Archive for May 26th, 2008

Intellectuals and Ideology

It is no secret that nation wide intellectuals — the class of people who are either in academia, think tanks, or high bureaucratic/technocratic positions — are by and large far more left leaning ideologically than business elites or even working class folk. In fact, the higher you go in academia, the more likely one is to be ideologically on the left; the most radical voices in academia also come from the most prestigious institutes and universities. Why is this? Is this a self-selection bias, are those who tend to have values that lend themselves to a leftist ideology more likely to seek academic careers? Does this reflect a selection bias in that academics tend to hire people who think like them, pushing aside conservatives or moderates? I think the answer to each is no, it’s a bit more complex.

My dad once told me that he had decided back in the late fifties that he would be Democratic until he earned over $20,000 (quite a bit at that time), and then he’d switch to voting Republican. He was a JFK supporter in 1960, by 1968 he wanted Nixon (and his income had risen). He simply followed his self-interest. This probably happens in ways that aren’t so overt or explicit. Ideologies on the left tend to favor more governmental action, and the intellectual elite benefit from that. Moreover, the left tends to be more open to radical and unconventional ideas, something that the intellectual class finds appealing. When social programs are implemented, they are designed by and implemented by intellectual elites, which shifts real power away from business or the private sector. Hence the GOP bases its support on the business and private sector groups, while the Democrats get more support from professionals and so-called intellectuals.

Of course it could also be that the intellectuals are right — they’re better educated and thus may have a more reasonable and well thought out ideological perspective. The fact they have such widespread agreement on the ideology of left could be a sign that it is indeed the more reasonable and accurate way to look at the world. That is extremely unlikely. It does seem that in terms of social critique intellectuals do much better than others. They are less likely to be homophobic, racist, or driven by nationalism or ethnic pride. They are more likely to be open minded, critical of social structures, and understanding of cultural factors that shape societal outcomes. This ability to provide superior social critique then leads to an over confidence in terms of their belief in their ideological perspective. Ideology is different than basic social critique, it extends to explaining why things are as they are, and what should be done. Social critique slides into these questions and for a lot of people the line between the critique and the explanation/prescription becomes blurred. The certainty that it is unfair for society to have mass poverty alongside wealth extends then to the prescription and explanation: there is exploitation and government must act to prevent or remedy that. Yet that explanation and prescription is independent from the social critique, and certainly not the only or even necessarily the most reasonable conclusion.

That kind of ideology also fits the interest of the intellectual elite: if there is an exploited class, and their condition must be improved by governmental action, then the educated elite acts as the force for change, taking power from the business or private sector actors. The private sector has their own self-interested reaction to the social critique, they simply assert equal opportunity and individual responsibility for material outcomes, and develop their own self-serving ideology. While they are often disinterested in the kind of social critique intellectuals are good at, they are very good at production of value and the creation of wealth, and these material benefits are seen by this class as far superior than the kind of ‘ivory tower theorizing’ or bureaucratic rule making of the intellectual elite. Thus the general ideological divisions are not really between contradictory ideologies, where one is right and the other wrong, but represent two perspectives (social critique vs. material production) and then a self-interested response to explaining and prescribing action (ideology). Each become convinced they are right, and thus there is ideological competition.

Being skeptical of ideology, I find it important that the intellectual elite be humble when they move from social critique to explanation and prescription. More government programs and progressive political agendas is a knee jerk reaction to the social critique, one that is self-interested. In the extreme this can lead to totalitarianism, as vanguard parties try to bring about change. That’s not likely in the industrialized world because the power of the intellectual elite is limited, but they do appeal to the masses to get them to support their goals. Hillary Clinton is a prime example; her alternate personalities in speaking in rural Appalachia reflects a member of the intellectual elite appealing to the working class with populist rhetoric to gain support for her program. Likewise, the business class or material production elite if you will, needs to be more humble in simply dismissing social critiques from the intellectuals, dismissal of such critiques can hide real problems. Ideology should not drive them to accept huge maldistributions of wealth as OK since the “market” somehow can’t be wrong. Pragmatism works both ways.

Rather than competing ideologies, there could be conversation about different perspectives and problems. Poverty is a good example. Poverty is a problem, but who really is best to give a solution — those focused on critiquing society, or those whose focus is wealth creation? Looked at from this perspective the business class might be in a better position to give a solution, but they are often pushed by the ideological conflict to simply deny there is a problem, or assert that the free market can handle it completely. The left then dismisses them as being the problem, rather than able to provide the solution.

Ultimately the ideological conflict makes it harder to solve problems and understand different perspectives than it need be. A pragmatic approach resulting from conversations between people from the different “classes” to identify problems and think creatively about solutions would yield a far better result than ideological conflict. That’s a hard sell in academia (though easier in small working class places like where I work than in the ivy league elite schools) and in politics the ideologues have a bit too much authority. Perhaps that’s why people like McCain and Obama capture the peoples’ imagination, they seem at least to be more pragmatic, and they stress unity over division.

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