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Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions?

October 9th, 2012 · 30 Comments

Back in the 1980s, the late philosopher Robert Nozick wrote an essay asking: “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” Happily, the question as Nozick framed it is somewhat less relevant today, as Western intellectuals have increasingly accepted the superiority of some form of market economy to full-blown socialist planning. But a variant form remains: Why do intellectuals seem so disproportionately attracted to “progressive” political views and government-centric means of remedying social ills?

For those of us who tend to favor a relatively small and limited government, and prefer that social problems be addressed by private and voluntary mechanisms, it should be a source of some discomfort that these views find so little favor among some of the most highly educated and intelligent sectors of the population—the “elites” of popular conservative demonology. One simple explanation for this pattern, after all, would be that left wing political views are disproportionately attractive to the highly educated and intelligent because they’re best supported by logic and evidence. Following Aumann’s agreement theorem, this would imply that libertarians should regard the disagreement of large numbers of well-informed people who are at least as intelligent as we are as prima facie evidence that our views are in error, and revise them accordingly.

Nozick speculates that “wordsmith intellectuals” grow accustomed to winning the highest accolades in the academic environments of their formative years, and that this disposes them to be hostile toward the distribution of rewards in a market economy, which may accrue heavily to those with education, but are not necessarily strongly correlated with the kind of verbal intelligence that garners the top academic awards. Crudely put: The middle-class professor or writer will tend to feel cheated by a system that heaps greater rewards on those she remembers as academic inferiors. However plausible or implausible one finds Nozick’s account when it comes to the choice between capitalism and socialism, it seems less satisfactory as an account of the preference for expansive government within a market framework—even if something like this might contribute to the feeling that the wealthy can’t really deserve their holdings.

One thing to bear in mind is that even informed and intelligent people do not typically arrive at their political views by an in-depth review of the evidence in each particular policy area. Most of us can only be really expert in one or two spheres, and in others must rely heavily on those who possess greater expertise and seem to share our basic values. In practice, most people select a “basket” of policy views in the form of an overarching political ideology—which often amounts to choosing a political community whose members seem like decent people who know what they’re talking about. So we needn’t assume the majority view of the intellectual class represents the outcome of a series of fully independent judgments: A relatively mild bias in one direction or another within the relevant community could easily result in an information cascade that generates much more disproportionate social adoption of the favored views. So any potential biasing factors we consider need not be as dramatic as the ultimate distribution of opinion: Whatever initial net bias may exist is likely to be magnified by bandwagon effects. We should also bear in mind that polls of academic faculties often limit the options to “liberal” and “conservative”—and it seems plausible that responses here reflect the rejection of conservative views on social issues, where liberals and libertarians are generally in agreement—though there’s clearly more to the story than that.

Here, then, is an alternative (though perhaps related) source of potential bias. If the best solutions to social problems are generally governmental or political, then in a democratic society, doing the work of a wordsmith intellectual is a way of making an essential contribution to addressing those problems. If the best solutions are generally private, then this is true to a far lesser extent: The most important ways of doing one’s civic duty, in this case, are more likely to encompass more direct forms of participation, like donating money, volunteering, working on technological or medical innovations that improve quality of life, and various kinds of socially conscious entrepreneurial activity.

You might, therefore, expect a natural selection effect: Those who feel strongly morally motivated to contribute to the amelioration of social ills will naturally gravitate toward careers that reflect their view about how this is best achieved. The choice of a career as a wordsmith intellectual may, in itself, be the result of a prior belief that social problems are best addressed via mechanisms that are most dependent on public advocacy, argument and persuasion—which is to say, political mechanisms.

It seems equally possible, however, that a post hoc desire to justify the choice of such a career might play a biasing role. A person without extravagant material tastes can live quite comfortably as an academic or writer, and the work itself is highly interesting and intrinsically appealing. But intellectual jobs of this sort tend not to leave one with the resources to devote large amounts of money to charitable causes without significantly curtailing consumption of minor luxuries: meals out, shows, electronics, vacation travel, enrichment classes for the kids, and so on.

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

This account seems consistent with our current political rhetoric, in which progressive political views are taken to signify compassion and concern for the badly off, while conservative or libertarian views are (progressives often say) evidence of callousness or selfishness. As Jason Brennan observes in a recent post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there’s something a little odd about using political views as a metric of compassion or selfishness. Talk, after all, is cheap: It costs nothing to express verbal support for a policy or candidate. One might think a better measure would be some indicia of compassion that involve a modicum of sacrifice—charitable donations or hours volunteered—and by these measures, Brennan claims the evidence is that progressives fare no better than anyone else. But of course, if you assume that political mechanisms are vastly superior to private ones, then writing blog posts and op-eds supporting progressive policies (as opposed to giving large sums to charity or working in a soup kitchen) may be the more morally relevant way of expressing compassion.

