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T. Greer: On the show today is Trevor Burrus. Trevor is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, the senior editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review, and the co-host of the popular Free Thoughts podcast. Though Trevor is nominally an expert in American constitutional law, his public work engages a great span of American politics, from drug policy to campaign finance to religious liberty. I met Trevor for the first time shortly after I moved to Washington DC last year. Here is what I will say about him: in a city that has no dearth of lawyers, it is hard to find a lawyer more interesting to talk to than Trevor Burrus.
Today we will be discussing what leads to victory and defeat in a war of ideas. At the center of our discussion is Fredrich Hayek’s 1949 essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Written in the shadow of world war and global depression, Hayek’s essay attempts a general theory of political change, a theory he hoped fellow advocates of free markets might use to change the political economy of the Western world. In many ways this essay laid out the blueprint for the modern libertarian movement. While I am no libertarian myself, I believe Hayek’s insights can be generalized and used by any movement that wants to bring about political or cultural change.
Trevor, thanks for coming on to the show to discuss this essay with me.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks so much for having me, this is one of my favorite essays.
T. Greer: Maybe we can start with that. Tell me a little bit about how you came across this essay, which you eventually recommended to me about a year ago.
Trevor Burrus: Well, in my life moving into the libertarian world there are a few organizations out there. There is one called the Institute for Humane Studies, which helped me get to Washington DC, and then to first an internship at the Cato Institute and then eventually employment at Cato. IHS was founded in 1961 and in many ways, this essay by Friedrich Hayek is its founding mission statement. And other organizations like FEE and the IEA in England, where Hayek had been asked at one point by a guy named Anthony Fisher—who started the IEA the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, which was called like Margaret Thatcher’s think tank in the eighties—but he had asked one time, ” what can we do to stop the rising tide of socialism?” And Hayek said you need to basically convince the class of intellectuals, of which he describes ” as the second-hand dealers in ideas.”
So those are not necessarily experts, but people who listen to the experts and repeat what they say, and you need to convince them about the ideas of freedom. Because that’s the way socialism did it, and we have to push the other way. So he argued starting organizations that influence the climate of ideas and the ideas that the “intellectuals” hold.
And so I’m kind of a product of one of those organizations—in the sense that they helped me get the internship and everything, not in the sense of that produced my train of thought or my libertarianism .
T. Greer: I’ve read that account before. And I think the question he [Anthony Fisher] asked Hayek was, “should I go into politics?” Hayek’s answer is “No, don’t! That’s not the problem we have to solve right now.”
Trevor Burrus: He lived in London at the time. He was teaching at the London school of economics. Politics, especially at that time in England, where Hayek had just written The Road To Serfdom because he was concerned enough about the rising tide of socialism [there] that he wrote probably his most famous work, The Road To Serfdom, which was even serialized in condensed reader’s digest form. And then he wrote [“Socialism and the Intellectuals”] shortly thereafter. I think that there was a big connection between the two in that in both that there’s a creeping path of socialism that politics takes, and we need to get off of it, but politics is not the route to do that.
T. Greer: I’ll emphasize for this particular essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” that I think even if you are not a libertarian or an ‘enemy to socialism’ or anything of that sort it’s still an extremely useful thing to read.
In fact, I recently wrote a long essay called “Culture Wars Are Long Wars” that talks about this pattern of wars for ideas. And I rely on Hayek’s essay because I think it introduces many general principles of how culture change happens that apply outside of the limited case of economic ideas that Hayek was most concerned about.
And in this case, I think Hayek really put his money where his mouth was. And that’s the other thing : If I have a listener who’s thinking “Oh, should I go and read this essay just because Tanner says I should?” Because Hyack was actually quite successful in winning a war for ideas. That’s apparent when you look at where he was when he wrote this essay. So let’s talk about that a little bit Trevor. When he writes Road To Serfdom, when he writes “Intellectuals and Socialism,” what does the world look like?
Trevor Burrus: Well to Hayek, it’s looking okay. But he wasn’t very optimistic at the time, as I mentioned.
He’s interesting. I mean, he’s one of my favorite thinkers ever, and because he died in 1991, he was able to see that his ideas did have influence. But at the time in the forties, and especially in the thirties, he was extremely scared of where the world was going.
Hayek originally studied law actually, and a bunch of other disciplines, until he found his way to economics. And his two main insights took a long time people in the world to listen to. And they’re, they’re mentioned in this essay. I always describe the first insight as “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And then the second insight is “you don’t even know what you know.”
The ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ comes out most forcefully at an essay he wrote called the “Use of Knowledge in Society”, which is a trailblazing and extremely important economic essay that everyone should read, where he basically argues that the idea of planning is fatally undercut by the fact that no one knows what is going on in an economy and no one can know what is going on in the economy. No one can know whether or not the price of something should go up or down because of weather, because of demand, etc. No one can know these things. And because of that, economists who pretend to be able to plan are pretending to have knowledge that they simply lack.
And the second insight, which comes out of some of his jurisprudential work too, was that a bunch of the world runs off of a type of knowledge, tacit knowledge, implicit knowledge that we have, but that we don’t even know that we have. That includes the ability to perform certain tasks or—you know, it’s like skateboarding and things like this .If you think about something that you learned to do—say, play guitar–there’s a lot of things that you just sort of pick up and you learn. But you can’t even really explain them. And he was very into those mechanisms of spontaneous order, which is a term usually associated with him, but goes back to the Scottish enlightenment.
He was very interested in how people can create orders through this use of their tacit knowledge and their explicit knowledge. Together people build unplanned order. It’s still an order in the sense that you can predict things about what’s going to happen—it’s not chaos. You can move through it with predictable goals. But it is an unplanned order and he was very strident about saying it sort of necessarily unplanned. And that gets into why one of the reasons he thinks the intellectuals are particularly prone to socialism.
T. Greer: Those two ideas though, they kind of rub against the grain of where the world is moving in the 1940s, right? On the one hand you’ve had these huge advances in science, the beginning of computing, this new confidence that we can engineer the world the way we want it to be. And if you were to ask, I don’t know, the average politico in 1950, they would probably say that the events of the last two decades had proved the wisdom of this approach. It was command economies that had won the world war. The Great Depression had shown the problems of a more free-wheeling, spontaneous order. And just around the corner you have the communist advance The Soviets are making these huge industrial gains, they are scaring the crap out of everybody. Labour is victorious in England. The Republicans in the United States have more or less made peace with the welfare state and the New Deal. Everywhere you look old liberalism, what we might call libertarianism in the United States, was on the retreat.
Thus the need for a way to win. That’s kind of what this essay is: it’s almost Hayek’s attempt to explain how did we get in this circumstance and how do we get ourselves out of it?
Trevor Burrus: As I mentioned with the Road to Serfdom, he saw it coming. The ideas in the Road to Serfdom is fairly simple and it gets parodied a lot. That’s one thing about Hayek that I think is super important. Hayek is I think one of the most important political- economic thinkers of all time, but he’s usually parodied as some sort of free market fundamentalists and a lot of people who should read him don’t read him.
And that includes a lot of people on the left. I actually recently had an experience with this where I was asked to review a manuscript from a guy named Andrew Complimen that is tentatively titled “The Corruption of Libertarianism.” He’s not a libertarian at all. He’s a law professor at Northwestern but he asked us to review a manuscript where he had planned to write a book about how libertarianism is complete BS and it’s crazy and all this stuff. And so in order to start writing that book, he was like, well, I guess I need to read all the libertarian thinkers so I can properly understood stand them in order to skewer them. And he read Hayak and he was like, oh my God, Hayek is amazing. And then he sort of renamed his project Why The Left Should Read Hayek and Not Read Rothbard.
But in Road To Serfdom his argument is that because of the fundamental problems with planning, if the government says, we’re going to plan the economy, to plan in the healthcare system, it will fail. And then when it fails, people will look out and say, why did it fail? And they will inevitably say it failed because there wasn’t enough power in government. And so then they will pass another thing that adds more power to government and that will fail again. And that’s the road to serfdom.
That’s a very interesting point and it goes to the question of ‘how do you fix this?’ Because Hayek is interested in why are intellectuals socialist? Why are they so into planning? And he has reasons for this we can talk about, but one of them is that they believe they’re really smart and that things should be planned and it privileges their position. And he said, if we don’t convince those people, I mean—this again, is the climate of ideas
T. Greer: Well, it’s one thing to say there’s an inherent tendency in government that you have to keep up this ratcheting effect: to provide more government to answer the problems of not having enough government and on and on and on. It’s another thing to say,” well, the answer, the critical center of gravity of this conflict is the intellectuals.” So why are the intellectuals such an important part? Why do they even matter? And who are they too, I guess that is important to figure out who he’s talking about when he says the ‘intellectuals.’
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. It’s something like the climate of ideas. Think about the idea that inequality is a problem.
