Intellectuals and Authoritarianism

In the preceding post I quoted the German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The quotation is from a book published in 1926, seven years before Schmitt joined the Nazi Party. But Schmitt’s attraction to authoritarianism long predates his party membership. In 1921, according to Wikipedia,

Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay Die Diktatur (on dictatorship), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. In this essay, Schmitt compared and contrasted what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution of his country. He saw the office of the president as a comparatively effective element, because of the power granted to the president to declare a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand). This power, which Schmitt discussed and implicitly praised as dictatorial,[21] was more in line with the underlying mentality of executive power than the comparatively slow and ineffective processes of legislative power reached through parliamentary discussion and compromise.

Shades of Woodrow Wilson, the holder of an earned doctorate and erstwhile academician who had recently been succeeded as president of the United States by Warren G. Harding. Wilson

believed the Constitution had a “radical defect” because it did not establish a branch of government that could “decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done.”…

He also wrote that charity efforts should be removed from the private domain and “made the imperative legal duty of the whole,” a position which, according to historian Robert M. Saunders, seemed to indicate that Wilson “was laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state.”

Another renowned German academic, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), also became a Nazi in 1933. Whereas Schmitt never expressed regret or doubts about his membership in the party. Heidegger did, though perhaps not sincerely:

In his postwar thinking, Heidegger distanced himself from Nazism, but his critical comments about Nazism seem “scandalous” to some since they tend to equate the Nazi war atrocities with other inhumane practices related to rationalisation and industrialisation, including the treatment of animals by factory farming. For instance in a lecture delivered at Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”…

In [a 1966 interview for Der Spiegel], Heidegger defended his entanglement with National Socialism in two ways: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he admitted that he saw an “awakening” (Aufbruch) which might help to find a “new national and social approach,” but said that he changed his mind about this in 1934, largely prompted by the violence of the Night of the Long Knives.

In his interview Heidegger defended as double-speak his 1935 lecture describing the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He affirmed that Nazi informants who observed his lectures would understand that by “movement” he meant National Socialism. However, Heidegger asserted that his dedicated students would know this statement was no eulogy for the Nazi Party. Rather, he meant it as he expressed it in the parenthetical clarification later added to Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), namely, “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.”

The eyewitness account of Löwith from 1940 contradicts the account given in the Der Spiegel interview in two ways: that he did not make any decisive break with National Socialism in 1934, and that Heidegger was willing to entertain more profound relations between his philosophy and political involvement.

Schmitt and Heidegger were far from the only German intellectuals who were attracted to Nazism, whether out of philosophical conviction or expediency. More to the point, as presaged by my inclusion of Woodrow Wilson’s views, Schmitt and Heidegger were and are far from the only intellectual advocates of authoritarianism. Every academic, of any nation, who propounds government action that usurps the functions of private institutions is an authoritarian, whether or not he admits it to himself. Whether they are servants of an overtly totalitarian regime, like Schmitt and Heidegger, or of a formally libertarian one, like Wilson, they are all authoritarians under the skin.

Why? Because intellectualism is essentially rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. [“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays]

If you have everything “figured out”, what is more natural than the desire to make it so? It takes a truly deep thinker to understand that everything can’t be “figured out”, and that rationalism is bunk. That is why intellectuals of the caliber of Oakeshott, Friederich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell are found so rarely in academia, and why jackboot-lickers like Paul Krugman abound.

(See also “Academic Bias“, “Intellectuals and Capitalism“,”Intellectuals and Society: A Review“, and “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“.)

Order vs. Authority

I am an orderly person: an organized, neat, planner. As an orderly person, I have no problem with the idea of living in a community where one’s property must conform to certain standards: the color of house paint, style of siding, height of grass, prompt removal of empty trash bins from the street, only guests’ cars parked in the street (and not overnight), garage door closed when garage isn’t in use, etc.

