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Feb 17, 2004 3:36 am

Ed Feser on Why Academia Leans Left

On the subject of intellectual diversity on college campuses, I call your attention to this lengthy piece by Ed Feser at Tech Central Station. I don't have the time to tackle Ed's various arguments about why academia leans to the left, and I should wait until Part II comes out before I respond anyway. For now, I'll just say that I think he raises some interesting arguments, only a few of which ring true for me. The one that rings most true is this one:

Here we have in effect the ideal of the "philosopher king" and with it another possible explanation of why intellectuals tend toward the Left, viz. the prospect that increased government power might give them an opportunity to implement their ideas. As F.A. Hayek suggests in his essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism," for the average intellectual, it just stands to reason that the most intelligent people ought to be the ones running things. Of course, this assumes they are in general capable of running things better than others are, an assumption many of these purportedly always-questioning minds seem surprisingly unwilling to question. Yet there are very good reasons for questioning it, some of which are related to the failure of socialism discussed above.

As Hayek himself has famously argued, large-scale social institutions are simply too complex for any human mind, however intelligent, to grasp in the amount of detail necessary to create them from scratch or redesign them from top to bottom in the manner of the socialist economic planner or political or cultural revolutionary. The collapse of the French Revolution into bloody chaos, its immediate Napoleonic sequel, the long decay and sudden collapse of the Soviet empire, and the institutionalized lunacy that was communism in general are only the most vivid and undeniable confirmations of this basic insight.

Still, the intellectual is forever a sucker for the idea that things would be much better if only everyone would just go along with the vision of the world he and his colleagues have hashed out over coffee in the faculty lounge and in the pages of the academic journals. As Hayek put it in The Fatal Conceit, "intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence," and they will even find it scandalous to suggest that intelligence is the sort of thing that can be overvalued. But of course it can be, as long as it has limits, which even the most brilliant human being's intelligence does. To see this requires nothing more, though also nothing less, than simple humility -- something intellectuals tend to have in short supply, especially if their intellectual accomplishments are great.

I do think that many intellectuals overvalue book-smarts. This is an attitude I do see in many of my colleagues, and one of the beautiful things about Hayek's vision of the catallaxy is that it is "fueled by" the bits and pieces of often inarticulate knowledge possessed by anyone and everyone. The engine of economic growth, and the spontaneous ordering processes of society more broadly, is knowledge, but not intelligence. In an academic world where knowledge is valued if it is rational, "scientific," articulated, and defended with explicit arguments, it's easy to understand why intellectuals might distrust the spontaneous ordering processes of the market and culture that are based on knowledge that is frequently tacit and "unscientific," and believe that they can construct institutions that would improve upon their admitted imperfections. And, as Feser points out elsewhere in his essay, such intellectuals are apt to be contemptuous of the claim that traditions and institutions can embody important social knowledge that we will lose if we attempt to ignore or reconstruct them. To me, this is the supreme irony of the post-modern Left: if they really believed what they say about the "subjectivity" of knowledge and the limits to rationalism and scientism, they ought to be reading Hayek and recognizing the market as the embodiment of how knowledge is really discovered and communicated. But for some reason, they aren't.

One way this overvaluing of intelligence plays out is in the critique of Bush based on his grades at Yale. Without defending his policies, it is certainly plausible that the president is not particularly book-smart (compared to Gore and maybe Kerry), but nonetheless has the kind of knowledge that leadership requires. Certainly that description would apply to many CEOs and many shop-floor folks as well. Again, not saying this is true of Bush, but lord knows I'd prefer a politician full of common sense knowledge and trust in the same knowledge of the citizenry than one who has lots of book-learnin' but not much horse sense.

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