Why most intellectuals are not “conservative”

A progressive friend (non-woke) asked me why the bench of conservative intellectuals is much shallower than those on the Left/progressive side. I believe there are two broad reasons, building on each other.

First, if you are a high IQ individual you are more amenable and comfortable with abstraction, system-building, and rationality. Various forms of Leftism, liberalism, and libertarianism have something to offer you immediately since they start with rationalized systems. Historical materialism, Rawlsian political philosophy, and neoclassical economics or Natural Rights. Conservatism is a less clear and distinct option because it does not present a grand universal rational system. Rather, it leans on custom, tradition, and disposition. History in an empirical sense, not theoretical. There is suspicion of excessive rationalization of cultural practices and mores. Conservatives argue that you shouldn’t overthink things! You don’t understand the ultimate big picture. Intellectual conservatism, ironically, cautions against dense, clear, and compact answers.

That’s pretty infuriating for someone whose raison d’etre is to understand in a rational manner. Thinking is exactly what intellectuals are good at. Making systems where they have reflective access to the guts of the machine and the chains of cause and effect.

The conservative argument would be that this is not really possible in a deep way when comes to human affairs, as opposed to the natural sciences. Social and cultural practices have within them embedded wisdom accrued through trial and error. That is, it’s a natural Darwinian process. Bottom-up, not top-down “intelligent design.”

Joe Henrich’s The Secret Of Our Success has one of the best illustrations of systems that embed rational purpose but are totally opaque to those who continue practices due to custom and tradition. Manioc was introduced to West Africa from Brazil in the 16th century. Today, there are all sorts of steps and customs associated with manioc preparation in West African societies. The reason is that unless prepared in a specific manner, manioc is toxic. It seems that West Africans through a process of trial and error came to a set of established cultural scripts that made manioc both palatable and safe. But, it turns out that the people engaging in the practice today don’t know why they do what they do. It’s just custom and tradition. They are blind to the purpose on the individual level, even though there is purpose on the social level.

One could today put manioc preparers through a course that explains the reason for every step. But it’s really not necessary. Taboos and traditions constrain the manner in which manioc is prepared and make it so it is not toxic. Taboos and traditions serve proximate functions in relation to the ultimate adaptation. You don’t know need to know how ligaments and tendons work. Just to use them.

Of course, there is a balance between rational understanding and going on trust embedded through cultural knowledge. Most of us are comfortable getting in airplanes to travel, but we don’t know the engineering details. But someone does know the details, at least at the high level. I say “high level”, because it is likely that many complex engineering products today are designed by groups where individuals may know parts to a high degree of competence, but the whole process of rational comprehension is now distributed across institutions and collectives.

The same applies to the academy. Professors assume people in other fields know what they’re doing, and are producing good scholarship. They trust in the system of academic peer review, and tenure promotion. They don’t know all the details in a rational sense.

Professors themselves are overwhelming on the liberal/Left today. Far more so than in the past. What happened?

I think this goes to my second reason for why intellectuals are mostly progressive: humans tend to conform to their ingroup. All things equal progressivism appeals to the cognitive comforts and experiences of intellectuals more than conservatism. But there will be deviations from this expectation. But, in a group where 60% start out as progressive, over time more and more will become progressive due to pressures to align oneself to group identity. Only the most disagreeable will hold out, at least in public. I’ve seen this myself over the last ten years, as many people who were centrists or moderately liberal have now gone fully “woke.” There was no particular moment, rather, the whole subculture simply changed and most people moved along with it. These “woke” intellectuals often express great displeasure when I bring up their old pagan beliefs, before their baptism. They have been born anew in Justice.

Again, this is due to something which conservatives appreciate: you follow the norms of your group because they embed collective wisdom. You eliminate cognitive dissonance with people you like by adhering to their views, eliminating tension (I’ve also seen this happen with conservatives who are secular but eventually become Catholic like all their peers).

Finally, let me end with an empirical illustration of these various issues. In the 2000s Richard Dawkins was the bête noire of organized religion. He mused about whether religion was the “root of all evil.” Today, to a great extent we live in a world more to Dawkins’ liking, as religion is far less influential and powerful as a social force. The United States has gone through a massive wave of secularization beginning in the 2000s.

