The intellectuals and the left

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 15.10.2019 (updated 18.10.2019)

Giovanni I have a question for you, as you’ve studied politics much more than me. I wonder why most intellectuals worldwide (in any case an overwhelming majority of them) lean towards the left, or identify themselves with the political left. I know that, as a libertarian, you oppose both right and left, since you oppose the state itself, but I’m asking about the reason(s) for intellectuals’ predilection for the left (J.)

I have never studied politics but the science of liberty and economic science. Also, it is not entirely correct to say that I oppose both right and left. Those of the right oppose those of the left, and vice-versa. Having a scientific approach, I don’t “oppose” them. At least not in the way they oppose each other. I observe that they are both different expressions of the same religious, anti-scientific and anti-social phenomenon (which has different names: collectivism, positivism, statism, totalitarianism, etc.). A phenomenon which is expression of mental illness (namely, the Stockholm syndrome among others) and which, especially when it is imposed on a systemic scale, destroys liberty and the process that, because it is the only one that can make use of peripheral knowledge which is available only to the acting individuals and cannot be available to any “directing mind”, is the only one capable of creating sustainable prosperity: the free market process.

Now, having clarified this, if you are interested in an in-depth answer to your question I would suggest that you read these essays on the subject (both freely available online now thanks to the Mises Institute): Ludwig von Mises’ “The anti-capitalistic mentality” and Friedrich von Hayek’s “Intellectuals and socialism”.

The subject is complex and cannot be satisfactorily discussed in a quick reply. However, if I had to condense my point of view in a few sentences, it would be as follows.

The essence of collectivism is the arbitrary and coercive imposition on others of some people’s (e.g. some majority’s or a dictator’s) point of view on what is “important” or of the “highest priority”. [Collectivism, by the way, is anti-scientific because such imposition in and of itself violates the fundamental laws of economic science (which objectively establishes that economic value, and therefore the very concept of “importance”, can be only subjective) and those of the science of liberty (the very fact that someone can coercively and legally impose his arbitrary will on others logically violates the scientific principle of equality before the law and the only rule of just conduct so far discovered that is scientifically -i.e. without exception- compatible with it: the non aggression principle)].

Now, different individuals have different sensitivities (or tastes) regarding what is “important” or “more important”. [Incidentally, that’s why the free market process is the only one capable of creating prosperity in the long run: because it is the only one capable of using all these different sensitivities]. From these different sensitivities derive different abilities (or inabilities). Generally speaking, these sensitivities (and the relative abilities) can be grouped into two broad categories, which are in part also aesthetic (see for example the French movie “The Taste of Others”). For now, recurring to stereotypes for clarity, we can label them “the businessman” category and “the intellectual” category.

The businessman’s goal is to make money (this is his sensitivity). In order to make it, he must satisfy the needs and wants of his customers better than his competitors do. If he manages, what he does has economic value, meaning that some individuals are willing to give up voluntarily some of their property (say money) in exchange for his services. Because of this reason (in other words, because he can live out of what he can exchange in the free market), the businessman does not usually favour coercive redistribution of economic resources. Or at least not in our hypothetical example. Hence his standing on the political “right” which he associates to less taxes (on him and to the benefit of others).

Viceversa, except for a significant minority of cases, what the intellectual does (i.e. what his sensitivities and relative abilities -or inabilities- induce him to do) does not have a lot of economic value, if any (meaning that often no one is willing to voluntarily give away some of his property in exchange for the services of the intellectual). Because of this reason (i.e. because the intellectual is unable to get economic resources through free exchange), he is often in favour of coercive redistribution of resources. From his perspective, this is the only way he can express and/or satisfy his sensitivities. Hence his standing on the political “left”.

If this was the end of the story, from the point of view of the science of liberty and of economic science we could almost say that the businessman (the “right”) is “good” and that the intellectual (the “left”) is “bad”. However, behind the detail that the businessman (the “right”) wants less taxes (rather than no taxes at all, i.e. no government) hide other, deeper aspects of the same problem whose consideration makes the position of the businessman and of the intellectual less distant, at least from the point of view of the science of liberty and of economic science.

One of these aspects, for example, is connected to the different priorities that the businessman and the intellectual, because of their sensitivities and relative abilities (or inabilities), give to different services often imposed by governments: say security and museums.

Owning a supermarket, for example, the businessman doesn’t give a shit about a museum of contemporary art. He is a “practical man” who wakes up at 5 in the morning to unload the trucks for his shop. For him, it is much more important that the money taken by the government through taxation is spent on more police, for example, to protect his shop that gets robbed every week.

Vice-versa, the school teacher is a very different kind of person: he cannot replace a light bulb but he appreciates immensely a white canvas with a black dot in the middle exposed in some free-entry museum. For him money is not as important as it is for the businessman (meaning that, provided he has enough of it to buy what he needs from the businessman’s shop, in his preference-scale things that can be bought rank lower than they do in the businessman’s case, and things that cannot be bought rank higher – this can happen for different reasons: from honest individual inclination to taste induced by relative inability to compete in a free market). The school teacher doesn’t give a damn about security, which he does not even see as problematic (robbers do not usually rob schools as there’s no money there; and even if they did, it wouldn’t be the school teacher’s money nor anyone else’s money for that matter). However, he’s deeply affected by the fact that there are not enough free-entry museums exposing white canvas with black dots in the middle. So for him it is much more important that the money taken by the government through taxation is spent in more museums.

So, at a slightly deeper level of analysis, we see that, unlike what seemed at the beginning, the difference between the businessman and the intellectual (or between “right” and “left”) is not a matter of fabric but a matter of degree. They’re both in favour of taxes, their differences lying in the priorities that the government should have in spending money deriving from them. When it is a matter of spending money taken by force from other people, the businessman and the intellectual have in most cases (not all) opposing priorities.

In conclusion, it is not entirely correct, from my point of view, to say that most intellectuals “lean towards the left”. In fact, this suggests that the intellectuals and the left exist first as separate entities and only after the former find themselves somehow leaning towards the latter. Rather, I think that (broadly speaking) one could argue that the “left” is the political expression of the “intellectuals” (more precisely: of those intellectuals who see inevitable for themselves and desirable for society that they depend on government largesse) and that the “right” is the political expression of the “businessmen” (more precisely: of the businessmen who cannot fully appreciate the very spontaneous process that, for what remains of it after the continuous destruction brought about by the state, feeds them and that of course could work in the field of security services, for example, as well as it works in other fields, say food supply chain, and for the same reasons). These “intellectuals” and “businessmen” do not differ in the fact that, against the scientific laws of liberty and of economics, they want to coercively impose on others their particular and arbitrary idea of what is more “important”. In other words, as hinted earlier, they are both collectivists (or socialists). They differ merely in the details of what they arbitrarily think is more “important” and sometimes (within a short term perspective) in the desired size of government, the businessman usually being more sensitive to government interference (and therefore size) than the intellectual is. In fact, the school teacher is not usually affected by government interference since, again, unlike the businessman he does not see a great deal of it. And of the part he can see (e.g. government spending in schools), because it means more money in his pockets and/or a more comfortable chair to sit on, he wants more of it, as if it came down from the sky rather than being taken by force from other individuals.

Of course, there are businessmen on the left and intellectuals on the right and this, among other things, complicates the situation (though not much). However, in your question you specifically asked me to overlook these apparent exceptions.

As José Ortega y Gasset effectively summed up: “To be of the Left, as to be of the Right, is one of the infinte number of ways an individual has to show that he is an idiot. In fact, they are both forms of moral hemiplegia [a lifelong condition caused by injury to the brain which affects movement on one side of the body, ed.]”.



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