Anti-intellectualism in libertarian policy?

Hayek thought it might be a good idea to abolish copyright, so that only propertied people could write books. We’re getting ever closer to that. Do today’s libertarians care?

Though most people aren’t aware of it, Friedrich Hayek in a 1949 article (“The Intellectuals and Socialism” [JSTOR: academic paywall; ungated version from the Mises Institute, with a crucial omission described below]) wondered aloud whether the existence of independent intellectuals, who could make a living due to copyright, was on balance a good thing. In the text (p. 420 of the law review version, 374 of the Mises Institute’s reprint) he wrote:

In the sense in which we are using the term, the intellectuals are in fact a fairly new phenomenon of history. Though nobody will regret that education has ceased to be a privilege of the propertied classes, the fact that the propertied classes are no longer the best educated and the fact that the large number of people who owe their position solely to the their general education do not possess that experience of the working of the economic system which the administration of property gives, are important for understanding the role of the intellectual. Professor Schumpeter, who has devoted an illuminating chapter of his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy to some aspects of our problem, has not unfairly stressed that it is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs and the consequent absence of first hand knowledge of them which distinguishes the typical intellectual from other people who also wield the power of the spoken and written word. It would lead too far, however, to examine here further the development of this class and the curious claim which has recently been advanced by one of its theorists that it was the only one whose views were not decidedly influenced by its own economic interests. One of the important points that would have to be examined in such a discussion would be how far the growth of this class has been artificially stimulated by the law of copyright (bold emphases added).

The law-review version contains at this point—though the reprint omits—the following rather striking footnote:

It would be interesting to discover how far a seriously critical view of the benefits to society of the law of copyright or the expression of doubts about the public interest in the existence of a class which makes its living from the writing of books would have a chance of being publicly stated in a society in which the channels of expression are so largely controlled by people who have a vested interest in the existing situation (bold emphasis added).

Hayek, often praised by his enemies for his consistency, was consistent here as well. Given his deep and abiding hatred of generalist intellectuals, who make their living by their pens and fix the general tenor of society’s ideas, Hayek mused about cutting the knot: abolishing intellectuals by abolishing the law that alone lets them support themselves. His whole purpose was to bring about what might seem the reductio result: that the only writers would be professionals—mostly academics—who drew a salary to convey their expertise; people with independent incomes who wrote on the side; and writers as servants, employed by wealthy patrons and willing to toe their line. Hayek lamented that an honest policy debate on this was impossible because those pesky intellectuals, knowing their living was at stake, wouldn’t allow it.

Well, it turns out we didn’t need an honest policy debate in order to approach Hayek’s preferred outcome.

Digital distribution is quickly killing serious, i.e. decently-paid, journalism. (The digital contempt for mainstream journalism that I took aim at in my very first blog post, turned out to be a minor factor: the killer was Colonel Market, with a click, in the living room.) And as Steve Coll points out in the latest New York Review of Books, reviewing Brad Stone’s book on the subject—available for pre-order on Barnes & Noble, but not Amazon—Jeff Bezos’ promotion of e-books and his use of Amazon’s market power to relentlessly squeeze their profits has already substantially and scarily “undermined the leverage of authors and publishers who depend on copyright protection to make a living.”

Libertarians typically value, or think they value, both free markets and a vigorous competition among independent ideas. But on this topic, which seems to reflect a conflict between the two (in the case of journalism) or a need to resort to government action as the only counterweight to monopsony power (in the case of Amazon), I’ve heard pretty much nothing from them. Here, as often, while I’d very much like to see liberals and libertarians form common Enlightenment cause, I can’t help worrying that Le Guin got it right in “Newton’s Sleep”—that too many libertarians, once you dig, aren’t bothered much at the prospect of social reaction. Do they really mind if intellectuals must dance to someone else’s tune, provided that the Right Sort of People are the ones paying the piper?


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

20 thoughts on “Anti-intellectualism in libertarian policy?”

  1. the killer was Colonel Market, with a click, in the living room

    Bloody brilliant, you win turn of phrase of the day!

  2. I am not sure there are nearly as many "independent" writers then or now. Journalists and newspapers live by ad dollars and are run by editors. Book writers need people to buy their books — regardless of distribution, and in most cases they needed the publisher too.

    If you're going to talk about true independence, that would only be people sitting on inherited money, imo. And I'm not sure most of them have much to say, since they usually lack useful *experience,* again ime. Well, if you're talking non-fiction anyhow.

    Maybe I'm not sure who you're talking about. It seems to me, most independent intellectuals are probably people with some sort of day job. Hence, they are not independent. Pretty much no one is and I'm not sure that's always bad.