But many people who were New Atheists, and had a dim view of religion, are now revisiting their opinions. Dawkins himself has been denied platforms many times now because of the reality that he has had some harsh things to say about groups like Muslims. Many people who believed Dawkins was admirable in 2006, now find him “problematic.” The world has passed him by.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that perhaps organized religion serves as an institutional check upon the passions of the people. Contrary to being the “root of all evil,” religion was a “social technology” which channeled human impulses, sometimes in a negative direction, but often in a positive one. The most furious and hateful denouncers of Richard Dawkins today are not traditional believers, but proud atheists who are creating quasi-religious communities, because their lives abhor the godless vacuum, even if they won’t admit it to themselves. These new fanatics won’t even bother asking “What if you’re wrong?” They believe the question itself would lend credibility to the pagan, whose soul is damned….

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21 thoughts on “Why most intellectuals are not “conservative”

  1. I’m a big hockey fan…hockey purists always argue “don’t change the game” (make new rules.) But the game changes from era to era regardless of what rules are introduced. Never understood their POV. I mean, i get it but not not as a personal world view.

  2. Matt Yglesias made the interesting suggestion that high-IQ people with conservative dispositions are more likely to go into business rather than academia. I haven’t seen any rigorous evidence for this, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

  3. You have for years described yourself as a conservative, Razib, yet to the best of my knowledge never defined what you mean by that.

    Whatever it once meant, neither of the groups in the UK or USA who still use the term can factually be described as such. Far better is the nickname of the so-called Conservative and Unionist part of the UK – torai ‘tory’ – outlaw, raider, brigand. Likewise US ‘republicans’.

  4. Various strains of progressivism appeal to the superficially smart, as they promise humans (really human behaviour) can be perfected by tweaking various levers in intelligent ways. The challenge of which levers to tweak, when to tweak them, and how hard that tweaking should be offers endless opportunities for smart people to create perfect theories that don’t survive the first contact with the real world.
    The subset of the smart who think this through & learn about the real-world effects of progressivism come to realise that humans are not perfectible.

  5. It is possible to understand history, to an extent, in a ‘thick’ sense, but that entails absorbing and retaining a very large number of facts and heuristics. It is possible to _think_ you understand history in a ‘thin’ sense.

  6. Okay, but as I’m not American I have no idea what those terms mean.

    Nuanced surmise on religions, and more correct than some will admit.

  7. @Walter: “How much does this change if economists are considered intellectuals?”

    Probably almost nothing, because even right-wing economists are usually some variant of classical liberals or libertarians, not conservatives

  8. they promise humans (really human behaviour) can be perfected by tweaking various levers in intelligent ways

    No, the promise is creating the “perfect” system of governance that can equitably and effectively manage the perfect and imperfect populace regardless of the % of each.

  9. @iffen:

    I think that it is two different ways of saying almost the same thing, specially with the “really human behaviour” detail; in a “perfect” system, people could be not “perfect” – in a kind of internal meaning of “perfect” – but their behaviour will be “perfect”.

    In a way, the opposite of “progressivism” (including socialism, liberalism and even libertarianism) is Russel Kirk saying “A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.”, while all kinds of “progressives” believe that human reason can create a social machinery where the individual will behave in a “good” way (in this point, there is not much difference between the “new man” of communists and the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith)

  10. “Again, this is due to something which conservatives appreciate: you follow the norms of your group because they embed collective wisdom. You eliminate cognitive dissonance with people you like by adhering to their views, eliminating tension (I’ve also seen this happen with conservatives who are secular but eventually become Catholic like all their peers)”

    A possible implication of that could not be the conservatives in a progressive milieu having more tendency to “surrender” then the progressives in a conservative milieu?

  11. I think that it is two different ways of saying almost the same thing

    I don’t believe that it is possible for me to disagree more. Perfecting governance would not perfect the citizens. Quite the contrary, a “perfect” system would allow the “imperfect” to flourish as much as possible. It doesn’t have anything to do with perfecting the citizens. Commies and fascists just kill of the imperfect. A progressive and egalitarian “perfect” governance would not allow that.

  12. What happened is that Liberals and Cultural Marxists allied up in the USA with a narrative of progress which demands a constant action, a dynamic towards the “revolutionary goal”, which can’t stand still and risk to criticise what’s “being achieved”. So even though society got worse and worse, they can still blame the few remains of conservatism and ideological alternatives for their very own failure to deliver, especially to their self-proclaimed main targets of social betterment. They create a scape goat which is the equivalent to a poison cabinet. And they pack more and more things into it, about which “cultivated” and “socially successful as well as accepted” individuals can no longer debate in public. So they disappear from the public discourse and get less and less seen in private talks, especially in the middle and upper class, resulting in a skewed perception of how far the “political correctness” already spread individually.