Of course, many intellectuals of every ideological stripe also give to charity or volunteer, and some lack the temperament that would make high-paying corporate work a realistic alternative. And one can just as easily tell a complementary story that explains why private businessmen would be disposed to believe (either because of selection effects or post hoc rationalization) that contributing to private economic growth is the best way to improve the world.

Still, combined with the effect of social information cascades, this account provides one reason we might expect wordsmith intellectuals to favor progressive views independently of whether these views are the best supported by arguments: It is on these views that—by engaging in intellectual activity, and by voting and advocating for the appropriate policies—intellectuals are already best meeting their moral obligation to help make the world better, even if other career choices might enable them to make larger direct, material contributions. This line of reasoning is no excuse for libertarians to become glibly complacent in their views, or to substitute psychoanalytic for substantive responses to specific progressive arguments. But it is, perhaps, reason to be less worried that the predominance of progressive views among intellectuals is, in itself, necessarily strong evidence against the libertarian position.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



30 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike // Oct 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I wonder how much of the bias could simply be that academic intellectuals are generally somewhat insulated from the capitalist system. Most schools work on tenure or seniority based pay system. They are also largely public, not for profit institutions, who are run in many ways much more like an idealized liberal government – the administration and teachers of most schools have greatly increased power over students than we give most governments, while strongly respecting free expression rights (as long as you aren’t offensive). They even provide housing, food, and often medical services. Payment for these services is usually in the form of a lump sum for the entire package, rather than up to individual choice.

    By the time you become a PHD, you have spent most of your developmental years in this system, and have chosen to remain in it. You haven’t usually had the experience of trying to run a business or manage employees.

    One does not need to go as far conservative anti-intellectualism to see how this environment could give people very different ideas of how the world should work than the general population working in the corporate world.

  • 2 Adam // Oct 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I think a much more basic explanation lies in the nature of the term “progressivism.” Although the word is now roughly synonymous with modern liberalism, on its face it primarily suggests a desire for progress, however defined. And a desire for progress implies a host of other intellectual commitments: that the world in its current state is flawed, that a better world can be imagined, that and possible paths to that better world exist.

    The thing is: it is absolutely possible to hold these intellectual commitments and not be liberal. Most/all libertarians and conservatives likely believe that the general spread of peace, the end of chattel slavery, and the eradication of polio represent forms of progress. And they may also strongly believe that libertarianism or conservatism are the ideologies most likely to yield further progress along these lines.

    That said, a desire for progress is at root a desire for a different world, and if you want to change the world, you are very often going to be drawn to mechanisms of state. One can certainly argue that modern capitalism and the private sector represent the greatest drivers of human progress since the dawn of man, but it’s not totally clear where that leaves you if, say, you’re really concerned about childhood malnutrition. What defines intellectuals? They’re smart, they seek answers, they think they have a better way. It’s not really a surprise that they gravitate toward policy interventions.

    It’s not for nothing that intellectuals are often considered overweening and out of touch. But it’s also not for nothing that libertarians and conservatives are accused of having a massive status quo bias. Once you remove state solutions from the toolset, there’s often not a lot left for a do-gooder to do, which I suspect is why you see so many libertarians arguing more or less that there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about many social ills. They may be right in many cases, but it’s not hard to see what this view fails to capture the imagination of most intellectuals.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Oct 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Well, this is where the self-selection comes into it: If you’re smart & seek answers & think you’ve got an idea about how to ameliorate childhood malnutrition that DOESN’T (necessarily) require a policy intervention, you probably don’t undertake a career as a public intellectual promoting it. Maybe you write an article or two to get initial attention, but then you work on organizing and making targeted funding appeals to make it happen. The people who remain in the field are the ones whose ideas require convincing a political constituency.

  • 4 Nathaniel // Oct 9, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    The first half of this piece is great (I always wish you’d write more frequently), but the second half leaves me a bit puzzled. I find the idea that “wordsmith intellectuals” would want to see their contributions as morally validating reasonable, but it seems that there’s a much more pointed and obvious motivation. By favoring progressive policies–which require centralized planning–these “wordsmith intellectuals” are electing a basket of policies that will bring maximal prestige, authority, job security, and wealth to their chosen professions.

