Smart Intellectuals

1 May

[I wrote this in response to a comment on A Learning Experience.]

Sherlock Holmes remarked, famously, that it was a capital mistake to theorise without facts. Inevitably, one starts bending the facts to fit theories, rather than adjusting the theories to fit the facts. This led to my rather snarky comment, earlier in my life, that the difference between a smart intellectual and a dumb intellectual was that the former adjusted his theories to fit the facts and the latter did the opposite.

This is particularly interesting when it comes to discussions of communism. Marx could not be faulted for devising communism – he had no way to actually test his theories. However, modern-day intellectuals have good reason to know that Marx was dead wrong. A communist regime ends up as a dictatorship (either of one person, like Stalin, or a party) and ensures nothing more than the equal distribution of poverty.

Many intellectuals will assert that communism was simply not done right. They will point to the beautiful theory, perhaps modified to take account of modern technology, and claim that it is workable. And it is – in theory. But it relies upon people acting against their own self-interests, to the point where the communists have to build instruments of coercion to enforce communism. They cannot take the risk of seeing the communism dream shatter, as it would do if there was no enforcement mechanism.

Left-wing intellectuals are not the only intellectuals capable of devising a wonderful theory which simply doesn’t work in practice. No one in their right mind would call Ayn Rand a left-winger, yet Objectivism is (in many ways) as unworkable as Communism. (At least there are more grounds for asserting that it simply hasn’t been tried.) The same can be said of many libertarian theorists and writers, including Heinlein. Government by theory doesn’t work for long (if at all) because the world changes rapidly. The only successful long-term form of government is a government that adapts and changes with the times.

When I wrote A Learning Experience, I deliberately gave Steve Stuart a set of political beliefs that had never been tried in the real world (and that I believed to be largely unworkable in practice.) Steve had good reason to hold such beliefs. His background, like several people I have met across the years, makes him sceptical of Big Government. But, as always, there’s a fine line between the disasters caused by having no government and the disasters caused by having too much government. Just as Fascism and Communism are essentially the same thing (only the propaganda differs), no government and too much government are both the rule of the strong. The title of the book, as some people realised, refers to Steve doing the learning, as well as the Hordesmen.

So Steve, having confidently divested himself of his attachment to a federal government he increasingly dislikes, finds himself in the position of having to reinvent most of the government’s functions, just to build his ideal state. Oops.

But the problems facing modern-day Britain, America and the West in general are largely a matter of scale. The greater the distance between the governed and the government, the stupider (or more ineffective) the government becomes. It’s a great deal easier to rule that everyone should wear the same kind of boots, for example, than arrange for everyone to have their own individual set of boots. Or, worse, the distance between the lawmakers and those who have to suffer under the laws ensures that stupid, often impractical, ideas creep into the rationale behind the laws. Plenty of high-sounding theories have caused considerable misery when they worked their way down to the bottom of society.

Your mileage may vary, of course.


19 Responses to “Smart Intellectuals”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 1, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    IRRC somebody once made a comment of “about certain ideas are so bad that only an intellectual would believe them”. [Evil Grin]

  2. lamparty May 1, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

    I think you are pretty much spot on! Now if I could just get some of my”Facebook” “Friends” to realize that their favorite ideology is totally unworkable!

  3. Bob Costello May 8, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    I think your understanding of Objectivism is fundamentally flawed. Rand did not advocate anarchy, nor did she downplay the contributions of the “machinists, the factory workers, even the floor sweepers” (witness the treatment of Eddie Willers in Atlas, and Mike the welder in Fountainhead). Galt’s Gulch was never meant to be a working model for a government. It was merely a hideout for those who “shrugged”. Any examination of her non-fiction writings would make this pretty clear.

    What Rand advocated was individual human freedom, both political and intellectual. In practice, this would take the form of a minarchy. At the end of Atlas, she kinda spelled this out, essentially taking the US Constitution as a whole, less the “Commerce clause” (mainly).

    I hate to say this, but IME, those who dismiss Rand’s views as “unworkable” rarely have a true (rather than a caricaturized) understanding of them. Merely reading Atlas Shrugged will not necessarily get you there.

    • chrishanger May 8, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

      That’s quite possibly true. I always had the impression that Eddie was simply left behind at the end of AS, which was one reason for disliking it. He’s certainly the most decent person in the story. Chris Date: Thu, 8 May 2014 14:35:29 +0000 To:

      • Bob Costello May 8, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

        He *was* left behind. And he was one of the most decent people in the book. But that wasn’t what the story was about. It was about the innovators; not the clerks, regardless of how decent they were.