I think it is something that is very commonly believed today and that it’s growing and it’s a huge problem, and it needs to be rectified. Where did the idea come from? Why are we swimming in a climate of ideas where that’s just sort of this accepted truth? And for him, he’s like, well, then you look at the newspapers and Hollywood and the doctors and the lawyers, the people who read someone like Piketty right? Thomas Piketty who would be kind of like the expert, but then the people who repeat what Piketty says and create it into the climate of ideas.
So it’s these secondhand dealers in ideas who he calls the intellectuals. And they’re the ones who create that climate. So influencing those people to stop believing in socialism is the way you stop socialism. That is his basic argument.
T. Greer: It makes a lot of sense. If you think about it .He makes a distinction between true experts and general intellectuals with the idea that the true experts matter a lot less than they think they do. Because number one, even when they are a true expert, when they’re opining about anything, except their narrow area of expertise, they are also second hand dealers of ideas. And then of course, how anyone finds out about anything is through the vector of the second hand dealers.
That’s all part of this general way in which the culture is changed. He even sets the timeline. He more or less says, whatever the intellectuals believe today, in 10 years or so that’s what probably is going to be policy because their values are going to be what is influencing how people do things. People who are of the intellectual class are the ones most likely to be implementing policy. He has a very good quote on this. I’ll just read it out. He says, quote:
The effect of this filtering of ideas through the convictions of a class which is constitutionally disposed to certain views is that… Even where the direction of policy is in the hands of men of affairs of different views, the execution of policy will in general be in the hands of intellectuals, and it is frequently the decision on the detail which determines the net effect. We find this illustrated in almost all fields of contemporary society. Newspapers in “capitalist” ownership, universities presided over by “reactionary” governing bodies, broadcasting systems owned by conservative governments, have all been known to influence public opinion in the direction of socialism, because this was the conviction of the personnel. This has often happened not only in spite of, but perhaps even because of, the attempts of those at the top to control opinion and to impose principles of orthodoxy
This is clearly true today too. That’s one of the reasons why I think this conservative effort to squash critical race theory being taught in schools will probably fail. Because all the teachers believe this.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. They can have a policy, but they can’t be in the classroom every moment.
T. Greer: Exactly. You have to be able to find a way… so if you’re interested, for example, in not having what is being called critical race theory taught in schools, then have to have something else compelling to those teachers for them to teach. And I think that’s what Hayek realizes. it’s not enough to simply control institutions. You have to actually have the ability to tug at the heartstrings of an intellectual or mold your ideas in such a way that the people who are inclined to become intellectuals will find it appealing
Trevor Burrus:. Yeah, I think that’s exactly true. And he highlights some of the difficulties too. critical race theory is a really good example of this. I encountered it 20 years ago when I was an undergrad at Boulder. I encountered it all the time. Kimberly Crenshaw would be the kind of expert in this thing and, Derek Bell and people who created it. And then there are a bunch of second rate professors who took to it, who taught their students it, and now it’s considered part of the intellectual climate.
And even though it’s largely completely BS, but now it’s influencing policy not because the experts are there in the policy rooms. It’s because the people influenced by the experts, the intellectuals. And again, this has been happening for a very long time. You know, better than I do, that this is how socialism did it. socialism has never begun in the way that the socialists and Marx thought it would begin, which is a spontaneous uprising of the lower classes. It’s always had years and years and years, especially in the Soviet Union, for instance, of people like Lenin who was definitely an intellectual, maybe a primary dealer of ideas,not a secondhand dealer ideas, and people around him fomenting the intellectual climate for what would become the Bolshevik revolution. And that’s true across the board.
T. Greer: It’s true of the more democratic versions of socialism too. Like the Labour Party, for example, originally is calling itself socialist and they kind of grow out of the Fabian movement, which is something that Hayek was thinking about when he wrote this essay. In the early 1900s,, 1890s, you had a series of British intellectuals who decided they they’re going to build up an intellectual system and then institutional architecture [for socialism], and then fast forward 40 years and they win parliament.
This is kind of the tempo of these things. You mentioned Kimberly Creshnaw. Most of the ideas that we associate with critical race theory came out of the seventies or eighties. Only in the 2010s, do they reach critical consciousness among the population and then get implemented into policy. Hayek is kind of the same story . He writes this in 1949. You don’t really see a victory of many of his ideas until the late seventies and eighties in Reagan revolution, Thatcher. If you’re going to fight a war of ideas, you have to realize that its a 40 to 50 year process. Hayek had the wisdom to realize that in the beginning: a lot of people today are not quite that patient.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, he did it, but there’s another aspect of this, which is interesting because it’s called the Intellectuals and Socialism. He kind of believes that you can’t turn certain classes of intellectuals into free marketers. Like to some extent like that, there’s a reason why things like critical race theory and socialism have a particular purchase with the intellectual class,
T. Greer: So let’s talk about those. What are some of the things that he says make socialism, especially appealing to the secondhand dealer in ideas?
