Anti-Intellectualism and Freedom

September 28, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, a historian who died in 1970, is very much part of politics several decades after it was written. The past two years brought many charges of anti-intellectualism by left-liberals against people on the other side of the political divide.  The latest in Hofstadter-inspired critiques is an attack on Tea Partiers by Will Bunch — The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.

The term anti-intellectualism does not just denote those who don’t care for intellectuals. Rather, Hofstadter presents it as an ideology, an “ism” that periodically besets American culture and deprives intellectuals of political power. This deprivation disappears under certain administrations. Thus regarding the late 19th and early 20th century he wrote that “In the Progressive era the estrangement between intellectuals and power … came rather abruptly to an end.”

Similarly in the New Deal: “Never had there been such complete harmony between the popular cause in politics and the dominant view of the intellectuals.” Unfortunately – from Hofstadter’s perspective – this harmony was disrupted by right-wing reaction against policies associated with intellectuals.

In fact many of those policies were disastrous, as Burton Folsom shows in New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America.  But Hofstadter is not concerned with that. He simply takes it for granted that intellectuals’ influence on government is good for the public. It is clear that in this context “intellectual” means left-liberal policy thinker, not merely somebody who likes to read or write books or bat around ideas.

Tea Partiers give ample evidence that they read, in particular the US Constitution, but that is not the kind of book to save you from being assigned to the anti-intellectualist camp. Neither is reading F. A. Hayek. When the Texas Board of Education proposed to include Hayek in high school economics classes, at least one economist objected—click for Ilya Somin’s post on this.

What is the opposite of  anti-intellectualism? For the sake of symmetry it might be called intellectualism—-the argument that intellectuals with the correct ideas should decide what to do to the rest of us. This is an ancient notion that goes back to Plato and the cult of philosopher-kings. Over the centuries many rulers subscribed to it. To prove his intellectual chops, Joseph Stalin wrote numerous articles with titles like “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” despite being so busy with mass murder.

In the American setting, intellectualism comes down to paternalism—in Hofstadter’s account, intellectuals and political power ideally combine to push massive government interventions as in the New Deal. Therefore anti-intellectualism is in effect anti-paternalism—-click for ThinkMarkets posts by Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman on paternalism.  

But anti-paternalism is not a useful label to slime those who favor limited government, because it does not sound like a bad thing. Whereas anti-intellectualism  is an effective smear, suggesting an unreasonable hatred of learning. Hence its popularity with left-wing critics.

Another currently popular notion that comes from Hofstadter is right-wing paranoia. If you oppose the intellectual-political cabal chipping away at your freedom and taking your money, well then you’re a paranoid anti-intellectualist. That great intellectual, Stalin, would know exactly what to do with you! And he’d have a long reading list to prove he’s correct. American paternalists haven’t managed to get to that level but they’ll repeat endlessly that you’re crazy and stupid.

17 Responses to “Anti-Intellectualism and Freedom”

  1. Daniel Kuehn Says:

    1. To be clear, the objection to Hayek had absolutely nothing to do with the substance of Hayek’s economics. I’m assuming Wolfers would have also objected to someone like Lerner or Stiglitz being included (Samuelson or Solow, perhaps, as well – although I expect their citation count would have been high, they just wouldn’t be iconic enough to be taught to a high school class). I think Hayek made important contributions, but I don’t think that merits his inclusion in a high school text. By the same token, Friedman’s contributions arguably weren’t even as original as Hayek’s contributions – but as a representative scholar to introduce high school students to, he’s probably the more appropriate choice.

    2. I think more emphasis needs to placed (by all sides) on what you’ve identified as “unreasonable” opposition to learning. If you oppose the New Deal because you’ve thought deeply on it and think it’s problematic, that’s fine in my opinion. If you oppose it because intellectuals were associated with it, that’s no reason at all and does deserve censure. Nobody that opposes it for that reason deserves to hide behind the excuse of “anti-paternalism”.

