October 9, 2012 columns

Why Do Intellectuals Support Government Solutions?

Sanchez examines the question, concluding that intellectuals support government intervention because it makes their work have greater importance.

Back in the 1980s, the late philosopher Robert Nozick wrote an essay asking: “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” Happily, the question as Nozick framed it is somewhat less relevant today, as Western intellectuals have increasingly accepted the superiority of someform of market economy to full-blown socialist planning. But a variant form remains: Why do intellectuals seem so disproportionately attracted to “progressive” political views and government-centric means of remedying social ills?

For those of us who tend to favor a relatively small and limited government, and prefer that social problems be addressed by private and voluntary mechanisms, it should be a source of some discomfort that these views find so little favor among some of the most highly educated and intelligent sectors of the population—the “elites” of popular conservative demonology. One simple explanation for this pattern, after all, would be that left wing political views are disproportionately attractive to the highly educated and intelligent because they’re best supported by logic and evidence. Following Aumann’s agreement theorem, this would imply that libertarians should regard the disagreement of large numbers of well-informed people who are at least as intelligent as we are as prima facie evidence that our views are in error, and revise them accordingly.

Nozick speculates that “wordsmith intellectuals” grow accustomed to winning the highest accolades in the academic environments of their formative years, and that this disposes them to be hostile toward the distribution of rewards in a market economy, which may accrue heavily to those with education, but are not necessarily strongly correlated with the kind of verbal intelligence that garners the top academic awards. Crudely put: The middle-class professor or writer will tend to feel cheated by a system that heaps greater rewards on those she remembers as academic inferiors. However plausible or implausible one finds Nozick’s account when it comes to the choice between capitalism and socialism, it seems less satisfactory as an account of the preference for expansive government within a market framework—even if something like this might contribute to the feeling that the wealthy can’t really deserve their holdings.

One thing to bear in mind is that even informed and intelligent people do not typically arrive at their political views by an in-depth review of the evidence in each particular policy area. Most of us can only be really expert in one or two spheres, and in others must rely heavily on those who possess greater expertise and seem to share our basic values. In practice, most people select a “basket” of policy views in the form of an overarching political ideology—which often amounts to choosing a political community whose members seem like decent people who know what they’re talking about. So we needn’t assume the majority view of the intellectual class represents the outcome of a series of fully independent judgments: A relatively mild bias in one direction or another within the relevant community could easily result in an information cascade that generates much more disproportionate social adoption of the favored views. So any potential biasing factors we consider need not be as dramatic as the ultimate distribution of opinion: Whatever initial net bias may exist is likely to be magnified by bandwagon effects. We should also bear in mind that polls of academic faculties often limit the options to “liberal” and “conservative”—and it seems plausible that responses here reflect the rejection of conservative views on social issues, where liberals and libertarians are generally in agreement—though there’s clearly more to the story than that.

Here, then, is an alternative (though perhaps related) source of potential bias. If the best solutions to social problems are generally governmental or political, then in a democratic society, doing the work of a wordsmith intellectual is a way of making an essential contribution to addressing those problems. If the best solutions are generally private, then this is true to a far lesser extent: The most important ways of doing one’s civic duty, in this case, are more likely to encompass more direct forms of participation, like donating money, volunteering, working on technological or medical innovations that improve quality of life, and various kinds of socially conscious entrepreneurial activity.

You might, therefore, expect a natural selection effect: Those who feel strongly morally motivated to contribute to the amelioration of social ills will naturally gravitate toward careers that reflect their view about how this is best achieved. The choice of a career as a wordsmith intellectual may, in itself, be the result of a prior belief that social problems are best addressed via mechanisms that are most dependent on public advocacy, argument and persuasion—which is to say, political mechanisms.

It seems equally possible, however, that a post hoc desire to justify the choice of such a career might play a biasing role. A person without extravagant material tastes can live quite comfortably as an academic or writer, and the work itself is highly interesting and intrinsically appealing. But intellectual jobs of this sort tend not to leave one with the resources to devote large amounts of money to charitable causes without significantly curtailing consumption of minor luxuries: meals out, shows, electronics, vacation travel, enrichment classes for the kids, and so on.

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

This account seems consistent with our current political rhetoric, in which progressive political views are taken to signify compassion and concern for the badly off, while conservative or libertarian views are (progressives often say) evidence of callousness or selfishness. As Jason Brennan observes in a recent post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there’s something a little odd about using political views as a metric of compassion or selfishness. Talk, after all, is cheap: It costs nothing to express verbal support for a policy or candidate. One might think a better measure would be some indicia of compassion that involve a modicum of sacrifice—charitable donations or hours volunteered—and by these measures, Brennan claims the evidence is that progressives fare no better than anyone else. But of course, if you assume that political mechanisms are vastly superior to private ones, then writing blog posts and op-eds supporting progressive policies (as opposed to giving large sums to charity or working in a soup kitchen) may be the more morally relevant way of expressing compassion.

Of course, many intellectuals of every ideological stripe also give to charity or volunteer, and some lack the temperament that would make high-paying corporate work a realistic alternative. And one can just as easily tell a complementary story that explains why private businessmen would be disposed to believe (either because of selction effects or post hoc rationalization) that contributing to private economic growth is the best way to improve the world.

Still, combined with the effect of social information cascades, this account provides one reason we might expect wordsmith intellectuals to favor progressive views independently of whether these views are the best supported by arguments: It is on these views that—by engaging in intellectual activity, and by voting and advocating for the appropriate policies—intellectuals are already best meeting their moral obligation to help make the world better, even if other career choices might enable them to make larger direct, material contributions. This line of reasoning is no excuse for libertarians to become glibly complacent in their views, or to substitute psychoanalytic for substantive responses to specific progressive arguments. But it is, perhaps, reason to be less worried that the predominance of progressive views among intellectuals is, in itself, necessarily strong evidence against the libertarian position.