The Intellect in Utopia
JUNE 01, 1969 by ROGER DONWAY
Mr. Donway is a student at Brown University.
In the dreams of Western statists, there exists a fabulous land where the government regulates property to the maximum advantage of mankind, where every individual fulfills his highest potential, and the intellectual atmosphere quivers with exhilarating debate. It is a pleasant picture, no doubt, as dreams are supposed to be. But before one’s reveries reach the point of legal enactment, other considerations become germane, and hardest of all, one must ask: Is it possible?
That question apparently never bothers the statists, for their ideas persist untroubled though a swath of economic disaster follows them around the world. And though the creative mind withers in their footsteps, these dreamers see no connection.
For any objective observer, however, their economic illusions have been well and often dispelled, by theory and practice. Today, it would take an act of outright evasion to claim that socialism has worked. But the contradictions of their cultural vision are demonstrated less often. Indeed, since the advent of Sputnik, one is more likely to hear that it is free societies which are deficient in mobilizing intellectual resources, though the speaker usually mumbles something about the sacrifices which freedom merits.
True libertarians should not, I think, accept this niggardly defense; they have at hand a far more potent thesis: that free intellectual debate, and the intellectual growth it nourishes, are in fact utterly dependent on economic freedom. The Sputnik-worshippers notwithstanding, man’s intellectual progress is the fruit and the reward of economic liberty.
The reasons supporting such a conclusion are not unduly tortuous. The activities protected by so-called "intellectual rights," speech, assembly, press, and petition, inevitably involve the disposal of economic goods, sometimes very large amounts, printing presses and television studios, sometimes only a place to stand. Life itself requires that.
This does not imply the dependence of intellectual freedom on the possession of economic means, the old "what good is the right to express yourself if you can’t afford a mimeograph" argument.
Intellectual Property and Political Priorities
What I am suggesting is that because certain intellectual activities depend on the disposal of economic goods, the right to those activities depends on the right to dispose of property. Intellectual freedom depends on economic rights because it is a species of economic rights. It is a particular way of disposing of property.
For this same reason, one cannot have economic rights where no intellectual rights exist. If one may dispose of property as he will, he may dispose of it in the form of speeches, printings, or mass meetings, and the curtailment of these is equally the curtailment of an economic process.
Thus, when a state becomes the sole proprietor, men and their activities, including intellectual activities, live or die by the permission and pleasure of government officials. In suppression, at least, he who controls the body, controls the mind.
The Soviet Union, for instance, has recently dealt with hundreds of dissenting intellectuals not only by refusing to publish their work, but also by depriving them of their jobs and apartments. Could even the most dedicated statist say the former was an act of suppressing dissent, while the latter was merely economic activity?
This in turn suggests the existence of a more subtle connection between thought and production. The free market presents men with an enormous range of diverse demand. There is, or can be, a market for virtually everything, innovations, new products, new styles. But when the commands of a small group become very nearly final, far fewer people will make the effort to think in ways unacceptable to those in command. We know already the conforming pressure of simple dependence; it is not hard to guess what the effects of nationally unified economic power will be.
Of course, it might be objected that a planned economy could do by decree what the free market does now: provide for intellectual debate and a wide diversity of opinion, allowing people to actualize their ideas and communicate them.
Theoretically, this does seem possible, but it does not happen, and there is considerable encouragement for it not to happen. First, because every economy must deal with its inability to satisfy all potential for consumption; some desires must go unfulfilled. Hence, socialist countries committed to a "decent" standard of living for their people rarely find much left over for basic research, and usually less for the humanities and social sciences.
In current terms, then, it is a question of priorities; in an older lingo, a question of who gets what. To solve this problem, "liberal" economists vex themselves with cost-benefit analyses, but generally summarize with the platitudinous assurance that those "in the field" will know who and what deserve support. If ever there were a prescription for an ingrown culture, that is surely it.
And in view of such assurances, it is interesting to remember that the two largest research and development projects yet undertaken by governments have become anathema to precisely those "liberals" who now cry: All R&D to the government agencies. The atomic bomb, the Manhattan project, they consider to be mankind’s greatest stride toward hell, while the space program has come in for nearly universal condemnation as a vast misallocation of resources. Why do they assume future government projects will be more to their liking, unless they expect to do the deciding?
Which may be fine for them, but less pleasant for everyone else. Commissions, however prestigiously staffed, are notoriously narrow-minded. Ewart Milne, responding to a London Times report that young poets were protesting the Establishmentarian outlook of the Arts Council, said:
… the Arts Council’s embrace would be likened by some of us elder poets to the kiss of death. The Arts Council… supports the kind of art, including poetry, that is acceptable on a broad basis to the Establishment. This is bound to be so in any field where state subsidy is of the essence.
The Problem of Innovation
What then of the unfashionable artist, dissenting scientist, innovating experimenter? He faces only the terrible hauteur of those who are both fashionable and powerful. In the United States, the problems of innovation under planning can best be seen in the field of technical research and development, which is almost 60 per cent government sponsored.
