Robert Nozick, in his essay “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” proposed that many highly-educated public intellectuals tend to lean towards collectivism and authoritarianism because they expect society to work best in the way that schools and the academic system (which is the system they are most familiar with) operates. Was Nozick’s theory right? Why do academics, philosophers, journalists, sociologists, and other “wordsmith intellectuals” tend to skew left?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Robert Nozick’s influential short essay “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?”
Friedrich Hayek’s essay along similar lines, “The Intellectuals and Socialism”.
George H. Smith also wrote about Hayek’s views on intellectuals in this column: “Intellectuals and Libertarianism: F. A. Hayek”.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Today we’re joined by our colleague Jason Kuznicki, a research fellow at Cato and editor of Cato Unbound. Today we want to talk about an essay by the philosopher Robert Nozick on what’s a pretty interesting question and one that a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to answer including many of us here, which is the title of the essay, Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?
You should note the essay is up on Libertarianism.org and we will put a link to it in the show notes. So in this short essay, Nozick gives what he thinks is the reason which has to do with schooling and so to very briefly summarize the ideas that intellectuals of the kind he’s talking about, and we will get to his definition of intellectual in a second, tend to do very well in school and they tend to receive a lot of praise in school.
As a result, they think that the way school operates is the way that society ought to operate because each of us would like society to be structured in such a way that we come out on top and we receive the prestige that we think we deserve and that the way the schools are structured looks more like a command-and-control economy, more like socialism than it does like capitalism. Therefore intellectuals oppose capitalism and support socialism.
Trevor Burrus: More or less, yeah. I think that the first important proviso I think we should have on this episode is that we are not doing or at least I’m not doing – I don’t know about you guys – but we are not doing a pathologizing of our opponents. This is something I always try and warn people. There is a very big tendency in political discussions and political thought to pathologize your opponents, to explain the reasons they disagree with you as some sort of like mental illness and the classic example of this is at least recent is Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which has tried to explain why President Obama has pretty milk toast leftist policies via some sort of father complex. I have never read the book but this is very dangerous. There are reasons people can disagree with you that are valid, that do not require them to have some sort of mental condition.
But it is important to try and explain when there’s a disproportionate amount of people who hold one type of belief in one area. Then it is something that is worth an explanation. It’s not an equal distribution of pro capitalist and the intellectuals we’re talking about. So we’re trying to talk about a phenomenon, not saying, well, here’s why stupid people – why the people are dumb and why they have a mental block in disagreeing with us.
Jason Kuznicki: Well, yeah. I mean it is a phenomenon and it’s fair to observe it, something that people on the left have also observed. It’s not something that we have made up. It doesn’t involve necessarily psychological factors.
One way that this has been discussed in particular by people on the left themselves is that what’s happening is what might be called a long march through the institutions that if you want to achieve social change in a leftist direction, the way to do that is to simply insert yourself into positions of power in important institutions in society and take them over and it doesn’t have to be a bloody revolution. It doesn’t have to be violent. It can simply be a gradual, peaceful takeover and people on the left have in fact said that this is what’s happening.
Now Nozick doesn’t seem to agree with that. He doesn’t talk about it really. He has a different set of explanations for it.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that the – that’s an important point too and it’s also important that we don’t necessarily have to criticize them for that because you could say that libertarians have had our own strategy for trying to get people into places of influence or influencing people, Cato. We do it with voluntary contribution more often than government money.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right. Every ideology spends time thinking about how can I convince other people that I’m right.
Jason Kuznicki: Yeah. Once you take out the long march thing, I mean it’s really – everybody is doing it. Just avoid the loaded term there and yeah, we’re all doing it. It’s all that anybody does.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I feel like we ought to acknowledge upfront there is also the possibility that the reason that intellectuals oppose capitalism, that the reason intellectuals embrace socialism – I don’t think this is true but intellectuals are highly educated people. They know a lot. They tend to be very smart and maybe it simply is the fact that capitalism doesn’t work and that socialism does and that the reason that they oppose capitalism and support socialism is because of that, that they’re simply right and that the more you know and the smarter you are, the more likely you are to believe true things and therefore they’re correct.
I mean we should – that’s like the argument that they would of course give and you hear that all the time. The democratic policy proposals, progressive policy proposals are supported by smart people because they’re good proposals.
Jason Kuznicki: Except in economics departments. In economics departments, people tend to be much, much more supportive of the free market than say in sociology or literature departments.
