Liberty Matters

Ideas and Strategies

David Hart’s wide-ranging survey offers much food for thought, not least in the exhaustive survey of both strategies to expand liberty and episodes in history that successfully did so. Several immediate thoughts come to mind, in particular that of how far there was a connection between the two. How many of the movements or events he identifies were clearly motivated by ideas of liberty that had been articulated beforehand and were held by, and inspirational for, the participants and leaders? In some cases, such as antislavery, the connection is clear; in other such. as medieval peasant movements, less so. In this piece I will look at one set of thoughts and questions that arise from the essay, leaving another set (that of the role of ideological entrepreneurship and the use of the analogy drawn from Austrian economics) till later.
Clearly we need to make a distinction between formulating, developing, and articulating ideas on the one hand and having them influence and shape political and social change on the other. The two can be connected but the link is not always straightforward. There is also the major question of the direction of the causal arrow. Was Hayek correct in seeing ideas as the driving force, the motivating or shaping factor that led to social change and gave it a specific direction? Or is it rather, as materialist explanations would have it, that it is changes in material conditions of life that lead to new ideas or reformulations of old ones and which lead to certain kinds of outcome. Perhaps, as many argue, the real answer is a combination of the two in which causation works in both directions and with many feedback loops, some positive, others negative.
David Hart has an extended analysis of what he describes as the production process of ideas. Considering this further can clarify what is involved in the activity of sustaining and developing a comprehensive set of ideas, arguments, and analyses, an ideology if you will. One obvious point is that this kind of intellectual production cannot be done by isolated savants, no matter how brilliant or insightful they may be. Isolated scholars will tend to produce work that is not fully thought out and often eccentric or obscure. Moreover it will generally not achieve purchase upon public discourse or vocabulary.  What is needed is a community of scholars and producers of ideas and analysis, of people who conduct a conversation among themselves. This is the real importance of Nock’s idea of organizing and collecting the “Remnant” together, of the work of Pierre Goodrich in creating Liberty Fund, and of Hayek in creating the Mont Pelerin Society. One of the most important aspects of this is the development of rules, norms,  and institutions that govern the conversation, and this is often difficult as it has to mean that certain people or modes of argument are excluded.
However the creation and sustaining of this conversation and the community that creates it is only a necessary condition for the successful development of a sound and effective set of ideas. The organized intellectual community (classical-liberal intellectuals in this case) cannot and must not remain a self-conscious remnant. It is vital that they participate in a conversation with the wider academic community as well as among themselves. Moreover, as Hayek argued, they need to communicate with and influence the disseminators of ideas into wider public discourse, the “second-hand dealers in ideas” that he saw as the crucial social group to influence.
Active and effective participation in the general scholarly conversation is hugely important for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that if the aim is for the ideas to have influence, this will not happen if they are ignored. Even hostile responses are better than none. In addition, it is precisely that criticism and challenge that ultimately strengthens the ideology and makes it more robust. Here the crucial work was done by think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and organizations like the Institute for Humane Studies in America, which supported new and established intellectuals and helped them to do good work and get their arguments and ideas taken seriously, even if they were often sharply criticized. The point is not only to refine one’s own ideas but to engage in debate with the dominant orthodoxy, both to challenge it and, more importantly, to ensure that the argument is intellectually robust.
This point bears emphasizing because so many seem to ignore it, not least among classical liberals. The great danger for any intellectual project that aims not only to understand the world but also to change it is that it will fall into what sociologists call “the cultic milieu.” This was a concept first formulated by the British sociologist Colin Campbell in 1972.[33] He and other sociologists observed that people who held one view that deviated from the orthodoxy tended to hold other unorthodox views on matters completely unrelated to their main interest. Thus when socialism was very much an unorthodox view, its adherents were disproportionately likely to also be vegetarians and interested in the occult and cranky or discredited views of history. Today people who have fascist politics are also disproportionately likely to believe that the earth was contacted by aliens or that enormously advanced technologies exist but have been suppressed.
The reason for this, Campbell argued, was the existence of an oppositional subculture where people opposed to different aspects of the conventional way of thinking mingled, exchanged ideas, and organized. The result was that their marginality was intensified. In addition, this phenomenon meant that people who had an initially reasoned dissent from some part of conventional wisdom would come to hold views that were genuinely bizarre or cranky. The best example of this, and the big warning sign that an ideology (or rather its followers) have become part of the cultic milieu, is when many of them come to believe in conspiracy theories or other paranoid accounts of the world. The more self-contained and self-referential an intellectual community becomes, the more likely it is that this will happen, and this is an even greater danger than irrelevance when it comes to having an influence on social development.