Trevor Burrus: Well, one of them is that it raises the status of the intellectuals themselves. Which is an important thing: that the world needs knowledge. Remember I mentioned that Hayek was very big into how much of the world is spontaneous order and how much of it emerges from tacit knowledge and things that we don’t know and can’t know. Well, that theory by itself diminishes the value of people who know things professionally. When your job is to be really smart and you say really smart people should run things, then your predilection might be toward leaning toward political philosophies that believe in centralized control and planning.
And the other one is is utopianism. The reform and revolutionary aspect of it, that is in say critical race theory, which is something that I observed even and even wrote about when I was an undergrad. So basically you go to undergrad and they teach you critical race theory is sort of the key to unlocking how things are and why they are the way they are. And then that feels very empowering. And so you run forward with it and you say, we need to transform the world. Smart people need to be in charge of it. And I’m offering you a utopian vision.
And on the other side, the classical liberal, the old whigs as Hayek would say, don’t and can’t, if they’re true to their creed, offer those things. And so it’s just not appealing to the intellectual class. And I think there’s something to that.
T. Greer: Oh, I think there’s a lot to that. Although I think it’s also historically bound. What I mean by that is that if you’re in 1940s, the liberal utopian program, well it sounds a lot less utopian than it did in say 1840, when Europe is ruled by Kings. A lot of the liberal program has already been put into place. A lot of freedoms have already been secured.
And so at that point where a lot of these freedoms have already been secured, where liberal society has been entrenched in places like America and at least tried out in places like Germany—what the liberal thinkers offer—and Hayek is very explicit about this—they only really offer tinkering. They offer kind of wonkish solutions to society’s problems. And that is very uninspiring for the new generation that comes up and wants to accomplish great things because that’s what new generations always want to do. And if all you can offer them is, “Well, here is the practical things we can do to actually implement policy a little bit better,” that, Hayek says, leads to a failure to win the intellectuals over.
They’re much more interested in general principles than they are in wonky specifics. So he argues that the libertarians themselves could back up and be a bit more utopian and be committing themselves to fundamental values, [then] they might be able to win over a lot of the intellectuals.
Trevor Burrus: To some extent… but I think that one of his other interesting observations is that—and he cites Schumpeter, a couple of times on this, because they were friends and they thought similarly in these regards—is whether or not a growingly affluent society that creates a class of intellectuals, , which includes, you know, a wide variety of professions, and no longer farmers and merchants and people who are working very hard to create the basic economic goods that allow them to live life. You have enough excess capacity that you have people buy newspapers and there fore you have newspaper editors. You know, that’s a job now. Is that inevitably going to lead to a system where that class thinks that… well, it doesn’t understand how the world works because they’ve been removed from the productive capacity.
So you can come in to say, ‘Hey farmers, we’re going to tell you how to farm.’ Like say, the New Deal, intellectuals would come in and say, we have all these new rules about how to farm. And then farmers can be like, ‘well, yeah, you don’t know anything about farming’ and then you know, they don’t know anything about farming. They have general principles and they know nothing about farming.
And in many ways, Hayek wonders—.The actual line is
It may be that as 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 that 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.
I think Hayek is correct. You will lose if you don’t play the long game. Much like your essay, you will absolutely lose if you don’t figure out how to play the long game.
T. Greer: He does have that pessimistic note you said, but he ends on a very optimistic one.
I’ll of quote from his conclusion, where he says “if we are to avoid such a development”—and that being the development that you just quoted—
we must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization…. The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote What only recently seemed utterly remote.
He’s basically calling for a liberal or libertarian utopian project. I you could argue that it’s precisely through such appeals that a lot of his policies ended up being implemented 40 years down the line. When I look at a Reagan or a Thatcher, there’s something very utopian in the way they present these ideas. If they had stuck to narrower economic fixes, I don’t think wewould have either of those people be elected or have the legions of people who wanted to vote for them, work with them, and so on and so forth.
Trevor Burrus: I think there’s something to that. I think that you saw a Renaissance of expositors. I mean, Hayak turned his attention to the practicalities of this project, as well as writing about the ideas of classical liberalism. And yes, it got to a point that Margaret Thatcher famously in one of her meetings with her ministers slammed Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table and said, this is “what we believe.”
That would have been gratifying to Hayek. You know he was still alive at that point , to have that influence with why we believe in a free society. the principles of a free society have to be constantly defended because they’re constantly being attacked by forces that I think are, you know, inherent to a free society.
