A friend sent me an article titled The Importance of Ideas: Plunge into the Intellectual Battle by an Austrian Economics student Joakim Kampe. The article establishes that socialists triumph because people support them and people support them and we need to attack the ideas that lie as foundation of socialism. Our battle then is one of ideas. However, I think he misses a very important point, one that keeps defenders of liberty in the defensive and often constrained within the safety net of intellectual ghettos.

Socialism is, first and foremost, a movement rooted in praxis, not on the intellect. Such praxis flows from a vision of the world, a prism through which reality is filtered. Visions or worldviews are pre-rational and we all have them. Thus, before this becomes a battle of ideas, it is a battle of inclinations or worldviews based on mostly implicit fundamental premises. Enabling us to sort out the complexity of existence, visions offer a general view of how things work; they offer a guide to understand causation. Systematic reasoning and economic thinking arise only much later and are built on this sense of how the world works.[1]

Socialists triumph because the prevailing social vision hovering over the collective consciousness of our time is collectivist. The tendencies settle by cultural osmosis not by careful analysis. As with all visions, the socialist one remains there even if we are not aware of it, giving shape to our thoughts and policy positions. Providing a sense of what causes what, it is first and foremost impervious to cognition and even determines the weight we give to evidence, as our cognition feeds on the “gut-feeling” that visions provide. That is how socialists looking at the pile of corpses specific socialist systems have created can still say, “It has not yet been tried…”

The prevailing socialist vision is so powerful that the assumptions built on it often become truisms, things we take for granted. If one intellectually disagrees, one is not only unenlightened but one is also sinful. If the deciding factors were only dependent on articulated reason, the contention that we are primarily in a battle of ideas would obtain. But if one is sinful, the ideas coming from ones lips are heresy and sacrilege, underserving of a hearing. Moral superiority demands no empirical evidence. As Thomas Sowell states, “[E]mpirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision.”[2] The vision is so powerful not because it offers satisfaction to intellectual pursuits but because it offers an impression of wholeness and wellbeing and a sense of higher moral standing; what Thomas Sowell calls an anointing. First and foremost we need to understand the assumptions of this vision before engaging in any “battle of ideas.”

Why disagreement is heresy for a collectivist? Let us briefly examine the vision itself. The socialist vision believes in an expanded human capacity to reason. It focuses on the concentration of reason at the top, exercised by those enlightened. Human nature is not constrained to what it is, it is pliable and we can make it better. Man is perfectible and the horizon before him has no boundaries in terms of what we could become. The fact that some are more enlightened demonstrates the path towards what man can become. Man can intentionally apply intelligence and good will to any problem and solve it. The intention to benefit others is what creates the conditions necessary to change the way things are. Human beings have the potential to consistently act based on goodwill and it is possible to change human nature to arrive at such consistency.

In effect, the idea of incentives implies constraints and perpetuates man’s current selfish state. What we need is intentional action to change a human nature entrapped in oppressive systems. We must instill in man a sense of social duty that supersedes his self-interest, as each of us is but a drop in the ocean of the collective. Taken all of this, one who stands in opposition must stand because of evil purposes or unenlightened limitations.[3] If you believe you have found an all-embracing solution to the problems of human existence, extreme thinking and doing seems justifiable.

That is why we can say that socialist formulations are utopian to the core, seeing solutions where there are none and limiting the space for pluralism. They proceed from an idea in the mind that is then hammered into reality. History has witnessed the immense evil perpetrated in the name of great socialist ideas flowing from a vision of how things ought to be, lacking feedback from reality. With the foundations in place and in  need of no revision, the prevailing vision of our time focuses on instrumental modes of action to catalyze the emergence of the ideal. As conclusions about the nature of man and the cause of social processes are preconceived, reality only confirms the need for greater effort. Socialism is about the triumph of the will not about the reign of reason. It seldom offers the opportunity to ponder about the basic assumptions of the vision as it is not interested in a battle of ideas, Socialists see the opponent’s arguments not as an opportunity to dialogue but as a confirmation of the lower state of the other’s consciousness. If they fail in raising it, they discard you as “mean-spirited” and as one to be opposed and even eliminated, not as one holding contrary opinions that deserve space in the public square. In the socialist mind, the differential is of rectitude not of knowledge. They honestly believe they have already won that battle. It is better described as a hurricane sweeping away the substance of the present order.

