In a recent post for the Marginal Revolution blog, economist Tyler Cowen describes a split he has observed in the American right in recent years—one between what he calls “the New Right” and an older “classical liberal” tradition, the latter with which he presumably identifies. While he lists a number of differences between the two groupings, the main difference, according to Cowen, is “how much faith each group puts in the possibility of trustworthy, well-functioning elites.”
While I agree with Cowen that the American right has undergone a transformation in recent years, I disagree that classical liberalism does not itself exhibit strong “anti-elite” tendencies. In fact, classical liberalism has a long tradition of being skeptical of intellectuals, who represent a certain class of elites, so much so that to dispense with that skepticism is arguably to abandon classical liberalism altogether. In this sense, the “anti-intellectualism” of the “New Right” is nothing new, it has some undeniably positive characteristics, and it possibly even represents a kind of revival of the older classical liberal tradition.
In fact, my worry about the trajectory of American politics is nearly the opposite of what Cowen seems concerned with. That is, I worry not about anti-elitism or anti-intellectualism on the American right, but rather about how many on both the left and the right put too much faith in the abilities of intellectuals to guide the evolution of human progress. Our tendency to overestimate our own abilities is not benign: As history has shown, it has the potential to lead to disastrous consequences, and these consequences can likely be avoided only by constraining the worst impulses of intellectuals through strong institutions.
Background on the Right Shift
Sometime around 2013 or 2014, I recall having a long conversion with my father in his kitchen in Newton, Massachusetts. My father is a political progressive, and I am not, but nevertheless, we often have civil and engaging conversations about politics. I recall telling him that what the Republican Party ought to do was to become more populist, meaning that it should focus more on the concerns of working people. I argued this not so much because I thought it would be a good marketing tactic to help them win elections—although that is probably also true—but rather because I think traditionally conservative policies are better for working Americans than are liberal policies.
Left-wing regulations and over-the-top spending hurt workers by reducing their wages, hurt consumers by raising the prices they pay and hurt everyone by slowing down innovations that make our lives easier and incomes go further. Markets, on the other hand, are a great equalizer in the sense that regardless of who you are or where you come from, you will be rewarded if you are able to serve others.
At that time, I would not have labeled myself as a Republican. I never identified with the George W. Bush-Paul Ryan-Mitt Romney brand of Republicanism that was dominant around that time—a brand that puts strong emphasis on hawkish foreign policy and technocratic solutions. I could never have anticipated the rise of Donald Trump, and I was initially skeptical of him. But it quickly became apparent to me that he was part of exactly the kind of populist transformation that I had hoped for. I don’t believe Trump caused the rise of the “New Right,” as much as he skillfully identified an emergent trend, found ways to personally benefit from it and helped speed up changes that might have happened anyway.
So while I agree with Cowen that a shift has taken place in recent years, I view that shift as mostly a good thing—one that is leading to a reshuffling of the political parties and a reorganizing of which strands or ideologies are dominant within the two parties. Democrats are now pretty clearly the party of the rich donor class, and Republicans, while still in a state of realignment, are the working-class alternative.
Classical Liberals Are Skeptical of Intellectuals
The idea that classical liberals would put considerable faith in “elites” is, to be honest, puzzling. One of the most important articles in the classical liberal canon is “The Intellectuals and Socialism” by F.A. Hayek, which details the allure of socialism to the intellectual class. In his book “The Road to Serfdom,” published a few years later, Hayek expounded on the idea, blaming intellectuals for contributing to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Communists in the Soviet Union.
Cowen chastises the New Right for castigating elites as “evil and pernicious,” but if any intellectual worldviews are evil and pernicious it is these. Moreover, consider this: The neoconservative foreign policy positions that created the conditions for the Iraq War have now been significantly downgraded in the Republican Party, and we have largely the New Right to thank for this.
Hayek himself would unkindly refer to intellectuals as “second-hand dealers of ideas,” and he argued this class of individuals, which includes “teachers, journalists, and media representatives,” not only tends to be attracted to unsound economic principles but also constitutes a threat to civilization itself. In fact, a pillar of classical liberalism is arguably what one might roughly label “anti-intellectualism”: It is anti-intellectual not in the sense of being against ideas or against scientific progress, but in the sense of recognizing and opposing the more destructive tendencies of the intellectual class.
