The View From 1776

Walking Backwards

Liberals confusing cause and effect

Liberal-progressivism, a caste of mind that fancies itself to be scientific, produces a collection of upside down, backward prescriptions for social harmony and economic perfection.  In reality liberal-progressive “thinkers” display all the subtlety and attention to reality of someone assembling a pre-cut jigsaw puzzle and calling it artistic creation.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/21 at 08:01 PM
  1. Liberal-progressivism is a caste of mind that adores abstract concepts-- especially those reasoned theories that suggest a utopian possibility from top-down direction. Concrete thinkers rely on reality-based results. That is why those with high "intellect" are so dangerous. As Paul Johnson has warned, "Keep intellectuals away from the reins of power!"
    Posted by BILL GREENE  on  08/25  at  01:56 PM
  2. Bill,

    Surely you don’t mean all intellectuals when you argue they must be kept “away from the reins of power”. Where would we be today had such intellectuals as Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Edmond Burke, Winston Churchill, Hayek, or William F. Buckley been kept from the reins of power (and/or policy)? Those endowed with “high intellect” are indeed dangerous, but only in the sense and to the degree they are more apt to experiment and challenge than others. At the same time, I do know what you mean and don’t entirely dismiss the cautionary aspect of your message because intellectuals, on the whole, have done as much to harm as help us, and history records far more intellectuals whose experiments failed than succeeded. Yet, few of those failed intellectuals even register on our historical road map. How dangerous could they have been then? Perhaps the real damage comes of lesser minds misappropriating or misapplying ideas intemperately than of intellectuals experimenting on their own (the exception being totalitarian regimes enabling intellectuals and crackpots equally to experiment directly).

    Marx is dangerous only because he crystallized dystopian notions already in circulation that then incited generations of others to folly. Thus, it is his extraordinary influence among pseudo-intellectuals and the perennially envious (more than actual mischief) we mean when invoking him as a ‘dangerous intellectual’. Three intellectuals who both exercised or influenced power and left us a legacy of indigestible problems were the French revolutionaries Rousseau, Robespierre and Voltaire (see ). Rousseau is mostly remembered for his writings extolling the ‘noble savage’. It is forgotten he became (briefly) a political darling after his king ran off (ending all hope of ‘power sharing’), or that his unsustainable ideas (verging on anarchism) changed the course of that revolution. Robespierre is remembered for his ‘enlightened absolutism’ which enabled Napoleon to seize power. Though Voltaire died well before his country’s revolution and was best known for his scathing wit and anti-clericalism, a revival of his writings provided a basis for Third Republic progressivism and scientism (ideas still quite popular despite obvious shortcomings). These three (and others) contributed ideas prominent in Marx’s little manifesto, yet few realize his rant was 95% regurgitation and only 5% original.

    When most Americans think of presidents who were ‘intellectual’, they think first of Jefferson and then Wilson (in fact, Madison was more an intellectual than either, yet is discounted because he stood in Jefferson’s shadow). Wilson is credited as an intellectual because he was a university president and because he wrote several papers crystallizing already popular progressive ideas, one of which brought him to national attention and candidacy. His ‘big idea’ was that of a ‘living Constitution’ still greatly favored by liberal-socialists of today. That idea ‘freed’ progressives and subsequent socialists to run roughshod over the Constitution; which they have viewed ever since as more an impediment than bulwark. Other big ideas found in his writings (see ) include: a professional bureaucracy (one more independent of legislative or judicial interference), a profound distrust in republican self-rule, welfare-statism, empowering ‘experts’ & specialization, paternalism, labor laws, interventionism and internationalism. In retrospect, Wilson was little more than an academic and a middling intellect who could not find fresh ground when his ‘big ideas’ proved impractical and unpopular. None of Wilson’s ideas are really original with him, and there is nothing original or maverick about him. What caught voter attention, was his presentation of other progressive’s ideas combined with a longing to elect a president of some academic or similarly dignified standing; that, and some favorable press.