Trevor Burrus: Well, the – I think that the average professional economist professor of whatever sort is to the right of his colleagues in the humanities department, maybe substantially so when it comes to sociology or anthropology or things like this, and maybe slightly to the right of the average person but maybe not. I’m not sure. I think that I’ve read this – I think that they’re left of the average like medium …
Aaron Ross Powell: But they’re not marketing anarchists.
Trevor Burrus: No.
Jason Kuznicki: No, no, no.
Aaron Ross Powell: But this is a good time to move into – I mean Nozick has something very specific in mind when he says intellectuals and so he would actually I think exclude the economics professors that we’re talking about from what he refers to as wordsmith intellectuals.
Trevor Burrus: I’m not sure he would but continue. I think that economists as usual are right on the edge – he has this thing with wordsmiths which is – yes, includes poets and journalists and playwrights.
Jason Kuznicki: But he singles out wordsmiths versus people who work with numbers. People who work with numbers are not a part of his explanatory system. He thinks that he has identified something in particular to people who work with words.
Trevor Burrus: So are economists more like physicists or are they more like …
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean it also will depend on the economist but we can bracket that issue for now and say that – so what he is talking about when he says intellectuals is something he calls “wordsmith intellectuals”. Jason, can you tell us what he means specifically by a wordsmith intellectual?
Jason Kuznicki: A wordsmith intellectual is someone who shapes the flow of words that other people will see and that can be in any number of different disciplines. It could be a historian. It could be an anthropologist. It could be a philosopher. It could be any number of different academic specialties and also professions outside the academy who are in some ways shaped by those disciplines. So, people who are TV news commentators, people who are journalists. You’re going to see them – to some degree share the same characteristics.
Trevor Burrus: Now this is – the interesting question here which he doesn’t really deal with but Aaron and I have actually talked about this in the past too. Excluding the “numbers-smith” people. Why? It seems like that’s an entire thing you can ask too. Not just why do intellectuals oppose capitalism but why only one sort of subset of intellectuals. Why does someone who spends their entire life studying the cell walls of green algae that exist in the Indian Ocean not terribly prone to one type of ideological belief or another. There seems to be something in that.
Aaron Ross Powell: Isn’t that partly explained though by his ultimate explanation of why intellectuals, wordsmith intellectuals, oppose capitalism is the kind of students who do well in school?
Trevor Burrus: But that would be true of the physicists. That’s the one thing that really – so we’re kind of going into the essay and it’s a very short essay so you can read it very quickly. But yeah, it’s basically this – was summarized, sort of not seeing their value in society and having experienced their value in schooling and thinking that they should be valuable like that, but that’s true physicists.
Jason Kuznicki: Well, it is and it isn’t. Nozick says that wordsmith intellectuals or incipient wordsmith intellectuals are praised by their teachers. The meritocracy happens on a face to face basis and you are pulled into a network in which perhaps the people who are already there are to some degree socialists. They are already highly critical of capitalism. They praise you. They tell you that you deserve a great deal of prestige. They tell you that you deserve honor and whatever is the best in society and that validates a particular world view.
With the quantitative people, he doesn’t really go into explaining how their professional lives work. But I would say that things probably worked differently there because your reputation as a quantitative researcher depends on your experimental results. They depend on having results that are interesting, results that are confirmed by other researchers, results that can be objectively demonstrated. It’s not about feeling. It’s not about personality. It’s about whether or not you can deliver results and results are things that can be agreed upon in a more objective fashion.
Aaron Ross Powell: Nozick notes in the beginning of the essay that they’re – when you ask the question, “Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?” there are [0:10:00] two approaches to answering it and he’s really only concerned with one and I think we should be clear about that upfront.
So the first one is the – could be rephrased as what reasons do intellectuals give for being opposed to capitalism. So this one will be answered along the lines of capitalism hurts the poor or leads to inequality or isn’t as good and wonderful and Utopian as socialism.
So if you were to ask an intellectual, “What do you think is wrong with capitalism?” you see the reasons they would give. That’s not what Nozick is interested in here. He is interested in the second way of looking at this question which is, “How do intellectuals come to hold those views?” and so it’s – that’s how the schooling enters in is because the forces at play that he thinks are pushing them towards socialism and away from capitalism are taking effect before we even get to them holding views about socialism and capitalism. This is stuff that’s happening from when they’re elementary school kids on up, that there’s certain things they’re exposed to that then when they eventually get to the question of what economic system is best influenced how they think about it. He’s concerned about this question also that like – because it’s more than just an interesting like here’s a group of people who seem to disproportionately lean a certain way. Why?
