Category Archives: Political Theory

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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The Return of Karl Popper: Is Social Science Really Different Than Natural Science?

karl-popper Social Scientist have contended for much of the last century that we cannot approach the study of human behavior with the same tools that we would use to study the natural world.  This is hogwash.  And Karl Popper, the great 20th century philosopher, would agree with me. Humans are animals, they are made up of chemicals and cells, their behavior is determined by a complex interaction of chemical processes and their lives are a network of cause and effect relations with other animals (some of which we’d call human).   If we are ever going to get a solid grasp on our own behavior, we’ll need to use the items from the large and well developed toolbox of natural science.

Falsifiability and Objective Reality

Karl Popper believed that a theory is scientific if and only if it is falsifiable.  Most scientists would agree with this statement, and in fact would be shocked by anyone who didn’t.  (This may be why natural scientists and social scientists don’t tend to hang out together!)  But, falsifiability presupposes a belief in an Enlightenment-style “objective” reality beyond that of our own minds.  In much of social science, especially in sociology and psychology, there is a powerful belief in a post-modern relativism that rejects an objective reality. That is to say, they don’t believe that there is a truth that is inherent to the objects of study themselves.

Without a belief in an objective truth outside the mind of the observer, it is impossible to even discuss what it would mean to falsify a statement.  Therefore, you cannot use Poppers falsifiability axiom as a demarcation line for what is and isn’t science.  And now we allow in all sorts of unfalsifiable statements and theories simply because who is to say what is and is not objectively true?  This is not good science.  But, it defines much of what passes for science in the world of social inquiry.

Now, it must be said, that the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But, most relativists are basing their relativism on what I’d consider a false understanding of some basic ideas.  Among the more common things I hear when encountering someone who is a hardcore relativist, who wants to impress me (knowing that I’m a mathematician) is with the idea of quantum physics.  It usually goes something like this, “hey, man, you know that every time we observe a particle we change it’s state.  So, everything is relative.  Our presence changes what we observe.  There is a reflexivity between us and the object.  There is no way to know what’s what if every time observe something that something changes.  Reality can be and is manipulated.”

OK, true.  But, it’s missing the point.  When we say we change a particles state, we aren’t saying the particle didn’t have a state to begin with.  It was simply a state we can’t directly observe.  That isn’t relativism in the strictest sense.  Sure if I observe it and you observe it, we’ll see different things, but that doesn’t mean the particle didn’t have an objective state before we each changed it. True relativism would be that the particle has no state until someone observes it. But, that isn’t how it is.

Octavian-coin Think of a particle as a coin.  Suppose I spin that coin on a table.  While it is spinning is it heads or tails?  You might say neither, or more accurately, you could say both.  It’s 50% heads and 50% tails.  That’s it’s objective state.  The trouble is, suppose we can’t see a coin spinning.  Suppose we can only see coins when they are heads or tails with 100% probability – that is, when they are flat on the table.  Then if I want to observe the coin, I have to slam my hand down on top of it to stop it from spinning.   Say it lands heads up.

When I leave, suppose it pops back up and begins spinning again.  Then you come by and slam your hand down on it.  Now it’s landed on tails.  We’ve each seen the same coin in different states.  I claim the coin is heads, you claim the coin is tails, but neither of us realizes that it is both.

Many things in the natural world are of this form.  That doesn’t mean we can’t study them objectively, and infer what we can, correct for our own “observation” errors, etc.  Physics is going just fine with far crazier objects than humans could ever hope to be.  There is no reason we have to pretend that studying human behavior is somehow so much harder than studying particle physics.

Popper’s 3 Worlds

There is no doubt that the reality outside our minds is not always in line with the perceived reality we hold within our minds.  Many natural scientists, in light of this, are Cartesian dualists without even knowing it.  That is, they accept that there are two worlds: the world of material things that we study; and the world of the human mind. They accept that these don’t always jive, and that each one has an influence on the other.  But, keeping them separate, at least heuristically, is seen as useful.

In social science there is a stronger emphasis on the effects culture on the mind.  And this is seen as a feedback loop from the mind to itself.

