In “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” (published in 1949) Nobel laureate F.A Hayek shows how ideas gain acceptance in modern society. More importantly, he shows how to win the battle of ideas against supporters of big government.
Over the long run, public intellectuals—Hayek called them “professional secondhand dealers in ideas”—wield an “all-pervasive” influence on public policy and politics by shaping public opinion.
Such intellectuals include journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists; radio, television, and online commentators; writers of fiction, cartoonists, artists, actors, and even scientists and doctors who speak outside their fields of expertise. “It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us,” Hayek wrote, “which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.”
“It is no exaggeration to say that, once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible. . . . It is their convictions and opinions which operate as the sieve through which all new conceptions must pass before they can reach the masses.”
Since a public intellectual tends not to be an expert on a particular issue, they judge new ideas “by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced.” In today’s politics and public policy, the preconception that guides intellectuals is that central planning and central control is always better than decentralized, individualized approaches. To the modern intellectual: “Deliberate control or conscious organization is in social affairs always superior to the results of spontaneous processes which are not directed by a human mind; or that any order based on a plan laid down beforehand must be better than one formed by the balancing of opposing forces.”
“The intellectual, by his whole disposition, is uninterested in technical details or practical difficulties. What appeals to him are the broad visions, the spacious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises.” Thus liberty lovers must play into this visionary character and have the “courage to indulge in Utopian thought.”
Rather than focusing exclusively on piecemeal improvement of current legislation, liberty lovers must offer grand reconstructions and abstractions that will appeal to the imagination and ingenuity of intellectuals. They must provide a clear picture of future society at which they are aiming without overstatement or extravagance, but which inspires the imagination of intellectuals.
To change the views of intellectuals, one must demonstrate the limits of government planning and control and why it becomes positively harmful if extended beyond these limits, so harmful that it undermines the very ideals that intellectuals hold dear. The key is to focus on ideals because ideals arouse the imagination of intellectuals. For example, “freedom of opportunity” is an ideal. “Relaxation of controls on opportunity” is a political compromise and best left to politicians. “Equality under the law” is an ideal. “An important step toward equality” is a political compromise.
We can all become “dealers in ideas”. I encourage you to speak up. My greatest regret is that I have discouraged political discussion. I have always been the first person to stop a political discussion at a social gathering by saying “please, no politics”. I will remain silent no longer. I will share my vision for a future of individual liberty, unfettered free markets, and peace.