Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?


Preparing for episode of Uncommon Knowledge on higher education later this week–my guests will be Joseph Epstein, author of “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”, and Andy Ferguson, author of Crazy U–I came across this article by the late Robert Nozick.  A libertarian, Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, one of the most powerful books I have ever read.  Somehow, though, I had never before come across this essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

Nozick’s answer?  Because they did so well in school.  To wit:

“By intellectuals…I…mean…those who…deal withideas expressed in words, shaping the word flow others receive.  These wordsmiths include poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors….

“The schools told [intellectuals]…they were better….To the intellectually meritorious [students] went the praise, the teacher’s smiles, and the highest grades….The wider market society, hwoever taught a different lesson….There the intellectual skills were notmosthighly valued.  Schooled in the lesson that they were…the most deserving of reward…how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority ‘entitled’ them?  Is it surprising that what the school intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus…?”

Nozick is on to something here, no?

There are 49 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Podcaster

    You spend a lifetime trying to make your head fit that flat hat and look what happens.

    No, their problem is that everything in their world is theoretical. Professor Long and Professor Robinson* can offer competing theories of economics and business. Since they both get published and garner glowing peer reviews they both consider themselves successful.

    However, both professors theories are just plain bullocks. In the real world, risking their own money, they go bankrupt in two years and live in cardboard boxes underneath the 101.

    Intellectualism is kind, warm and fuzzy. Capitalism is hard, cold and relentless.

    *Names chosen randomly and do not reflect on the business acumen of any real person living or dead. And no animals were harmed in the production of this post.

    • #31
  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    Intellectuals both disdain and resent capitalism because it functions, or can function, without planning and social engineering. If you don’t need planning and social engineering, you don’t need planners and social engineers. This painful reality highlights the intellectuals’ redundancy and lack of financial power compared to all those shallow, under-credentialled entrepreneurs and business folk.

    Furthermore, something as spontaneous and messy as the market just shouldn’t be able to function, let alone produce unparalleled prosperity – dammit!

    • #32
  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    Western society was forever altered by Homer, who made Odysseus the hero – because he was clever. Others were strong (Achilles), honorable, passionate, loving, dutiful, and so on. But Homer made Odysseus’ individual cleverness to be the quality that drove the epic. 

    It never hurts to be intelligent, but is intelligence really the most important human quality?

    • In the classroom, intelligence wins.
    • In sports, speed and strength win.
    • In war, bravery wins.

    There are others. Each arena emphasizes a different virtue; but each is only a part of the whole human life. Most philosophies and religions urge us to excel, not in one or another virtues, but in all of them. 

    The odd thing is that most really intelligent people were honored in school – when they were young. If they can’t move beyond the academic classroom … and foster the other virtues in themselves … they aren’t superior. They’re just stunted; maybe not in their brains, but in their souls.

    • #33
  4. Profile Photo Contributor

    In his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Mises wrote about this very problem.  Unlike most professions where one mostly has one’s peers in one’s social circle, intellectuals go to conferences and universities with people far superior to themselves, and many are unhappy that someone has gotten the spot in the pecking order they think they deserve themselves.  Capitalism does that; observe any AAA baseball team.  Mises wrote, “They loathe capitalism because it has assigned to this other man the position they themselves would like to have.”

    I always thought Mises was harsh on this point, but the more time you spend in academic circles, the more people this hypothesis seems to explain.

    • #34
  5. Profile Photo Member

    … he looks kinda like Bill Whittle.

    • #35
  6. Profile Photo Inactive

    I think Stephen Hall nails it. Intellectuals prefer a world that they can manipulate. What purpose do they serve in a world of natural mechanisms? This also explains why they reject God.

    Intellectuals are by nature “progressive,” in that they are constantly searching for new theories and schemes to explain, mold and prefect society. It’s like a high-minded form of obsessive compulsive disorder: The floor is never clean enough! That painting is still crooked! Human nature is still flawed! Are you sure the stove is off? We’d better do another study!

