The following essay by John Blundell first appeared as an introduction to The Intellectuals and Socialism, by Friedrich A. Hayek, and was published by the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs. The Initiative would like to thank John Blundell and the IEA for giving permission to reprint this on our web site.
The following article will be of interest to anyone drawn to the power of ideas and how “intellectuals” use them over the course of time to influence the public debate about issues of economic and social policy. The economic ideas expressed in the article itself will probably excite a certain amount of controversy; we neither endorse nor reject them. We are interested in what the author has to say about the interaction of ideas, intellectuals and society.
In April 1945, Reader’s Digest published the condensed version of Friedrich Hayek’s classic work The Road to Serfdom. For the first and still the only time in the history of the Digest, the condensed book was carried at the front of the magazine rather than the back.
Among the many who read the condensed book was Antony Fisher. In his very early thirties, this former Battle of Britain pilot turned stockbroker turned farmer went to see Hayek at the London School of Economics to discuss his concern over the advance of socialism and collectivism in Britain. Fisher feared that the country for whom so many, including his father and brother, had died in two world wars in order that it should remain free was, in fact, becoming less and less free. He saw liberty threatened by the ever-growing power and scope of the state. The purpose of his visit to Hayek, the great architect of the revival of classical liberal ideas, was to ask what could be done about it.
“My central question was what, if anything, could he advise me to do to help get discussion and policy on the right lines… Hayek first warned me against wasting time-as I was then tempted-by taking up a political career. He explained his view that the decisive influence in the battle of ideas and policy was wielded by intellectuals whom he characterised as the secondhand dealers in ideas’. It was the dominant intellectuals from the Fabians onwards who had tilted the political debate in favour of growing government intervention with all that followed. If I shared the view that better ideas were not getting a fair hearing, his counsel was that I should join with others in forming a scholarly research organisation to supply intellectuals in universities, schools, journalism and broadcasting with authoritative studies of the economic theory of markets and its application to practical affairs.”
Fisher went on to make his fortune by introducing factory farming of chickens on the American model to Britain. His company, Buxted Chickens, changed the diet of his fellow countrymen, and made him rich enough to carry out Hayek’s advice. He set up the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955 with the view that:
“[Those carrying on intellectual work must have a considerable impact through newspapers, radio, television and so on, on the thinking of the average individual. Socialism was spread in this way and it is time we started to reverse the process.”
He thus set himself exactly the task which Hayek had recommended to him in 1945.
Soon after that meeting with Fisher, Hayek expanded on his theory of the influence of intellectuals in an essay entitled ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’, first published in the Chicago Law Review in 1949 and now republished by the Institute of Economic Affairs. According to Hayek, the intellectual is neither an original thinker nor an expert. Indeed he need not even be intelligent. What he does possess is:
a) the ability to speak/write on a wide range of subjects; and b) a way of becoming familiar with new ideas earlier than his audience.
Let me attempt to summarise Hayek’s insights:
- Pro-market ideas had failed to remain relevant and inspiring, thus opening the door to anti-market forces.
- Peoples’ knowledge of history plays a much greater role in the development of their political philosophy than we normally think.
- Practical men and women concerned with the minutiae of today’s events tend to lose sight of long-term considerations.
- Be alert to special interests, especially those that, while claiming to be pro-free enterprise in general, always want to make exceptions in their own areas of expertise.
- The outcome of today’s politics is already set, so look for leverage for tomorrow as a scholar or intellectual.
- The intellectual is the gatekeeper of ideas.
- The best pro-market people become businessmen, engineers, doctors and so on; the best anti-market people become intellectuals and scholars.
- Be Utopian and believe in the power of ideas.
Hayek’s primary example is the period 1850 to 1950, during which socialism was nowhere, at first, a working-class movement. There was always a long-term effort by the intellectuals before the working classes accepted socialism. Indeed all countries that have turned to socialism experienced an earlier phase in which for many years socialist ideas governed the thinking of more active intellectuals. Once you reach this phase, experience suggests, it is just a matter of time before the views of today’s intellectuals become tomorrow’s politics.
The Intellectuals and Socialism was published in 1949 but, apart from one reference in one sentence, there is nothing to say it could not have been written 40 years later, just before Hayek’s death. It might have been written 40 years earlier but for the fact that, as a young man, he felt the over-generous instincts of socialism. When Hayek penned his thoughts, socialism seemed triumphant across the world. Anybody of enlightened sensibility regarded themselves as of ‘The Left’. To be of ‘The Right’ was to be morally deformed, foolish, or both.
In Alan Bennett’s 1968 play Forty Years On, the Headmaster of Albion House, a minor public school which represents Britain, asks: ‘Why is it always the intelligent people who are socialists? Hayek’s answer, which he expressed in his last major work, The Fatal Conceit, was that ‘intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence’. They think that everything worth knowing can be discovered by processes of intellectual examination and ‘find it hard to believe that there can exist any useful knowledge that did not originate in deliberate experimentation’. They consequently neglect the ‘traditional rules’, the ‘second endowment’ of ‘cultural evolution’ which, for Hayek, included morals, especially ‘our institutions of property, freedom and justice’. They think that any imperfection can be corrected by ‘rational co-ordination’ and this leads them ‘to be favourably disposed to the central economic planning and control that lie at the heart of socialism’. Thus, whether or not they call themselves socialists, ‘the higher we climb up the ladder of intelligence … the more likely we are to encounter socialist convictions.