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Philip Booth: Socialists may be clever but they’re certainly not humble

Philip Booth 2010 Professor Philip Booth is Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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.

And this takes us on to whether socialists are better people in general. I would not attempt to argue that economic liberals and conservatives are better people than socialists, but I am sure that we have a tendency towards different faults.

Given the general world-view of socialists, we might expect the more intellectual of them to be conceited (as Hayek clearly noted given the title of his last book), to lack humility and to be intolerant. They not only want to shape the world according to a particular plan, they believe they have the knowledge to do so. As mentioned above, they may lack subtlety and wisdom. Some socialists may also have a tendency towards envy and distrust of those with money as they have difficulty coping with the riches of the better off and want to redistribute those riches towards themselves. Focusing on the good points, many socialists will have a strong concern for the poor. Some socialists will fight selflessly (in my view for misguided policies) to help the poor with absolutely no benefit accruing to themselves.

And what about libertarians? Perhaps they are more likely to be greedy and materialistic than socialists. Greed, it should be noted, is not as bad a vice as envy – to want more for yourself is not as bad as wanting something just because somebody else has it. Just as some socialists may have a strong concern for the poor, it would not be surprising if some libertarians had too little concern for the poor (even if the policies they support – incidentally – happened to benefit the poor more than socialist policies). Other economic liberals and conservatives will no doubt tend to exhibit other characteristics.

There are probably differences even when it comes to religion. Extreme socialism is, of course, an atheistic doctrine that believes that society can be perfected by man alone. Putting that aside, my own experience is that non-religious socialists tend more to be atheists whereas non-religious liberals and conservatives tend to be agnostics. Again, this can be explained by the liberal tendency to understand the limits of human knowledge (when asked a profound question, “don’t know” is a more acceptable answer for a liberal than for a socialist).

We should all try to work to attenuate those faults towards which we are naturally inclined, of course. Unlike Polly Toynbee, I would not suggest that liberals are “better people” than socialists; I do not have a window into the heart of anybody; I do not know the battles that different people have with their different faults. I do have a view on whether I tend to find liberals and conservatives “nicer” people; I am also happy to concede that we are, on average, less intelligent people. But it would be the height of conceit to claim to know who is and is not a “better person” than another – though conceit, it turns out, is a socialist vice.

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