    1. By independent I mean dependent on those who buy their books (or purchase periodicals containing the writer's work). Of course this means dependent on those who think the ideas are worth reading. But there's a relative independence that comes from living off many customers rather than one patron. (Adam Smith, for one, was very impressed by the difference—when he didn't need to be; he wrote most of his books as part of a university career, and the Wealth of Nations supported by a grant from a wealthy individual.) Do you not think that it's a good thing for people to be able to think and write full time, not just in hours stolen from a day job?

      1. Sure it can be good, but those people still get chosen by others, in general. (Unless they are independently wealthy.)

        And, mediated doesn't always have to be bad. I see no shortage of books getting printed. Too many for me to keep up with, that's for sure.

        I think most of our problem lies with what is called the MSM, and I'm not sure corporate ownership is even the biggest problem. As I strive to remember, we are still pretty much (self-)glorified primates. And even independently rich people still want to be liked. It seems as though getting invited to parties is very important to people in DC — at least, that's the only explanation I can come up with for the cr*ppy state of our discourse. We need psychologists and game theorists to fix us, I think. (And I think a good half of academic psychologists are probably bonkers themselves. Still, they have something to offer.)

        I think there is a better link somewhere for O'Hares ideas on this. I will try to find it….

      2. Here is a good O'Hare link:

        There are a lot of them. I googled. The search box is gone now?

        But I realize, I've wandered off topic (bad habit). I haven't read Hayek so can't help bash him. All I know about him is, he must have been one of the first or loudest to point out that central planning is folly. I'm thinking someone would have noticed if he hadn't. Anyhoo, I know a lot of people think he's the cat's meow.

        How did Hayek support himself?

      3. Do you not think that it's a good thing for people to be able to think and write full time, not just in hours stolen from a day job?

        In general, no–at least, not before having very substantial life experience doing something else. That "life experience doing something else" is the difference between Gen. Shinseki and, say, John Bolton; between John Kenneth Galbraith and most modern academic economists; and so on.

        The idea that thinking and writing, uninformed by actual experience, are a generally good idea seems to me to be related to the idea that management doesn't require knowing anything about the business or function you are managing; having worked in an environment with that philosophy, I strongly disagree.

        1. Reminds of something in Carole Maso's writings that some people have an obligation to create art, and other people have an obligation not to.

      4. But there’s a relative independence that comes from living off many customers rather than one patron.

        Indeed. Anyone can now publish a book and market it on Amazon. No longer do you have to send in your work to publisher patrons and pray for acceptance. For every story you hear of a famous author who got 300 returned manuscripts before finally busting thru, one has to wonder, how many truly outstanding writers never busted thru, died unknown and unpublished? With Amazon and freeware publishing tools, there’s no patron-editor-saint standing between a writer and getting one’s work out there, for now, and for posterity.

        Which is all to suggest, as usual, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the worst of all possible worlds at the same time.

  3. It’s a little more complicated than that, although with the same result. Since the mid-1990s (mid-60s if you include Ted Nelson) visionaries have been developing schemes for compensating authors of online works with plausible analogs of the change and small bills that newspapers and magazines used to cost in the days of print. But financial intermediaries (here’s looking at you, VISA/MC) and governments working together, with some help from venture capitalists and the usual monopoly-builders, have blocked such payment mechanisms and made them effectively impossible.

    So it’s Colonel Market on the backswing, while he was really aiming his lead pipe at someone else.

  4. Apart from being an interesting logical paradox in its own right, the footnote you reference is Hayek at his whiny, dishonest best. Hayek already knew that his footnote speculating about whether something so “provocative” to the “parasites” in the intellectual establishment” could ever be published was definitely going to be published. Yet, even knowing that his implicit criticism was false and unfair and that people unfamiliar with the way law reviews are edited probably wouldn’t be able to see his dissembling, he kept it in his whiny little essay anyway.

    He really went downhill very fast after the war. The guy was really a piece of work at the end.

    1. Copyright, and probably being paid for talks which were largely flattery to the rich.

    2. My understanding is that she lived on book royalties and whatever she could mooch from the government and various suckers. Basically, the kindness of strangers.

    3. Early on, family friends (whose support she later denied and never appreciated). Later, her books—which sold extremely well.

  5. With Andrew's Colonel Market and Mike's shipwreck, the RBC is on a roll today! In both cases the writing was published at a price of zero, paid for in effect by academic salaries. It is possible to have top-class intellectual life without copyright; cf. Aeschylus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Beethoven.Their particular mechanisms may not be replicable, but some combination of patronage and payment-by-performance will not leave us without things to read.

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