The Bear’s Lair: Why are clerks treasonous?

Julien Benda’s “La Trahison des clercs” was an immensely influential book when it was published in 1927, and its central idea has passed into our language – that intellectuals are irrational about the society around them, and tend to follow destructive political ideas. In Benda’s book, the destructive ideas were those of interwar fascism, now they are much more likely to be of the extreme left, but the tendency remains. Since this tendency seems to be getting worse, it’s worth examining why it should be the case, and what should be done about it.

Intellectuals were not always treasonous and attracted to extreme political positions. In the seventeenth century, John Milton and John Bunyan were Cromwellians – leftists, though not extreme ones – but Andrew Marvell was middle of the road, Isaac Newton was a conservative Whig, and John Dryden, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Peter Heylyn and the Cavalier poets were right of center. In the following century, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson were Tories, well to the right of the predominant Whig ideology.

This changed around the turn of the nineteenth century. Hardly anybody read Mary Wollstonecraft (1757-1797) until at least 150 years after her death, but fashionable Romantic poets such as George, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley made infantile leftism fashionable even as more conservative writers like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Southey, Walter Scott and Jane Austen were also flourishing. Later in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens criticized the society of his time from a position far to the left of the consensus – and made an immense amount of money doing so.

The intellectuals grew more treasonous in the early twentieth century, with the Bloomsbury Group, who gloried in their treason. While the unproductive and ineffably tedious writers in that group have had less influence than they thought they would – who now reads E.M. Forster? – it also included one economist, John Maynard Keynes, attracted to the group because of its unconventional sexual antics and disdain for business, who has remained excessively influential.

Seventy years after his death, the IMF, set up under his aegis to remake the world economy, is still advocating Keynesian “stimulus” as the solution to the world’s economic problems, proposing global government money-wasting to address an unexpected decline in Chinese exports, even as most countries are struggling with record budget deficits and debts. Another acolyte Mark Carney, surely as Governor of the Bank of England the epitome of a Worthless Canadian Initiative, is still pushing the remedies of monetary and fiscal stimulus and continued membership of the rotting European Union, proving Keynes accurate at least in predicting that practical men, would continue to be “the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Nevertheless, in U.S. academia at least, the treason of intellectuals appears to have got worse in recent years. The “political correctness” epidemic attempts to stifle dissent to the hard-left campus orthodoxy, while the balance that was apparent among college faculties 40 or 50 years ago appears to have disappeared. Stories like the attempt at Western Washington University to ban the word “history” altogether because of its sexism are only the media tip of a very large and unpleasant iceberg.

There is thus a question to be answered here. Why are society’s incentives producing treasonous clerks, when in the seventeenth century they produced mostly loyal ones? What in modern society causes intellectuals, almost all of whom make very nice livings, to espouse economic and political beliefs that are antagonistic to their fellow educated professionals, and would if implemented destroy or at least severely damage the society they live in?

It is always worth looking first at market incentives; one can quite agree with intellectuals that they do not always form the principal motivation, while recognizing that even philosophers have to eat and most care deeply about how well they eat.

In the seventeenth century, intellectuals had two potential sources of support: the Anglican Church (of which Oxford and Cambridge were effectively offshoots) and rich patrons who funded intellectual activity because it interested them (as it did Charles II) or more often because it gave them social status. There was effectively no market for intellectual products – Milton sold the rights to Paradise Lost for a mere £10 – less than $5,000 in today’s money — and lived on the remnants of his father’s City fortune and his own earnings as a Commonwealth bureaucrat. Thus intellectuals had to please their bishop or their patron, both of whom were generally likely to support the established order. There were openings for dissent – John Locke wrote under the patronage of the radical Whig Earls of Shaftesbury– but there was no incentive to move outside the broad consensus of contemporary politics.

By the early 19th Century, it had become possible to support oneself through writing for publication – Johnson did it, though late in life he also got a £300 annual pension from George III. Conversely, the Church was no longer the conventional employer of intellectuals, although some remained in Holy Orders through the nineteenth century.

This had two effects. One was the obvious one that there was no longer any need to curry favor with the establishment. If you could find enough radical readers, or readers who would be attracted by an anti-establishment literary approach, there was nothing to stop you moving in that direction.

The other effect was more pernicious. Really successful authors like Dickens made very large amounts of money by catering to lowest common denominator taste, in Dickens’ time attracted by cloying sentimentality and hostility to the new forces that were changing society so rapidly. Intellectuals who lacked Dickens’ common touch discovered they could make only modest livings from their writing, but the rapidly expanding university system, no longer so closely linked to the Church, offered them an alternative route to middle class comfort. Thus they began to despise popular success, and devised an elite culture in literature, academic research, music and art that deliberately shut out the hoi polloi. The hoi polloi over the course of the twentieth century developed a popular culture that owed little if anything to intellectual high culture.

In the early nineteenth century Jane Austen, Walter Scott and Gioachino Rossini wrote and composed for the entire literate world at an extraordinarily high level, while supporting the conservative social and political order of their day (Rossini wrote Il Viaggio a Reims, one of his best operas, for the coronation of the absolutist Charles X.) Today there is little or no high culture that can be appreciated by those not wedded to the dominant intellectual leftism and hatred of our society, while popular culture is, to say the least, not of a Jane Austen/Rossini quality.

At this stage, most intellectuals have no chance of making more than a modest living by selling their intellectual product to the public. However, they have reliable sources of income from the universities and from government and foundation grants, themselves filtered through committees whose political orientation is strongly leftwards. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, campuses had a certain element of political diversity; today they are leftist monocultures, and are attempting to censor out inappropriate thought by the students as well as the faculty. The result is that every incentive for the young academic is to follow the prevailing academic ideology, far to the left though it is of the prevailing ideology in society as a whole. Not only are the colleges producing a treasonous clerisy, they are rapidly eliminating all among the clerisy who are not treasonous.

The principal solution to this problem is to eliminate the “non-profit” economic category. Colleges are providing a service – education – primarily in the private sector, and should be managed as profit-making enterprises, albeit of the long-term-oriented German/Japanese kind. The state gains a benefit from the colleges providing an effective education to the best and brightest. However, while at present it subsidizes the colleges by allowing them into a tax-favored “non-profit” sector, where the profit motive is suspect and cost control even more so, it would be more efficient for the state to provide an honorarium to the college in return for the education that college provides – which honorarium would naturally be greater for high-quality degrees in STEM subjects and would not be paid for students who did not graduate. Then the non-profit tax subsidies could be abolished (to the great benefit of the U.S. budget) and colleges could be left to provide their education on a profit-seeking basis.

Of course, if all colleges were for-profit, some of them would become scams, but over time the non-scams would profit by their superior reputation, as in any marketplace. Harvard would squeal at being turned into Trump University, but given Harvard’s intellectual output, Trump University has done very much less damage. Indeed, the pedagogic quality of some of Trump University’s courses, designed by the cognitive scientist Roger Schank, was surprisingly high; they were well suited to give the modest, highly practical required education to their target market.

This would force intellectuals into working for a living, producing enough valuable intellectual output that their profit-seeking employer continued to pay them. The screams of rage from the current clerisy if this were to be implemented would themselves be evidence of the need for it and the benefits from implementing it. Over time, the worst intellectual scamsters would be weeded out, while the remainder would find themselves competing in a marketplace, the best avenue to utility and happiness for any individual.

Treason, even of the clerisy, can be weeded out. All it takes is the political will to cut through the “non-profit” mythology and allow the disinfectant of the free market to operate.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)