    Also, more complicated theories are more fun! You can interpret them in many ways, write endless papers on their deep multifaceted meanings, mix and match theories from various schools of thought. A Hegelian Perspective on the Foucaultian Framework of the Postulate Related to What I Shall Have For Lunch.

    Add to that the already mentioned insular communities that reinforce their ideas and keep them at a safe distance from the real world.

    • #36
  7. Profile Photo Inactive

    There is truth shown in the fields where intellectuals cluster in greater numbers rewarding credentialism since it is the easiest form of rent seeking. For all their desire to be free from the chains of the past, they collect in great numbers in some of the areas which have undergone the least amount of change  in  hundreds of years: education, unions, government.

    Capitalism  requires flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. To the intellectual who has spent years gaining credentials and living the “life of the mind,” flexibility is an exercise only for one’s attitudes, not one’s actions, sadly. Of course, their response to capitalism is disdain.

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Thatcher

    I can’t wait!  Joseph Epstein and Andrew Ferguson are the ones I’d choose if I were granted a wish to have a My-Dnner-with-Andre evening with any two souls on the planet.  What a duo, and I thank you Peter for making this event possible.  Gotta run now and have my hair done; pays to look one’s best for something like this.

    • #38
  9. Profile Photo Member

    Having spent the last six + years of my life among the “intellegentsia” of the modern American academy in Washington D.C., upstate New York, and suburban Los Angeles, I feel that I’m qualified to speak to this.

    Intellectuals, both self-styled and legitimate, look down on capitalism (insofar as they do — the academy isn’t quite the monolith it’s portrayed as) because they’re not happy with the results of capitalist society.   The market has taken human sexuality and hypersexualized toddlers!  Beijing is drowning in smog!  Factories poison the drinking water!  People are bored and unhappy!  Poverty still exists!  Poor rural farmers still have to do backbreaking labor!  Racism still exists!  Sexism still exists!  And on, and on.  Some certainly are cynical, but cynicism can be found anywhere.  By and large they are well-meaning smart folk, who despair of the iniquities and faults of the world, and are doing the best they can to try and make the world better.   In fact, they DO do a good deal to make the world a better place.  There is a veritable flood of collegiate youth to nonprofit orgs all over the world.  They’re silly sometimes, but inherently benevolent.

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Inactive

    I think an interesting question is what capitalist thought would look like without statist-inclined intellectuals. In other words, would there be many capitalist intellectuals if they did not have to constantly respond to the same tired attacks on capitalism? I suppose there would still be plenty to study in terms of better ways to maximize the market, but it seems much of our thought is defensive.

    On the other hand, without capitalists, progressive intellectuals would carry on much as they do now – debating various theories and justifications and implementations of statism. An endless loop of experimentation followed by blame followed by purges followed by new theories followed by experimentation … 

    Unfortunately, while they could ultimately purge us, I doubt we’ll ever be free of them. I think it was Schumpeter (?) who said that the prosperity of capitalism, due its own success, also creates the conditions essential for the existence of pampered intellectuals who plot against it.

    • #40
  11. Profile Photo Member

    I’ve spent the last few years in the university and I’ve noticed that the college campus has become somewhat insulated from the outside world. I feel like it’s turning into an adult day care center in many ways. There’s a very strong sense of entitlement among students and you should see how they react whenever tuition rates go up. To them society is like a machine which works towards the end purpose of providing them an education at little or no cost and then a lucrative career afterwards. They’re the Spartans and everyone else is the slave class that supports them.

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Inactive

    As a member of the over-educated, I would also point out that capitalism makes no sense to them.  Working from the assumption that what they value is what is most important, how could the world not see that?!  and reward them accordingly…Two examples:

    1.  I am in the social sciences/helping professions.  Many providers/therapists are, despite multiple graduate degrees, terrible at running a business.  Basic business concepts such as diversified revenue streams are not covered in grad school.  Practice consultants with an understanding of business are often viewed suspiciously.  After all, what we do is help people, which is far more important than money….which we should make more of, because we do important work. 

