Sunday, January 4, 2015

Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? Some Hypotheses From a Libertarian

I just read philosopher Robert Nozick's essay where he offers several hypotheses for social scientists to test.  Read the whole thing, it's short, clear, and an easy read.  (Too bad we know that social scientists won't be eager to take up that task.)

Here is an excerpt:

Is it that capitalism is bad, unjust, immoral, or inferior, and that intellectuals, being intelligent, realize this and therefore stand in opposition? This would be the straightforward answer. The straightforward explanation of why we believe something is that it is true, and we somehow know it. But even those of you who are not convinced, as I am, that capitalism is a morally justifiable system, perhaps can suspend your disbelief in it, at least temporarily, to follow me in my quest for an explanation of the intellectuals' opposition. For even if the intellectuals are right in their opposition, the explanation of their opposition need not be the straightforward one. Though what is believed is true, it might not be believed because it is true; the explanation of why it is believed need not or may not involve its being true.

There is reason to think that something more is at work in the opposition of intellectuals to capitalism than merely their realizing the truth about capitalism. Let me describe to you an experience I have often had. A particular complaint is made about laissez-faire capitalism, perhaps that it leads to monopoly, or pollution, or too much inequality, or involves exploitation of workers, or despoils the environment, or leads to imperialism, or causes wars, or thwarts meaningful work, or panders to peoples' desires, or encourages dishonesty in the marketplace, or produces for profit and not for use, or holds back progress to increase profits, or disrupts traditional patterns to increase profits, or leads to overproduction, or leads to underproduction, or whatever. Someone makes the particular complaint, and I discuss it in detail, probing it, showing its unexamined assumptions-mistakes of fact or logic or history or economics. In any case, the person concedes my particular point or at least becomes unsure about the validity of his or her particular complaint against capitalism. Does the individual then change his or her mind? No, the individual drops the point, and quickly leaps to another. "But what about child labor, or the racism built into it, or the oppression of women, or urban slums, or in simpler days we could do without planning but now things are so complex that ... ,or advertising seducing people into buying things or.... " And so it goes. We painstakingly discuss this next complaint and once again it cannot be sustained. The person leaps to yet another point, "But what about. ..?" Point after point after point is given up. One complaint after another is dropped. What is not given up, though, what is not dropped, is the opposition to capitalism. For the opposition is not based on those points and complaints, it does not depend on them and so it does not disappear when they do. There is an underlying animus against capitalism. This animus gives rise to the complaints, it generates them. The complaints rationalize the animus. After some resistance, the particular complaint will be dropped and, without a backward glance, tenfold others will surge forward to perform the same function, to rationalize and justify the intellectual's animus to capitalism.

[...some hypotheses...]

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. But, by and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals. Ludwig von Mises explains the special resentment of intellectuals, in contrast to workers, by saying they mix socially with successful capitalists and so have them as a salient comparison group and are humiliated by their lesser status. However, even those intellectuals who do not mix socially are similarly resentful, while merely mixing is not enough—the sports and dancing instructors who cater to the rich and have affairs with them are not noticeably anti-capitalist.

Why then do contemporary intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards their society has to offer and resentful when they do not receive this? Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution “to each according to his merit or value.” Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.
What factor produced feelings of superior value on the part of intellectuals? I want to focus on one institution in particular: schools. As book knowledge became increasingly important, schooling—the education together in classes of young people in reading and book knowledge—spread. Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher’s favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.
The schools, too, exhibited and thereby taught the principle of reward in accordance with (intellectual) merit. To the intellectually meritorious went the praise, the teacher’s smiles, and the highest grades. In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.


  1. I think Nozick's hypotheses are plausible, especially when combined with good old fashioned peer pressure. Perhaps his hypotheses explain how the intellectual community got so anti-capitalist in the first place, but peer pressure is a big factor as to how it maintains it.

    I think most kids come into college leaning one way or the other, but they are pretty malleable. For those who are good at school and deemed to be in the "upper class" of school, some go on to professionalize at school. These people become isolated in anti-capitalist culture. So, if you are not already anti-capitalist, you are more than likely going to become anti-capitalist by the time you are done because adopting the mentality of your community gives you acceptance, commonality, and things to complain about together. Furthermore, I think a lot of people, especially intellectuals, value the opinion of other perceived smart people. So, if I'm on the fence about capitalism, and I see that 90% of my community is solidly against it, and they seem to be smart and they seem to say smart things, I am likely to take that as evidence against capitalism.

    The intellectual community is also isolated from people who think differently. They are embarrassed of their friends and family from youth who are not in the community, and they actively isolate themselves and listen to NPR. All these things combined make it very unlikely that someone will exit graduate school as an ideological conservative. Even if a person does not like politics and is not ideological, they will be liberal after graduate school by osmosis.

  2. JS,

    You're probably right. Maybe I'll do another whole post on this.