Sticking Up For Capitalism

Dr. Gelernter, I’m a long-time fan of your writing. I normally find it crisp, incisive, and refreshingly free of either the left- or right-wing varities of political correctness. You’ve been on my short-list of computer scientists I most admire, and have hoped to meet personally someday, for many years.

Against that background, I have to say you have disappointed me dreadfully here. Your critique of capitalism sounds uncannily like special pleading on behalf of academics, a group of which you just happen to be a member.

No real-world market is perfect. But market failure is only grounds to deprecate markets when we have reason to believe non-market allocation mechanisms can do better. Otherwise, the only aim and effect of the deprecation can be to replace an imperfect market with something worse. (Usually the “something worse” is a committee of bureaucrats.)

Can you propose a non-market allocation mechanism that would rescue academia from its present disgraceful state? Good luck with that. F. A. Hayek and David D. Friedman, among others, have shown that even a bureaucrat-god with perfect information and infinite computational capacity cannot outperform market allocation through price signals (the most accessible proof I know of this is in Friedman’s Price Theory, which I recommend).

More generally, the political culture of the West is only now beginning to recover from the memetic damage done to it from 1920 on by Soviet propaganda and Soviet agents of influence (see, for example, Stephen Koch’s Double Lives : Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals). This memetic attack followed the prescriptions of Antonio Gramsci and other Marxist theoreticians, and was determinedly (even brilliantly) executed for over fifty years. Part of the resulting damage is manifest in what you aptly describe as the pervasive “wacko leftism” of the academic/educational world.

Where you see in humanities and social-science academia resentful victims of a system that fails to reward them properly, I see an academic establishment that swallowed not just Stalin’s bait but the hook and the line and the sinker as well (multiculturalism, postmodernism, and “world system” theory), and in doing so rendered itself largely incapable of teaching anything of value. Their economic troubles are not the cause of their political fecklessness, but its completely inevitable consequence.

I’ve said this before in public, and I will again. I think my own fumbling efforts at descriptive sociology and anthropology have earned a better press than they probably deserve, because the standards of scholarship in those fields are now so desperately bad that an outsider/amateur like me who applies even minimal rigor looks brlliant by comparison. My modest success is the flip side of the Sokal hoax, and both are less testimony to the cleverness of their authors than to the degree that the academic background of our work has become an intellectually impoverished wasteland.

You complain that nobody wants to pay decent salaries to humanities academics as if this is market failure. I think it is the market mercilessly assessing the actual value of what they teach. If anything, they’re paid far too much, and insulated from the hard choices independent scholars like me have to make.

Against this background, I’d say yes—public intellectuals (especially academics) do need to declare their loyalty to capitalism every time they open their mouths. This will continue to be necessary until the academy fully recovers from the effects of Gramscian subversion. And, by consequence, earns a decent average salary again.

Want some bright-line tests that are less starkly economic? When literary theorists are able to stop obsessing about “power relationships” and “alienation”; when sociology and anthropology abandon the stifling Durkheimian dogma of tabula rasa; when Middle-Eastern studies departments get out from under the dead hand of Edward Said and “post-colonialism”—then, maybe, declaring our loyalty to capitalism will stop being necessary therapy for a sick academia.

I’m at a complete loss to understand why a self-described “conservative Republican” (particularly one of your intelligence) should make excuses for the academic apparat.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Gory Antigora: Illusions of Capitalism and Computers by Jaron Lanier

    In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”— “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Reply to Lanier by Eric S. Raymond

    Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Reply to Lanier by Glenn Reynolds

    Glenn Reynolds – taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond – argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet – “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms – might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Reply to Lanier by John Perry Barlow

    Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”

The Conversation