He’s concerned. He thinks this – answering this has weight because intellectuals and especially wordsmith intellectuals are very influential in society, that they shape the opinions of non-intellectuals, of most other people in society, in a way that other categories of people don’t.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I think it’s worth just bringing up as a point of reference, as a footnote to your point that that’s also in Hayek’s view the intellectuals in society which was his essay where he explained how he thinks you change the world. He was interested in influencing what he called second hand dealers and ideas which were the intelligent people including lawyers and journalists and things like this. Not necessarily the Nobel-Prize-winning professor but the people who talk about the Nobel-Prize-winning professor’s work who influenced the people around them, their – when they go to bars and when they have dinner parties.
So we have to get those people to believe in capitalism before we can really change the world. So as a footnote, that’s a similar type of thing that people that he’s focusing on, I think in Nozick’s essay is similar here.
Jason Kuznicki: Right, right. Because how many people actually sit down and read academic papers by Nobel Prize winners? Most people don’t. They will read though popular accounts of those papers and that’s where those second hand dealers and ideas become very, very important.
Now to get back to Nozick just a little bit, he says in this essay that the schools are “the major non-familiar society that children learn to operate in”. That’s I think very, very important because if you learn in school what society is like, then you will presumably think that school is what society should be like.
When society turns out to be different from school, it will be evaluated as a failure.
Trevor Burrus: I want to go more into that because the most interesting thing that I find in this essay is the discussion of the value that the intellectual holds for himself. So you have this part in the value of intellectuals where he says, “Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in the society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards.” Intellectuals feel entitled to this but by and large, the capital society does not honor its intellectuals, which becomes a sort of weird type of projection in this to say, “Well, there’s something wrong with the society that doesn’t adequately value the things that are valuable.”
Jason Kuznicki: And this is the first point of the essay where I kind of wanted to push back at Nozick because I don’t think our society fails to value intellectuals. I think they certainly got a very high level prestige. Maybe it’s never enough. I know that Robin Hanson has said that people are fundamentally motivated by prestige and that more than money, more than almost anything, what people want is to be respected and loved by those around them to be told that they’re really important, to be told that society needs them.
We say this about our intellectuals. So for example, even in my relatively conservative family. If I were to say, “Hey, guess what. I got a tenure track position at Harvard,” that would command respect. Now they might say, “Oh, well. Harvard.” But they would still think, wow, he has really accomplished something. That’s prestigious. That’s important and maybe that’s not enough but it’s something and it’s certainly something on par with almost any other significant form of prestige in our society.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m thinking of a couple of ways to maybe answer that from Nozick’s perspective. The first would be that on the broad level, for ever Cornel West or for every Paul Krugman, there are countless intellectuals, countless people who did very well in school and went on to become professors or worse, adjunct professors who are on a relative level not getting much acknowledgement and especially not getting – I mean they may get like – your family might think it’s really neat that you went to – that you get a tenure track position at Harvard. But the broader society is not paying attention to that kind of thing. They don’t know who the Harvard faculty are except for the handful of very, very famous ones.
So, there isn’t a lot of prestige outside of your small circle and then along similar lines, the kinds of people who have very broad level prestige. Again setting aside the handful, the very small handful of super famous academics are like the guys on Duck Dynasty or they’re sport stars or they’re actors or they’re occasionally …
Trevor Burrus: Kim Kardashian.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. People who inexplicably – and there’s – or they’re occasionally like famous businessmen or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who to the intellectual are decidedly not intellectuals and so perhaps not deserving of the kind of prestige.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I want to dovetail off that too because I think that Nozick’s point is a little bit too inward-facing to the intellectual himself, about whether or not he’s being valued enough. I think that matters but I think that the other thing is – was more what Aaron said, the question of whether or not an intellectual thinks. Regardless of their specific place, but is more of a general proposition, is the world valuing the right things correctly?
That question which is less, “Is the world valuing me correctly?” I think that a humble, realistic intellectual who is the world’s foremost authority on Russo at Harvard doesn’t probably think that that should be the most important goal of society is to acknowledge that Russo experts are on the preeminent top rung.
But he thinks in general that the kind of things that intellectuals like to do whether it’s a contemplative life and not watching Duck Dynasty and listening to the symphonies or why do symphonies have to be supported with public money, but these stupid, screaming bands are supported with the market system. So the general question is what – I think this is a very, very important question in free market thought, which is the dichotomy between someone’s perception of what’s valuable and how they perceive the world as whether or not it is accurately valuing the valuable things.
In many ways, one of the reasons that Marxism is like a religion in many ways is because the – many religions say essentially the world is run by false values. Like the basic core bottom thing is that the world is run by false values. It should be piety and not money. It should be these and not that.
