Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.


*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at

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Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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Danger Is Temporary: Cowardice Is Forever

Who pays the greater price and takes the greater risk – the brave man, or the coward?

The man who volunteers to defend his village against the dragon only experiences pain and danger momentarily. He either dies (temporary pain passing into nothingness) or lives (temporary danger or pain), but his negative state is temporary (exception: physical and emotional wounds).

Stack this up against the price the coward chooses to pay.

The man who – from fear – shrinks from his responsibility to defend his village still experiences the same anxiety of danger (it’s why he refuses to fight), but he does avoid physical pain and physical danger. However he has one negative state now which will follow him forever: the internal feeling or the social reminder of being a coward. This persists well beyond the time when the danger is past.

Danger and pain are external: you feel them and experience them, and then they are gone. Your own conscience and your society discharge you.

Cowardice is a state of mind – and the memory of it lasts forever. Your conscience and your society hold you captive.

Which would you rather have?

Originally published at

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Six More Presidents

Nobody asked but …

I’ll say again, the Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 clunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  But I have practically no regard for the intellects of any of today’s half-dozen.  With the exception of the monstrous Jackson, the other 5 are bound for the oubliette of history.  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been a POTUS places a black mark on that career.  Few (ie none) have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the downward slide to the oval office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the second six (7-12):

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.

As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.

The chains of military despotism, once fastened upon a nation, ages might pass away before they could be shaken off.

Let it be henceforth proclaimed to the world that man’s conscience was created free; that he is no longer accountable to his fellow man for his religious opinions, being responsible.

I would bring the government back to what it was intended to be – a plain economical government.

If elected, I would not be the mere president of a party – I would endeavor to act independent of party domination and should feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes.

But every person who has served in furtherance of this inauspiciously mediocre capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle


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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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Open Borders: Think of the Children

I love to see kids reading Open Borders.  When my daughter was five, she read it over my shoulder as I wrote it – and I knew I was right to make it a graphic novel.  Since then, I’ve heard about dozens of kids enjoying the book.  When I advertise it and add #ThinkOfTheChildren, I’m not joking.  I really would like to put Open Borders in the hands of every kid on Earth.

The uncharitable explanation is that I want to brainwash ignorant children with absurd dogmas.  I predictably reject that explanation.  My story:

1. It is mainstream society that is guilty of “brainwashing” children in favor of immigration restrictions, with a steady mix of economic illiteracy, innumeracy, misanthropy, and status quo bias.

2. I, in contrast, calmly present a long list of well-crafted arguments, many of which are straightforward enough for bright, motivated children to understand.

3. Open Borders teaches many of the fundamental principles of economics en passant, including the causes of economic growth, the value of trade, and marginal productivity theory.  So I’m not just telling kids about one important topic; I’m giving them tools to analyze a broad range of issues.

4. I’m making social science fun, as it should be.

5. Could I persuade children of falsehoods if I tried?  Probably.  But I know I’ve done my homework, so why shouldn’t I share what I’ve learned?

6. My conjecture: (a) People who learn popular views as children tend to believe them for the rest of their lives – whether or not those views are true.  (b) People who learn unpopular falsehoods as children, in contrast, tend to abandon those views in adulthood.  (c) People who learn unpopular truths are quite likely to retain them later in life.

7. Upshot: If you think you have some unpopular truths to share, share them with the young.  If you’re right, you’ve plausibly saved them from being wrong for the rest of their lives.  If you’re wrong, they’ll probably figure it out and change their minds.

8. Learning about Open Borders when you’re young almost certainly isn’t as effective as learning a new language when you’re young, but let’s give it a shot!


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