Intellectuals vs. Capitalism

Steve Antler links to an interesting article by Nozick from the Cato Institute.

It's a long, and decently written look at the (supposedly -- I've never seen numbers) skewed distribution of intellectuals across the political spectrum: they fall disproportionately to the left. Meanwhile, these intellectuals also happen to oppose capitalism.

The argument presented is decent, though at times I think it's more an attempt to sting education in general than to attack left-leaning intellectual distaste for capitalism. However, I'd offer my short take here; I think the reason public intellectuals oppose capitalism is much more simply stated:


Let's face it: the work that gets the most attention not only in academia, but also in popular press and discussion, are those things that appear contrary to our suppositions. Why do some people find economics so boring? Could it be because it often looks like a lot of convoluted chatter devoted to explaining the numbingly obvious? When prices go up, people buy less. We need 225+ years of economic debate to tell us that? (No, that isn't my take on economics -- I'm suggesting it's a popular view of the study of economics.)

What gets our attention, garners public notoriety and generates lot of interest from academics are those things that are contrary. In this case, finding fault with a system that, while imperfect, has yet to see any competing system that isn't more flawed by orders of magnitude. It works ok, it mostly does so through the normal activity of the average participant, and it seems pretty promising. How best to get noticed, then, in the field of commentary on the market? Suggest that something about it is not working the way most people think it might be. Suggest that there is something that, with the trained eye of an enlightened mind, can clearly be seen as fundamentally flawed. Suggest that, despite what we may believe, the system isn't working, and that continued misunderstanding of the situation will only make everyone worse off.

Who's going to pay someone to sit and explain how something works, aside from the engineering-minded folks who are driven by their own curiosity? No, it is more lucrative to be on the side that cries foul, that points to what a majority has come to accept and says "it is not so." And certainly, such skepticism has done wonders for the advancement of knowledge. But there are differences between testing the popular belief and suggesting alternatives, and simply pointing the finger at those who believe and by implication calling them fools.

Accepting on faith the popular perception is a dangerous thing, to be sure, but it is this claimed purpose that would seem to drive the "public intellectual" to argue against, in this case, capitalism. The willingess to accept some sort of ability beyond the average intellect that lies behind an appellation like intellectual is frequently extended to an individual in realms beyond that which originally earned them the position: linguists famed for their grasp of foreign policy, or psychologists for the same skill for that matter. Economists, as well, should be included in that group. If the belief is that they see so much further than the rest of us, of what use are proclomations that "yes, this works well -- continue"? It took no great leaps of logic, no complicated computation, and no spectacular skills to make the thing work; the intellectual, in this, is wholly unnecessary. Only through a vocal declaration of differing opinion can the intellectual propose a use for herself, mainly in the enlightenment of the misguided. In fact, contrariness might take on a tone of fervor by the cyclical nature of this: if so many people are going along not believing the intellectual's claim, then there is simply more reason (for believers) to believe that the intellectual has a special, keen insight into the situation beyond even a greater number of people than they earlier supposed. One can easily think of those who seem to make their mark by stamping harder and harder, crying "but don't you see?" when, in fact, the sights they offer are no more certain than the one they decry.

We tend to enjoy, as a group, the Chicken Littles, all those whose shouting gives supporters a reason to think there is finally a sane voice in the world, and gives detractors the sizable targets they've been hoping for. Of course, target size is likely to be a large reason so many intellectuals take aim at capitalism. It's so prevalent, its workings so widespread, that the prize for being the first to find fissures appears proportionate. If someone spouts a contrary opinion about the designated hitter rule in baseball, you'll get as fervent a debate as you could hope for in any setting -- the group of those interested, however, will be far smaller than if an intellectual takes aim at the direction the majority of world exchange is headed.

And in so doing, an audience can be attracted, members of which are persuaded not so much by the strength of the contrarian argument as the existence of the contrariness itself. It might be the selection problem writ large: those who seek notoriety for being at odds with things will naturally seek to be at odds with the highest stake subject possible. Those who attack capitalism might be those for whom the attack is key, rather than the thing being attacked.


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This page contains a single entry by published on June 22, 2004 12:36 AM.

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