    FDR was no intellectual (regardless the popular liberal myth to the contrary), but he was a natural politician who knew how to exploit populist faith in intellectuals and in their supposed ‘expertise’ as fostered by Wilson and others. His New Deal, Second New Deal, and Brain-Trust were built on a (then) American bias favoring expertise and the idea ‘reform’ equates to greater efficiency in and reorganization of government (i.e., not a reform if not more efficient). Keynes is cited by both the Left and the Right as an archetype of the ‘intellectual expert’, but these citations distract from some very real contributions made Keynes in favor of fixations on what the Right regards outright failure whereas the Left regards those as failures of implementation. Part of FDR’s legacy, therefore, was to firmly lodge that conception of reform in many minds, supplanting the more traditional notion of reform as ‘returning to that which existed before’; usually something that actually worked. This is an important distinction because most of the liberal agenda achieved since his time is based on this fundamental (and often deliberate) misconstruction by socialists regarding the term. Democrats invariably play the guilt card (i.e., stingy, backward, evil people are standing in the way of your happiness, security, wellbeing, progress, &c) to get Americans to go along with their nonsense. After much wrangling, the Left vows if things do blow up the way the more cautious (and/or intelligent) among us predict, they will then be open to ‘reform’. Conservatives naturally take that to mean they will be willing to reverse course (and believing they have achieved a compromise we can live with) yield to them. However, to a socialist reform can only mean further tinkering.

    The City Journal article isn’t really talking about intellectuals, per se, as much as liberal-academia. These are a different breed from intellectuals and are, collectively, an even bigger and more frequent source of problems than intellectuals. That’s because, unlike intellectuals, these tend to run in packs and belong to the pack mentality. They are of a middling rather than high intellect, and are far more likely to push politically-correct ideas over effective ones (i.e., they play it safe). Academics are even the original source of the anti-intellectual sentiment your post mirrors, as academia and intellectuals have long been at each other’s throats (with the latter getting the worst of it – see Steven Fuller’s link below). For example, Galileo (an intellectual) got into trouble less because he ruffled theological sensibilities than academic ones. Practical churchmen (i.e., pope and bishops) would have tolerated Galileo except for the academics among them; whose ‘authority’ Galileo’s ideas directly undermined. It was they who instigated the proceedings against him. Today’s academics wield a similar stranglehold on ‘orthodox thought’ as demonstrated by the recent climate-change tyranny. Intellectuals are far more often mavericks rocking the [orthodoxy] boat.

    Therefore, perhaps we should be warning against academics and their collective-mentality rather than picking on intellectuals who are as often the victims of academic imposed dogma as we, and oftener the direct objects of their persecutions.

    Further reading: – Stephen Fuller reasons “… intellectuals are dangerous because they inject an unwanted measure of competition that destabilizes the structure of epistemic authority in society.”
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/31  at  07:49 AM
  3. Bob,

    Not all persons with "high intellect" are intellectuals. The types of brains that make for high IQ scores, and elevated abstract thinking, make great physical scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, and physicists, etc. But those fields are generally confined to "doers" who develop and apply repeatable systems with predictable results and are fully aware of the need for successful cost efficient practices. Thus they are both very smart and very practical and most important, they do not hustle ideologies and far out ideas but actively create physical objects, systems, and procedures that work! In their chosen fields anything that doesn't work is set aside.

    "Intellectuals" represent those people who deal in ideas and theories that have never worked. If you read Johnson's "Intellectuals" and Sowell's "A Conflict of Vision," and "Is Reality Optional," you will see their definition of intellectuals--which is much like mine. They are two of the distinguished scholars who have made this important distinction between the very usefully intelligent persons and the dangerous bright people who use their verbal virtuosity to baffle the unsuspecting and bullshit their way to leadership positions in the "soft-sciences." Sowell even writes that many of those abstract thinkers who fail to quite comprehend higher science such as math and chemistry usually descend downward to the soft-sciences where they can wreak their havoc.

    If you maintain a high regard for "smart" people you will never understand who has contributed to human progress and Western Civilization. In "Common Genius" I devote a chapter (12) to "The Difference Between Principles and Ideas." In the hard-sciences every idea is assumed to be flawed until proven sound. In the soft-sciences, there are few facts, but there are principles that have been substantially proven by experience, and on the other hand, mere notions and fancies that have never worked. Bright people have too often been responsible for advocating the mere notions.

    You group as intellectuals: "Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Edmond Burke, Winston Churchill, Hayek, or William F. Buckley." Jefferson, Hamilton, and Churchill were bright but no one ever thought they were not more practical than theorists. They both spent their time actively involved in the real world--they were rarely in the background writing theories of how things should be done--they were too busy governing, leading troops, establishing banks and land developments, breeding mules, designing buildings, etc.