    I also think statements like this:

    “That great intellectual, Stalin, would know exactly what to do with you! And he’d have a long reading list to prove he’s correct. American paternalists haven’t managed to get to that level but they’ll repeat endlessly that you’re crazy and stupid.”

    Risk doing precisely what left-leaning intellectuals do when they play the Hofstadter card. You leave very little room for an acceptable non-libertarian, pro-intellectual position – and that’s no better than calling a broad swath of Tea Party sympathizers “stupid”.

  2. Pietro M. Says:

    I was interested in stydying a whole field of research I call “stupidity studies”, which comprise studies in fanaticism, mass movements, consiracy theories, integralism and fundamentalism.

    There is some great stuff: Eric Hoffer works are great, André Glucksmann, although a more obscure writer than Hayek, has written lots of good things, and then Daniel Pipes has analyzed conspiracy theories… Jacob Talmon, Renzo Guolo, on some account also Lee Harris (too much a neocon for me).

    Then I bought Hofstadter, “The paranoid style in American politics”. It is not a book, it’s a political libel. A waste of money: as stupid as some right can be, to constrast it with intellectual monomanias and political prejudices (and hatred) may even be worse.

    Daniel Pipes, in his bashing both right and left, is much better.

    Anyway, Austrians should get interested in stupidity studies: it’s a field in which empirical evidence is overabundant. :-D

    PS Another impresentable book is “Fanaticism” by Isaac Taylor: after a chapter with some good reflections on fanaticism, he spends all the rest of the book to tell his readers that catholics – and only catholics (that’s what I object :-D) – are stupid.

  3. Greg Ransom Says:

    Hofstadter published partisan hack work — his book on “social darwinism” was an intellectual embarrassment.

    His book on “Anti-intellectualism” was no better.

    My growing disgust with leftist “intellectuals” began in part with a reading of Hofstadter.

    A 3rd rater at one time held up as a font of knowledge and wisdom.

    And there have been thousands of the same kind in the years since.

  4. Jerry O'Driscoll Says:

    Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society is an antidote to Hofstadter, et al. Intellectuals know different things than do ordinary folk, many of whom are equally smart as intellectuals. Intellectuals deal in abstractions and unverified knowledge. Ordinary people know how to do things.

    I know people on the Left who think the “smart” and “educated” should run things just because they are smart and educated. That is a Mandarin concept and foreign to America. Opposing it is not anti-intellectualism, but republicanism.

    I think we all know very smart people who cannot translate intelligence into success in life. Thye have brainpower, but no commonsense.

    Most CEOs didn’t go to Ivy league schools, and many went to state universities. Much of what gets accomplished in life is by people who earned C’s in college (if they went).

  5. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry, you’re absolutely right to bring up Thomas Sowell’s work on this topic. I really should have referenced it.

  6. chidemkurdas Says:

    Daniel Kuehn:
    1. Samuelson & Solow are part of orthodox economics and as such their arguments are already in the textbooks and classes. Hayek says something different. AS to why he should be left out and how exactly one decides whether he is scholarly enough, I gave the link which contains further links on the matter of citations etc.

    2. Re your “I think more emphasis needs to placed (by all sides) on what you’ve identified as “unreasonable” opposition to learning.” What I wrote is that the anti-intellectualism smear suggests an unreasonable hatred of learning, not that the people so labeled actually suffer from such hatred.

  7. Bogdan Enache Says:

    The very concept of intellectual is, more or less since the time of Emile Zola, a socialist concept. It designated the worker who works with his intellect as opposed to the manual labourer or physical worker. It was a very efficient device used by socialists and communist to enroll scients, artists, writters etc into unions and left-wing parties. Before the intellectual appeared on the scene there were men of culture, of letters, of science, artists, philosophers, writters. In a way, as Hayek points out in his essay on the topic, the intellectual – which has come to designate an entitlement of every person with some kind of degree – became a bureaucrat of more or less received ideas, a sophisticated propagandist who put his skills to work in the hands of an ideology or cause he believed in and in the process he overshadowed and wiped out the real “men of the mind” (who were also sometimes “college dropouts”, less formally educated etc). This is probably the reason of much confusion and misunderstanting. But to consider “succes in life”, whatever that means, the measure of all things worthy is an error, I think. I would like to know how many examples are there, particularly in the US, of ordinary folkes who, after achieving the said succes and acquiring a notable fortune, didn’t spend a significant portion of it in building or renting a Rennaissance palace or a more or less kitsch replica of one, on tickets to expensive Opera houses whose music they rarely understand or on famous paintings that one could sometimes buy just for lunch and a bottle of wine during the life of the people who painted them and so on?