    Of course this might not work directly (one would hardly expect to see a measurable increase in one’s own take-home pay as a result of embracing this or that particular policy position), but it’s clearly in the best interest of the group as a whole to endorse those policies that will be best for the group, and I think it’s a very short hop from there to the conclusion that individuals will do their individual bit to push forward the agenda.

  • 5 Curtis // Oct 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I think you are missing two obvious things.

    Intellectuals view themselves as elite. (This is not a liberal or conservative observation.) Therefore, they think they know more than the common people and should be able dictate actions for other. The disdain for other people is both incredibly condescending and wrong. “You are too stupid to know what to eat or drink or whom to have sex with, etc. Your puny, little brain cannot possibly understand things and you must bow down to my moral and intellectual superiority.” Go to any meeting (local government, church, school board) and listen for this attitude. I guarantee you will hear it.

    Second, smart people can generally solve problems in their own specialty. They assume that they (or others) could solve problems in other fields. They simply cannot fathom that economically, the chaotic masses are better than the experts.

  • 6 Tomás Díaz // Oct 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Another reason might be that since the believe that they know what’s best for the rest of the population, then planned-out socialism by a smart allmight government in their view is better than a self-regulating depredatory chaotic capitalism. I smartly and intelectually differ, of course.

  • 7 David // Oct 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    The emphasis on the individual “intellectuals” misses the point. I think there would be much more public support for eg. private climate change solutions, or health care for the poor, for example, if such solutions were forthcoming in the private sector. The fact is that they simply aren’t. If we are concerned at all about these problems, we’re left to conclude only action through government policies can bring about solutions to them. If you disagree, where are the private policies for these problems, and what’s the intellectual case for them?

  • 8 JM // Oct 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I think the first question you need to ask is: _do_ intellectuals, in fact, favor government solutions more than non-intellectuals? The answer may seem obvious, but consider the persistent popularity of programs such as Medicare, social security, the interstate highways, government funding for medical research, food stamps, farm subsidies, and last but not least, defense spending. It is often observed that the American people want to cut back on government spending, except for all the parts they like (which is basically everything).

    On the contrary, the more unusual view, at least in comparison to that of the average non-intellectual, would be that the scope of the government ought to be severely limited. If you had to identify someone as an intellectual/non-intellectual solely based on the answer to the question: “Should the government subsidize medical research” (or any other example you’d like to choose: ethanol, the military-industrial complex, PBS, highways, education, etc.), a “no” would probably be a better signal of intellectualism than a “yes’.

    So the better question might be: what makes stringent opposition to government solutions so uniquely appealing to intellectuals and not so appealing to non-intellectuals? My theory would be that intellectuals tend to well-off, cosseted, hot house flowers who are rarely forced to encounter the baleful effects of a private sector run amok, or for that matter, reality as experienced by most of the world. Furthermore, their own intellectual vanity convinces them that the most pie-eyed of schemes, such as minarchy or what have you, will work — must work — if only someone would let them run things their way.

    But that might just be a reductive psychological stereotype.

  • 9 Gilbert Berdine // Oct 10, 2012 at 7:55 am

    What about the simple profit motive?

    In a libertarian society, the intellectual is limited to an attempt at persuasion. Consider Thomas Paine and Common Sense. The intellectual spends considerable time and effort on an opinion without any guarantee that anyone will read it let alone that anyone will pay the intellectual for his effort.

    The statist society is completely different. The intellectual can compel others to follow his advice. The intellectual can be hired to advise the government on how to expand its power. Both the government bureaucrats and the intellectual profit from the arrangement.

    From this point of view, progressives are merely rent seekers and rent seekers naturally favor an expansion of government power.

  • 10 Ray // Oct 10, 2012 at 8:31 am

    “One might think a better measure would be some indicia of compassion that involve a modicum of sacrifice—charitable donations or hours volunteered”

    If you want to count charitable donations to measure compassion, do it in a society where donations are not tax-deductible.

  • 11 QotD: Payment-In-Kind Edition | Professor Mondo // Oct 10, 2012 at 11:16 am

    […] is a question Julian Sanchez addresses over at his place, and his answer — although it may involve a bit of chicken-and-eggery […]

  • 12 Betsy // Oct 10, 2012 at 11:26 am

    In answer to the above. Tax deductible does not mean no cost. Anyone who makes a donation simply because it is tax deductible is making an error in reasoning. The effect of tax deductibility is to lessen the impact to the individual and often this allows for one to donate a greater amount than otherwise. It is a method for letting the taxpayer determine the focus of his charity rather than the government.

