Socialists may be clever but they’re certainly not humble

Guido Fawkes reported recently that Polly Toynbee told the Edinburgh Book Show that left-wing people were both more intelligent and generally better people than others. Presumably by this she meant that they were more intelligent and better people than economic liberals and conservatives. I have not been able to find confirmation of this statement, but let us take it on face value. I am aware from other things that Polly Toynbee has said that it is perfectly plausible that she would make a statement like this and, in any case, it is worth investigating as a hypothesis.

To take the first half of her statement, I am happy to admit immediately that it is likely that left-wing people are more intelligent than liberals and conservatives – though the causality is in the other direction. In his final book – The Fatal Conceit(of which, more later) – Hayek said: “One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realises that, of course, intelligent people overvalue intelligence, and suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilisation offers to deliberate [human] design…”. As far as I am concerned there is little more to be said about the subject. Polly Toynbee is right. People who are intelligent are much more likely to believe that they can use their intelligence to design and perfect society. As Adam Smith reminded us, central planners treat the individuals who make up society – who all have a motion, a will and a brain of their own – as if they were pieces on a chess board. Socialists believe that organising and perfecting society is rather like organising a family outing to the zoo – it just requires a little more brain power and, of course, intellectual socialists believe that they have brain power in abundance!

What socialists have in brain power, they may lack in wisdom, humility and subtlety, as Thomas Sowell so brilliantly summarised in the title of his book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. Those coming from a Toynbeeesque position rarely appreciate the self-ordering qualities of communities made up of co-operating human beings within a market economy; and they most certainly do not appreciate the limits of their own intelligence (or of human intelligence in general). It is worth adding that, though intelligence is not a virtue, wisdom and humility are virtues that can be cultivated. Being more intelligent is not something to boast about: it no more reflects well on left-wing people if they are more intelligent than if they are better looking. As we get older, of course, our intelligence can decline and we can become wiser – perhaps this is one reason why the tendency towards socialism often declines with age.

Read the rest of the article on the ConservativeHome website.

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

15 thoughts on “Socialists may be clever but they’re certainly not humble”

  1. Posted 16/09/2011 at 11:01 | Permalink

    What a strange article! Its main premise seems to be defensiveness about left-wing people being more intelligent than right-wingers and then it goes on to infer (with nothing more to back up these ideas than the odd opinion – or are Hayek and Sowell gods?), that left-wingers must be more arrogant, less humble and less wise than right-wingers.
    What a load of unscientific, opinionated mumbo jumbo. No wonder you’re feeling defensive about intelligence..

  2. Posted 16/09/2011 at 13:30 | Permalink

    Why is it a strange article? It highlights something that has bothered me for some time: Why do acquaintances from my university years insist on adhering to ideas which are clearly past their sell by date? I literally had one chap spitting with vehemence, uttering the priceless charge that “there is nothing as bad as a turn-coat”. Nary a chance to interject with the reasoning behind my move to a more free-market based view. Adherence to an ideology indeed, coupled with the intellectual laziness and arrogance described above. Recognising this weakness in the self-appointed guardians of the “weak” can help us prevent them from wreaking the havoc from mis-guided policies such as we have seen during the Blair/Brown years. Time and again I have wanted to say, “just because something makes you feel good does not mean it will have a good outcome”, but these ideologues fail to look beyond the feel-good part; well done for highlighting this.

  3. Posted 16/09/2011 at 15:41 | Permalink

    I hardly think Blair or Brown can be described as ‘left wing’..although you’re probably right if you consider them unwise. However, it seems an extraordinary generalisation to say that because intelligent people hold to left wing ideas that they are therefore likely to be arrogant about their intelligence, unwise and lack humility.
    There’s simply nothing I’ve ever come across that would ever back this statement. On the contrary, I tend to find that less intelligent right-wingers tend to match their ill-thought-out ideas with extraordinary arrogance, and very little evidence of any underlying wisdom – look at the way George Osborne is behaving!
    Happily I have friends on both sides of the divide so I am well aware that idiocy is shared by both sides, if leaning a little more to the right..

  4. Posted 16/09/2011 at 15:59 | Permalink

    @anonymous – do you have any reasoned argument in response to the article? I have inducted various things, if you think those links are logically flawed or contradicted by empirical evidence, why not say so?

  5. Posted 16/09/2011 at 16:32 | Permalink

    @jack the issue is this really. It is not about left wingers versus right wingers but about socialists (central planners) versus those who are not central planners. To believe that society can be perfected (or indeed improved) by central planning suggests (a) that that person is putting a certain value on intelligence and (b) does not understand the limits of the application of that intelligence. Hayek’s Fatal Conceit is worth reading

  6. Posted 16/09/2011 at 23:29 | Permalink

    @Philip claptrap, nonsense, codswallop, jibberijub. The only thing you have inducted is that your rightwing bias clouds your arguments. You haven’t presented any psychological statistical evidence for your claims whatsoever.. This is a cartoon rightwing opinion piece with no basis for paying it any more attention than saying “I don’t like those people, they must be wrong, or at least silly”. It just doesn’t wash. Sorry,

  7. Posted 17/09/2011 at 09:11 | Permalink

    @Philip Then why did you talk in terms of left and right wingers, liberals and socialists if that isn’t what you meant? It makes a nonsense of your own article to retract your generalizations now.
    Meanwhile on the planning front, if you do not have central planning of some sort, then everyone will be able to build just what they like. Taken to the full extreme: if somebody lives next door to you and decides he wants to build a block of flats, then should he be allowed to on a whim? Well no.
    Should county or local councils be allowed to take responsibility for all planning applications? Hmm.. have you ever seen the southern coast of Spain or the Northern coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao? Horrendous high rises everywhere ruining the coastline. How did it get like that? Regional and local planning councils were allowed to give permission for whatever they felt fit, and my how their back pockets grew fat while the coastlines were ruined. Do I want England to end up with those kind of monstrosities everywhere? No. Scotland and Wales can take their own decisions on it but let’s not give England up to the builders..

