Volume 18, Number 1, March, 2000


One way the twentieth century may be remembered is as evidence for the destructiveness of the intellect. Over the past decade, such writers as Paul Johnson and Neal Stephenson have commented on the role of intellectuals in bringing about and justifying totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and Communism. Johnson's collection of biographical essays Intellectuals offers damning case studies of the authoritarianism and personal hypocrisy of such figures as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, and Leo Tolstoy. In a more theoretical vein, Friedrich Hayek argued against constructive rationalism in social theory, saying that any philosophy that proposed to judge and redesign society as a whole assumed more knowledge than was humanly possible and inevitably had destructive consequences.

But this analysis, persuasive though it sounds, seems to prove too much. Admittedly intellectuals have done great harm over the course of history. But other intellectuals have brought equally great benefits. The United States was founded by intellectuals. The American War of Independence was not created by men who cautiously avoided generalizations and theories; its charter appealed to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" to justify those far-reaching abstract ideas, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In the same year, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a far reaching analysis of trade and production based on a few general theoretical principles, from which later generations derived the case for free trade.

Both sets of ideas lead to extensive changes in British and American society. For example, as an application of republican principles, the United States did away with entail and primogeniture, laws that served in Britain to keep great landed estates together as the preserves of the hereditary aristocracy. In Britain, economic theorists lead the movement for repeal of the Corn Laws, massive tariffs on imported grain under which British laborers were kept at the edge of starvation; over the next century, Britain specialized in industrial production, exporting its food production to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. For all his caution about intellectuals, Hayek has not hesitated to propose such radical reforms as denationalization of currency and redesign of legislatures.

Libertarians cannot afford to reject or mistrust the intellect, for libertarians are intellectuals, and the changes we want are of a kind that only intellectuals would think of. Libertarians cannot disavow massive changes in society, for such disavowal leads to the politics of the established parties. What we do need to be aware of is that intellect is powerful enough to do great harm as well as great good, and that it must be used carefully and responsibly. With the collapse of socialism and other deluded social theories, the chance to do so in the next century is open to us.

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