Donald Trump was heavily criticized at various points during his presidency for referring to journalists as the “enemy of the people” and for condemning them for producing “fake news.” These statements were controversial. But are these statements really so out of line with Hayek’s proposition that intellectuals represent an actual threat to civilization? Hayek, of course, would never have phrased his critique quite as crudely as Trump. Still, Trump’s statements have a classical liberal flavor to them.
One part of Cowen’s thesis I agree with is that “The New Right doesn’t entirely reject the basic principles of free market economics, but it does try to transcend libertarian views with a deeper understanding of the current power structure.” Strangely, this seems completely consistent with Cowen’s own worldview, which puts culture at the center of economic analysis.
I, for one, am not willing to shed the “classical liberal” label despite identifying in some ways with the New Right. Thus, the split around which Cowen frames his discussion, that of classical liberalism versus the New Right, is a false choice. Although the New Right has some undesirable elements that are incompatible with freedom, most political movements, including libertarianism, have ugly elements. Antisemitism, or simple elitist contempt for ordinary Americans, is not hard to find on the political left either. Indeed, this left-wing bigotry probably explains a large part of Donald Trump’s appeal—and the appeal of populist anti-elitism in general.
Institutions and the Rise of the Technocratic Elite
I agree with Cowen that “classical liberals do not consider the elites to be totally hopeless.” However, this statement is seriously incomplete. Classical liberals believe intellectuals to be fully capable of destroying society—or in Cowen’s words, “competent enough to actually wreck society”—at least in certain instances. What classical liberals tend to believe is that the institutional setting matters. Institutions channel predictable, self-interested human behavior toward either socially beneficial or socially destructive ends.
This is the invisible hand of Adam Smith, where the institution of the market incentivizes people to act for the greater good, despite this being no part of their intention. Again, I will point to Hayek about what happens when institutional incentives are misaligned. Bureaucracy in its worst forms results in “the end of truth” and conditions where “the worst get on top.”
To suggest that elite skepticism is somehow incompatible with classical liberalism—or, more generally, with scientific progress—is unfair. The problems associated with intellectuals working within a bureaucracy do not mean that intellectuals cannot contribute to society in other ways. But only in the right institutional settings will intellectual energies be led “as if by an invisible hand” to do what is best.
The real schism in modern politics is not between classical liberals and the New Right, but rather between those who seek expert management of the economy and those who believe in individual freedom. The technocratic position is extremely attractive, even to right-wing intellectuals, because it claims to be on the side of science and progress. The problem with this philosophy, again, lies in whether the institutions are aligned with achieving those objectives.
Unlike in the market, where unprofitableness drives a company out of business, regulators can keep producing rules, academics can keep authoring reports and journalists can keep writing flattering news columns about socially fashionable policies, all without any consequences to them personally if things don’t go as planned. In the words of the economist Thomas Sowell, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
What Role for Intellectuals?
The instinct of the intellectuals is to solve problems. There is nothing wrong with this instinct, per se. However, “solving problems” often requires an all-powerful state to implement the “solutions,” and all-powerful states have a strange history of doing “evil and pernicious” things.
The institutions of limited government, private property and economic liberty protect us from the worst instincts of the intellectuals. Does this mean there is no role for intellectuals to play in public policy? Far from it. Some technocracy is to be desired. I personally have spent years trying to improve cost-benefit analysis, and I see an important role for properly done cost-benefit analysis in government. However, I see that role as more akin to the role an accountant plays in a business: tallying up results and making projections about the future.
I do not envision economists in charge of directing huge allocations of resources in the economy. This is too much power for economists to wield—power that will inevitably be abused. If someone believes economists should have this power, or are even capable of wielding this power successfully, the onus is on them to demonstrate which institutions could achieve these results and why. This does not mean we can’t be ambitious and strive for moral progress. We should strive to do better, always recognizing the constraints that nature has placed upon us. It is when we lose grasp of this reality that we observe disasters like the Iraq War, or the more slowly unfolding disaster that is our nation’s debt and entitlement crisis.
It has become fashionable among libertarians to de-emphasize the thesis of some of Hayek’s most famous works, because the growth of the state has not yet led to totalitarianism. The short-term convenience of making this compromise is it helps one garner the respect of one’s fellow intellectuals. But realize how dangerous that compromise is if Hayek’s thesis turns out to be correct. Skepticism of intellectuals is not in conflict with classical liberalism. It lies at the very center of the classical liberalism belief system. To deny, or at least downplay, the dangers associated with intellectuals, is at best a risky proposition and at worst puts us down the road to serfdom.