Category Archives: Libertarian

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.)

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What is the “Middle Class”? And Why are they so Whiny?

Who is the Middle Class?

My fiance and I just got back from having dinner with my Mother and Step Dad.  It was a good time, lots of food, wine, and whining.  Yes, whining.  Somehow or another the issue of my Mother’s taxes came up.  And of course, like all of us, she doesn’t like to pay them.  She understands they are necessary, and is willing to pay “her share” (whatever that means), but doesn’t think she should be so heavily “burdened”.  “Why don’t the rich take most of the slack?” she says.

My mother is a smart Woman, well educated, and has a very professional job where she is required to think.  She has a good heart, and means well.  But, on this singular issue, she’s exemplifying an attitude I take strong issue with.  She makes a good deal of money, complains constantly about what she doesn’t have, and how we need to fund more programs to make the country better, but she wants to lower her taxes.  In short, she is a member of the whiny and hypocritical “middle class”.  (I’m not trying to single her out, don’t worry, I love my Mom.  But, a good example is a good example.)

You may ask why I–a vocal Libertarian–would find fault with someone saying they want to pay less taxes.  Shouldn’t I encourage such banter?  No.  At least not from liberals.   If you want to fund schools, pay for universal healthcare, rescue children in Darfur, and keep NASA in space, then you have to pay taxes–a lot of taxes.   If you want low taxes, then give up on programs.

I think there are two reasons liberal middle class people are so prone to hypocracy.  The first is because they don’t realize how much money they actually make relative to the rest of the nation (and more importantly, to the rest of the world).  And second, they don’t realize how impossible it is to pay for everything we want by only taxing the “rich” heavily (because it’s impossible to get them to pay).  I’m not going to tackle the second problem, which is admittedly large.  But, I will hammer away at the first one.

Everybody is Middle Class

Every American thinks they are a member of the middle class–the middle of the middle class.  Over the years the term has expanded along with our bellies to include households that make as little as $25,000/year to single individuals making $100,000/year or more.  The term has lost all meaning.

I’m not going to take issue with people who make less than $25, 000 a year, or households making less than $50,000 who want reduced tax rates AND who still want all the liberal standards.  They are the people we’re supposed to be helping to get healthcare and good education for their children.

I do take issue with individuals pulling in over $60,000, especially when they don’t have children (or their children have left the house already) or households making $100,000, who want all the liberal goodies along with a lowered tax bill.

If you make that kind of money, you are upper middle class by today’s standards.  By the standards of the 1950’s, or of the current state of the rest of the world, you’re outright rich.

The facts

The true middle of the middle class is about $47,000/year for a household.  Not a person.  A household.  If you make $50,000 (just you) and you don’t have kids, then you pull in more than the average middle class family does with a combined income.  In other words, you’re rich.

If you and your spouse pull in a combined $100,000 then, even if you do have kids, you live on DOUBLE what the average American family does per year!  You’re rich.

The term “middle class” has become a weapon wielded by Politicians to lure in unsuspecting voters by making them feel like victims.  “The middle class is struggling!”, or “The middle class can’t pay it’s bills!”, are common catch phrases used by members of both parties to sell votes–and it works.  It works because everybody thinks that the politicians are talking about them!

The truth is less romantic.  Odds are, you are not a member of the middle class. The middle class is (by definition) only the people in the middle.  The rest of us are either below or above that.

I make a negative income.  I make decent money as a private weightlifting coach, but it’s no where near enough to cover my Tuition and living expenses.  So, I take out loans every year to continue my education while still feeding my face.  My net earnings per year are in the red.  Very red.  A deep blood red.  But, that’s ok.  I’m a student, it’s normal, and it’s worth it to me.

“Hi, my name is Nick, and I’m not Middle Class.”  There, that wasn’t so hard was it?

My Mother is well into the upper middle class (I call these people rich) group.  I’ve got a number of good friends in the lower middle class group (under $46,000/household with kids).  And a few friends who make right around $40,000, but are single and don’t have kids (I also call these people rich).

It’s all relative.

In America we look up at the super rich (Celebrities, Oil Exec’s) and say, “hey, I’m not making what they’re making, so I’m only middle class.”  What we should do is look at the average income for the average human being living on the planet, and compare our incomes to that.

Take a look at these averages collected by the World Bank:

Region Per Capita Income in US$

United States:   37,500

Ethiopia:  710

World: 8,200

East Asia & Pacific: 4,680

Europe & Central Asia 7,570

Latin America & Caribbean 7,080

Middle East & North Africa 5,700

South Asia 2,660

Sub-Saharan Africa 1,770

I’d say if you’re on a computer reading this, you’re doing pretty well.

References

Census Bureau Home Page. http://www.census.gov/

Thompson, William E., and Joseph V. Hickey. 2007. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology. 6th ed. Allyn & Bacon, July 12.

