Again on intellectuals and capitalism / 3 of 3
By Alberto Mingardi
Social media have democratised the way in which public opinion takes shape. There are a number of non-vocational wordsmiths that compete with professional ones and, when it comes to creating and maintaining a “following”, it is not clear that the professionals are more successful than the non-professionals.
I’ve written that the question “why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?” was considered an important one by some giants of 20th century classical liberal thought. But does it continue to be?
One problematic point about Nozick’s “wordsmiths” in the world of social media is that they were so “by vocation”. Hayek’s emphasis on the need to convince “second-hand dealers in ideas” assumed that ideas were not merely “originated” by professionals but also propagated by people whose job was to educate others and communicate ideas.
Hayek’s insights shaped the strategy followed by many organisations which tried to convince intellectuals of the virtues of a freer market. Jeremy Shearmur wrote a fascinating paper on the London Institute of Economic Affairs entitled “Lunching for Liberty“. The leaders of the Institute, Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, built “a distinctive kind of (closed) public forum, in their offices, in which there was a free – and pleasurable – exchange of views over long luncheons”. In England, key-decision making was concentrated in the city of London, and so were the major newspapers. When the IEA was established, British culture was still rather “clubbish”: this suited rather well its model of disseminating ideas through personal contacts with influential opinion makers. While the Institute never made classical liberalism popular among academics or intellectuals at large, it was almost single-handedly responsible for it gaining attention and respectability.
But what about today?
Social media have democratised the way in which public opinion takes shape. There are a number of non-vocational wordsmiths who compete with professional ones and, when it comes to creating and maintaining a “following”, it is not clear that the professionals are more successful than the non-professionals. Such a growing supply of “social media gurus” influences the way we see the public debate, particularly through our Facebook timelines and our Twitter accounts. We sense that the influence of high school teachers is fading away, while that of social mediaists, in aggregate, is on the rise.
Still, I would tend to believe that even social-media ideas are not independent of the vocational wordsmiths. The stories we hear in our formative years, the books we read, the movies we see, make us more receptive to this or that political message, too. In this regard, vocational wordsmiths do still play a role. However simplistic an understanding of the industrial revolution may be, for example, is it not based upon some understanding of history or economic theory?
Still, a competing thesis may be mentioned. Dan Klein wrote a rather interesting paper a few years ago, “Resorting to Statism to Find Meaning“. Dan treats “high-strata,” “low-strata,” and “all-strata” statist biases, and suggests that classical liberalism is “a rather intellectual affair”, which “does not make for mass political meaning”. This is based upon another insight by Hayek, who advanced the thesis that support for social justice may be an “atavism”. We evolved with morals fit for the small band, and we struggle to adjust to an extended order. (Herbert Spencer argued things not very different.) Political movements often atavistically tap into the band ethos and mentality.
Resorting to statism to find meaning is consistent with a bent for simpler, older way of looking at phenomena, searching invariably for visible hands. This also explains the success of conspiracy theories, which provide people with a culpable wrong-doer for whatever social ills.
Would such a view be incompatible with the idea that intellectuals tend to be hostile to capitalism? I think that is the case only superficially. In fact, wordsmiths are human beings like anybody else, but they devote far more time than anybody else in thinking about social facts, and define themselves by the time and effort they put into such activity. For, if such a tendency is profoundly deeply rooted in human beings, choosing a profession in the production of words won’t excise it. Quite the contrary, as in the case of many social scientists, they may end up choosing such a profession precisely because they “feel” strongly about a certain set of social facts.