So he was absolutely correct about that. But at the same time, the same year that Hayek won the Nobel Prize he co-won it with a guy named Gunnar Myrdal who was a total socialist and also a population control enthusiast. So, you know, they, they kind of split the prize in two different ways.
It’s an interesting thing to read—it’s actually one of the best things Hayekever wrote for a summation of his Ideas, his Nobel address. And then go read Gunnar Myrdal ‘s! Then you can get an idea of the climate of ideas at that time in 1974.
T. Greer: You work at the Cato Institute and I kind of feel like in a way, Cato is engaged in a very utopian project. You guys are not like many think tanks here in DC: you guys are not stocking up the political appointees for the next election. So when [Hayek] says you need to have people who are willing to think about what is not politically possible today… I mean, if you don’t have Hayek saying that in 1949, do you even have a Cato Institute?
Trevor Burrus: It’s a good question. I think you lack a lot of the infrastructure that much of the Liberty movement has been built on.
I mentioned IHS already, but that’s an interesting one and it has direct tie. It has ties to Cato in many different ways., That was started because a guy named FAA Harper who was an economics professor at Cornell was told that he could not teach Hyack in his class. Because it was reactionary and not allowed. And his response was to quit and be like, well, if I can’t do this in my class, then there’s no reason for me to be a professor. And that leads up to sort of Cato.
And you’re right, we know this term, a ‘holding tank.’ We don’t tend to be a holding tank. I feel like sometimes at the end of their careers beating their heads against the wall of public policy on the Hill or something and realizing, in their opinion that the only solution to healthcare is not tinkering, but to at least push out the big idea that a free market in healthcare is what we need, do not tinker on the thing.
So you want to come to Cato to do that. I’m not sure Cato exists without this sort of animating idea. There’s a reason that our auditorium is named the Hayek auditorium. And we have pictures of Hayek all over the building. Pictures of him when he visited Cato and pictures of him with all these people.
T. Greer: You know, if I was to talk to one of my friends, who’s a little more on the new right, or a friend of mine who’s a socialist, they would cast Hayek, Cato, and everybody in between as the great villains of American history. Because they come up with a lot of the ideas that are instituted in the Reagan Revolution: neo-liberalism, as it is called, and so on and so forth. Now without getting into the weeds of to what extent you guys are the villains—well, lets put that question to the side for the moment, I’m more interested in the issue of when libertarians have been successful in influencing the broader sphere of ideas and politics, and when it has failed and why.
Hayek wants to make the argument that it’s really important to win these war of ideas, but I might contrast this with another libertarian, who was, it was quite important in this moment : Milton Friedman. Here’s a quote from him that he gives in the 1980s. He says “the role of people is to keep ideas alive until a crisis occurs. It wasn’t my talking that caused people to embrace these ideas, just as the rooster doesn’t make the sun rise.”
What he means by that is that no, we didn’t win because we were able to nefariously infect people’s minds with our ideas! We won because socialism sucks and stagflation showed the problems of government intervention. These events proved the other people’s ideas wrong. And we just had to survive in the meantime. This seems a little bit different from Hayek’s idea of, “well, we have actually go out there and win the ideas”, instead of let events occur and be there to rescue things when it all falls apart.
What’s your take on this?
Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think that in Friedman, he at one point, used the term, “the remnant.” He makes an analogy to keeping the candle burning all the rest of society, like crumbles around you out of its own foibles. And then you’re there with fire to say, look, I’ve, I’ve remember the secret.
If you look at actual change in a more libertarian direction, I mean, there’s two ones that are often cited. One is, as you said in the late seventies, you had a massive deregulation in the United States. Most prominently airlines, but also things like home brewing and generally interstate commerce. And it was pushed by Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, and actually Stephan Breyer, Justice Stephan Breyer , was very involved in that. These paragons of free market thought, right? No, it just became necessary. The airline industry was comically over bloated and inefficient, and was just everything you expect from a planned system. It just had to be deregulated—and the same with everything else.
And then the next one would have been in New Zealand in the early eighties, which is a massive re deregulation called Roger- Nomics after, after Roger Douglas. In that situation in New Zealand, it was even worse. It had extremely ornate rules about shipping. Again, it’s always the truckers. I tell you what: the truckers and farmers can really bend the government to its will. And so there were massive subsidies for farmers. There were rules about how you could only use one type of truck to ship things no more than 50 kilometers from any big city. And you had to change to a different type of truck, all these kinds of rules.