    Also, the time of education is the equivalent to Cultural Marxist indoctrination for most, so with every iteration, read generation going through the educational lifecycle, the more radical and more thoroughly the brainwashing became.

    There is no alternative ideology from the right or conservatives allowed, so there is no intellectual debate. Like you can debate whether you think Feminism went far enough, but there is no feasable position any more as to argue for coming back to a classic role model and patriarchal, conservative sex relationships even based on the 1950’s model. That’s no longer accepted, its put in the poison cabinet, like so many other positions.

    But what many people ignore is the money put into turning the schools, universities and corporations, the climate in them. The public and private efforts all went in the Cultural Marxist and Liberal direction in the last decades, those going in other directions were miniscule in comparison.

    And what the Liberal and CM narrative really achieved is to “get their grip on all the fun”. What do I mean with this? Sexual pleasures, consuming goods, being free as young people and of course all the subcultures, the music and art, everything being dominated by Leftist people and ideologies. Why? First because of the money put into this efforts, this was really big and squeezed out the competitors, but secondly, and this is very important, the Leftists managed to dominate the discourse and attitude to life of the popular cultures.

    Try to find something like “good conservative music” or “good conservative fun and humour”, even most right wing intellectuals will, these days, have some troubles finding it anywhere.
    The money and ideologists have a hard grip on these things, resulting in many creative and open minded people, which happen to be quite often also the more intelligent ones, to get hooked. This is true for a long time now, with all those subcultures, arts and music being so completely leftist dominated.
    Even in spheres where this was not the case, not at all, before the 1960’s, let alone the 1920’s.

    The shift happened long time ago and they never lost their control over this sphere and with structures so well established, so deep entrenched and with so much money and propaganda behind it, I see no way of changing this any time soon.

    And all those artists being merely spokesmen for the Oligarchy, like they won’t turn on their financiers, employers and colleagues that easy, even if they have doubts. So those turned will speak out loud, in their own favour, those not as much convinced will just shut up.

    I mean try to get, as a student, to a good party or exhibition without having to accept the leftist supremacy, its impossible, even more so for males in search of a partner, because of the obvious sex differences. This will just turn many, many intelligent people, step by step through their educational, sexual and job life, into a more Liberal or even straight Cultural Marxist person. Its an ideological salami attack from the first day in kindergarten to the dinner party with the other retired middle to upper class neighbours.
    Social success can, to some degree, even increase the social pressure on the given individual to adapt, because they don’t want to stick out negatively and lose their position. Its real herd behaviour.

    But we should never forget how this could happened, its because the political and economical Oligarchy put enormous pressure on some ideas being spread and others being suppressed for many, many years already. These are just the fruits of this policy and like in the past, with various more or less totalitarian regimes, that you can make the majority “turn” doesn’t mean you are more right, it just means you have more power for the moment. That’s all.

    Right or wrong being determined by facts and arguments, by exposing them to reality and prove how they work out, not by filling people’s heads with propaganda via various channels a minorty like the current Western Oligarchy controls.

    “I don’t believe that it is possible for me to disagree more. Perfecting governance would not perfect the citizens. Quite the contrary, a “perfect” system would allow the “imperfect” to flourish as much as possible. It doesn’t have anything to do with perfecting the citizens. Commies and fascists just kill of the imperfect. A progressive and egalitarian “perfect” governance would not allow that.”

    @iffen: Completely agreed. Even on the contrary, the Cultural Marxist love for the “suppressed” of all kinds, even sexual perverted murderers, does create a world in which the pillars of society being deconstructed and the burden increased. In the end, a truly Cultural Marxist society, will not just fail, it will crumble and implode.

    However, for the Oligarchy, if just abusing that kind of narrative, there are all kinds of options due to the technological progress achieved. Like you could switch from masses of idiots to AI and technically and genetically improved subjects.
    That was never an option before, so you had to foster your population and its stll too early and questionable how one could do it, but in theory, there is an option if a group achieved absolute power & control which was never there before.

