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The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism


									Ernest van den Haag

               The Hostility of Intellectuals
                     to Capitalism

People whose main occupation is to in-             the fact that society, though often strongly
vent and manipulate ideas are called intel-        influenced by their schemes, rarely has given
lectuals. They come in two varieties: intel-       them power. Intellectuals have found it
lectuals by dedication, who invent new             difficult to accept that persons who acquire
ideas, and intellectuals by position, who          wealth and power are not selected accord-
disseminate ideas secondhand. The latter           ing to the moral and cerebral excellences
sometimes rise to the level of mediocrity or       which they imagine to be their own.
higher, but usually not.                              In his essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Op-
    With the expansion of education re-            pose Capitalism?”1 Robert Nozick suggests
quired by an advanced technological soci-          that fledgling intellectuals are so well re-
ety, the number of intellectuals of all vari-      warded in high school, where their supe-
eties has increased greatly. Professors of         rior mental ability is greatly appreciated by
humanities and social sciences, law profes-        teachers, that upon entering the business
sors, journalists, literary people, artists,       world, or any profession, they feel let down,
and critics all qualify. However, people in        disappointed. They were so accustomed to
the physical sciences or in mathematics            seeing their superiority recognized in a scho-
seldom are called intellectuals. Thus, in          lastic environment that they feel entitled to
common discourse, a professor of English           similar recognition in economic life. They
is, but a Nobel Prize-winning chemist is           become resentful when their superior abil-
not, an intellectual. This odd classification      ity is not appreciated, and they turn against
is comparatively new.                              the capitalist system that refuses to give
    Though always few, intellectuals by dedi-      them what they feel they deserve.
cation have been with us since Plato and              I believe that Nozick is wrong in two
Aristotle, and since Plato, intellectuals have     ways. First, his belief that the business world
believed that they should run the world—           fails to recognize and promote according
or at least society and the state. Plato wanted    to intelligence is factually wrong. In most
philosophers to be kings or vice versa: the
intellectuals of his time were called philoso-     Ernest van den Haag is professor of jurisprudence and
phers. Ever since, intellectuals have resented     public policy at Fordham University in New York.

56    THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01
                                  The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

cases high intelligence leads to rapid pro-      ists, and creditors have been the anti-heroes
motion—which does not exclude the pros-          of art and fiction. With the somewhat
pect that those left behind will nonetheless     tongue-in-cheek exception of George Ber-
feel embittered.2                                nard Shaw’s Major Barbara, I am not aware
   Second and more important, I think            of capitalist heroes in fiction. Capitalist
Nozick is quite wrong in believing that          villains abound.
superior intelligence is readily rewarded in
high schools. Prestige in high school de-        Why are intellectuals hostile to the capi-
pends largely on athletic prowess and on         talist system? After all, it has raised
popularity. Intellectual ability is as often a   everyone’s living standard (particularly
drawback as an advantage. Teachers may           that of the poor) to unprecedented heights
like it, but in high school, being popular       and has reduced the work and compulsion
with teachers is not all that is important to    formerly required for sustenance. Unques-
students. They tend to dwell on their stand-     tionably, capitalism is the most successful
ing with their fellow students instead.          economic system the world has ever seen.
   Even in college, popularity goes more         Yet it provokes unprecedented hostility
readily to non-intellectuals. Intellectual       among intellectuals.
ability has to wait for graduate school to          Since the middle ages, moralists and
earn prestige and to be of assistance in         churchmen alike have stressed the sinful
career advancement. If high school gradu-        motives of the rich, which appear to give
ates are disappointed by the world to which      priority to sordidum lucrum over salva-
they graduate, as Nozick asserts, it may well    tion.4 Even more sinful are the motives of
be because they cannot meet the demands          those striving to become rich: merchants
of that world: American high schools sel-        who, unlike peasants and noblemen, en-
dom demand efforts to acquire and use any        gage in trade for profit. The “profit motive”
human skills beyond athletic ones.               of capitalists still is held in low esteem de-
                                                 spite its usefulness.
In the middle ages, intellectuals became            Previous economic systems relied on the
critical of the pursuit of material things       pretium justum, minimal social mobility,
such as wealth. The church, which employed       and minimal ambition to keep social peace.
them, was critical as well.3 However, objec-     These systems were believed to have divine
tions were not addressed to the economic         sanction. The free market economy how-
system or to its glaring inequalities. The       ever, which relies on profits and on maxi-
hostility of intellectuals to the economic       mal mobility, is not perceived as morally
system became general only with the spread       acceptable. The inequalities it creates are
of capitalism in the nineteenth century.         perceived as undeserved and unfair. The
   It was then that Henri Murger published       notion that economic success is a sign of
his “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,” which          divine grace, once current among Calvin-
Giacomo Puccini promptly set to music. In        ists, is no longer prominent. The capitalist
one of the first scenes of his opera, the        economic system seems unjust. It certainly
Bohemians—aspiring artists, writers, and         is not believed to be instituted and blessed
poets—have a boisterous party in the flat        by God. Although the business activities
they share. The landlord appears, asking         rewarded by capitalism have obvious eco-
for the overdue rent. The Bohemians cru-         nomic merit, they seem bereft of moral
elly mock him until he retires, defeated.        merit, if not downright immoral.5 After all,
Ever since, landlords, bankers, industrial-      they are self-serving as far as motivation is