    As for Madison, Locke, and Burke, they were merely looking to history, to actual governmental systems that had worked in the past and trying to summarize the best models for a free government. It is often forgotten that in the Federalist Papers little reference is made to any philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes, Hume. Montesquieu, etc. There are many references to historic republics--especially in numbers 45,18, 63, 48,9, and 20. In #20 they (Madison and Hamilton?) write "I make no apolgy for having dwelt so long on the contemplation of those federal precedents. Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivolcal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred." He was a concrete thinker--not an abstract theorist!

    Indeed, there are only three references to philosophers in the Index of the Federalist Papers and two of them point out the errors suggested by those writers to be avoided. The third, in #47, where Montesquieu suggests the separation of legislative and executive powers, Madison writes: "If he be not the author of this invaluable precept in the science of politics, he has the merit at least of displaying and trecommending it most effectively to the attention of mankind."

    The glaring and almost total absence of references to the great writers is also evident in Madison's 659 page "Notes" where he recorded the details of daily debate during the Constitutional Convention. Montesquieu is the only exception and those are of a reporting nature where he recommends the type of representation used in the Lycian confederacy.

    The great philosophers such as Burke and Locke only wrote generalities about how Man deserved a degree of freedom to have a say in selecting their leaders, etc. This was a known generality going back millennia, and well described in ancient Greece in Pericles Funeral Oration, and in a hundred situatuions ever since.

    Robert Conquest makes a reference to Dostoevsky's description of a human type "Whom any strong idea strikes all of a sudden and annihilates his will, somerimes fiorever."Conquest suggests that "The true idea addict is usually something roughly describes as an 'intellectual' . . .intelligence alone os far from being a defense against the plague." In "Reflections on a Ravaged Century" he points to intellectuals as the source of the "ideological frenzy of the 20th century. He refers to them as the Typhoid Marys of these Plagues of the Mind.

    Finally, Bob, your post actually is mostly in support of the evils done by intellectuals. The only escape is when you mix in engineers and doctors who are actually using ther great intellects for something useful. Note that even Adam Smith was merely reporting on what prior societies and groups had already done for thousands of years. Hayek does the same, trying to rebut the notions of progressive thinkers, by reference to the few economic principles that have been demonstrated to have value. But all the esteemed writers are just playing catch-up, trying to summarize what ordinary merchants and politicians had already done.
    Posted by BILL GREENE  on  09/01  at  09:37 AM
  4. Bill,

    Your whole argument rests on disqualifiers which, on close examination, do no such thing.

    First, I believe you may be confusing ‘intellectual’ with ‘intellectualism’. One meaning given for the latter is an affectation or assertion of superiority. If an assertion (i.e., not just an affectation) then we still have to make the case such individuals (intellectuals with attitude) are also wrong in their particular assertions. I gave the case earlier of Keynes, whom we both agree belonged to this class of arrogant intellectual who would experiment with others as lab rats. However, and as I also pointed out, Keynes was not wrong-headed in all of his thinking; only in certain infamous particulars. The tendency among anti-Keynesians has become to dismiss all his theories because of the few he got wrong. This, however, throws out the good along with the bad.

    I here submit several dictionary interpretations of the terms intellectual and intellectualism: ; ; ;

    If you compare any of the definitions of what constitutes an intellectual, you will see that all of the men I listed as intellectuals fit easily within those commonly accepted definitions. Not wanting to rely entirely on modern interpretations, I also consulted older dictionaries and found little disagreement between them. Yes, I am aware Sowell, et al have given us some alternative takes on intellectuals, but I also think they would be surprised you’d mistake their characterizations as replacement definitions for the entire class. I agree with you that high IQ alone does not make for an intellectual, but neither is it an absolute requirement. Anyone who has devoted a significant part of their time to study, to studying difficult problems in pursuit of solutions, studies the environment in which he/she lives with an eye to understanding it, or has consciously turned what they learned to practical use for the betterment of themselves or others easily qualifies as an ‘intellectual’. Moreover, and as one of my sources points out (see ), you don’t even need a high IQ to be an intellectual, just a love of learning or increased understanding. The mark of the intellectual, then, is not one of superior intelligence, it is the capacity to reason intelligently; which even ordinary intellects like us can manage. That, said, you, Thomas and I qualify as intellectuals for the simple reason we spend considerable time thinking about important stuff, and our approach to this stuff is mostly rational.