And then people were fed up. There was a general election and they changed the party. Of course, this is a prime minister system, so they have essentially dictatorial power. Interestingly enough, there were a couple of Friedman educated Chicago economists working in the department of agriculture and other places, and they just essentially—almost overnight—ended every subsidy . They were not actually doctrinaire libertarians. They were just like,” we’ve had a crisis and we have to figure out what works.” So those are two examples that go to Freedman’s view.
But I think you see the other side, right? We’re talking about the libertarian side , the classical liberal side, but we already mentioned that socialism works this way. Critical race theory seems to kind of work this way. And I think if we take Hayek’s essay and we think about it today—well, you already mentioned the New Right. I think people on the New Right would read it and say, yes, this is exactly why we lost like this. We have given up on the university, we have failed to influence people enough. The mainstream media, all these pillars of society are sort of hopelessly broken. And as a consequence of those secondhand dealer’s ideas, are hopelessly broken. Because we never really fought hard enough. And as a consequence, we just need to sort of burn them to the ground. But they would definitely say that the brokenness of those secondhand dealer’s ideas is why we are in a situation we are in.
T. Greer: I think the New Right folks—and just for people who’ve never read a lot of what I’ve written before and aren’t really fluent with this conversation, ‘new Right’ generally means a group of people in the conservative movement who want to move beyond libertarianism and want to move beyond global interventionism. They want conservatism to be much more America focused and much more statist. They often frame things in terms of common good politics as opposed to the individual’s freedom.
I think that they do see this problem of the secondhand intellectuals. They do blame a lot of their loss on not having the secondhand dealer of ideas on their side. But based off of their reactions to my piece, I think there’s a little bit of a divide. There are some people who would feel like “really, it’s not ideas that matter at all. The reason we lost the culture has nothing to do with whether we were convincing, whether we were able to be present a good case, [but] had everything to do with the socially ingrained prejudices of this class.” And the only answer to that is ” tear it all down. “
There’s another approach, which is a little bit closer to me and which I’ve seen some of these people also take. That’s to say that, you know, we were actually seriously misconceptualizing what we were doing. We were fighting over politics, right? We were trying to make sure we control the judiciary. We build a Federalist society to do that job. We make sure we control the Senate. We weren’t actually thinking about how to control what is in people’s hearts because they assumed we had it. We had a ‘silent majority’ in the seventies. We had a ‘moral majority’ in the 1980s. And these people didn’t realize that beneath them, especially in the cohorts beneath them, the people younger than them, that this was changing, that they had actually been losing the war of ideas and they had never themselves actually fought for it. They had never tried to build an idea campaign to try and convince the next generations of the wisdom of their approach.
That’s close to my take. I feel like the conservatives didn’t so much lose a culture war as they fought a political war over culture, and then discovered that they were maybe fighting over the wrong thing to begin with. It’s hard to say: we can imagine a different world where the liberals had taken control of judiciary and perhaps now everyone would be lamenting that we hadn’t created a Federalist Society, wishing we hadn’t put all this energy into winning that war of ideas. But at the moment, yeah, there’s a lot of despair on the conservative side.
Trevor Burrus: I mean, that’s the interesting question. I’ve thought about this a lot, because you can hear conservatives really complain about the mechanisms of idea transfers. So take hollywood. Hollywood producers are great examples of secondhand dealers in ideas. Whether it’s through, very direct things like preachy movies, preachy television shows, or just… , they don’t have to be that preachy. If you think about Soap, I believe, which came out in the seventies, with the first one to have a gay character, a gay main character played by Billy Kristol, up to Will and Grace and everything going forward . That’s how these ideas are being distributed. Environmentalism, inequality, some of the other ones we’ve mentioned—you can maybe imagine a conservative Hollywood, but if Hayek is correct, then the people in Hollywood, the intellectuals who are writing scripts and this kind of stuff—you know, they’re not the ones that we can really focus on. He specifically says that if you’re going to go for people who want to believe in free markets and liberal ideas, you need , businessmen and lawyers and people like this because the professors and the creative class due to these predilections we’ve discussed are hopelessly lost to socialistic tendencies.
And I think there’s something to that. Ludwig von Mises who was a teacher of Hayek, also wrote about similar ideas. He has a book called the Anticapitalistic Mentality, which I think you can compare with this one. It’s a short book. And in that he argues that one of the reasons that some of those people have a predilection for socialism, is that let’s say you’re a successful actor and you just made it. You look around and you think, “a lot of the reason that I am successful is by accident.” Like you happen to be beautiful. You have to be born with this talent, but you knew a bunch of people who also had talents and who were, also beautiful coming up, but you got your big break. And so you start to interpret the world as a place where things happen to people on accident. So it’s okay to redistribute. Because what you have is not your fault in the first place.