  8. Eric Hosemann Says:

    The main implication of “intellectualism” is quite clear: if someone considers himself an intellectual, or if he is fortunate enough to be considered so by others, he is therefore considered capable of directing other people’s behavior, usually by manipulating government force. At the very least this person will be given wide latitudes in which to criticize others without bearing the cost of doing so.

    Hayek’s position was not against intellectuals per se but against the idea that because they knew a certain subset of things about the world they were then capable of seeing and possibly directing “the whole picture.” Public educators would be fools to teach this because it contradicts the very foundation of their authority. Public education is a game of aggregation completely at odds with how knowledge is used and problems are solved in society.

  9. Jerry O'Driscoll Says:

    @Bogdan,

    Read The Millionaire Next Door. Many wealthy people live frugally. One of the wealthiest people that I know lives in a tract house.

    Many of those people buying mansions did so with dodgy loans with no down payments. They were not rich in the sense of having net worth. Their debts matched their assets, and they went bust when housing turned down.

  10. Troy Camplin Says:

    Ironically, though Plato came to advocate the philosopher king, Socrates in The Apology makes exactly the argument that intellectuals don’t know anything. From that, we must therefore conclude that, being ignorant, they are not fit to rule. Worse, they are ignorant of their ignorance, and so are not wise — making them doubly fit not to rule. Arguably, the wise person — knowing that he doesn’t know anything — would be the only one fit to rule. But, knowing they don’t know anything, they wouldn’t impose their ideas on anyone, because they wouldn’t be certain enough of them. The “intellectual” in this case, as the one who thinks he should rule others because of his superior education, thus is ignorant, unwise, and unethical (in being arrogant, to boot). These are the kinds of people Hofstadter and his ilk want to put in control over our lives. They are exactly the kind of people Hayek warned us against.

  11. chidemkurdas Says:

    Bogdan Enache — re “as Hayek points out in his essay on the topic, the intellectual – which has come to designate an entitlement of every person with some kind of degree – became a bureaucrat of more or less received ideas, a sophisticated propagandist” Well put.

    Eric Hosemann: “Hayek’s position was not against intellectuals per se but against the idea that because they knew a certain subset of things about the world they were then capable of seeing and possibly directing “the whole picture.”” Good point.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    Pietro M.– Re “Hofstadter “The paranoid style in American politics”. It is not a book, it’s a political libel.” I think that sums it up accurately.

  13. chidemkurdas Says:

    Troy Camplin– Re “These are the kinds of people Hofstadter and his ilk want to put in control over our lives.”

    That is an interesting paradox you’ve pointed out. People who do not understand the limits of knowledge — unlike Hayek & those of us who learned from him — are precisely the ones who want to impose on the rest of us.

  14. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry, a good example is Warren Buffet, who lives a modest middle-class life despite his great wealth and has given away billions of dollars to philanthropy.


  15. I am reminded of the chapter in the Road to Serfdom on “Why the Worst Get on Top.”

  16. Wellington Says:

    The article “A Name for our age” by Eric Hoffer remains one of the clearest-minded critiques of Hofstadter-like mindset. It can be found in the book The Temper of Our Time.

    “It is not actual intellectual superiority which makes the intellectual but the feeling of belonging to an intellectual elite.” — Hoffer

  17. chidemkurdas Says:

    I had not seen the Eric Hoffer piece before. Thanks for the reference.


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