        Please don’t miss the message of the book over the imagined slight paid to a fictional character. I kinda liked some of the characters you’ve killed off as well. I still read your stuff.

      • chrishanger May 8, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

        I did get the message, I think – see But I can still call Dagny on abandoning someone who would be immensely useful in the future Chris Date: Thu, 8 May 2014 16:36:40 +0000 To:

      • Bob Costello May 9, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

        OK, I see you got a large part of the message, but you are still looking at it from a different place than Rand was. The best analogy i can come up with is this:

        You are looking at the organization (in this case, society) from the perspective of “middle management”; Rand was looking at it at a more “executive” level. As one moves up in management, one has to let go of more and more detail (like, in this case, the fate of the Eddie Willers of the world), lest one become mired in minutiae. There was no intentional slight towards the decent everyday people in the world of Atlas Shrugged, they were simply not the focus of the story.

        Please consider Atlas in this context, and see if that doesn’t change your perspective a bit.

      • chrishanger May 10, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

        That’s an interesting point. And an interesting mirror of the communist view, where the ‘little man’ is either idealised or ignored. “How dare he not want what we think he should want?”

        Still, I question the value of Galt’s Gulch as portrayed in the book. Every great inventor like Hank or Galt himself needs a staff behind him, everyone from janitors to salesmen. I had the impression that they didn’t have such a staff, even though they need it. I can buy Galt designing something on his own, or Dagny designing a whole new railroad, but could they actually make it happen? Who grows the food that everyone else eats? Who defends the gulch against outsiders? And there will be outsiders. What happens if the force field fails?

        Point is, you need decent people to do the grunt labour. Eddie might not have been a Great Man (Dagny might not count too; she’s a consummate organiser rather than a genius) but he should have been there. The fact he wasn’t (and there weren’t others at the gulch) suggests that Galt had forgotten he needed them.


        Date: Fri, 9 May 2014 11:30:24 +0000 To:

  4. algesan May 8, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    The problem of all governments (which IMO all work wonderfully in their ideal form) comes from human nature, from my perspective, fallen human nature. Which boils down to selfish motivations rather than society wide commitment to the greater good for all members of society on the part of all members of society.

    • Bob Costello May 8, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

      So is the answer to change the facts (human nature) to fit the theory (political system)? Or change the theory so that it fits the facts? It seems your characterization belies the answer you prefer.

    • chrishanger May 8, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

      Most people tend to believe in enlightened self-interest. However, their self-interests may not align with what society needs as a whole. Chris Date: Thu, 8 May 2014 15:39:55 +0000 To:

      • Bob Costello May 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

        How is “what society needs as a whole” determined, and by who? If one puts his own determination above that of the individuals within a society, how does that sit with you?

        Remember, society is merely a collection of individuals. It has neither more nor less rights than its constituent parts (individuals).

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 8, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

        Society is a collection of individuals constantly interacting and the larger the number of individuals interacting the more there’s a need for a structure to “decide what’s in the best interests of this collection of individuals” along with the need for a group with the authority to “enforce” the society’s decision on “what’s best” and to defend the society from enemies from outside the society.

        One of the problems IMO with extreme Libertarians is that they seem to forget that societies are created by the interactions of individuals and other people’s (within the society) actions can be harmful toward individuals within the society.

        In a small society these “rogues” can be dealt with through informal means but a larger society requires a group that the overall society acknowledges has the authority to act against rogues.

        No system can be perfect and mankind will always have to deal with problems related to being part of a society.

      • chrishanger May 8, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

        That is the problem . Chris Date: Thu, 8 May 2014 16:14:30 +0000 To:

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 8, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

        And one person’s idea of “enlightened self-interest” may conflict with another person’s idea of “enlightened self-interest”.

      • Bob Costello May 8, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

        At no point should the interactions inherent within a society serve to violate the rights/infringe on the freedoms of the individuals that make up that society. That is why governments are instituted – to protect the rights of the individuals within the society.

        There should be no conflict between the proper actions of a society and the rights of its constituent individuals. If there is, then it devolves into a game of political pull to determine whose ox gets gored.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 8, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

      IMO James Madison said it best. “If men were angels, we’d need no government. If angels were to govern us, government would need no limits”.

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