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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 THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01 59 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- 60 THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01 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 THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW—Fall/Spring 2000-01 61 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). Money for College Journalists and Writers! 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"The Hostility of Intellectuals to Capitalism"