    But assuming Cultural Marxism would, without direction, take over, this would just lead to a societal failure and replacement. Unfortunately, the USA already have the biggest military arsenal in the world, so its not about idiots having to create one, but they can just use it if not wanting to give in…

  13. Of course, many intellectuals have made the abstract case for conservatism, basically the same argument you make about history being a Darwinian process (similar to Hayek’s argument for deference to local knowledge). But it may just be that the intellectual case for conservatism is somewhat redundant. Most conservatives get there by just habitually deferring to custom without knowing why, whereas an abstract reason is more of a prerequisite to becoming a progressive.

    On your second reason: I think it’s true as far as it goes, but what about Conquest’s 2nd law? Nowadays an organization or subculture that’s 60% conservative and 40% progressive would still probably trend leftward.

  14. Airplanes do indeed have a lot of “top down” design. But they also have a lot of “bottom up” testing. As you say, the planes are so complex that no person, and no model, can understand perfectly how everything fits together and how it will work in all reasonable circumstances.

    When a company thinks too much of “top down” and don’t do enough “bottom up”, it winds up with the 737 MAX and two crashes because the new software wasn’t good enough.

  15. Mark S: has put his finger on the problem. There is a fundamental contradiction between being an intellectual and conservatism.

    Intellectuals are committed to examining all of their beliefs and the world around the with rational inquiry.

    The first intellectual was Plato. His examination of the social world and political institutions was The Republic. In that work he laid out the vision of a just society as a thoroughgoing communism in which even marriage and families are abolished. I think it safe to say that in the following 24 centuries no more radical political vision has been advanced.

    In our era, Plato’s mantel was assumed by Marx, and a very large part of our intellectual establishment has bought into the ancient vision.

    Of course not every rational analysis must lead to a radical end. Since the very beginning, some thinkers have seen that pure reason can lead to pure nonsense. Aristotle was the first. By training and inclination a biologist, he analyzed politics the way he analyzed plants and animals. His conclusions were conservative.

    In the modern world conservatism begins with Burke, who was a Whig (liberal) who supported the American Revolution. Repulsed by the chaos and violence of the French Revolution he explained why an order built on tradition and the slow growth of centuries would produce a better world than the attempt to restructure everything by reason.

    Many thinkers who want to avoid Plato’s doom have based their arguments on the inherent limitations of human reason. Hayek was one such, but he was following many others like David Hume. Hayek wrote an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”

    I am trying not to run on to obs length. I am going to bed.

  16. I think the hypothesis presented for “why few conservative intellectuals” gets at something true. Would perhaps rephrase in a way that deemphasises individuals following their impulses and expressing their values. That’s useful but let’s try a model on that emphasizes a bit more social process. I.e. it seems like supply and demand really? Rather than just individuals following the line of their tendencies.

    Conservative movements (to the extent they have a coherent ideological basis) don’t really tend to demand a separate class of thinkers who exist outside of society’s institutions, to offer ideas and remake society along new lines. The existing authorities and institutions and their knowledge and experience is “fine”, and even more, they suspect that knowledge developed outside of institutions and the public itself is mostly worse than useless when it comes to regulating that (“pointy haired management”). Business is competent to self regulate and evolve incrementally through trial and error, the people need representatives not leaders, etc.

    So no demand, no supply?

    Conservative movements then would tend to sustain intellectual movements to the degree that they can staff absolutely necessary institutions, shoot down the other side’s bad proposals, and perhaps articulate problems. A technocracy of thinkers separate from business, the people, representative government, the military, etc. isn’t really otherwise too necessary in the Conservative ideal.

    Functionally it’s a bit like asking why the kafir do not produce an ulema; it’s not the social institution they believe in or require.

    The modern day situation maybe exacerbates the dynamic by producing a surplus of graduates relative to institutional demand. “Elite overproduction” doesn’t just lead to more competition for roles in business, etc but demands for expansive policy on jobs for the sort of “technocracy without portfolio”, to meet their demand for elite jobs to which they aspire. Conservatism offers only a limited demand for these jobs, only really needing a few dyspeptic, thick-skinned hecklers to call out that “No, it ain’t gonna be like that” to various imaginative schemes, while “Progressivism” offers potentially bottomless demand for salaried thinkers until the state’s capacity for tax and debt collapses.

    The global economy today seems to have more savings and more graduates than the market knows what to do with (negative interest rates, underemployment). Hence then the growing popularity of imaginative solutions to basically move the savings directly into graduates’ pockets, via the low interest debt offered by world markets to Western states (aka a lot of what is functionally described as “Progressivism”).

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