The ideological origin of present struggles is to be found not on an engagement of ideas but on the will of those who defend them to shatter the walls of the opposing vision. I am not making the will a more basic value than being, just describing what is needed now to open space to confront the prevailing vision. We could battle for ideas all day long and win debates here and there but the battle is lost if liberty is not presented in practical fashion and those who trust in freedomdo not  immerse themselves in the lives of the people. We must fight praxis with praxis. The problem with liberty thinkers is that they have a deficit in inclination towards action; activism sounds to them like sitting on a nail.  The same way as facts are mere curiosities of existence, ideas on liberty are interesting cocktail activities if they are not actualized.

Oftentimes, defenders of freedom lack a revolutionary spirit and assume that the battle is one that can be won merely by solid argumentation. They exhibit here a similar attitude as the socialists.  Liberty becomes something you ponder about in academia and defend through think tanks. What is needed, they seem to assume, is to train the future leaders of academic pursuits and, in top-down fashion, liberty will trickle down. In so doing, they give the defenders of socialism the upper hand. Socialists already control academia and filter fields through clear ideological pathways. As said earlier, we run the risk of ghettoizing Liberty by creating many small islands of freedom thinking.

When defenders of liberty talk of a battle of ideas they are being consistent with a tradition of offering the opponent the benefit of the doubt and thinking that reason will prevail. Oftentimes, defenders of liberty see their opponents as well-intended but in error. At worse, the opponent is seen as imperceptive or foolish. In such descriptions we can see a hope that the other may be rescued from error by intellectual engagement. Liberty is seen as embedded in pluralism. Disagree with a leftist and you are simplistic, ill-intended, a dupe, a sell-out, even evil. Your views are to be wiped away, burned at the stake, and opposed with zeal, not with reason. As the socialist idea is the prevailing vision of our time many grow up never thinking there is a need to distrust it; it presents a road map that offers a sense of security. Living in the eye of the socialist storm, they see no good reason to venture afar from its gravitational tug. Shattering that sense of security must precede any intellectual battle.

Moreover, there is another disadvantage here for those who insist in freedom. Freedom is a vision that leaves an empty canopy at the end of choice; it is particular. It is open-ended and amicable to discovery, surprise, goodness and also sin. For those who believe in freedom, even error has rights. Socialism, however, is a comprehensive system of thought that engulfs in certainty the whole of society and even the very nature of man. The way to counter such system is not to be found first in a battle of ideas but in the very praxis the socialist pursues.

Liberty is to be lived and modeled or it becomes a fraud. We must “dirty our hands” and give the prevailing vision a run for its money in the battlefield of life. One of the reasons we call the Freedom and Virtue Institute a movement of community organizers for freedom is because we insist that an institute must be actively engaged in action while remaining intellectually satisfying. Modeling freedom opens the doors of dialogue by dissipating some of the force that tacitly asphyxiates the body politic. When you walk side by side with the poor and those who are most vulnerable to the power of the prevailing vision you may find an opening to get to the heart before you get to the brain. Modeling freedom shows that it works and helps people begin to internalize freedom as a value.  Yes, it helps freedom to sip in by osmosis and offers an opportunity to break the chains of the prevailing vision.

For too long many have spoken to the poor and minorities from afar, telling people about freedom. Freedom is associated often with theories “white people “ believe or “the rich” want to fool you with. A doses of leftist revolutionary praxis will suit well to those so interested in battles of ideas.

[1] See Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New York: Quill, 1987) Chapter One.

[2] Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995) p.2.

[3] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, pp. 27-35.