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33


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 33, September, 1997

Pragmatists vs. Ideologues

Achieving A Free Society: Good News and Bad

By George H. Smith
cathylz@lamar.colostate.edu

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

PART THREE

         Concerning the influence of intellectuals in modern society, F.A. Hayek writes:
         "There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this [intellectual] class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision." (Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, p. 180)
         Hayek points out that the vast majority of economists are opposed to both socialism and protectionism, more so than in any other academic discipline. Typically, however, it is not the views of this majority, but the pro-interventionist views of the minority, who receive a public hearing, even though they may be of doubtful standing in their own profession. This is because the intellectuals, who transmit ideas to the general public, filter out ideas they disagree with and publicize the views of those experts whose opinions coincide with their own. Thus, regardless of the dominance of free-market views among professional economists, their ideas will exert little influence politically, since the public will be largely unaware of them. Such is the all-pervasive influence of intellectuals in contemporary society. Quoting Hayek:
         "Even though [the knowledge of intellectuals] may be often superficial, and their intelligence limited, this does not alter the fact that it is their judgment which mainly determines the views on which society will act in the not too distant future. It is no exaggeration to say that once the more active part of the intellectuals have been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. They are the organs which modern society has developed for spreading knowledge and ideas, and it is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses." (Ibid., p. 182.)
         Hayek, it should be noted, does not attribute sinister motives to these intellectuals, whatever their political beliefs may be. By and large they are intellectually honest people who follow their convictions. Like everyone else, their beliefs instill in them a bias that naturally tends to slant everything according to their theoretical preconceptions. In this respect Hayek's analysis differs from that, say, of conservatives who attack what they see as a deliberate and mendacious bias in the mass media. This kind of bias, according to Hayek, is natural and inevitable, because we all view the social and political world through ideological spectacles. Our theories and ideas act as mental categories, which mold our perceptions of social reality.
         As Hayek points out, it is extremely difficult to change the theoretical beliefs of intellectuals, because they do not, and cannot, possess first-hand information about every new idea that comes their way. The intellectual judges a new idea not on its particular merits, but rather on how neatly that idea fits into his other general notions. Or, as philosophers of knowledge might say, the intellectual assesses the truth or validity of a new idea, not according to whether it corresponds to a fact of reality -- which is something he cannot possibly know in every case -- but rather on the _coherence_ of that new idea with the rest of his knowledge, which tends to be generalized and highly abstract. If the new idea is consistent with his other knowledge, he accepts it; if not, he rejects it.
         The general ideas of the intellectual, therefore, are like the pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, and new pieces are accepted or rejected according to how well they fit into the overall pattern. Moreover, since the intellectual determines the climate of opinion in his society, his jigsaw puzzle will tend to be the same as that of society as a whole. Thus, if the intellectual rejects a piece because it doesn't fit into his puzzle, then, even though his rejection may be based on ignorance or error, that piece will never even reach the general public, who will be deprived of any opportunity to judge it for themselves.
         It is through this process that intellectuals play a crucial role in determining what in German is called Weltanschauung, or worldview -- or to what Hayek, following other writers, variously refers to as the "climate of opinion" or "spirit of the time." This idea, which today is commonly known as "public opinion," refers to that amorphous but formidable collection of fundamental beliefs, whether true or false, about social reality that are held by most members of a given society. A basic purpose of Hayek's essay is to explain how a worldview is generated, sustained and reinforced. For Hayek, intellectuals, and especially philosophers (though not necessarily academic philosophers), exert a tremendous influence in this area, because their abstract theories serve as a social filter, trapping some ideas while allowing others to pass through to the general public.
         This is an interesting analysis, because it explains how the average person can be influenced by philosophical theories without studying those theories or even being explicitly aware of what they are. Indeed, as Hayek points out, the theories themselves may have little or no intrinsic merit; they may be excessively vague or even self-contradictory, or they may seem so obvious so as not to require any justification. The expression of a worldview is frequently preceded with phrases like, "As everybody knows..." or, "It's obvious that...." Such worldviews tend to be self-reinforcing, because, for the most part, only those ideas that are consistent with the worldview are allowed to pass through the filter of the intellectual to the public at large.
         Again, it must be stressed that Hayek does not regard this selective process as a sinister conspiracy of philosophers and intellectuals. Rather, it arises spontaneously and is necessitated by the vast number of ideas and bits of knowledge that circulate in a complex society, only a handful of which can be considered by any particular person. Accordingly, therefore, those who wish to establish a free society should focus, not on railing against the evil motives of their adversaries, but on replacing the erroneous theories of those adversaries with better ones.
         Hayek places great stress on this point. It is not enough merely to poke holes in an opposing theory or to point out its practical difficulties, because such problems can always be accounted for, or explained away, with ad hoc justifications that are consistent with the theory in question. No -- if a free society is to be achieved, the prevailing worldview of statism must be replaced by a better set of theories, namely, the worldview of libertarianism. And this requires not just the continuous development of libertarian theory -- which, of course, is crucial -- but also the cultivation of libertarian philosophers and intellectuals who can undertake the long and arduous process of reshaping public opinion.