Marxism says this too to some degree. You can always feel this idea in a lot of speeches. The point is that the world is being run by false values and we need to figure out some way to correct that.
Aaron Ross Powell: But to pull this back to – so when Nozick, he says – there are the two ways of answering the questions. So what you’re describing is that first way of answering the question. Like the intellectual can say, look, capitalism means a world based on false values. I think these are the correct values, therefore not capitalism.
But to pull it back to that second version of the question which is how did the intellectuals come about having these ideas and attitudes, that’s where we get to the school because what he’s saying is that because the intellectuals were in this non-familial community, that the – the community they spend so much of their time in, that all of us spend so much of our time in, which is the school system as we’re in our formative years. That that is a society that rewards intellectual kind of things, that you get praise from your teacher when you write the really good paper or you ask the smart question or you can articulate the answers in a way beyond what your fellow students can do.
If you’re the kind of person who does well in that sort of stuff, you like it, and we tend to think the society that we like is the right kind of society. The society that makes us happy is the right kind of society and so you come to think that the values that are important are the ones that happen to be praised, happen to be rewarded within the school system.
So then when you get out and you look at the society outside of it, that’s when you start to say, “Well, that doesn’t look like the school system so there must be something wrong.”
Jason Kuznicki: Yes, and [0:20:00] one of the things that I think key in understanding the market process and sort of sociology of the market is that if the market process is doing its job, if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, a lot of its results are actually going to look random to any particular observer.
They are going to look as if nothing of value has been provided. They’re going to look as if money has been distributed in an arbitrary fashion because what the market process does is to discover previously unknown knowledge.
When it does that, you didn’t have that knowledge. By definition, you didn’t have it. So your judgments about that are likely to be or have a good chance of being false. You’re going to think, “Aha! The market does things that are crazy and I have knowledge that enables me to make that judgment and I can judge it.”
Now what Hayek’s insight into the market was – is that look, this is what it’s supposed to look like. This is what it’s supposed to look like when it’s doing its job and to some extent, those judgments are going to look arbitrary, the judgments that are bestowed by the market because what has happened is someone who happened –perhaps simply by randomness – to have that piece of knowledge when other people did not was able to monetize it.
Trevor Burrus: So I wanted to – I think it’s a good point, incredibly good point and we could bring in Schumpeter and all these other things too. But on Aaron’s point about the – my discussion of values was more of the first question than the second question.
I think it sits on the edge because of what it had said. I think that you could say this is the – maybe the reason, the subset of reasons why they think capitalism is wrong. But I think it’s also a personality. I’m not trying to pathologize here. I think it’s the question of false values is sort of the way that you can project from your head out to the world about whether or not this is – these are good things that are happening in the world and good things that are produced by this and the milieu that intellectuals are raised in has them projecting out.
So it’s a combination of both a subset of critique of capitalism, its false values, but also the projection internally from the intellectual of why they would be prone to believe that specifically.
Jason Kuznicki: And when is it really necessarily committed to thinking that either value system is false? I found myself thinking in reading this of Jane Jacobs’ really, really excellent, short book Systems of Survival and she suggested that there are two different sort of moral paradigms. One of them is commercially-oriented. It says things like, “Be honest in trade. Be open to new experiences. Welcome strangers and treat them fairly as you would treat your friends. Be enterprising. Be efficient,” and she calls this the commercial paradigm.
Then she also says there’s another one, a guardian paradigm in which you are supposed to do things like respect honor and hierarchy and to know your place within a system and to value tradition and continuity.
I found myself thinking, well, of course the market is in the – the commercial system and the academy is much more like the guardian system and Jacobs actually does not want to say that either of these are necessarily wrong or evil. But they have particular roles to play in society.
So commerce is great at providing stuff but it’s actually not necessarily so great at providing public goods or providing say the defense of stuff. We have governments for a reason and governments operate on the guardian morality. To a great extent, I think the academy does also.
Aaron Ross Powell: I wonder if what’s going on here somewhat, when we talk about these conflicting views of how society ought to be organized, the conflicting value systems and then couple it with your good point about the randomness of the market. Because I’m struck by – I should preface this by saying one of the things that we remark on here at Cato a lot is that when it comes down to it, what’s really frustrating is how few people are actually in favor of free markets, that anti truly free markets is not limited to leftist intellectuals.
We get mad at the Republican Party for saying, oh, we support markets. But it’s like, no, you don’t. Like at every opportunity, you want to make interventions to stack the deck in favor of different groups.
