Again on intellectuals and capitalism / 1 of 3
By Alberto Mingardi
A few readers have reacted to my post on Gertrude Himmelfarb and “why intellectuals hate capitalism” and pointed out that we are not actually sure that capitalism is less popular among intellectuals than among other social groups.
A few years ago the idea that intellectuals were overly hostile to capitalism passed unchallenged. The essay by Himmelfarb which I mentioned deals with “European criticisms of America”. Anti-Americanism in Europe has been particularly widespread among cultivated people and has taken the form of disdain for “low” culture and consumerism.
By saying “intellectuals” I do typically think of those whom Robert Nozick labeled as “wordsmiths”.
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)
One criticism of my post was that intellectuals do not necessarily have “uncommon” tastes – that is, they may be into pop culture as much as anybody else. The TV show Big Bang Theory suggests that nowadays scientists are often seen as “nerds,” no less obsessed by “low-brow” products (comic books and science fiction) than by “high culture”. I wonder if that also applies to wordsmiths. Yet higher education seems to be a stronger predictor of museum attendance and quite a high percentage of opera fans and classical music lovers tend to have at least a college degree. Not all intellectuals prefer Così fan tutte to Thor Ragnarok, but it seems to me that it is not a weird assumption that a certain refinement comes with education.
The other criticism is that we can’t say with any certainty that intellectuals are less pro-capitalist than other groups. I agree that we would need more data. After all, we know more or less what intellectuals, social scientists in particular, think about political issues: they publish articles and books. Other professions’ political ideas tend to remain more private.
On top of that, today the most vocal criticism of globalisation and free trade comes out of groups – voters who go for “populist” parties and their spokespersons – that are ostensibly anti-intellectual.
This question is closely related to the issue of pluralism in academia.
A 2009 Pew poll suggests that academics overwhelmingly self-define as “liberals”, with barely 2% of them self-defining as “conservatives”. The survey of scientists was conducted with a sample of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which, unless I am mistaken, includes social scientists too.
A recent and important paper by Jonathan Haidt, Philip Tetlock, Lotta Stern, Jarret Crawford, José Duarte and Lee Jussim points out that social psychologists are overwhelmingly on the left side of the political spectrum. That US universities (let alone European ones) are more and more ideologically homogeneous is a problem the same as one President Obama has argued about, pointing out that students shouldn’t be “coddled” in one particular point of view.
Take economists, who are more sympathetic to the market economy among academics. This paper by Dan Klein and Lotta Stern (“Is there a free market economist in the house?“) reports that only a tiny minority of economists share a sharply “pro market” policy outlook.
Now, how does this compare with the times described in the Himmelfarb and Mises’ works I have mentioned? I would agree that the number of intellectuals not hostile to capitalism has grown: in the 1950s theirs was a small lot. When the Mont Pelerin Society was founded in 1947 it had only fifty members.
But the persistence of the anti-capitalistic mindset makes it an interesting subject. Of course, an anti-capitalist intellectual could easily reply that intellectuals tend to be hostile to capitalism simply because they thought about capitalism more carefully and thoroughly.
Is that a reasonable contention?