CONCLUSION

         Every person in this room is an intellectual, though some of you may not think of yourself in these terms. We are all engaged in communicating the ideas of liberty, whether to our friends and colleagues or to a broader audience. I encourage each of you to take seriously your role as a public intellectual, by developing your knowledge and cognitive skills. I suggest this, not only because it will enrich your life, but also because it will vastly improve your effectiveness as a libertarian activist. It's difficult to put into words exactly how this happens, but I can assure you from personal experience that it does. Every so often I sit down and examine my ideology from scratch, attempting, as honestly as I can, to examine the ultimate foundations for my libertarian beliefs. Through this critical reexamination, combined with many years of reading and rereading the libertarian classics and reflecting on what I have read, I find a progressive improvement in my ability to communicate ideas and persuade others.
         With this in mind, let's return to the paradox of the good news and the bad news that exist side by side in our society. However impressive our intellectual advances have been during the past several decades, libertarians constitute a minuscule part of the intellectual class, as Hayek understands that term. Our ideas about liberty, however logical and rigorous, tend to have little influence on the thinking of Americans, because the intellectual class prevents those ideas from filtering down to the general public.
         This is especially true in the cultural arena, such as popular entertainment. Where are the libertarian screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, and artists? True, there are occasional exceptions. The movie Legends of the Fall, for example, is a marvelous depiction of libertarian family values, where an estranged son is reunited with his father when they share some quality time by bumping off federal agents. A few actors, such as Kurt Russell, are libertarians, but they are rare exceptions who, as Russell explained in a recent interview, are shunned by the Hollywood community. Fortunately, we are better represented in the realm of imaginative literature, especially in science fiction, where libertarian themes and values are quite common.
         In short, as a movement we are top-heavy with experts, such as professional economists, but we are sorely lacking in cultural intellectuals who can popularize and transmit the ideas of our experts to the general public. Before we can hope to achieve anything like a free society, we must establish a culture of liberty as its indispensable foundation.
         Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet by which we can bring this about. We cannot legislate cultural change; we cannot transform the American worldview merely by replacing our rulers. By this I do not mean that political change is unimportant; it is something, but it is not everything.
         Meanwhile, Hayek's view of the role of intellectuals, coupled with my earlier remarks about the relationship between theory and strategy, allows us to avoid the profound pessimism that can arise by focusing too much on the "bad news" of political degeneration. The empirical data of political degeneration can neither prove nor disprove our strategic theory -- which tells us that freedom will never arise and prosper without the strength of principles, and that we must display moral courage in applying those principles consistently, without compromise, however unpopular this may make us in the short run. History tells us that radical changes can be effected, that political degeneration can be arrested and reversed, though no one can say how long the process will take.
         Those Americans who took up arms in 1775 knew that they might not live to see the freedom they so desperately desired, but many thousands gave their lives for the ideal of individual rights. The empirical data was against them; America, with no professional army or navy, faced the most powerful military machine on the face of the earth, one that had defeated France just a few years before. A modern political scientist, with his empirical data and computer simulations, would have informed the Americans that their rebellion was futile, that they could not possibly defeat the British. But the resilience of freedom, and its power to motivate, cannot be quantified, measured, or predicted.
         Likewise, we libertarians should disregard the bad empirical news of political degeneration and not allow it to deflect us from our principled course of action. Theory cannot tell us whether we will succeed, but if it is still possible to reclaim the liberty of our country, then theory, combined with an understanding of history, teaches us that an inflexible zeal on behalf of the freedom and dignity of the individual is the only way that we can achieve our goal.
         Will those of us here live to see a free society? I sincerely hope we will. But even if we do not, even if we continue on the slippery slide to tyranny, we can still lay the intellectual and cultural foundations of liberty for future generations, for our children and for our grandchildren.
         And that, my friends, is a cause worth fighting for.


George H. Smith is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God and Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. He is currently working on his third book, Sovereign State, Sovereign Self. Smith recently wrote the introduction to a new edition of The State by Franz Oppenheimer.

This article was first delivered as the keynote address at the Libertarian Party of California's state convention in Sacramento February 15, 1997 and is reprinted from the International Society for Individual Liberty's Freedom Network News No. 48 (March 1997).



         "It is moral weakness, rather than villainy, that accounts for most of the evil in the universe -- and feeble-hearted allies, far rather than your most powerful enemies, who are likeliest to do you an injury you cannot recover from."
-- L. Neil Smith, Bretta Martyn


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