Karl Popper goes one step further with his heuristic and suggests that the universe is really made up of three worlds.  The objective world of objects.  The world of the Mind.  And the world of human-created ideas as manifested in books, paintings, blogs, etc.   The third world includes culture and so brings it out of the second world, thus striping it of some of its recursive properties.

What I like about the idea of the third world is that it allows for this world to undergo it’s own evolution (the way the other two obviously do).  And because of this we can study it (largely) independently using the tools of evolutionary research such as game theory.

One More Time

I contend that Social Science is a proper subset of Natural Science and is in fact a subset of Biology, most specifically Human Biology.   To say that we cannot study Social Science with the same tools we use in Natural Science because we are ourselves of the type we are studying is an act in strange logic. If we follow the strange logic further, then we shouldn’t study any animals like we study the natural world, because we are animals.  We shouldn’t study chemistry as we study the natural world because we are made up of molecules.  And we shouldn’t study physics the way we study the natural world because we are nothing more than a collection of atoms.

There is always some sense of recursion in any attempt we make to study the natural world.  Our brain is made up of cells which use electricity to fire information back and forth.  Whenever we are trying to understand electricity, we are using electricity to understand it!

Popper dealt with this problem in what I consider a most reasonable way, the Popeye way:  Science is what it is, and that’s all that it is.  Scientific statements can only be falsified, not verified.   And the world (including the world of human interaction) has an objective component that must be sought after as truth in its own right.  It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done.

The only way we’ll ever make headway into the realm of human behavior is if we are comfortable approaching the human animal the way we approach the study of all animals – with science.

Libertarians, the Left, and the Future of Freedom

Mark Thompson at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen made the following comments that resonate with me:

[I]n order for libertarians to more consistently act as political free agents, or even to sign on to a coalition with the political Left, something else will need to happen to free libertarian philosophy from the predispositions that have resulted from such a lengthy alliance with the political Right.

I would propose, then, that the “something” to which I refer is “liberaltarianism,” “soft Hayek” as Jim Henley calls it, or “actual Hayek” as I like to call it.  The promise of this derivation of modern libertarianism is not that it attempts to paint libertarianism in a light that is palatable to modern liberals/Progressives, which our friend Kip rightly fears; instead, its promise is that it can help to rescue the fundamental worldview of libertarianism from the prejudices instilled in it by such a lengthy alliance with the Right.

Simply put, the promise of liberaltarianism is that it can help to build a libertarianism that is more true to its classically liberal roots.  In so doing, it is possible that it will become a libertarianism that modern liberals are willing to take seriously, and even learn from.  To be sure, if this were to completely succeed, I find it likely that libertarianism would eventually become as corrupted by the Left as it has been by the Right, thus creating the need for the cycle to start anew.

I have never understood the alliance of Libertarians with the Right.  the religious disconnect is an unsolvable problem.  Libertarians are a largely atheistic bunch, and that is hard to reconcile with Christian Conservatism.   Among other things, it drives a wedge between the groups.

In contrast, Liberals and Libertarians, while they have many disagreements about the methods of political action, share many of the same values: peace, freedom, equality for all, and a belief that education can bridge divides and bring people together.  It’s a natural marriage.

(HAT TIP: The fly bottle)

Emotional Economics: the Psychological Basis of Decision Making

No, Emotional Economics isn’t the state of our sad economy.  It’s one more bullet hole in the old dog-that-won’t-die theory of “rational choice” in the social sciences.

Mathematical and Evolutionary game theorists have nearly done away with the idea of the rational actor:  Is a single-celled organism rational?  No.  But, it makes decisions that affect its evolutionary fitness level.

So do we.

And rarely do we make those decisions with full cognitive force.

Investors, he said, frequently take decisions contrary to “pure” economic judgment because they hate to admit they made mistakes in the past and because they may even be “wired” with a risk-taking gene that confounds objectivity.

Ooh, now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

What Do YOU Know About Karl Marx?

The Proletarian gives the low-down on the what’s and how’s of Marx, and why you probably don’t know as much about him and his ideas as you think you do.

And for more, see his post:  Academic Marxism Part I