike when others use emotions to justify their beliefs rather than reason, can do exactly that when it comes to any discussion of capitalism.

Nozick has a possible answer.

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. But, by and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals. Ludwig von Mises explains the special resentment of intellectuals, in contrast to workers, by saying they mix socially with successful capitalists and so have them as a salient comparison group and are humiliated by their lesser status. However, even those intellectuals who do not mix socially are similarly resentful, while merely mixing is not enough–the sports and dancing instructors who cater to the rich and have affairs with them are not noticeably anti-capitalist.

 

That is, intellectuals have a feeling that what they do is more important than what Phil Knight (the owner of NIKE) does. But, they don’t get paid anywhere near what he does.  Isn’t the service they provide to society more important than a pair of shoes, or an inscribed basket ball?

 Nike LeBron

Nozick then goes on to explain how they may have come to these feelings in the first place.

What factor produced feelings of superior value on the part of intellectuals? I want to focus on one institution in particular: schools. As book knowledge became increasingly important, schooling–the education together in classes of young people in reading and book knowledge–spread. Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher’s favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.

The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?

This is backed up by the fact that so many of the worlds most successful entrepreneurs were horrible at school.  Many got straight C’s, scraped by, or simply dropped out.  They were smart, they were creative, but they didn’t have the specific skill set to do well in the environment of school. 

Think of school as an evolutionary selection tool.  It has rules, and where there are rules, there are selection pressures.  If you just happen to have the right series of skills, you will do well, and be rewarded.  But those rules are arbitrary.  Knowing a thing and demonstrating that you know a thing are two totally different things.  And further, the manner in which you ask a student to demonstrate knowledge will greatly affect whether the demonstration of that knowledge is closely tied to the actual knowledge you want them to have.

This was the argument behind many teachers resentment at being forced to deal with “No Child Left Behind”.  By creating a bunch of arbitrary standards, you are leaving those kids behind who DO know the material, but are bad at the particular method of showing that they know the material.

Intellectuals, people who work in these fields of the humanities and the sciences, tend to have been quite good in the world of school, with all of it’s grades and teacher-decided-upon rules.

[NOTE: Now in certain fields like Math and Physics it is demonstrably NOT the case nearly all of the best in the field did well in K-12 schooling.  In fact, many did the opposite and only thrived once they hit graduate school.  But, the reason these fields are so open to people who did poorly in early education is simply because the fields are so quantitative.  If you can demonstrate in any way at all that you are a genius at this stuff, then you’re in.  But, this is not the case in other fields that are more qualitative by nature. 

A simple example is that in the field of Political Science, if you aren’t a professor at a top-tier school, you have very little chance of getting your paper published in a top journal – no matter how good it is.  The selection committee likely won’t even read it.  That would be unheard of in Mathematics where “no names” make remarkable discoveries all the time.]

Nozick then makes what amounts to a “nerd” comment:

There is a further point to be added. The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the "anarchy and chaos" of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

 

So, because intellectuals did better in the classroom (a totalitarian world, ruled by the teacher) and poorly in the schoolyard (a near-anarchy where school-smarts just weren’t enough), then they learned over time to fear systems that functioned similarly to the schoolyard. 

 

Now he was just positing all of this as a hypothesis, and it would need to be tested and refined to be useful in understanding why so many people in the intellectual class (particularly writers and people in the humanities and softer sciences – including biology) are so anti-free-market.  But, it is an interesting one that sits very well with my own experiences in Academia. 

And, if true, it would help to explain why so many of the people I know in this group have such visceral gut reactions against capitalism and free-markets that supersede their rational abilities. (That isn’t to say that free-markets are categorically good.  They could be bad – I’m always open to a good debate.  But, the responses I get from so many bright people are hardly intelligent nor well researched nor well thought out.)

Advertisements

6 responses to “Why Are Intellectuals So Opposed to Capitalism?

  1. Wow. I especially like the comparison between a Capitalist system and a grade-school playground. Sounds like this guy is on to something.

  2. Ya, I liked that too. It’s a bit simplistic, but since adults are often not much more than overgrown kids, it has a ring of truth.

  3. Watch Tron Legacy Online

    i agree i dont know why everyone is so into socialism
    Watch Tron Legacy Online

  4. Hello. I stumbled across your blog today and – having enjoyed the first article – decided to read a few more just to see what it was all about. I then stumbled onto this one. While I find it humorous – and certainly concede that ego plays a part in the decisions/choices of any academic – I believe this is, at best, overly simplistic. Remarkably, the effect the education itself receives little attention. As much, I believe other variables (if we’re being academic) merit consideration. Relating to trade: what about traditional theories in economic history? Those who are afraid to lose what they have typically favor protectionism; those who stand to benefit (profit) from capital intensive industries and market access tend to favor free markets. Is our current situation so different? As the government has spent years making cuts to education, most recently USIP, and other humanitarian endeavors? And it is really that “intellectuals” are against free markets? I don’t believe so. I believe most educated people see and understand the value of the free market (after all, we have all benefited from it), or it is simply that these intellectuals are trying to keep the pendulum more central? I enjoyed the article – though mainly because I found it humorous more than research-worthy. I come from a family of PhD’s and am currently pursuing one myself. Can I say they are resentful? Maybe one of them (Ha). But the others have enjoyed widespread success (financial and otherwise) in academia and beyond. To this end, it would appear that Nozick is referencing a small faction of the intellectual population. Perhaps the “embittered professor” sector. Applied to the collective however, I think his hypothesis is weak (or at the very least, lacking in validity).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s