                                              THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01      57
The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

concerned. Unlike government activities,              with us, since people spend their income,
they are not undertaken altruistically, to            however equal, at different rates.7
serve the community. They are under-
taken—horrors!—for the sake of private                S   ome contemporary philosophers find
gain, for profit. Intellectuals love altruism         morally objectionable the “natural lottery”
and despise egoism, also called greed, how-           which distributes talents unequally. 8
ever useful it may be. They believe, contrary         Among the natural differences they would
to the evidence, that government actions              like somehow to equalize is the capacity, as
are motivated only by concern for the pub-            well as the inclination, to make efforts.
lic weal. They regard the capitalist eco-             Both differ from person to person and may
nomic system—once more, contrary to all               contribute to the poverty of some and the
evidence—as a zero-sum game. Successful               wealth of others. Equality of opportunity,
capitalists are regarded as unscrupulous              however desirable, would not help much
profiteers who succeed only by exploiting             here, unless diligence can be equalized as
others.                                               well.
   Indeed, there is no obvious moral justi-               At best, equality of opportunity is pro-
fication for a talented or lucky banker or            cedural justice, seldom regarded as meet-
industrialist to grow wealthy when a cou-             ing the goal of social justice, as long as
rageous soldier, a selfless nurse, an artist or       unequal outcomes remain, as they will.
scientist, a dedicated manual worker, or              However, there is one exception: proce-
(lest we forget) an academic, can barely              dural justice tends to be accepted as satis-
make ends meet. Neither the wealthy nor               factory when it takes the form of an actual
the poor seem morally to deserve their                lottery. When there is an equal right and an
fate.6                                                equal ability to participate, and the result
   In the past, inequalities, however unde-           is independent of effort, talent, or wealth, a
served, were attributed to God’s inscru-              lottery may be felt to be just, even though
table will, or later, to ineluctable nature.          the result lacks moral justification no less
Today they are often attributed to inequal-           than John Rawls’ “natural lottery” does.
ity of opportunity, which is used to explain          Intellectuals seldom complain about ac-
almost all actual inequalities. The intellec-         tual lotteries, however they may regard
tuals who inveigh against such inequalities           lotteries as regressive taxes, even though,
seldom are aware, however, that if we could           unlike taxes, they are not compulsory. The
equalize opportunity, if we had a level play-         “natural lottery” is thought to be morally
ing field (which nature nowhere provides              unjustifiable per se. Indeed, it cannot be
and which society can only approximate),              justified unless talents are thought to be
we would probably have even more un-                  gifts from God, distributed according to
equal outcomes than we currently do, be-              his inscrutable design.
cause people’s talents and inclinations vary              Inborn natural talents frequently are
enormously, as do the results of their efforts        conflated with social advantages, so that
and the value placed on such efforts by the           inborn talents are thought to be not actu-
market. Inequalities can be redistributed             ally inborn but the result of inequalities of
but they cannot be eliminated. The gap                opportunity, which, by definition, are un-
between rich and poor may actually in-                just and may be equalized by social poli-
crease when opportunity is more equal.                cies.9
Even if incomes were somehow equalized                    Winning or losing through impersonal
by redistribution, the poor would remain              fate is accepted. However, moralists, i.e.