  8. Posted 17/09/2011 at 14:36 | Permalink

    jacko’thegreen –

    What about “the way that George Osborne is behaving”?

    Is he so badly behaved? Nothing he’s doing could be described as particularly unreasonable – if anything he is acting rather (too) moderately in changing direction from the disastrous situation he inherited. You can quibble with some policies (as I would), but he’s hardly some sort of vandal or behaving irresponsibly. It may suit the left to portray him as some sort of extremist, but its hard to back that up with any facts.

    Back to the subject, I certainly don’t think that the left are more intelligent. On the contrary, it seems to me that many fail to learn basic lessons about how things actually work – satisfying themselves instead with the conceit that their intentions are more noble and thus must result in better outcomes.

  9. Posted 18/09/2011 at 08:25 | Permalink

    @Jack – I am wondering if you have read the piece, but, once more, it is interesting that the response is made up of a great deal of abuse together with a criticism that I am not using properly reasoned arguments!

    I did mean liberals and socialists (where did I say that I did not meant to use them) and I used the term left wing twice because that is the term that Polly Toynbee used and I had to refer to that. Where, precisely, did I use the term right wingers?

    I am not an anarchist. Whilst I do not believe in the current very centralised system of land-use planning I do believe that some form of government is useful in delineating property rights, a court system for arbitrating disputes and so on. Where markets are incomplete you may need some kind of land-use planning authority to undertake varioous functions but this is a long way from the central planning (in the economic sense and increasingly in the social sense) of socialism. In fact, your environmental amenities might well be better protected in that scenario. Maybe you could come and listen to Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom give our Hayek lecture on 29th March 2012.

  10. Posted 18/09/2011 at 19:27 | Permalink

    It may well be true that left wing people are more intelligent though I’d say thry’re more intellectual which is a different thing. It does not however stop them falling for scams like fish oil supplements, brain gym and others of being gullible enough to buy Mozart CDs because some junk science report said playing Mozart to an unborn foetus will guarantee a brighter baby.

    Swings and roundabouts.

  11. Posted 19/09/2011 at 09:34 | Permalink

    Rarely disagree with you, Philip, but can’t quite see the point of this article, which deals in massive generalisations. Its OK perhaps for Conservative Home but the IEA should be above this kind of stuff!

  12. Posted 19/09/2011 at 11:45 | Permalink

    Well, you have never been a Hayek fan, Len. The use of knowledge in society is a big theme of Hayek. You may not accept the premise but if (a) intelligent people are more inclined to wish to rationally design society (b) those who wish to rationally design society lack the humility to understand their own limitations (c) intellectuals tend to have a great deal of influence in political life then understanding these processes is important. Not least because we might not want to subsidise institutions that give them a platform to promote such rationalist policies (eg universities). This is not very different from what Adam Smith has suggesed either (though I have only read the one quote out of context so I may be wrong about the appropriate interpretation). Was this not what the French revolution and the market socialism practised in Poland after the war all about?

  13. Posted 19/09/2011 at 13:47 | Permalink

    There’s a lot of different concepts mashed up here! I don’t think “intellectual” and “intelligent” should be confused. You can be one or the other or both, but they don’t mean the same. And “rational” shouldn’t be a derogatory term, surely? I am happy to have my aeroplanes and computer programmes designed rationally. We agree that whole societies cannot be organised rationally, as Austrians have explained. But this is not to say that some interventions cannot be more rational than others, surely? Having laws to protect private property has some rational basis, I would suggest (with all humility).

  14. Posted 19/09/2011 at 14:13 | Permalink

    of course. And these are fair points. Hayek uses the term “rationalist constructivist” which maybe is a bit more of a mouthful. But I would distinguish between “rational” and “rationalist” – maybe, that are not quite the right words with “rational” being an adjective and “rationalist” being a philosophical position. But, yes, I could perhaps have been clearer.

  15. Posted 22/09/2011 at 12:00 | Permalink

    “Presumably by this she meant that they were more intelligent and better people than economic liberals and conservatives. I have not been able to find confirmation of this statement, but let us take it on face value.”

    I am confident its true. Its a common belief held by lefties on the internet. I frequent a froum occasionally where this view is held by many of the other users of that forum. Indeed, if you get into a debate about meida bias its often accepted that there may be such bias but its not really bias because the lefty journalists at the BBC etc…, are more intelligent so what they say is true. And yet often its not facts at disupute but ideoligy or politcal theory so I dont personally follow that one.

    Any excuse is often used to justify left wing bias. A different issue I know but with the MP expenses scandall I found the general view often taken is to excuse L/W MPS their absues because the absuses were just lapses by otherwise well meaning leaders (i.e., ideologically sound) of workings class. However, Tories found to have abused the expenses system were merely betraying their true, underlying selfish corrupt selves.

Comments are closed.