And so yeah, the conservatives, you know, didn’t fight on that front very much. I mean, you had hearings in the Senate about rap music, but I’m not sure that they could have won in that war.
T. Greer: Oh, I am a little bit more optimistic. Partly because of the example of Hayak himself and this whole free markets movement, because this is an example where at least for a good 40 years, they were successful in doing what Hayek feared could not be done. There wasn’t a whole wave of free market Hollywood movies coming out in the 1960s that was preparing the way for this. So I think it can happen. And I actually think Hayek understands one of the mechanisms for why this sort of transition is in some ways inevitable., I’llquote from the essay again:
again, he says, quote,
Orthodoxy of any kind, any pretense that a system of ideas is final and must be unquestioningly accepted as a whole, is the one view which of necessity antagonizes all intellectuals, whatever their views on particular issues. Any system which judges men by the completeness of their conformity to a fixed set of opinions, by their “soundness” or the extent to which they can be relied upon to hold approved views on all points, deprives itself of a support without which no set of ideas can maintain its influence in modern society. The ability to criticize accepted views, to explore new vistas and to experience with new conceptions, provides the atmosphere without which the intellectual cannot breathe. A cause which offers no scope for these traits can have no support from him and is thereby doomed in any society which, like ours, rests on his services.
Why I think this is important is that this points to one of the built in, almost homeostasis mechanisms of cultural change and intellectual life. Sure, you can have the statists takeover or you can have the critical race theorists takeover, but once they take over and enforce their own cultural and intellectual orthodoxy, the next generation that comes up, a generation which didn’t have the same problems the past one did, that didn’t experience those problems and only sees the problems of the current age, the age in which the current orthodoxy rules… is going to be very open to critiques of the system. And so in the case of Hayek, he made very little headway way with his own generation, the people who had gone through the Great Depression and the war. But a new generation, which had only seen this world of government intervention, was more willing to see the critique of it.
And I think you can kind of make the same case today. So the woke folks there was a few articles back. About eight years ago about kind of a conflict on black activists, where you had the older, civil rights generation fighting against the newer, younger generation on what approach should we take?
And the older civil rights generation wasn’t so hip on many of the tactics and concerns of the newer group. They couldn’t understand! Because they had come from the 1960s, the 1950s, they had seen the old world, they had seen the solutions to these problems. But the young generation, which grew up in a different world and for whom things like Ferguson, are there events that matter—they reject that. But if we push forward 20 more years, well, it’s going to be[the case that] Ferguson won’t matter to those people anymore. The Great Recession, assuming we have a good economy, won’t be the thing that matters to those people anymore. The set of events, which helped define generations will be different. And at that point, there’ll be room for new challenges to orthodoxy to arrive among the generation that rises up. At least that’s my theory of how it works.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I mean, it’s just as Hayek says: being in an environment where [orthodoxy] abounds, whatever that might be is extremely hard on the true intellectual. The second hand dealers idea like rebels against it as part of their nature.
And so right now, the attempt to create a massive illiberal system of heresies on the part of some academics is inherently, I think tenuous. As long as they can’t use government to suppress and, you know, push down. . So as long as you maintain a government that refrains from that, then I think, yes, I think that’s correct: you can only have this kind of system of heresies for so long.
T. Greer: Well, you know, in my essay, I talked about this quite a bit. One of the reasons—and this is maybe what Hayek doesn’t so much get wrong, [as] he doesn’t really think this way, he doesn’t include it—but there’s a lot of sociological work that has been done now about where cultural change comes from, how political change [and] political attitudes happen. Most of it is done through cohort change. For the most part, people develop their main social and political values between the age of 15 and 30, and they stick with those for the rest of their life. So this is also why I think it’s a long-term process. Why you have to go from 1949 to 1980.—In the case of, of the Republican’s revolution. Why you go from the early 1900s to the 1940s for the socialists and the Fabians. Because you are not so much changing people’s minds as you are changing people.
Most of these intellectual conflicts are really fought for the next generation down. So in this sense, I agree with Milton Friedman, you are kind of holding a candle for the next generation, but I don’t think it’s so much a story of, “oh, events will necessarily prove them wrong.” I think that’s too deterministic.
Take, for example, the Great Recession, a lot of young socialists will look at the Great Recession and say, well, this obviously. Proved neo-liberalism evil and wrong. And it definitely proved something was going wrong. But what that something was is an interpretive act, right? The Tea Party was an attempt to show a libertarian answer, in a way, to what was going on. The fact that the Tea Party even existed showed that there could have been a different answer to that question other than all capitalism is evil.
