Human beings naturally desire to know the truth. I don’t think this longing can be eradicated, but in the short run it may be far from obvious, just because all sorts of other longings compete with it and may at any given moment be stronger. Even so, reality has ways of revenging itself upon beliefs that contradict it. But these wheels too grind slowly, and in the short run false beliefs may even seem to have conquered reality itself.
Some of the motives which act upon the mind are not so much opposed to truth as indifferent to it. One such motive is intellectual vanity; I may love my ideas just because they are mine, and resist any challenge to them. In my last post I commented on another, the sheer craving of intellectuals for the approval of other intellectuals. One may think these two motives would be in opposition. Far from it. When the vanity of the individual is engulfed by the vanity of the group, when every “I” is desperate to be one of “us,” the two motives work together. So strongly do these two motives operate in people of my profession that we invest enormous amounts of energy to convince ourselves that the evidence supports the main outlines of the consensus views, even when it actually contradicts them. Dissent rarely goes beyond the details.
But none of these motives explains the peculiar tendency of intellectual opinion in our times to bunch together at the leftward end of the political spectrum. What accounts for that? If in the short run we tend to conform to each other, then bunching is not hard to explain, but why don’t we bunch more often in other places too? After all, intellectuals are not drawn leftward under all social orders. In a social order in which intellectuals depend on the patronage of an aristocracy, they are not usually strong critics of their patrons.
But in our own social order, things stand differently. Though we still call ourselves a republic, we are actually a technocracy in which the real rulers are a vast and invisible mass of experts. One kind of expertise resides in the administrative agencies, since legislators these days do not so much enact laws as enact guidelines and objectives, which are converted into enforceable rules by functionaries. Another kind resides in the courts, which may seem an altogether different thing, but it really isn’t. For the courts, which act as unelected superlegislatures, crank out norms in much the same fashion in which elected legislatures do, not so much saying what is to be done as establishing “tests” which require various “interests” to be “balanced.” The real meaning of these tests does not gel until they have passed into the hands of administrative functionaries, so we are back to the experts.
Now under such a state of affairs, intellectuals do not rule in their own right, and may even posture as critics of the state. Yet the cause of their self-importance is virtually indistinguishable from the cause of the technocracy itself, for it is they who educate the experts and provide them with their intellectual formation. With just a few exceptions, the more massive and important the state is, the more important intellectuals feel themselves to be, and the more massive their own self-regard. The party of the state is the party of the left, and so that is the direction in which they lean.
On almost every public issue, intellectuals incline toward just those doubts and just those certainties which strengthen reliance on expert-driven governmental action. Regarding the view that marriage is a natural institution ordained to unchangeable ends, they incline toward doubt, because it entails that state action should be limited. But regarding the view that unregulated human activity is causing harmful global climate change, they incline toward certainty, because it entails that state action should be expanded. Regarding the view that the most effective antipoverty program is to get married and stay married, they incline toward doubt, because this makes morality more important than social engineering. But regarding the view that the best way to help the poor is to marry them to the government itself, they incline toward certainty, because this makes social engineering more important than morality.
What about the Grackle Syndrome, the chaotic movement of opinion which I discussed in a previous post? It still operates, but the leftward lean of the intelligentsia is superimposed upon it. Intellectuals are driven by fads which bloom into transitory existence, fade, dissolve, recombine, and bloom again. But the fads are all at one end of the spectrum, as though the grackles were all flocking on one side of the sky.
I take heart, because the movements of the grackles are not a Fate. Remember those slowly turning wheels; in the long run not only ideas, but even social orders are accountable to reality. Moreover, competing with all the transient motives for hiding from this particular truth, or that particular truth, is the deep, slow, inexpungeable longing for truth as such.