58    THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01
                                  The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

most intellectuals, oppose unequal out-          vantaged, while those who benefit feel
comes, and the system that permits them,         guilty.
whenever they seem to be the result of the          The modern world, as created by capi-
unequal distribution of opportunities and        talism, is secular in its basic modes of
talents—and the “morally arbitrary” mar-         thought. It does not take religious faith
ket value of the latter.                         seriously enough to assuage resentment
   Intellectuals feel they ought to be more      and moral discomfort with inequalities.
highly rewarded. They feel they deserve no       Here, the intellectuals must be charged
less than businessmen, base-                                      with weakening religion
ball players, pop singers, or                                     while discrediting the so-

                                                                 Courtesy of Dead Economists Society
Hollywood actors. Alas, the                                       cioeconomic system.
moral merit which intellec-                                       Their hostility never was
tuals claim, and economic                                         entirely reserved for capi-
merit, which the market re-                                       talism. It is addressed to
wards, far from being iden-                                       the very moral founda-
tical, are altogether inde-                                       tions of our society, and
pendent of one another.                                           has been effective enough
This is a major grievance for                                     to result in the pervasive
intellectuals, who often fail                                     “disenchantment of the
to see that economic merit                                        world” first analyzed by
is any merit at all.                                              Max Weber.
                                                                     Although religion did
U    nder capitalism the so-              Adam Smith              not equate moral with
cioeconomic structure—                                            economic merit, neither
the distribution of inequalities—is not only did it object to economic rewards for eco-
independent of moral criteria, but also, nomic merits, holding that moral, unlike
with some exceptions, unfavorable to intel- economic, merit need not be rewarded in
lectuals, who resent the market anyway this world. Thus, limits were set to envy and
because it pays only for economic value. to the clamor for equality or moral justice
Moral value is left out in the cold, and so are in this world. It was in the next world that
the intellectuals who produce and divulge God would do justitia dulcore misericordiae
it. However, the longing for a social system temperata, compensating for any unde-
in which a just government justly rewards served suffering. Religion opposed no eco-
moral merits by bestowing honors and nomic system but only the personal em-
riches cannot be satisfied. It is permanent, phasis on material advancement. Thus psy-
as is the outcry: aperite mihi portas justitiae. chologically (though not logically) reli-
    In the past God willed apparent injus- gion supported almost any status quo.
tice, and faith justified it. He was “justly        The legitimacy of inequalities was not
secret—and secretly just,” as Saint Augus- seriously questioned as long as tradition
tine put it. Now, only the social system had the power to confer legitimacy. But the
remains to be blamed for the apparent in- market economy destroys traditional cus-
justices of the world, and the social system toms and beliefs, and replaces tradition
does not offer ultra-mundane justice. Yet with mundane rationality. Capitalism be-
our social system, capitalism, cannot sur- lieves in economic efficiency and progress,
vive in the end if it is perceived as unjust by not traditional piety. It destroys, or at least
intellectuals and by others who feel disad- weakens, the precapitalist moral tradition

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The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

without offering any other that might jus-            tances, the poor now share much of the
tify the capitalist system itself. It offers no       common outlook—in particular, the con-
moral defense to the moral objections of              suming ambitions of the non-poor,
intellectuals.                                        brought home day and night by television.
                                                      Yet they still lack the means to fulfill these
Capitalism has also diminished the dis-               ambitions to the desired degree, and resent
tance between upper and lower classes and             what they now learn to perceive as “depri-
increased mobility between them. It is easier         vation.” So do academics who, if not poor,
than it ever was to join the middle and               still feel insufficiently rewarded.
upper classes. But contrary to the hopes of               The market relies on an invisible hand,
reformers (and to the fears of revolutionar-          on automatic mechanisms, and not on vis-
ies), the lessening of the distance between           ible manual controls with visible people at
the poor and the rich, and the decrease in            them. When prices rose in the past, heart-
the proportion of the poor, have actually             less speculators could be blamed. It is harder
added to resentment. Rich and poor now                to do so now (though not impossible). The
consume the same goods, see the same mov-             absence of a visible directive authority, when
ies and TV shows, and drive, or fly, to the           confused with an absence of direction as it
same destinations. The differences have               usually is, leads to the accusation that the
become minor: one flies first class, the other        market involves “anarchy of production.”
coach class.                                          Yet the invisible hand of profit and loss
   However, as Tocqueville observed, the              directs the market to respond to consumer
smaller social distances become, the more             demands far more sensitively than any cen-
intolerable they seem. Improvements often             tral planning authority would be able to
generate expectations of further improve-             do—even if the central planners were so
ments that grow more rapidly than the                 inclined, which they never are. Multiple
improvements do, and finally exceed possi-            individual plans automatically coordinated
bilities.                                             are not perceived as “planning,” whereas a
   Any reduction of inequalities shows that           central plan is.
any remaining inequalities are not inevi-                 Usually intellectuals have no experience
table. Hence all reductions, short of full            and worse, no apprehension of practical
equality, which is not really possible, are           affairs, particularly economic ones. They
felt to be inadequate. The inadequate, the            despise the capitalist system’s immorality,
unfulfilled promise, is always resented; thus,        despite its economic results, and imagine a
resentment, articulated mainly by intellec-           system which, while just as productive,
tuals, has increased. When acknowledged,              would reward moral excellence. Such sys-
or justified, the increase of inequality is           tems have been suggested by intellectuals
seldom seen for what it is: the effect of             since Plato, but they have never worked. If
diminished poverty. To see the one as the             the market does not distribute economic
effect of the other seems paradoxical be-             rewards, the intellectuals insist that a bu-
cause it is so contrary to our expectations.          reaucracy must take its place. But a bureau-
When rich and poor were “two nations,” as             cracy is not likely to reward moral excel-
Disraeli put it in his novel Sybil, the poor          lence any better than the market does. Bu-
experienced and therefore envied each other           reaucracies in fact reward bureaucratic
more than the rich, who were socially too             “excellences” and political manipulation,
remote for envy. No longer isolated by vast           with an attendant loss of economic effi-
and apparently insurmountable social dis-             ciency. The intellectuals who favor “plan-