And so that’s why I think the people like Milton Friedman are important. I think he’s probably a little bit too humble when he said that, “oh, it wasn’t really me. It was events”. Because without him no one would have been able to tell what the events meant. Or what one should do about them. You know, the answer could have been, like you said, to ratchet up government control one more level.
Well, Trevor, I have one last question for you.
As somebody who’s at the Cato Institute, who’s all for making the world libertarian, winning this war of ideas. How do you feel libertarians are doing today? . And is there anything they could do better? You know, I read this book—actually at your recommendation a year ago—called Age of Abundance. And I won’t quote from it, but the author suggests that America is becoming increasingly libertarian. That book was published in 2007. In 2021. It doesn’t seem quite that way anymore. Between Trump and Sanders, the New Right, the socialists, and Biden with his giant spending bills—it doesn’t seem like the libertarians are winning the war of ideas. Am I wrong in this? Is there anything that libertarians could be doing to win the ideas better?
What’s your take?
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think, I think much of what Brink [Lindsay] wrote about is true in the sense that there’s this large middle that demands a few things. And even despite all these hiccups continue to demand these things. Now, those things are, so you have people on the left who demand free expression and are used to, but they at least demand like things like rock music and artistic expression and freedom to be fully yourself in different ways and go to things like Burning Man and stuff like this, which is a very libertarian type of thing. And then you have people on the right who may be—again, I hate the one-dimensional political spectrum—but people who demand more economic freedom, the ability to own a house, the ability to raise kids in a responsible way. And that there’s like a large middle there that says, well, we need policies that promote those things.
Now that’s not libertarianism, of course. And you always have things that happen where suddenly, you know, you have massive spending bills and all this kind of stuff.
But I think that what libertarians need to realize? I mean, it’s important, I think to attack this on all different levels and this is true for anyone. But I think it’s interesting for libertarians. And as we’ve discussed before socialists and libertarians have a lot in common in terms of how you figure out how to fundamentally change the world. When I read Christopher Hitchens, autobiography, him discussing his early days in the youth socialist groups. They had these exact same conversations that we have in the libertarian movement. We’re all like “how pure do we have to be, do we have to move through politics? Or should we use extra political means? Should we have a national or international movement for socialism and libertarianism? “
But I think what we’ll keep materialism moderately healthy is that people will demand— they’re not going to go backwards, I think, in terms of their material prosperity. , Things have gone backwards for different reasons, like say in housing, education and health care. Of course those are the areas that have the most government control and involvement,but my biggest hope for libertarianism and what I wished libertarians did more: I’m the kind of guy who should be at a think tank, but sometimes we need people to go out and start businesses that disrupt what the state is doing and show that there are other possibilities. So I also think entrepreneurship is super important.
I think if we continue out and say, Hey, look, I just started a school and it’s super low cost. Or I started a whole different method of providing healthcare. I think that’s really important too. I agree with Friedman. I agree with Hayek, but I also agree that there are just people out there who should probably go and start businesses that work their way around the state. And that’s like a third method , They should create the systems that they think would exist in, so far as they’re able to, that they think would exist but for the state, I mean, a classic example, that would be something like Bitcoin, which is still unproven, to innovate around the state. But there’s a lot of other opportunities out there.
T. Greer: That’s a pretty good answer. I think a very similarly, when I think about fusionist conservatives—that’s, you know, conservatives who are a little bit more libertarian friendly—and I’ve been in meetings with groups of these guys where they’re talking about, well, how do we deal with these, these New Right, these people who are rising up, these people who are post liberal in their politics? And my answer is kind of similar to yours, that they need to be able to show how they can deal with the problems of today and not just the problems of 1980. Like Hayek would say they need to be able to recapture that utopian view.
That’s the trouble with the old orthodoxies is that once you’ve gotten orthodoxy established, you really only can prune at the edges. The reason why you have these successful New Right movements is that they do provide a true value laden vision for what the future might be. And if the more fusionist type conservatives who are more libertarian friendly can’t find a way to recapture that sort of optimism, and that ‘this is the world we want’ sort of vision, I think they’ll lose the minds of the next generation—and for exactly the reasons that Hayek has explained. And that’s why I found this essay super interesting to read. So I’m glad you recommended it to me last year.
Well, how can people follow you, Trevor, if they want to listen, read your work?
Trevor Burrus: You can find me on Twitter @TCBurris. You can find my podcast Free Thoughts, of which we just had our 400th episode. And you can find me at cato.org