Trevor Burrus: Just prohibiting drugs is anti-market …
Aaron Ross Powell: But that everyone – people tend to dislike all sorts of aspects of markets, when those markets don’t line up, when the results of those markets don’t line up with what they want.
So what my – my question is, is the – is what Nozick explaining here not something unique to intellectuals but is instead simply that we want a system – we think an economic system ought to align with our tastes and our values, because we think our case and our values are correct. Otherwise, we wouldn’t hold them.
So we reject markets whenever they don’t align with our values and think that some other system would be better. We support markets when they seem to align with our values and by “we” I mean people who are not genuinely in favor of free markets.
That might explain a bit of the economist being more in favor of free markets because the economist has studied – has more of a big picture view. They see the overall positive effects of markets whereas if you don’t have that big picture view, all you really have is your own life and those people around. So you’re like wow, the market has rewarded something that’s awesome, therefore markets are good.
Wow, the market is not rewarding something that’s awesome or it’s undermining something that’s awesome. Therefore a market is bad. So is this theory, is Nozick’s theory basically too limited? Is the problem that markets look random and so they – randomness is ultimately going to conflict with everyone’s values at some point.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think that’s a Schumpeterian element which is related …
Jason Kuznicki: Can you explain what you mean by Schumpeterian?
Trevor Burrus: Well, yeah, the idea that – Schumpeter was very interested in whether or not a free market society would be perceived as just by those who were in it and whether or not because of the randomness of the order. An individual person could look at the world and be like, “Oh, yeah, that guy is probably making the money he should be making as a hedge fund manager.” It’s something that they don’t have any idea about and whether or not a fully instantiated market society would be fundamentally unstable because everyone would start looking at it with a kind of skepticism or maybe everyone already does on Aaron’s point. Then it’s not just limited intellectuals.
Maybe intellectuals have done it because they write and speak more often. So maybe just have like a sampling bias and they systematize it more often and use words like “neoliberal” and things like this.
So maybe they’re just out there more. I suspect that there’s still a much higher percentage of certain things in intellectuals than there would be in random sampling of other people let’s say.
The question that I was talking about which maybe goes back to intellectuals themselves – this is something that again could be either type one explanation you’re saying or type two, but there’s something that’s pretty common amongst the conservatives is that the intellectuals really believe in expertise and so they believe the society should be run according to expertise.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, this gets to – so Nozick, after setting up why intellectuals might be frustrated with capitalism, we have to move into the question. The next part of the essay is, “OK. But why socialism, right?” because there’s no on its face reason why a – like just because capitalism doesn’t reward intellectual virtues. Like we will stipulate that because I think the intellectuals are largely wrong about that.
But let’s say they’re right. That doesn’t necessarily mean therefore socialism will. We need to have an argument for why and so what Nozick is saying – this gets to the expertise is if we look at the characteristics of the classroom, what you have is a – a single – usually a single authority figure who stands at the front of the classroom and hands out rewards based on what to the intellectual looks like merit. So what you have is a miniature-planned economy. Their stuff comes in. We got school supplies. We got prestige. We got …
Jason Kuznicki: But that’s not necessarily left or right wing. I mean Nozick actually does mention some intellectuals who were right wing. Yeats, Eliot, Pound he says and I could easily add many more. You could talk about Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger. It does not necessarily have to skew left wing. It could skew right wing authoritarian. So yes, why socialism?
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I think that – I mean one way I can think to answer that question about why socialism – because why aren’t they – why aren’t there as many right wing intellectuals supporting authoritarianism is if we contextualize it, if we say – like let’s just look at say the United States or let’s look at the Western world.
That there’s this central planning angle that they like in Nozick’s story because the teacher is the central planner and distributor of fairness. But at the same time, there’s an element of what really matters is intellectual discourse, which has an element of freedom, right?
We want a society where people can engage in this freely and openly and we aren’t restricted. So that would seem to cut against authoritarianism [0:30:00] and the mistake obviously that – I mean we would argue this is a mistake is that they see socialism as central planning plus freedom in a way that strict authoritarianism would be central planning plus no freedom.
Jason Kuznicki: Well, it’s central planning for stuff they would say and stuff is not really right. What’s important is ideas. Ideas are what matter and we will have free ideas under socialism while technocratically managing stuff. Now this is a false picture of socialism. This is not accurate at all.
In fact, command economies have to have censorship. They can’t get by without it and when you control stuff, you also control people. You control individual lives. It can’t be escape. There’s no getting around that.
