In an interview with Reason TV, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey answers a range of questions about why so many intellectuals are opposed to the free market, whether throughout history and to this today.
“Is it a misunderstanding of what business does?” asks Nick Gillespie. “Is it envy? Is it a lack of capacity to understand that what entrepreneurs do or what innovators do?”
Here’s a sample:
Intellectuals have always disdained commerce. That is something that tradesmen did; people that were in a lower class. And so you had minorities, oftentimes did it, like you had the Jews in the West. And when they became wealthy and successful and rose, then they were envied, then they were persecuted and their wealth confiscated, and many times they were run out of country after country. Same thing happened with the Chinese in the East. They were great businesspeople as well. So the intellectuals have always sided kind of with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the businesspeople were kind of kept down. You might say that capitalism was the first time that businesspeople kinda caught a break, because of Adam Smith and the philosophy that came along with that, and the industrial revolution began this huge upwards surge of prosperity.
Mackey does a nice job summarizing the historical and practical forces, but another dynamic worth noting is Thomas Sowell’s notion of the “unconstrained vision” (or the “vision of the anointed”), which one finds among many intellectuals. When Sowell talks about “visions” he’s speaking less to our particular position (vocationally or otherwise) and more to how we perceive the basic nature and destiny of man —“not simply his existing practices,” Sowell writes, “but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.”
For many intellectuals, for example, human capability is viewed as vast rather than limited. Problems are to be solved through “smart” solutions rather than messy, incremental trade-offs. Justice can be achieved by controlling outcomes rather than constructing the right set of rules. Knowledge is important, but mainly a very particular kind of knowledge — one that requires a very particular kind of education and abstract thinking, rather than practical action, long-term wisdom, and particular prudence. Because our goals are so obviously achievable, freedom is seen as the ability to achieve those goals, rather than exemption from the power and control of others. Specialization is questionable and suspect rather than welcomed. The path to achieving the good is paved by sweeping categorical gestures rather than incremental improvements.
To Mackey’s point, from this underlying vision, one is not likely to spring to free-market advocacy.
For more on Sowell’s thoughts on this, I recommend his book, Intellectuals and Society.