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                                  The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

ning” and expected to be among the plan-            Though people are more free and pros-
ners are more likely to be among the             perous than they ever were, cultural pro-
planned—though, if they remain uncriti-          ductivity has suffered under industrial
cal, they may be kept in some material           capitalism—as distinguished from the pre-
comfort.                                         industrial capitalism of the Renaissance.
                                                 New York is much larger than Florence was
Another major fashionable grievance              in the Renaissance, or Venice in the middle
against capitalism is the “commodification”      ages, not to speak of ancient Athens. Yet
of things. The market indeed sets a price on     smaller and less prosperous than New York,
everything that can be traded—that is, on        these cities were each culturally far more
nearly everything. The market price de-          productive. Why? On the assumption that
pends on supply and demand, not on moral         talent is fairly evenly distributed over time
or aesthetic values. Furthermore, the mar-       and space, one may hazard an hypothesis.
ket tends to make things economically fun-          Capitalism has created a mass market
gible, however unique they are morally and       for culture that never before existed. This
aesthetically. Professors have a market price    mass market absorbs and diverts potential
(on which their income depends) and the          contributors to high culture. They now
books they write may or may not become           may supply that mass market, rather than
best-sellers. If they do, the professors’ mar-   tending to the creation of aesthetically more
ket price will increase. But intellectuals re-   valuable, but economically less profitable,
sent having to depend on the market. Some        unique products. A talented composer may
(usually those whose market value is low)        now opt for writing popular music when he
feel reduced to their market value and dis-      might instead have composed music com-
regarded as persons and as intellectuals.        parable to that of the past. An architect will
Their unique contributions are not appre-        design airports or supermarkets rather than
ciated. As they see it, the value of their       cathedrals. (Hardly any aesthetically meri-
contributions sometimes is inversely pro-        torious monumental buildings have been
portional to the market price they bring.        built in our time.)
   Yet, the feeling that persons are reduced        The diversion of talent to the mass mar-
to commodities does not do justice to the        ket has only begun, but it already contrib-
situation. After all, chemists deal with mat-    utes to the marginalization of non-mass
ters in terms of their chemical composition      market art and artists. We have far more
without reducing them to chemicals. Phy-         comforts than were available in the past,
sicians look at their patients in terms of       but we are less comfortable, in part because
their physical functioning without reduc-        we all cater to the mass market and are
ing them to such functions. So the market        catered to by it. It may well drain off cre-
may deal with things, or persons, in terms       ative energies, leaving all of us, and particu-
of their market value, without reducing          larly intellectuals, more comfortable but
them to that value alone.                        less satisfied.
   Still, the charge of commodification is          In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democ-
not altogether without merit. With capi-         racy, Joseph Schumpeter predicted that
talism, far more things come on the market       capitalism would be undermined by its own
than ever before.10 The market invades much      success and eventually be replaced by so-
of our life, causing cultural effects which      cialism.11 Time has proved his prophecies
contribute to the discomfort of intellectu-      wrong. Socialism, not capitalism, has col-
als.                                             lapsed. However, Schumpeter did see the