Trevor Burrus: But the question I’m asking is – so you have intellectuals that – if we take as a general category, one way to get ahead as an intellectual is to tell people that things are not as you perceive them to be, that something counterintuitive is actually true and then it – that’s a basic very abstract thing intellectuals do.
Well that makes it very relational. If you’re an intellectual society where – let’s imagine and this is a big “if” for the reasons you just said. But the Soviet Union where intellectuals were free and that’s a big “if”. If you had a Soviet Union where the university was a thriving system, it had an intellectual class, they could say …
Jason Kuznicki: Well, they tried that for a while and they had to crush it.
Trevor Burrus: … intellectuals in the Soviet Union in that hypothetical situation be capitalists? Because the way to push back on – produce the counterintuitive idea is to say, hey, maybe the socialist system doesn’t work.
Jason Kuznicki: Well, when they tried that in China, that is exactly what happened. They got ideological deviationism all over the place and not necessarily that they all became little miniature Mises or whatever but they had some odd ideas out there and ones that the regime couldn’t put up with. So yeah, there was a period in China that – the Hundred Flowers period and they had to crush it. They had no way of dealing with that kind of descent.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, the idea here is essentially that the – intellectuals as contextuals rage against the machine and the machine is an abstract of concept. Rage against the machine is anti-capitalist and socialist but if they were allowed to be – and that’s – again, that’s maybe the best, most important point. But they’re allowed to be in the Soviet Union. The machine would be the socialist because just like intellectual – juvenile delinquency is contingent upon what the established standard is. Perhaps intellectual and maybe called intellectual delinquency is also contingent upon what the standard is.
So they’re always going to just basically resist what they perceive to be the predominant functioning social order.
Aaron Ross Powell: And could that – I mean we’re – we maybe drifting a bit into the psychologizing that we said we were going to try to avoid, but that part of – so you’ve gone through the school system where you’ve been praised and you’ve been told that you’re super smart and that you are – you know what you’re talking about and then the problems is that when you get out into the world, people aren’t listening to you. They’re not – that the world is organized. The people are doing things that you don’t think they should be doing. They have tastes that they’re listening to that rock and roll instead of the opera.
So what you want is you want a system where people listen to you and so which is necessarily going to be somewhat different than a system you’ve got, which would explain why – and again, we would say that the Chinese intellectuals who were objecting to communism in favor of capitalism are in fact correct. But if we set aside the notion of the truth value of their views, there is some level of rebellion in the – you need to listen to me and so by listening to me, you should be doing something different from whatever it is you happen to be doing.
Jason Kuznicki: I think Nozick would say though that open and closed societies are asymmetric that way because in a closed society, everybody does know their place and that’s actually one thing that is relatively comfortable about the academy. There’s a progression of your academic career. You know how it’s supposed to go. It’s incredibly structured. It’s incredibly closed in that way.
In an open society, nobody really does know their place. You could be very wealthy tomorrow. You could go broke, depending on choices that you make. There would be more mobility and mobility not just in money but in prestige, in location, in tastes and values. Those things change in an open society and when you’re not acculturated to that, it does tend to seem weird. I thought a lot of Karl Popper in his talk about how open societies are unstable as regards to individual positions and that necessarily seems threatening to somebody who has lived their life in a system that is much more orderly, that is much more – there’s a course that you follow.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m reminded of – I had – I mean I had several professors say something along these lines. But one in particular who – she would – we’ve talked about the move from status to contract and her …
Trevor Burrus: I remember this.
Jason Kuznicki: This is Henry Summer Maine?
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. But – so the notion that at one time, people’s position was defined by their – the status that they were born into. You were born into the nobility and you had that level of status or you were born into serfdom. You had that level of status and then your role in society was very clearly defined. You knew what it was and you knew what responsibilities you had to other people, what responsibilities other people had to you. As we shifted to a society based on contract, a society where you could move around, it upset this very strict status-based society, which is what you’re describing the academy as. It’s basically …
Jason Kuznicki: It’s a status-based society. Exactly.
Aaron Ross Powell: Your status can change over time as you age into the different levels of being a professor and getting tenure and all of that. But it looks like a status-based society and I had a professor in law school who her – much of her intellectual career was based on arguing that we would be better off returning to a society of status where people knew what they owed to each other, that it was a good thing that we had – I’m being …
Jason Kuznicki: … liberal or a conservative?
Aaron Ross Powell: She was very far left.
Jason Kuznicki: Really?