I know people who object to such rules, and consider them authoritarian. But the occupant of a community with strict environmental standards knows (or should know) what he’s getting into. Living in a regime of strict environmental standards as a matter of choice doesn’t signify a preference for authoritarianism, it signifies a preference for neatness. I, for one, have no desire to push other people around; leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

Oddly, though, the people I know who express disdain for communities with strict environmental standards like to think of themselves as “libertarian”. But they are not; they are “liberals” who have a strong preference for authoritarianism, that is, pushing other people around (e.g., Obamacare, “green” regulations). It’s just that, like most people, they don’t like to be pushed around. There’s no better word for such people than “hypocrite”.

“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection

It is no secret — except to leftists — that they engage in psychological projection of their own authoritarianism when they try to pin the authoritarian label on conservatives. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Another label — which so-called libertarians also like to throw at conservatives — is “tribalists”.  And another one is “haters”. The usual targets of these labels are white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

Yes, aren’t we just so, so tribal and hate-driven? Unlike (not) like Black Muslims, Hispanic reconquistas, feminazis, queer persecutors of cake-makers, illiberal-arts professors, campus radicals, “liberal” yuppies in their chi-chi enclaves, MSM and Hollywood hypocrites, Silicon Valley smuglies, and many another identity-group that takes advantage of America’s liberty and prosperity to spew hate against increasingly powerless white, heterosexual, conservative males of European descent.

It’s psychological projection on steroids.

Disposition and Ideology

In two recent posts (here and here), I’ve drawn a line (perhaps a fuzzy one) between disposition and ideology. I claim that conservatism is first of all a disposition, that is, a temperament or tendency. By contrast, such “isms” as libertarianism, modern (statist) “liberalism”, straight-out socialism (undisguised as “liberalism”), and faux conservatism are ideologies, that is, doctrines or beliefs — though often inchoate and malleable.

An analogous and useful distinction is the one between process and outcome. Temperament is a mental process, a way of approaching politics (among other things). Ideology expresses the desired outcome(s) of the political process. Thus it is that many (most?) “conservatives” in this country are really ideologues who apply the label to themselves, even though they are not conservative by temperament.

In this post I will explore that distinction more rigorously than I have in previous posts. But first I must explain what I mean by politics. It is not just the formal politics of elections, law-making, and other governmental acts. Politics, in its broadest sense, is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components.

The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Politics predates government, and it usually operates independently of government, in accordance with evolved social norms.

In the rest of this post I will address the types of political disposition and the connection between political disposition and political ideology.


Moral Foundations Theory is a good place to start. The Wikipedia article about Moral Foundations describes it (accurately, I believe) as

a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. It was first proposed by the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, building on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder; and subsequently developed by a diverse group of collaborators, and popularized in Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.


Researchers have found that people’s sensitivities to the five moral foundations [Care/Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity] correlate with their political ideologies. Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, Haidt and Graham found that liberals [i.e., leftists] are most sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives are equally sensitive to all five foundations.

(These seem to be solid findings. See “Robustness of Liberal-Conservative Moral Foundations Questionnaire Differences” at blog.)

This does not mean that disposition and ideology are the same thing. It means only that persons of a certain disposition are likely to hold a particular ideology. Further, Haidt and Graham are wrong to characterize conservatism (properly defined) as an ideology. Granted, it has certain policy implications, but it is not an ideology.

An instrument with five dimensions can yield many different outcomes. Certainly there are persons who are neither fish nor fowl, scoring high on, say, three or four dimensions but not on all five; or scoring low on most or all dispositions.

It’s also certain that many people score high on certain dimensions because they want to give the “right” answers. Do leftists, for example, (a) really “care” or (b) do they respond as they do because (for them) “caring” justifies government intervention? The right answer is probably (b), in most cases.

(For more about Moral Foundations and my score — which conforms to my conservatism — go to “My Moral Profile” and scroll down to Moral Foundations Questionnaire.)


I posit three coherent political dispositions: anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian. Persons of the anarchistic disposition probably score low on all five dimensions, with the possible exception of Purity. Conservatives, as noted above, tend to score high on all five dimensions, while “liberals” score high only on Care/Harm and Fairness.

That leaves the field open for the wide swath of “centrist” Americans whose dispositions are as incoherent as their stance on political issues. They are in company with legions of opportunistic politicians, who either lack a substantive disposition or submerge it for the sake of attaining political power and prestige.

