Sunday, April 23, 2006


I love simple, obvious emplanations. Maybe I'm just simple, but explanations that can't be set out quickly, or with a good story ask a lot and so often disappoint. (I wouldn't want to make a law out of this, however.)

I've just come across a beauty concerning something that has puzzled me for a long time. How is it that so many intellectuals, people that have benefited so much from capitalism, should nevertheless nurture such suspicion, resentment or downright hatred for it? How is it that they could be so bedazzled by alternative systems as to ignore how inefficient, oppressive and downright murderous they are? Why do they become so hypotised by the snake charm of absolutism?

Well, thanks to Jonathan Pearce of Samizdata, I have come across a wonderfully simple explanation. Its greatest virtue is that it doesn't require any tracing of intellectual paths or rely on the maleficent influence of a certain group, but is built on the most common experience.

Robert Nozick maintains that the intellectuals' deep resentment of capitalism is born in the passage from school to the world of the market. School differs from the outside world above all in how it chooses its elite: it rewards and prizes the book-learned, the articulate, the quick-witted. Their dominion over words and ideas elevates them to pre-eminence over their peers. School is a meritocracy of the intellect. This is not the case in the outside world of the market economy. It, too, is described as a meritocracy, but the merit it rewards is quite different.

The cruellest aspect of capitalism is that it puts a value on you that is so different from the value you assign yourself. Stated baldly, it is: what are you worth to other people? What can you do for them? The intellectual sees his pre-eminence usurped by the vulgar, showy or ruthless (as it seems). Not the meritorious, but the meretricious.

There is another characteristic of the reward system at school that remains impressed on the resentful. It is that excellence is adjudicated and recognised by a central authority, the teacher, whose word is final and whose authority is established and comparatively unquestioned. Compared, I mean, to the market, which lacks a central authority and does not reward excellence (at least in the short term), but rather convenience.

The above is a summary, though (I hope) an accurate one. Does it hit below the belt? Maybe. Is is demonstable, or falsifiable. Unlikely. Nevertheless, I find it very satisfying. Have a look.

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