Aaron Ross Powell: But the argument was that it was better because there were going to be people that were going to be poor people and that in – this is a mischaracterization of the Middle Ages to say the least. That the kings knew that they owed things to the serfs and that they had to give things to the serfs and it wasn’t just like, well, if the serfs can afford it, I will give it to them and if they can’t, they can’t. I won’t. It was …
Trevor Burrus: An obligation.
Aaron Ross Powell: It was an obligation baked into the nature of society.
Aaron Ross Powell: So that makes me think. Like you’re talking about is it possible then that the – if what we want is that structured society, socialism is a version of that but a return to – I mean this is the neo reactionaries that we’ve run into on Twitter. A return to a society of status.
Jason Kuznicki: Well, Ezra Pound exactly made this point in a lot of his poetry, that now we are without clear markers of status. We don’t know where to make a home. We don’t know where to – how to build straight angles any longer. We are beset by – what do you call it? Usura, the goddess of usery and that upsets everything. That upsets the society of status and nobody knows their place anymore.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m struck as you talk about this, of how common this notion of wanting to return to society where you knew – I mean you knew your place I guess it seems to be because it shows up in – so there are the conservatives. There’s conservative – the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre talks about this a lot of this need – they communitarians of this notion that you should be deeply embedded in society and know your position in that society, that that’s formative of who you are. But I recall reading like an argument for – the question was, “Why do nerds wear fedoras?” which is an interesting like – why is it that …
Aaron Ross Powell: … Trevor has worn fedoras but he claims it was – either he started the trend or it was …
Jason Kuznicki: It was ironic.
Aaron Ross Powell: But the argument which – I mean has at least has – is interesting in light of what you said. It’s that if you are a low status male, in the sense that like you’re not – girls aren’t flocking to you, right?
Trevor Burrus: You’re not the quarterback.
Aaron Ross Powell: You’re not the quarterback. You’re not – you’re the nerdy computer guy before – you haven’t gotten to the age where you can found a start-up and become the high status person. Then to some extent, like you long for a time when men were men and women were women and you knew what the roles were and that for the fedora-wearing set, the fedora represents this – I mean it’s the …
Aaron Ross Powell: … Los Angeles of the 1940s when there were tough guys and dames and the tough guys got the girl and there was this – and similarly, there was this level of like chivalry that we see with Philip Marlowe, but it’s also that the popularity of Medieval England among this low status or perceived by them to be low status set of – again, when there were knights and damsels and society was structured [0:40:00] and you knew your place and you didn’t have to compete for status. It was very clear and very defined.
Jason Kuznicki: I don’t say I agree with that. I can’t because I was that nerdy guy and I just wanted to burn the whole rotten system down. I mean I didn’t want to take a place in it. I wanted to escape it.
Trevor Burrus: I think the longing for predictability though is an interesting point and whether or not it’s better to have – I think it’s an existential – the unpredictability of a market and the ability for it to destroy things including things that you love whether it’s ma and pa down the street who was going to go out of business because Walmart came in and all this stuff.
It seems chaotic and it doesn’t preserve the things you love, not all the time depending on what you love. So yes, a desire for predictability. If you want predictability and stability, you really shouldn’t be for market economies more or less. That could be …
Aaron Ross Powell: Right. So again, this plays out – so the intellectuals who had the stability of school and then in the academy that – the very clear stability including I mean tenure. But then you see this in the longing for the good old days, for the 1950s as an ideal amongst social conservatives and you listed like the lyrics of country music which are about things should stay the same and we should stay close to home and we should do things the way that we’ve always done them.
It seems to be this real need among people to have things always be the way they’ve always been and always be predictable.
Trevor Burrus: Yes. I want to change the topic slightly too. One of the questions – this is my last question I was pondering, which goes back to the expertise point and this may cut against my point about the relational or conditional attitudes of intellectuals compared to the Soviet Union here.
This may also push back again Nozick’s desire to not – my desire not to pathologize them which we’ve been getting close to anyway. But the question, if you’re – consider yourself incredibly smart, which was to say intellectuals, which [Indiscernible] almost tautologically do, then – and that is comparatively smarter than most other people. Wouldn’t that contribute to you thinking that most people can’t be trusted to do a lot of things on their own? I mean just a very simple extrapolation. If you don’t believe in people, it’s very hard to be for free markets.
Jason Kuznicki: It might correlate. I mean I could see that but it could – I mean I could see it cutting in the other direction as well. You could say I have a PhD in economics and I still can’t figure out how toothpaste manages to wind up in the bathrooms of every single person in this country and that’s astounding.
The people who make toothpaste are not geniuses. They are somehow probably pretty close to average. They’re certainly not as smart as I am with my Econ PhD and yet it happens. How does that happen?