    In response to some of the other arguments presented, anyone who had the opportunity to visit the soviet states in the past might think twice about extreme liberalism. My personal experience changed the focus of my education and directed me into graduate studies in business. It did not make me any less compassionate in the process.

  • 13 Barry // Oct 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

    JM // Oct 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    “I think the first question you need to ask is: _do_ intellectuals, in fact, favor government solutions more than non-intellectuals? The answer may seem obvious, but consider the persistent popularity of programs such as Medicare, social security, the interstate highways, government funding for medical research, food stamps, farm subsidies, and last but not least, defense spending. It is often observed that the American people want to cut back on government spending, except for all the parts they like (which is basically everything).”

    This is very important; Julian is assuming a gap between ‘public intellectuals’ and the public which simply isn’t there, for the overwhelming majority of each.

  • 14 reflectionephemeral // Oct 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I think JM makes a good point on the elite-non-elite divide. I’d add that defining “the elite” is a trickier matter than this post indicates.

    We can’t just link to an article on what academics think and be done with it. Academics are much, much less politically influential in this country than they were 40 or so years ago. We can blame the academy, or society, orboth or neither, but I think it’s fair to say that’s where we are. The Charles Homer Haskins type– who forged new frontiers in medieval history while advising the president on foreign affairs– is mostly a thing of the past. Dwight Eisenhower spent some time as president of Columbia before running for president; no one expects to see David Petraeus try that.

    I think it’s safe to say that journalistic elites, like Thomas Friedman, are much more influential today than the president of the American Historical Association.

    In fact, when academic elites like Steven Pinker, Steven Leavitt, and Niall Ferguson go traipsing into the more influential world of mainstream journalism, they tend to find themselves accused of cutting corners and fudging data.

    I think a roster of the ideologies of the op-ed writers of the New York Times and Washington Post would be a better barometer of what elites think– assuming that we care about elites because they are in the position to influence policy– than a glance at academics’ opinions.

  • 15 theCL Report: Decline, Delusion, Despair // Oct 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    […] Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions? The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time. — Franklin P. Adams […]

  • 16 DavidT // Oct 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    My guess is that “wordsmith intellectuals” are *less* likely than the general public to support government solutions in some areas–abortion, prostitution, pornography, drugs, immigration, and of course having (and using) a large military force. Even in economics, they may be less protectionist than the general public.

    In short, intellectuals are more likely to be progressives (in the contemporary American sense) but progressivism cannot be defined as a simple preference for government solutions. (In fact, there really is no substantial “statist” faction in American intellectual life in the sense of supporting state action as invariably as libertarians oppose it.)

  • 17 Steve Wilkerson // Oct 14, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    All these comments are worth attention but the one most compelling to me is that the private sector seems mute in proposing solutions to community problems. I suspect it is often blind to many of them.

    When banks make more from service charges and penalties than from lending money, they don’t consider that a problem but their good fortune or possibly a result of their application of problem-solving gifts to their private interests. From that comes Dodd-Frank. When people prefer SUVs that use large amounts of gas, costly to owners and the climate, manufacturers build and sell them without working to solve problems they create; they don’t see the problems as important.

    If there are private sector efforts in place, they are largely invisible and, if visible, are too small to contribute much to the solutions needed.

    The other compelling comment is that about the difference between the general public and intellectuals. “There ought to be a law” is not a sentiment more associated with intellectuals than with the rest of us. There is great similarity in general and intellectual views.

    The only mechanism presumably available to the community as a whole to see and deal with problems is government, with all its shortcomings.

    Intellectuals and much of the general public pick up the biggest baseball bat they can find, government, and use it to force “progress” where they see no other instruments available.

    Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be a candidate for the senate if banking leaders had said to themselves and their boards “We are becoming something other than a bank and should either change our mission and give up our charter or get back to what we are really about” and had been upheld by boards. One suspects, had they done so, they would have been fired. Their mission is to make profit, not progress.