    2.  Academia – here the pressing issue in many fields is a surplus of qualified candidates combined with high legacy costs.  Not surprisingly, the salaries stagnate or go down.  Clearly if capitalism could be trusted as a system, they would be paid more. 

    These examples are particular to the social sciences and are just pieces of the puzzle, but I think they illustrate Nozick’s point.

    • #42
  13. Profile Photo Member

    Beyond the personal resentments nursed by a certain type of intellectual, capitalism bothers anyone who is uncomfortable with uncertainty. This includes the poor and the weak, who feel buffeted by life’s hardships, but also includes people who feel like they (or at least people like them) are smart enough to create a better world, if only they had sufficient control over it.

    A perfect example is the environmental movement’s quest for “sustainability”, which basically boils down to the position that the human race shouldn’t allow itself to do anything which has any effect on the environment that it can’t continue to do forever. Although the entire technological history of the human race consists of one unsustainable development after another, we’ve always invented something better than what came before. Since no one can know in advance what new thing will solve the problems we have with what we’ve got now, many people would like to call a halt to this type of progress. They’d prefer to build a million windmills, so we can stop worrying about the next source of energy. Since capitalism won’t co-operate, it is a perpetual source of anxiety.

    • #43
  14. Profile Photo Inactive

    Granted, it smacks of pop-psychology, but still one of my favorite pieces of Nozick’s writing.

    • #44
  15. Profile Photo Member

    Reminds me of the scene in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” in which the silly, vacuous baronet explains his vague disapproval of the British Navy:

    “I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of… A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to…than in any other line.”

    • #45
  16. Profile Photo Inactive

    A couple Eric Hoffer quotes that come to mind:

    The ratio between supervisory and producing personnel is always highest where the intellectuals are in power. In a Communist country it takes half the population to supervise the other half.

    “Nothing so offends the doctrinaire intellectual as our ability to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by words.”

    I also think he said something about the businessman is a philosopher, and perhaps that is the conflict between a pure intellectual and a capitalist. I think the quote above can be understood in that context.

    • #46
  17. Profile Photo Inactive

    I’m a bit put off by all this intellectual-bashing–because I fancy myself an intellectual and am pretty snooty about it.

    I’ve read a lot (choice stuff), and I think a lot even when it’s not required by work. My mind is always alert and cooking. Contemplating things is what I do to pass time pleasantly.

    So, okay, maybe I’m a third- or fourth-tier intellectual, but still orders of magnitude above the average schmuck when it comes to thinking my own thoughts and working things out in my own head.

    Notwithstanding my justifiably large pride in my capacity for original thought, I learned quickly that, with regard to human questions (such as how should we arrange our political, economic, and social relations), it’s easy to get things wrong in an infinite number of ways. And it’s very difficult to notice just how wrong a clever idea is until you take your idea into the practical world.

    Then WHAM: idea hits reality like crap hits fan. 

    Wading through a few small-scale crapstorms of my own making made me . . . humble . . . about the limits of reason. A lot of intellectuals never learn that humility.

    • #47
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    ~Paules:  Explain to me, please, why social diversity is better than national unity?  Your average lefty “intellectual” can’t answer the question because he’s never thought it through. 

    I suspect that you will get a swift retort castigating you for promoting fascism. Instant shut down of debate being the penalty for transgressing the progressive rules of political correctness.

    • #48
  19. Profile Photo Member

    Perhaps a clearer distinction between “intellectual” (adjective) and “an intellectual” (noun) is needed, at least in this particular debate.  The distinction is, I think, clear to many of the previous posters, but I do wonder if discussions such as this are to blame for Bobby Jindal’s “Stupid Party” remarks and the like. 

    I enjoy using the term “intellectual” to describe myself, but I generally don’t feel the need to impart my ideas upon others, and I do support capitalism.  At the high school I attend, the label “intellectual” is simply used as a way to describe intelligence, and it has no negative connotations.  Based on my broad criteria, simply posting on Ricochet is enough to establish someone as intellectual.

    • #49
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