The Hatred of Capitalism

Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises

The Libertarian Buddhist has a post quoting Ludwig Von Mises on why Governments and political groups (Conservatives and Progressives) hate Capitalism.

While the conservative and the “progressive” foes of capitalism disagree with regard to the evaluation of the old standards, they fully agree in condemning the standards of capitalistic society.  As they see it, not those who deserve well of their fellow men acquire wealth and prestige, but frivolous unworthy people.  Both groups pretend to aim at the substitution of fairer methods of “distribution” for the manifestly unfair methods prevailing under laissez-faire capitalism.

now, nobody ever contended that under unhampered captialism those fare best who, from the point of view of eternal standards of value, ought to be preferred.  What the capitialistic democracy of the market brings about is not rewarding people according to their “true” merits, inherent worth and moral eminence.  What makes a man more or less prsoperous is not the evaluation of his contribution from any “absolute” principle of justice, but evaluation on the part of his fellow men who exclusively apply the yardsitck of their own personal wants, desires and ends.  It is prcisely this that the democratic system of the market means.  The consumers are supreme–i.e. sovereign.  They want to be satisfied.

Libertarian Buddhist

Not as strange as it sounds.  Here’s a blog by a teacher, a Libertarian, and a Buddhist, all of which is reflected in his blog.

Readers of this blog know that I’m not shy about my Libertarian tendencies.  But, what they might not know is that I was a practicing Buddhist for many years, also.   So, I find it very cool to see a new blog on two subjects I feel very close to.

(HAT TIP:  The Professor.)

Democraphobia

Will Wilkinson describes a democracy phobia amongst many Libertarians.  It’s a view he doesn’t share, and neither do I.

If you’re a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine. This puts you somewhere between (a) modern liberals in the post-Rawlsian vein who tend toward not-actually-very-liberal Rousseuvian romanticism about democracy and (b) libertarians who tend toward often not-very-liberal renunciations of democracy. I want to talk about these libertarians. Here are some off-the-cuff (that means disorganized) thoughts.

First, I think it’s important to recognize that libertarian democraphobia often comes from a deeply liberal place. The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. I think this divide is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should.

He goes on to discuss the choice some Libertarians prefer which is to take a page out of American Settlers Handbook and take off to some DIY frontier.   Wilkinson see’s this as a head-in-sand solution.

But I don’t think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier. One can avoid politics and democratic conflict in the short-run through self-segregation. But this tends not to last that long. (See: the Pilgrims in Massachusets; the Mormons in Deseret/Utah) And I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

In other words, it’s important for Libertarians who really aren’t Anarchists to accept that government is here to stay, and then think practically about how to deal with that.

The underlying libertarian ideals of individual sovereignty and dignity are universal.  Many people I talk to, after I explain why I feel comfortable calling myself a libertarian, realize that they agree with me on a large number of issues.  But, as a group, we Libertarians have never done much of a good job at instigating the necessary PR campaign to get the Montana-cabin-dwelling-old-prospector image of Libertarians out of the minds the public.

Democrats have tree-huggers, Republicans have religious fanatics, and Libertarians have the Unibomber.  Not good!

Will finishes with a great point:

Most libertarians don’t want to move to man-made islands. Most don’t even want to help take over New Hampshire. If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing. Or get serious about life on the sea. For my part, I’m going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited goverment are better than they might have thought.

For me, this is more reason to align with Democrats, and stop griping so much about taxes.  As far as “wrongs” committed by the state against a free people go, taxing them is pretty low on the list.  The goals of legalizing gay marriage, marijuana, promoting equality in the work place, and opening the boarder more to immigrants who want to work are all FAR more important.  The Dems tend to agree with us on these things, and the Republicans are fanatically (and religiously) against them!

We have three choices:  run off to the woods and cry about an “unjust” government; join with Republicans who think our support of gay rights will land us in Hell;  or join with democrats who will chastise us for our free-market tendencies, but otherwise dig our ultra-leftist stance on social issues (more left than many of their views).  That’s an easy choice for me.

Will Wilkinson Goes Canuck

The Libertarian gets life long Canadian citizenship. His dad was Canadian, but lost his citizenship when he moved to the US before Will was born.  Will is being “reinstated” via a new Canadian immigration bill C-37.

Are Political Parties Bad for the Poor?

Will Wilkinson argues that Political Parties are bad for the poor:

This is how our coalitional minds reason: Because the success of the party is so important to the welfare of poor, and these factions are so important to the successes of the party, their interests are ipso facto important to the welfare of the poor. And so their actual antagonism to policies in the interests of the poor becomes most invisible to those most eager to communicate their solidarity with the poor through party identification. Our need to signal care can produce viciously careless results.

I think there could be something to this, however I’d imagine it to be far less conscious.  And I’m not for the abolition of party politics.  Party’s and coalitions are necessary not because they are ideal, but because they act as a buffer against those who are well placed who DON’T have our interests.  The enemy of my enemy is in my party.   It sucks, but it can’t be avoided.