From academic to apoplectic
Religion & Liberty Online

From academic to apoplectic

The article I referenced a couple weeks ago about the trends in conservative think tanks and philanthropy noted that the first phase was ushered in by F. A. Hayek. In some ways, the arc that Piereson sketches follows a change in the relationship that Hayek observed between what he termed “academics” and “intellectuals.”

In his 1949 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” (PDF) Hayek defines an intellectual in this way:

The term intellectuals, however, does not at once convey a true picture of the large class to which we refer and the fact that we have no better name by which to describe what we have called the secondhand dealers in ideas is not the least of reasons why their power is not better understood. Even persons who use the word “intellectual” mainly as a term of abuse are still inclined to withhold it from many who undoubtedly perform that characteristic function. This is neither that of the original thinker nor that of the scholar or expert in a particular field of thought. The typical intellectual need be neither: he need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write, and a position or habits through which he becomes acquainted with new ideas sooner than those whom he addresses himself.

As you can see, Hayek does not mean the term to be especially praiseworthy. He rather views the intellectual as a sort of gatekeeper (in his words an “intermediary”) between those who have expert knowledge (academics/scholars) and the public. This particular article by Hayek argues that the role and importance of intellectuals in the formation of public opinion is generally overlooked, and that their function needs to be better understood in order to better disseminate conservative ideas.

None of this, however, takes away from the importance of having and producing the ideas to disseminate in the first place. Piereson’s piece paints a picture of conservative philanthropy having gradually moved away from an emphasis primarily on ideas and secondarily on method of dissemination (enter the intellectual). The reverse has rather become true: the talking heads and intelligentsia have become the primary focal point.

Piereson rightly identifies this trend as a shift away from Hayek and the foundations of “conservative” philanthropy, but thinks perhaps it is inevitable. After all, he writes,

conservatism has become a governing philosophy, and governance leans toward the practical. This is a natural evolution in a movement that has assumed national responsibility, and that needs workable agenda items–school vouchers, personal retirement accounts, legal reform, elimination of the estate tax and so forth–to propose and enact. In addition, various conservative donors have themselves become involved in promoting one or another specific policy, and see the passing of a piece of legislation, or the implementation of a reform, as the most tangible measure of their success.

What must be avoided and checked is the domination of emphasis on “intellectuals” as opposed to the real idea-makers. Piereson asks,

Does this mean that there is no longer a great need to sustain and renew the intellectual basis of conservatism? Hardly. The dynamism of American life, and the relentless competition between the political parties and among interest groups, forces every movement of ideas to test those ideas on a more or less continuous basis if it means to survive and flourish.

The weight of attention must continue to be given to the vibrancy of conservative ideas. While the broadly rhetorical questions of persuasion and dissemination remain important, they cannot trump the tasks of prior importance. This is true if for no other reason than the fundamental incapacity of the intellectuals to rightly judge which opinions are worth passing on. The news media, journalists, and political commentators in general cannot be trusted by themselves to be the reliable arbiters of public opinion. Instead, what tends to give popular cache to an intellectual’s opinion is the extent to which that opinion reflects and is grounded in solid scholarship and academic respectability.

This relationship of priority, scholarship over intellectualism, must be maintained. Such a cautious attitude is underscored, for example, by the view of Søren Kierkegaard, who expresses distasted for the intellectual class, those who make a living by “renting out opinions.” If journalism and the media are not based in an adequate philosophical and academic foundation, they tend to spin off and create their own reality. In the words of Kierkegaard, the situation is this:

There is something the journalist wishes to publicize, and perhaps absolutely no one thinks or cares about it. So what does the journalist do? He writes an article in the most exalted manner in which he states that this is a need profoundly felt by everyone, et cetera. Perhaps his journal has a large circulation, and now we have set things in motion. The article is in fact read, it is talked about. . . . There ensues a polemical controversy that causes a sensation.

We must continue to make sure that the things which the “journalist wishes to publicize” are vigorous, true, and academically-sound ideas. And if the movement of conservative philanthropy is not to degenerate merely to the level of political punditry, Piereson is correct. He concludes, “In this sense, Hayek and the neoconservatives have had it right all along: Any movement, if it is to maintain or augment its influence, will need to wage an ongoing battle of ideas. To do so, conservatives, no less than liberals, will need the help of sympathetic philanthropists.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.