Now anyone who understands human motivation will recognize immediately that Rand’s views about the power of intellectuals are little more than wishful thinking. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m not interested in analyzing that side of Rand’s view. I would prefer, instead, to focus on Rand’s assumption that any significant number of intellectuals can be expected to do the things Rand wants them to do. Those of us who understand the “sociology of the intellectual,” as Joseph Schumpeter described it, regard intellectuals as one of the very last groups in society which we would wish to trust our fortunes to. "Beware intellectuals," warned historian Paul Johnson in his incendiary exposé, Intellectuals (Harper Perennial, 1990). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice."
Let us now examine the “sociology of the intellectual,” as limned by Joseph Schumpeter:
Intellectuals are in fact people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs. This touch in general accounts for another—the absence of first-hand knowledge of them which only actual experience can give. The critical attitude, arising no less from the intellectual’s situation as an onlooker—in most cases also as an outsider—than from the fact that his main chance of asserting himself lies in his actual or potential nuisance value, should add a third touch.
Note particularly Schumpeter’s remark about “absence of direct responsibility.” When discussing intellectuals, this is critical in several senses. As I have stated in previous posts (for example, here), there are some domains of knowledge that can only be mastered by intensive experience. Intellectuals often have little, if any, appreciation for this fact. They often think they can attain mastery in a subject merely through reading or rationalistic speculation (i.e., “reason”), when, as a matter of fact, nothing less than experience will do. And since most intellectuals lack the requisite experience, they are not in a position, nor are they in the least qualified, to judge on matters relating to politics, social policy, and economics.
But there is another potentially serious problem: what happens when society produces too many intellectuals? What happens to all the intellectuals who cannot earn a living through their intellectual skills? As Schumpeter explains:
The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work. His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will, absolutely and relatively, occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and as the required amount of teaching increase irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out. The results of neglecting this and acting on the theory that schools, colleges, and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon….
All those who are unemployable or unsatisfactorily employed or unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals in the strict sense of the term whose numbers hence increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into social criticism which as we have seen before is in any case the intellectual spectator’s typical attitude toward men, classes, and institutions… Well, here we have numbers; a well-defined group situation of proletarian hue; and a group interest shaping a group attitude that will much more realistically account for hostility to the capitalist order than could the theory—itself a rationalization in the psychological sense—according to which the intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts and which is no better than the theory of lovers that their feelings represent nothing but the logical inference from the virtues of the beloved. [Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 147-153]
There are other considerations that also have to be broached. If you examine the works of intellectuals through history, the results are not always terribly edifying. Indeed, the more an individual devotes himself exclusively to an intellectual life, the greater the chances that he will champion ideas based on irresponsible speculation and wishful thinking. Plato, one of the earliest men to devote himself almost exclusively to intellectual pursuits, is typical in this respect. We also see something along these lines in the Pythagorean cult, in the mania for abstruse theology among the Christians, in the pre-Kantian rationalist philosophers (particularly Leibniz and Wolff), in the idealist and Hegelian philosophers, and in the deconstructionists. Whole forests have been destroyed to promulgate views contrary to good sense and the facts of life.
Rand wished to place the lion’s share of the blame for all this rationalistic wishful thinking on Plato and Kant. Yet even if it were true that Plato and Kant are the primary culprits, we would still have to ask ourselves why so many intellectuals are attracted to rationalistic, wishful thinking. Could it be that the very type of individual most attracted to an intellectual life is, generally speaking, also the type of individual most alienated towards reality? Or could it be that the intellectual life tends to attract weak people, who look at a life of irresponsible speculation as a convenient escape from the rigors of a more active existence? Realism about the world requires strength; yet strength cannot be acquired merely by thinking. Strength is not, as the logic of Objectivism implies, a product of an individual’s premise. Changing a person’s premises will not transform the coward into a hero. The life of the mind may prove a poor and shoddy breeding ground for developing strong individuals. Perhaps only the exceptional individual can develop both strength and intellect, so that the number of strong, reality-orientated intellectuals will be too small to count in any significant way. If so, then Rand’s hopes for a new intellectual appear doomed from the start. The intellectual, by his lack of experience and practical responsibilty, by his unemployability and rationalized resentment, and by his tendency toward weakness and wishful thinking, will tend, by the very nature of his vocation, to entertain an intractable bias against capitalism; and no amount of arguments or premises can alter this fact.