The classical liberals who came together after World War II (although the process had begun before the war, with the Colloque Lippman in Paris) managed to avoid this trap for the most part, although it remains a peril. However, as David Hart’s essay points out, the original production of ideas and their refining (scholarly activity) is only the first stage. The ideas then have to be disseminated. This takes three forms. The first is the one alluded to earlier, in which ideas developed by original thinkers are then spread and broadcast by “second-hand dealers in ideas” such as writers, journalists, teachers; in other words by the “chattering classes.” This is the one that classical liberals have followed with some success since Hayek’s original formulation of the idea in the 1940s. It was also historically a matter of great importance. In the history of the spread of liberal ideas in 19th-century Europe and the wider world, the key figures were people like Harriet Martineau or Sydney Smith, who took the ideas of scholars such as Smith and Ricardo and made them widely known and understood. Sometimes original thinkers play both roles -- J. S. Mill was an example of this on the liberal side, while Ruskin and Carlyle can be cited on the opposition -- but this is unusual.
However, there are other aspects of this part of the “production process” in which classical liberals have been arguably less successful since 1945 than their predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The second way that ideas are spread is through organized and systematic propaganda aimed at the mass of the population. Here it is fair to say that all political ideologies have found it harder to effectively spread their views than was the case a hundred years ago. This may seem strange, given that the advent of the mass circulation press in the early 20th century, followed by radio and then television, has made it possible to reach a mass audience in a way that was inconceivable before 1900. However, the nature of these media works against oppositional or critical ideologies. Their very high capital costs (exacerbated by regulation and government controls) mean that access to them is controlled by the dominant social and political groups, which make it difficult for rival perspectives to find expression. (This is often done in an unthinking and unpremeditated way, but that does not affect the reality.) Moreover, the nature of these media, above all television, is that it is hard to put over complex or nuanced arguments, as compared to the media that use print or only the spoken word, and this hampers ideas that are not commonplace. Recently even orthodox or mainstream ways of looking at the world have found it difficult to propagandize effectively because the nature of contemporary mass media is to overwhelm messages with random reporting of trivia (in communications-speak, the signal is drowned out by noise) and to focus on the immediate present at the expense of any kind of longer term perspective. Fortunately we seem to be having a new communications revolution that is undoing this, but classical liberals are only starting to find ways of employing propaganda effectively again.
The third way that ideas developed by scholars are disseminated and absorbed is perhaps the most important. This is through the medium of popular culture and art. This can have a truly profound and transformative effect because of the way it shapes what French historians call the “mentalite collectifs,” the general (often inarticulate) way of understanding and making sense of the world that is shared by the great mass of the population in a given time and place and the commonly understood symbols and allusions that come from this. In the 19th century, liberal ideas came to permeate much popular culture through literature (as for example in the works of Stendahl, Schiller, Manzoni, Victor Hugo, Trollope, and Thackeray), fine art and architecture (most notably in the works of the “Academical School”), and music (notably the work of people such as Beethoven and Verdi). This was not uncontested of course; we can point to figures such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, or Richard Wagner on the other side, but at that time the liberal way of thinking was widespread and influential.
There were certain genres that were particularly important in this regard. One was popular political economy as found in didactic stories, such as those of Martineau. Another was the popular genre of exemplary biography and the related one of self-help literature (before it was taken over by “New Thought” in the 1890s). Perhaps the most important was popular historiography and historical fiction, both of which were hugely popular. There is far less of this kind of phenomenon today. The major exception, which David Hart alludes to, is the case of Ayn Rand, but her prominence is partly due to her being an exception -- if there were more popular authors like her she would not be such a predominant figure. In addition there is a strong element of self-aware libertarianism in much science fiction, but again this is exceptional.
So although the project begun by Hayek and others after World War II has succeeded in creating and sustaining an intellectual community engaged with the wider academic world and producing a stream of ideas and analyses, the second stage of the transmission of those ideas to a wider audience has been only partially successful and is still limited in comparison to earlier periods. So if we are thinking about social change, we still need to consider how to make the spread of ideas more effective; but more importantly, how to make those ideas influential and in some sense determinative of social change in the direction of greater liberty.
[33.] C. Campbell, “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization,” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (London: SCM Press, 1972), pp. 119-36; C. Campbell, “The Secret Religion of the Educated Classes,” Sociological Analysis 39 (1978), pp. 146-56.