  • 18 zmil // Oct 17, 2012 at 11:10 am

    This is an interesting answer to a question that often troubles me, as a rather conservative person in academia. However, it appears limited to, well, “wordsmith intellectuals,” when there is a similar if less extreme bias in most other academic disciplines. My own knowledge is limited to biology, and is somewhat biased by the fact that I’m in Boston so of course I’m surrounded by liberals, but the data I’ve seen do show a pretty significant liberal tilt in the hard sciences as well as social sciences and what not. I suppose one could explain it all by bleed over from the writer types, but that explanation does not really satisfy me currently.

  • 19 Barr // Oct 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

    “In fact, when academic elites like Steven Pinker, Steven Leavitt, and Niall Ferguson go traipsing into the more influential world of mainstream journalism, they tend to find themselves accused of cutting corners and fudging data.”


  • 20 fourthmeal // Oct 30, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    This post repeatedly invokes “charity” as a venue for social engagement superior to government action. This term implicitly highlights an apparent difference between libertarian- and left-leaning views about the nature of social problems that precedes and helps explain their policy differences. The prevailing libertarian concern, even for a bleeding heart sort of libertarian, seems to be with alleviating gross material deprivation. The prevailing left impulse is to take offense at the idea of charity, not out of deference to an imagined, inviolable standard of self-sufficiency, but out of a sense of injustice that power disparities would have made material deprivation a plausible occurrence in the first place.

    Thus even if trickle-down economics operated swiftly, reliably, and to a magnitude that satisfied most egalitarians, they would probably tend to have ethical objections to the social institutions and dynamics by which one group came to be in a position of security and possible benefactor while others were not. While they would tend to be suspicious of claims that genius, diligence, or other perceived virtues accounted for broad, enduring patterns of income disparity, more fundamentally they would not agree that stark economic and social inequality is a just pattern regardless of how it came about or what steps were then taken to mitigate its harshest manifestations.

    This doesn’t deny that markets do many things well, but there are various ways of defining social problems, and different remedies may follow more naturally from these different starting points.

  • 21 Lived Experience and Moral Knowledge | Bleeding Heart Libertarians // Nov 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    […] a great number of interesting replies, most recently Julian Sanchez’s neat essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions?” Tomasi’s answer is that intellectuals as a group tend not to have the experience […]

  • 22 Why wordsmith (pseudo)intellectuals tend to favor 0bama and big government « Spin, strangeness, and charm // Nov 5, 2012 at 10:59 am

    […] Robert Nozick wondered earlier if there is a reason why so many ‘intellectuals’ favor big-government solutions to scoietal problems, and ascribes it to their fallacious beliefs that the same factors that garnered them praise in the classroom should be the ones that determine material prosperity and prestige in the wider world. “OMG! He was hopeless in class and now sells cardboard boxes — yet got filthy rich and is even running for Congress. IT. IS. NOT. FAIR.”  […]

  • 23 Why wordsmith (pseudo)intellectuals tend to favor 0bama and big government « Spin, strangeness, and charm // Nov 8, 2012 at 11:01 am

    […] Robert Nozick wondered earlier if there is a reason why so many ‘intellectuals’ favor big-government solutions to scoietal problems, and ascribes it to their fallacious beliefs that the same factors that garnered them praise in the classroom should be the ones that determine material prosperity and prestige in the wider world. “OMG! He was hopeless in class and now sells cardboard boxes — yet got filthy rich and is even running for Congress. IT. IS. NOT. FAIR.” […]

  • 24 AJ // Nov 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    You’re using psychology to explain something which is easily resolved by history, economics, and politics. Which are the praiseworthy, close to universally admired nations run on libertarian principles? Oh there aren’t any? That tells us all we need to know about real world libertarianism and why its not taken seriously in the academy.

  • 25 Por que os intelectuais gostam do governo? - Portal Libertarianismo // Oct 31, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    […] Tradulçao de Valdenor Júnior. Revisão de Matheus Pacini. || Artigo Original […]

  • 26 Por que os acadêmicos tendem a ser de esquerda? | Tabula (não) Rasa & Libertarianismo Bleeding Heart // Feb 13, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    […] atenção: eles podem ajudar a testar a hipótese avançada por Julian Sanchez em seu artigo “Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions?” (tradução em português aqui), o qual tentou responder o questionamento trazido por Robert […]

  • 27 Kevin // Mar 29, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    Could it be that they aren’t truly intellectuals and may simply be intelligent people?

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  • 29 Por que os intelectuais gostam do governo? – Libertarianismo // Feb 16, 2017 at 9:19 am

    […] Tradulçao de Valdenor Júnior. Revisão de Matheus Pacini. || Artigo Original […]

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