The Power of Flattery

Much time and energy has been spent on the issue of why intellectuals seem so disproportionately in favor of highly statist ideologies such as socialism and communism. Many ideas have been suggested, from resentment of those who are wealthier but less educated (Mises) to an exaggerated confidence in the power of rational planning (Hayek) to psychological factors going back to childhood (Nozick) to simple class interest (Rothbard). The reason for this phenomenon is probably quite complex, but there is one aspect of it that does not seem to get as much attention: the way in which statism flatters intellectuals.

The glorification of intellectuals has been a feature of many statist philosophies. (This is predominately a feature of left-wing statism, since right-wing statism tends to have a lower opinion of human reason.) Plato had his philosopher-kings, whose rule by reason would save the ignorant, desire-controlled masses from their own contemptible natures. Lenin had his revolutionary vanguard, who alone could lead the shortsighted workers to the communist eschaton. American progressivism was based on the idea that the public needed "experts" to manage society in order to save them from the "chaos" of the free market. Modern American statism--from the minimum wage to the Drug War to the crusade against fatty food--is built on the idea that the people need to be protected from themselves by academics, social scientists, technocrats, doctors, and of course our betters in the media.

The common thread in each is the idea that the masses are incapable of self-government, and that their only hope is to be ruled by their mental betters. If you think of yourself as one of those "betters"--and most people in professions thought of as "intellectual" certainly seem to, taking great pride in their intelligence--this is a highly appealing message. Who wouldn't enjoy being told that they are so much smarter than their fellows that they have a right, or even a duty, to rule them? Who wouldn't like to believe that everyone desperately needs them, that the well-being of humanity depends on them?

This flattery is not an historical accident; it a more or less inevitable result of the idea that the state should micromanage society. In a highly statist society, the coordinating powers of the free market are suppressed; thus, the more socialist a society is, the greater its need for technocrats to control and coordinate it. Once you accept the idea that society needs someone directing it, it follows quite naturally that it is the most intelligent among us who ought to be giving the orders. If you believe yourself to be among that intellectual elite, the idea of a statist society is thus quite an ego boost.

This is not to say that every socialist college professor, author, artist, social scientist, journalist, etc. aspires to a position of power himself, or expects to get one. It is enough that he is told that he deserves such a position of power and authority, that people like him are worthy to rule the lives of his "inferiors," and that society cannot function without people like him giving the orders. The mere idea of a socialist, technocratic society is enough to provide the necessary ego boost.

The philosophy of a free society does not, and cannot, offer such flattery. Intellectuals still have a role to play in the division of labor, like any other productive person, but they are given no privileged position; superiority of intellect grants no superiority of authority. I suspect that, for many people who pride themselves on their (real or imagined) superior intelligence, libertarianism must seem like not just a differing political philosophy but a personal insult; after all, who enjoys being told that he isn't as good or as smart as he thinks he is, that the desires of people he looks down on should carry as much weight as his own, or that the people who he thinks need him can do just fine without him? Thus, the idea of freedom has very limited appeal to those who base their sense of self-worth on the strength of their minds, unless they also possess the humility and wisdom to recognize their own limitations.

This problem cannot be directly resolved; the nature of libertarianism makes it unable to provide the sort of flattery that statist ideologies can offer. However, awareness of the problem has two potential benefits. First, it should be pointed out that most of the people who are influenced by the flattery of statism are probably not consciously aware of it, and exposing the influence that the flattery of statism has may encourage some people to become aware of this bias and reconsider the issue of freedom from a more unbiased perspective. Second, and more importantly, many people have a tendency to blindly trust the supposed experts that are invariably trotted out to speak in support of some new expansion of state power, and pointing out some of the more ignoble things that may motivate them can help encourage people to look on the proclamations of the statists' appointed "experts" with a bit more skepticism, and in general to be less trusting of anyone who offers his own superior intellect as a substitute for individual choices. If that could be accomplished, the battle would be half-won.

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John Markley's picture
Columns on STR: 13

John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.