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The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

basic conflict between economic efficiency            leges merely because he is born in the United
(with consequent higher living standards)             States. No moral theory justifies this. Yet
and, on the other hand, the social need for           the true globalization that might equalize
stability and tradition.                              the different life prospects of the Indian and
                                                      American child is far-fetched. No one really
The economic optimum that capitalism                  wants totally free trade.
inherently tends toward is inconsistent with             Though their economic arguments are
any social optimum, and even with a mini-             wrong, the conclusions of social critics,
mal degree of social stability. As econo-             including the intellectuals, may have merit.
mists never tire of pointing out, optimum             The policies they oppose lead to painful
economic efficiency is achieved by totally            economic dislocations, true, but these are
free trade—when goods, capital, and popu-             likely to be temporary. Unavoidably, how-
lation are free to go wherever they can be            ever, these policies erode national identity
most efficiently used to increase income. In          and national cultures. Traditional customs,
a totally free global market, we would have           attitudes, and ideas under the conditions of
population flows from overpopulated                   globalization will be radically changed.
China, or India, to the comparatively un-             Thus, political opposition to totally free
derpopulated North American continent,                trade is unlikely to be overcome. That op-
while capital would flow in the opposite              position may be justified by cultural, if not
direction. Regional wages would become                by economic, arguments. The economic
much more equal than they currently are.              ideal of global efficiency, the economic
   What is now called “globalization” rep-            optimum, is simply inconsistent with the
resents the first moves toward this situa-            social optimum, or even with a modicum of
tion. However, such a totally free world              social and cultural stability.
market is unlikely ever to come into exist-
ence. Long before optimum economic effi-              Intellectuals have always insisted that too
ciency is reached, political objections will          much is sacrificed to efficiency in capitalist
reduce and ultimately stop the free flow of           society. They may well have a point, even
population, capital, and trade. Even rela-            though their arguments usually are based
tively minor approximations of the goal of            on fallacious economic ideas. For their part,
comprehensive economic efficiency cause               economists have too long neglected the
economic dislocations involving “foreign-             indispensable non-rational element re-
ers” which lead to nationalistic resentment.          quired for social cohesion. Economists tend
Actual and anticipated dislocations have              to be rationalists. It is ironic that literary
already caused protests, led in England by            intellectuals, so largely responsible for the
Sir James Goldsmith and in America by Pat             erosion of non-rational elements in our
Buchanan, elsewhere by similar figures.               society—including religion, nationalism,
   The economic arguments of these pro-               and many other traditions—should be the
testers are clearly wrong. For globaliza-             ones who express uneasiness with policies
tion, which they oppose, fosters overall              which ultimately are traceable to the very
efficiency and thereby both improves and              rationalism that they have championed.
equalizes global living standards. Global-
ization may even be characterized as doing            Notes
justice. After all, why should a child be
                                                      1. Robert Nozick, Socratic Puzzles (Cambridge: Harvard
deprived merely because he is born in India,          University Press, 1997).
whereas an American child has untold privi-

62    THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01
                                             The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism by Ernest van den Haag

2. Intelligence, in contrast to intellectuality, is highly     accepted as legitimate. Perhaps visible physical assets
regarded in the social system. For its role in income          are more acceptable than the abilities which make
distribution, see Charles Murray, Income Inequality            businessmen successful.
and IQ (AEI Press, 1998).                                      7. By the “poor,” I mean those on the lowest rung of
3. After all, the purpose of life was thought to be “Lay       the economic ladder. “Poverty” is always comparative,
not up for yourselves treasure upon earth...but lay up         and thus unavoidable as long as incomes are unequal.
for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6: 19, 20).        In contrast, “indigence” is absolute, but potentially
It was considered irrational to pursue wealth or com-          avoidable. Those lacking minimal physical necessities
fort in this temporary life rather than to strive for          are indigent, and may be helped out of indigence.
salvation in the next, in eternity. In practice, it is true,   8. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard
contempt for wealth was not as universal as in theory.         University Press, 1971).
4. Adam Smith famously noted, but also discounted,             9. Since about the eighteenth century, intellectuals
these motives.                                                 have tended to believe that men are born as tabulae
5. Yet the Bible had high praise for Joseph, who               rasae and that the abilities and any talents they develop
speculated by buying grain when it was plentiful (and          are acquired entirely in society through opportunity
cheap) and selling it when it became scarce (and could         and education.
command a high price). He was inspired by dreams, as           10. In some respects, fewer things as well: in modern
speculators often are.                                         market economies, we do not trade in human beings.
6. Note that businessmen may be rancorously envied,            11. Joseph Schumpter, Capitalism, Socialism, and
but the wealth of baseball players or movie actresses is       Democracy (New York: Harper, 1942).

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                                                           THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01            63

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