The basic justification for sponsoring R&D under a government of limited mandate is that when legislative and executive personnel require certain information and material, they may purchase it on the market as anyone else would, by contracting with scientists and engineers. Under this arrangement, the government is paying for the product of research and not for researching as such. Thus, it seems reasonable to require statements from those who seek these contracts, telling us what our seventeen billion dollars a year is being spent to acquire.
But by committing scientists to a definite plan, we may be tying them, perhaps for years, to programs which may no longer interest them, or which may be tangential to some new insight more worthy of support. The "solution" sometimes suggested is for the bureaus to pretend they are using a "projects criteria," but to allow such broadly drawn plans as will, in effect, convert the contract into a gift of patronage, the prospectus remaining principally as a sop for the mercenary public.
But in the United Kingdom, where something more like a back the-man approach to subsidized creativity has been tried, the system has come in for considerable criticism, and back-the-project alternatives have been suggested. As one commentator said:
In Britain, the traditions of "pure research" are deeper, and the financing of research is more insulated from the needs of government departments or civilian technology, and therefore social needs. This may protect the pursuit of knowledge from corruption, but it does little else for society as a whole.
More pertinently, such operations mark the return to a feudal conception of government. It is not surprising, then, that government patronage has proved no more liberating than aristocratic patronage. The Economist has written:
Society will demand that those for whom it is paying should observe the general tenor of opinion in that society. In demanding subsidies as a right, those who run [the National Theater] have to realize, too, that respect for their audiences’ prejudices will be imposed on them as a duty.
In Russia, a country of extreme centralized planning, the problem has reached more drastic conclusions. Artistic innovation, of course, is treated as a form of subversion. But even in the scientific sphere, where innovation is essential to progress, it is scarcely a trickle. Though they innovate largely through controlled, and hence predictable, imitation of the West, they nevertheless look upon changes with mixed emotions. Bureaucracy and the risks of creativity are simply incompatible. And this has proved true not only in the management field, but also in the design stage, and even at the central planning level.
Freedom from Planners
But if the fate of innovation is thus precarious under a planned economy, the fate of dissent is nothing less than perilous. Milton Friedman has observed that we are likely to have more freedoms if we are able only to endorse them or reject them per se, and are not allowed to decide on individual cases. This seems perfectly true, and it applies with even greater force to a planned economy.
First of all, a planned economy can never endorse freedoms per se. A free economy says: You may speak (or publish, or do whatever), but you must acquire the means to do so. In a planned economy, such permission is vacuous unless the government is also willing to subsidize the action. And since no economy could provide the means to actualize every desire, a planned economy must discriminate, must decide cases, either individually or generically.
Secondly, since a planned economy has to subsidize activities, those activities will have to be desired considerably rather than merely tolerated.
Currently, in this country, we have dissension which is vigorous and, in large measure, free. Even most of the dissenters’ targets support their right to denounce society, and the right of institutions to support them for that purpose. But if their magazines, schools, and foundations were owned by the government, supported by their targets’ taxes, out of a limited "culture" budget, there would be much talk of priorities, and the dissenters would be less well known. Gadflies of the right and left would find their funds in low supply whenever the majority did not wish to feel their bite, or whenever their proddings displeased an agency, administration, or subcommittee. And that would be too bad, for in Milton’s adage, "trial is what purifies us, and trial is by what is contrary."
Today, in Russia, intellectuals are re-learning the lesson of the Areopagitica: perfected men do not need opposition. The moderate sufferance which Khrushchev allowed for a few years, as a tool in his power struggles, has been brutally revoked. In response, some Russian writers have insisted that freedom of expression is a constitutional right, not an administrative privilege. They have not seen that this is impossible in a planned economy. When the state owns all the publishing houses, the censor and the editor merge, and the strictures of the former become the aesthetics of the latter.
Such is the fate of the mind in utopia. Not in its first step perhaps, nor in its hundredth, but in its ultimate logic and basic principles. First comes the bureaucracy, the limited funds, the priorities, then the dissent, the suppression, and the jails. It is a logical road which we are well along; and if we refuse to recognize where we are going, we shall follow it to the end.
The weak point of the socialistic ideal is that it is a dogmatic or authoritative creed and encourages enthusiasts who hold it to think lightly of individual freedom, and suggests the very dubious idea that in a democracy the wish of the people may often be overruled for the good of the people. The ideal of democracy, in short, is government for the good of the people, by the people, and in accordance with the wish of the people; the ideal of collectivism is government for the good of the people by experts, or officials who know, or think they know, what is good for the people better than either any non-official person or than the mass of the people themselves. Each of these two ideals contains something of truth, but each of these ideals may sooner or later clash with each other. This conflict may take various forms. But beliefs marked by essential inconsistency are certain to give rise to most serious and, it may be, very practical and embittered dissension….
The inconsistency between democracy and socialism will never be fully recognized until earnest socialists force upon the people some law which, though in conformity with socialistic principles, imposes some new burden upon the mass of the voters.
A. V. DICEY, Law and Opinion in England (1914)