That – it could cut the other direction. It could – you could say in fact that society considered as a collective for a moment is actually smart in ways that I can’t be.
Trevor Burrus: I could see that but I could also see the attitude coming into place where – when I’ve talked to people, intellectuals about something like school choice. Well, the parents go out and make choices for their kids about what kind of school they want for them. This isn’t a crazy idea and the response is often, “We do really think that most parents are equipped to know what’s best for their kids,” like in so many situation. Is that really something you want to leave to parents? Most parents are idiots and if most parents are idiots, then we don’t want them out there choosing.
So again, your perception of other people’s relative intelligence I think goes a lot to whether or not you believe in …
Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, but I think if people are on average incompetent to run their own lives, then probably a narrow elite at the top is not going to be able to help them …
Trevor Burrus: But that’s a doctrinal position we have. The intellectuals, they think, well – maybe we have stupid people making choices or we have smart people making choices. Which one is better?
Aaron Ross Powell: I think we can – to bring that back to Nozick’s theory, I mean it – so in the classroom, it’s not just that the classroom is run by an authority figure. It’s that the classroom is run by the teacher, right? And the teacher is the person who knows a lot more than everyone else. I mean occasionally you have the experience of realizing that your teacher doesn’t or you get a really dumb teacher and you’re cognizant of it.
But most of the time, the teacher does in fact know more than you do and the teacher seems to run the classroom relatively well and so you – I mean in Nozick’s story, it would stand to reason then that you would come to think that having a smart person, someone who knows more than everyone else, run things is the most effective, the more fair way to go about it.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I mean I think all these things become consolation of factors and we have been mentioning the long march again. All these things together between Nozick’s points or somewhat – I think they’re good but there needs to be more – the long march is good and even more I think the relational aspects.
Then of course you just sort of have like a tipping point type of thing. I mean if for some reason the intellectual class – the people who hire and fire at universities and the people who hire and fire in newspapers, just for some random reason, whether it was the baby boom of the 60s and the leftism of the 60s. So all of a sudden, they just get swayed to one side. Well then your career prospects and other things like this start determining whether or not you’re going to advance in – you have to have the right beliefs to advance in the sociology department or it’s going to be very difficult or the journalism department.
So then you just have a critical mass that becomes a self-perpetuating thing because you have to be – that was a comment often made about think tanks is that it was – people who wanted to be professors but were conservative, were libertarian, who fled the universities because they couldn’t really say what they wanted to say and expect to get good job prospects and so that’s why conservatives and libertarians were the first movers on the think tank front.
So you have all this mix mashed together and I think you start to get a general picture of why this class is. I think future episodes, we would have to deal with like Hollywood and public school teachers and other classes, predominantly any capitalist people.
Aaron Ross Powell: Then to close out this discussion, if Nozick is correct, if the story that he tells either explains all of intellectual anti-capitalism or at least a decent chunk of it, if the – the environment of the school plays a large role. What can we do about that? What are our prospects for shifting things in a more free market direction?
Trevor Burrus: I’m not terribly optimistic about that, but I don’t think it means that we’re doomed to lose. I think that the universities are very large and at this point path-dependent institutions to a large degree unless we can start building up other intellectual classes and other ideas.
That stuff I’m optimistic about. The interesting story of Baldy Harper, F.A. Harper who started IHS, Institute for Humane Studies, which is a quite old free market – 1961 and it’s pretty old by these standards, who wasn’t allowed to teach Hayek in his economics class at Cornell. So he said, “Well, screw this. I’m going to go start a non-profit that teaches Hayek’s students anyway.”
So I’m optimistic about things like that, but I think that the institution – the universities and the other institutions are pretty set in their ways and a lot of what Nozick said are some of the reasons and some of the things we’ve discussed today are other reasons. I don’t see it changing much. What do you think Jason?
Jason Kuznicki: I would say that if Nozick is right, we ought to consider the currency that academics accept, which is respect and perhaps consider giving them less of it. The idea that one absolutely must go to a four-year college in order to get a good job afterward is one that people have been criticizing lately and while I still find great value in the academy and I think that at times it’s possible to overplay that criticism, I would also say that things like that should put them on notice and alternate institutions, the rise of things like think tanks and of alternate educational opportunities ought to make them wonder. Is this something that is going to eat into our prestige?
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org and I should note if you haven’t already, you should check out our new Cato Audio app available in the Apple App Store for iPad and iPhone. It’s a super easy and free way to listen to not just Free Thoughts but the other podcast from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute.