Thursday, 4 July 2013

How to Change the World, or, The Courage to Be Utopian

How do you change society’s ideas? This guest post by Lawrence McQuillan gives you Hayek’s answer.

Writing in 1949 when socialist totalitarianism in the form of Maoist China and the Stalinist Soviet Union was on the march worldwide, Nobel laureate F.A Hayek showed in his book  The Intellectuals and Socialism how ideas gain acceptance in modern society.

More importantly, he demonstrated how opponents of big government can win the battle of ideas themselves.

Over the long run, public intellectuals—Hayek called them “professional second-hand dealers in ideas”—wield an “all-pervasive” influence on public policy and politics by shaping public opinion.

A public intellectual need not be an original thinker, scholar, or expert in a field. He need not possess special knowledge or be particularly intelligent. But a public intellectual can readily talk and write on a wide range of subjects and he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than others. They serve as intermediaries in the spread of ideas.

Such intellectuals include journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists; radio, television, and online commentators; writers of fiction, cartoonists, artists, actors, and even scientists and doctors who speak outside their fields of expertise. “It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us,” Hayek wrote, “which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.”

Public intellectuals are the gatekeepers of ideas in modern society, and voters tend to follow them in the long run. It is no exaggeration to say that, once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. . . . It is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses.

True scholars, scientists, and experts find that such intellectuals understand “nothing in particular especially well,” but it is a huge mistake to dismiss them because, “it is their judgment which mainly determines the views on which society will act in the not too distant future.” So intellectuals must be won over, not ignored.

But how?

Since a public intellectual tends not to be an expert on any particular issue, he tends to judge new ideas not by their cogency but “by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced.” In today’s politics and public policy, the “general conception” that guides intellectuals more than any other is that central planning and central control is always better than decentralised, individualized approaches. 

[To the modern intellectual, says Hayek], deliberate control or conscious organization is in social affairs always superior to the results of spontaneous processes which are not directed by a human mind; or that any order based on a plan laid down beforehand must be better than one formed by the balancing of opposing forces.

Yesterday’s public intellectuals have delivered the central planning and central control of today. So how does one change the general preconceptions of today’s intellectuals to stop them further undermining the foundations of a free society tomorrow?

It is not that they are consciously evil, says Hayek. For the most part, it is neither self-interest nor evil intentions that motivates them, but “mostly honest convictions and good intentions which determine the intellectual’s views.” Hayek advised liberty lovers to borrow a page from the playbook of the socialists, and play into those good intentions.

The intellectual, by his whole disposition, is uninterested in technical details or practical difficulties. What appeals to him are the broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises.

Thus liberty lovers must play into this visionary character. They must have the “courage to indulge in Utopian thought” themselves, and to communicate abroad the results of this Utopian thinking.

Don’t consume yourself entirely with current policy debates, Hayek warned liberty lovers, but dive also into the kinds of long-run speculation that is the both the strength of socialists and its appeal to intellectuals. Classical liberals must be willing to be seen as “impractical” and “unrealistic” by the current political leadership in order to grab the imagination of today’s public intellectuals, who are essential to spreading ideas.

Rather than focus exclusively on piecemeal improvement of current legislation, which are ready to be wiped out by the next political spring-tide, liberty lovers must instead offer grand reconstructions and abstractions that will appeal to the imagination and ingenuity of intellectuals. They must provide a clear picture of future society at which they are aiming, without overstatement or extravagance, but which inspires the imagination of intellectuals.

imageTo change the views of intellectuals, one must demonstrate the limits of government planning and control and why it becomes positively harmful if extended beyond these limits, so harmful that it undermines the very ideals that intellectuals hold dear. The key, he stresses, is to focus on ideals, because ideals arouse the imagination of intellectuals. For example, “relaxation of controls on opportunity” is a political compromise, and best left to politicians. Whereas “freedom of opportunity” is an ideal.  “An important step toward equality” is a political compromise. “Equality under the law” is an ideal.

Stress the ideal in debate today, and the practical reality will follow tomorrow. That was Hayek’s message.

He was realistic about the challenges ahead:

It may be that a free society as we have known it carries in itself the forces of its own destruction, that once freedom has been achieved it is taken for granted and ceases to be valued, and the free growth of ideas which is the essence of a free society will bring about the destruction of the foundations on which it depends.

This is the sort of “inner contradiction” of freedom Marxists would be inclined to rely upon as some sort of “historical necessity.”  We can avoid this ourselves by making the task of building a free society as exciting and fascinating to tomorrow’s public intellectuals as any socialist scheme they might encounter [or even moreso - Ed] by making it an intellectual adventure based on enduring ideals that when put in practice improve real human well-being. This will take time, but there are no shortcuts. Indeed, it is the very method by which we have arrived at the world of today—by a movement that, as Hayek recognised, was itself built top down.

Socialism [wrote Hayek] has never and nowhere been at first a working-class movement. It is a construction of theorists and spread by intellectuals.

It took a long time for intellectuals to persuade the working classes to accept this construction, and lovers of liberty likewise must keep their eyes on the prize while taking the longer view themselves.

If they have the “courage to be Utopian” and boldly follow Hayek’s battle plan, the road to serfdom could well reverse course. Something to ponder on Independence Day.

Lawrence J. McQuillan, PhD, is senior fellow and director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at The Independent Institute ( in Oakland, California.
This article first appeared at the Mises Daily. It has been lightly edited.

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