    Being a practical person does not disbar you from being an intellectual. Locke, Jefferson and Madison spent their lives mired in politics. But, unlike most politicians, they also spent a great deal of time thinking about the nature of government, and how to improve it. Hamilton made his mark as the founder of our modern financial system and he gave us a view of government that has been called an ‘intellectual tour de force’ at odds with most of his fellow revolutionaries (maverick). George Nash (American Conservative movement historian), acknowledges Buckley "the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century”. Hayek, as economist, academic, polemicist and Nobel Prize winner, bears all the markings of an intellectual, and has none of the ‘practical man’ criteria you require of ‘non-intellectuals’. Burke was a career politician; yet, he too proved an intellectual in his well-reasoned condemnation of radical terrorism. Churchill, too, fits the intellectual mold. Yes, he got poor marks at school. Yes, he was a hardworking, practical politician. And, yes, he spent most of his time in the ‘real world’ as opposed to alternative realities. But, he was also a man who disciplined himself to long study, concentration, determination, seeking out and engaging great minds, and to persuasion. Above all, persuasion. He knew that to save his country he had to develop compelling reasons to prepare for war against a mindset arrayed against all talk of war. He found them by studying everything and anything, by talking and listening, and then playing it all back. Later, in retirement, he turned his mind to history, and produced from that a voluminous and much respected work.

    Even the fellows you cite against the dictionary definition of intellectual only make the case for me. I do not agree Sowell’s definition coincides with your (I have read much of what he has to say on this subject), and that he, like me, is discussing a particular subset of intellectuals. When Sowell makes the case against intellectualism, it is not meant as a snub of all intellectuals. He is, himself, widely regarded an intellectual in the same sense as Buckley. Ditto for Conquest and Dostoevsky.

    If you study the motions of objects with an eye to unlocking their secrets without recourse to irrational explanations (e.g., Newton), you are an intellectual. If you spend half a lifetime working out how to make heavy things fly (e.g., Wright brothers), you are intellectuals. If you study the bible with an eye first to understanding its message or to reconciling it with known history, and only coincidentally learn to recite its passages, you are an intellectual. If you are a simple canal pilot who doggedly observes and finally works out a means to pass two ships through a lock going in opposite directions at the same time, you are an intellectual (e.g., my grandfather).

    I understand your bias against a certain breed of intellectual, the type that presumes to undemocratically determine policies for others. I, too, share that bias. But, as I also point out, condemning all intellectuals is unfair to the millions of intellectuals that do no such harm and, in fact, have been our benefactors. I believe that, on the whole, there have been far more of the good than bad variety of intellectuals. And, I remind you that when you condemn the intellectual, what you really condemn is the use of our ‘reasoning faculties’, because that is all it means to be an ‘intellectual’. I know you do not mean it that way, but that, after all, is how most people interpret such sweeping condemnations.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  09/01  at  07:49 PM
  5. Bob,

    The love of "intellectuals" dies hard! Most of us who have studied the great political/social philosophers in school and been taught to believe how they shaped the modern world cannot shed that academic distinction of understanding and loving intellectuals.

    You admit there are "subsets" within the people we might consider to be intellectuals. I believe that it is vital to make that type of distinction rather than muddle along with a large undefined mass of supposedly rational thinkers.

    Sowell's point about hard science vs soft science is a start in that direction; and note that the fields of politics, sociolgy, government, and economics are all soft sciences and that is where the hatm comes from. Note that all the despots who Conquest descibes who ravaged the 20th century were soft science intellectuals, and when you put together Pol Pot, Lenin, Marx, Hitler, the Shining Path, etc., they did far more harm than all the "good" soft science intellectuals you champion.

    Another "handle" on the "bad" subset is the way their minds work--abstract vs concrete--See the Dostoevsky reference in my post above. This distinction is the subject of Sowell's "A Comnflict of Vision" which describes this different type of mindset. (See also "Liberalism is a Form of Insanity".) This approach is also supported by the fact that almost all entrepreneurs, the innovative businessmen who create all our jobs and wealth, were average students academically, but had the realistic and rational minds that made for their accom-plishments. (See Thomas Stanley's books on: "The Millionnaire Mind")

    Since we agree that many intellectuals do great harm, it is important to try and define the subsets rather than cling blindly to an adoration of the entire class. Indeed, it is this current cultural admiration for brilliant minds that confuses so many when making choices or assigning responsibilities. As Conquest warns, you do not want the abstract ideologues near the reins of government power!

    Posted by BILL GREENE  on  09/02  at  10:03 AM
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