Again on intellectuals and capitalism / 2 of 3
By Alberto Mingardi
Instead of anti-capitalism we might talk about “economic orthopedics.”
“Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?” is a central question for 20th century classical liberals, and I think confronting answers is a good way to clarify what makes for different “styles” of classical liberalism.
Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter, Nozick and Coase all attempted to provide an answer. Of these scholars, Mises placed his argument in the context of a broader analysis of anti-capitalism. Coase used irony (in his essay on the market for goods vs the market for ideas), Hayek made it a big strategic concern (how to convince the second-hand dealers in ideas?), Schumpeter looked for historical trends (the rationalist and critical ethos of modernity bites the hand of the bourgeoisie), and Nozick suggested that intellectuals, accustomed to being elevated from their school experience, resent the labour market for not doing so. I know I’m not doing justice to these giants: I just want to point out that they treated opposition to liberalism as something to be explained.
I’ve already quoted Nozick’s definition of “wordsmiths”, which helps in defining the boundaries of our field of inquiry.
By intellectuals, I do not mean all people of intelligence or of a certain level of education, but those who, in their vocation, deal with ideas as expressed in words, shaping the word flow others receive. These wordsmiths include poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors. It does not include those who primarily produce and transmit quantitatively or mathematically formulated information (the numbersmiths) or those working in visual media, painters, sculptors, cameramen. Unlike the wordsmiths, people in these occupations do not disproportionately oppose capitalism. The wordsmiths are concentrated in certain occupational sites: academia, the media, government bureaucracy.
Yet anti-capitalism comes in degrees too. Some wordsmiths may believe that capitalism ought to be reformed via political action, some may dream that the status quo is blown away all together.
Instead of anti-capitalism we might talk about “economic orthopedics.” People that are OK with the status quo may appreciate some fruits of capitalism as we know it, but believe that governmental “orthopedic” interventions are needed to steer capitalism to further the common good. People that despise the status quo may think that it has to be rethought completely, but once (just for the sake of the argument) central banks are abolished or bail outs are prohibited or the industrial-military complex is wiped away, the need for intervention will be limited. What is more anti-capitalist?
Nozick spoke of those who are wordsmiths “in their vocation.” Such wordsmiths think a lot about political issues; it’s how they make a living, nurses and wine merchants not necessarily so. Some groups of workers may have specific issues (I blame Chinese imports for me not getting a salary increase in quite a while), but they are less likely to think about systems: that is, to generalize their concerns into an indictment of the market economy. By saying so I do not mean that nurses and wine merchants have a better understanding of economics, or that they are necessarily more libertarian-leaning. I mean that they are less interested in dreaming about overcoming a “system”, than in improving their lot, if necessary by resorting to politics.
We wordsmiths assume that wordsmiths eventually contribute to changes in attitudes, to changes in political demands, and to changes in public policy. This contention was more reasonable years ago than it is now, when it seems that world leaders do not pay much attention to what wordsmiths smith. Yet wordsmiths are still indirectly responsible for shaping the boundaries of conversations: for equipping conversation with what it says. But I’m open to the idea that the chain between the world of ideas and the world of politics nowadays is far different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
In short, I would maintain intellectuals are still typically more anti-capitalist than any other group. Moreover, I think most are not like the tinkering “market-failure” economists. Rather, anti-capitalist wordsmiths denounce “the system” and want to replace it with something else.