Friedrich von Hayek’s ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’ (1949) appears to be an important work, for perhaps almost all libertarian/free-market think tanks lead back to it. The spirit of the essay, which was written in response to the great flurry of postwar social planning, runs warm in Australia’s own Institute for Public Affairs (IPA): the defence of free-market ideas in principle rather than via pragmatics.
It is also insightful beyond its immediate (ideological) aims.
It covers the following:
- Intellectuals have more power than they are given credit
- For this greason socialism – or rather, the principles of planned economy – had become a dominant in public policy
- But why are intellectuals, above all the brightest ones, so attracted to socialism? Because socialism espouses a visionary utopian existence which inspires, whereas liberal thinkers tend to fixate on more mundane practicalities of the present
- In conclusion, liberalism needs its own inspiring visionary thinkers
What is an intellectual?
For Hayek the class of intellectuals is broad. These ‘professional secondhand dealers in ideas’ are the consumers, synthesisers, and above all disseminators of ideas and conceptual frameworks. It is a class composed of the literate and educated: teachers, academics, and journalists, but also scientists and doctors.
Although intellectuals, according to Hayek, have limited ability to shape public opinion on any particular idea, their influence lies along a longer historical path in deciding the frame of reference within which social phenomenon is perceived.
What to the contemporary observer appears as the battle of conflicting interests has indeed often been decided that long before, in a clash of ideas confined to narrow circles
For Hayek, the particular frame of reference he is concerned about is of course socialism:
In every country that has moved toward socialism, the phase of the development in which socialism becomes a determining influence on politics has been preceded for many years by a period during which socialist ideals governed the thinking of the more active intellectuals.
The intellectuals are able to influence this frame of research reference roughly in two ways: they perform filtering and ordering functions.
Hayek’s point is partly sociological: as society has become more complex and areas of knowledge more specialized, it is no longer the expert who wields power, it is rather the people of ‘general knowledge’ (intellectuals) who can ‘appreciate expert testimony’ and judge and select between them who become significant.
In short, the intellectuals choose which experts have their ideas’ spread to the wider public. It is through the intellectual that experts are presented to the public – particularly evident in the case of journalism. And for this reason true experts in any given field could be totally unknown while their intellectual inferiors are promoted. This is a a phenomenon evident today, where someone, e.g. Bryan Cox, is selected – for a variety of reasons in this case which cannot be reduced to ideology – as a public figure head (as an astronomer and probably a good one) but is placed upon a pedestal and expected to opine on other areas not within his realm of expertise.
Secondly, Hayek remarks about the ordering function performed by intellectuals: ‘they generally judge on particular issues exclusively in the light of certain general ideas’, and he makes an interesting observation of a tendency to graft popular ideas from one discipline into others: the ‘characteristic errors of any age are frequently derived from some genuine new truths … [They are] [e]rroneous applications of new generalisations which have proved their value in other fields’. This seems to me to be an insightful and correct remark. Hayek refers to the theory of natural selection (which, in the 19th century, had a profound impact on ethics, anthropology, sociology, economics and so on, but was later reconceived as a terrible folly); in our own age we can think of it the popularity of neuroscience (and dare I mention Sam Harris’ forays into ethics). It is as a result of the validity of these ideas in one area – and their novelty – that these ‘false beliefs’ are able to move into areas to which they are unsuited, nonetheless still carrying, for a time, their scientific prestige.
For himself, the ‘organising ideas’ intellectuals had misappropriated is democracy and the belief that the control over nature that humans have gained could also be used to engineer human conditions.
Why do intellectuals seem attracted to socialism?
There are several reasons Hayek thinks that intellectuals, and the best of them are attracted to socialism, while conservative or liberal intellectuals tend to be ‘mediocrities’:
- The basic tenets of liberalism have been established in practice (therefore, liberalism is no longer a coveted dream – the grass is greener)
- For this reason, most proponents of liberalism are ‘practical’, and engaged in successful ventures (e.g. business) rather than theorising.
- Meanwhile, socialism and the dream of the ‘entire reconstruction of society’ is suited to the abstract and theory focussed disposition of the intellectual
What is Hayek’s (the anti-socialist proponent of the theory of ‘spontaneous order’) solution?
We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism … We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization.
Importantly he says, they must be highly principled:
They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians. Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls” is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm.
I have little doubt that this strategy outlined by Hayek has been incredibly influential.
At the root of Hayek’s Paper, is the call for ‘freedom’, hence his lament “It may be that as a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued… “.
But it seems important to interject and point out that the freedom Hayek refers to in his own theorising and promotion of ‘spontaneous order’ in economics (the antithesis of planned economy) relying on the price setting mechanism of Adam’s ‘invisible hand’, is of a very different character to freedom as an individual might conceptualise it. He speaks of an abstract ‘market freedom’, an indeterminate economic arrangement of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. This is the freedom his ideal justifies. It is then within this “freedom” that the individual is thought then to be able to find their own freedom. But these two freedoms – of the individual and of the system – are categorically different.
When those who follow Hayek’s road speak, as Tim Wilson (formerly of the IPA, now a member of parliament) often did, “I believe in the free market in principle” they fail to acknowledge the schism between means and ends. Spontaneous order could result in something wonderous, however, being indeterminate there are as many conceivable free-market-universes in which the result would be suffering for many, and in these cases the ideologue has no recourse – Hayek famously argued against the validity of overarching ideals of justice (there is no justice in chance) – for freedom of the economy itself had been treated as an end, rather than as a means to some other utopia.
This seems to be a criticism that planned economic systems (including socialisms), in which pre-determined ethical principles (i.e. no one without a job or roof over their head) can be embedded, are much less susceptible to. The particular form of the economic system can be conceived of as means to these ends.
Nonetheless, Hayek’s own utopian vision has a mystical allure to it. And would appear to have been very effective.