Although the incoherent disposition is dominant, it is uninteresting with respect the the connection between disposition and ideology. I will therefore focus on the anarchistic, conservative, and authoritarian dispositions.



The anarchistic disposition rejects authority. This disposition is rarely held, even among persons who proclaim themselves anarchists. Most self-styled anarchists really belong in the authoritarian camp. Theirs is the authoritarianism of violence.

The true anarchist is not only one by disposition but also one by ideology. That is, he believes that there should be no government of any kind. More than that, he believes that rules, including social norms, are oppressive. The true anarchist wouldn’t belong to an organization that promotes anarchy. To do so would contradict his temperament. A true anarchist would live alone, à la Unabomber, fending for himself and avoiding the encumbrances of social intercourse, paid employment, credit cards, etc.

There is nothing more to be said about the anarchistic personality because it is so rare and so withdrawn as to be an insignificant force in matters of governance.


The conservative disposition is cautious, but not stuck in the mud. As Michael Oakeshott puts it,

a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight. [“On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition]

A conservative (by disposition) will respect — or at least inspect — the views of others. A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions”. And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by the kind of superior force wielded by government.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior. That behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; that behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

If there is an ideology that comports with a conservative disposition, it should be libertarianism. But I reject the label, as do many (perhaps most) persons of conservative disposition. I reject the label because libertarianism and self-styled libertarians are too often dismissive of the wisdom and social cohesion the flows from voluntarily evolved social norms.

I have dealt with the defects of libertarian ideology at length elsewhere, as I have also explained that true libertarianism is to be found in conservatism. (See this post, for example, and follow the links therein. See also a later post, which takes up the theme.)

If there is an ideology to which I can subscribe, because it suits my conservative disposition, it is a particular branch of libertarianism known as right-minarchism. (See this post for a discussion of right-minarchism in the context of a taxonomy of political philosophies.)


The authoritarian disposition has no patience for caution. The authoritarian insists on overriding social norms to fulfill his ideology.

What is that ideology? The specifics change with the winds of elite opinion. At bottom, the ideology is a belief that people must be made to behave correctly (whatever that means at the moment). There is no place for trial-and-error. “Reason” and “science” (which are really neurotic emotion and magical thinking) must be made to prevail. Thus force is the preferred instrument of the authoritarian — whether it is the force of mob rule or the force of government.

You will have guessed by now that it is leftists (“liberals“) who are usually authoritarian by temperament. This is no news to anyone who has read about “liberal” fascism. I have written much about it, from many angles. (See this, also.)

Why, then, do leftists score high on Care/Harm and Fairness? I suggested earlier that leftists “care” because “caring” justifies government intervention. By the same token, “fairness” is important to leftists, because once having defined it they can then marshal the power of the state to enforce it.

Even faux libertarians fall back on government to ensure outcomes that they define as “fair”, such as same-sex marriage.


I must end this post by addressing, not for the first time, the myth that conservatives are authoritarian. The source of this canard is psychological projection by leftists. One of the left’s favorite examples of a “conservative” authoritarian is Adolf Hitler. This is a risible example because Hitler was a leftist.

For much more on these points, see “Leftism“, the associated bibliography., and “Liberty in Chains“.

Normally, I would now add a list of related posts, but the list would be intolerably long. If you want to read more of what I’ve had to say about politics and personality, go to these sections of my “Favorite Posts” page:

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left

IV. The Constitution and the Rule of Law

VI. Economics: Principles and Issues

VIII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness

IX. Intelligence and Psychology<

X. Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies

XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government

Because I often build on earlier posts, it’s best to start with the more recent posts in each section, and work your way toward older posts.


The Psychologist Who Played God

UPDATED 02/12/14 (related reading and related posts added)

There’s a story at Slate titled “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Here are some key passages:

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change….

…Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting…. This … led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….

[T]he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity….

In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Rokeach — the psychologist who played God — belonged to a coterie of left-wing psychologists who strove to portray conservatism as aberrant, and to equate it with authoritarianism. This thesis emerged in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who seems sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno … was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

I was first exposed to Adorno’s conservatism-as-authoritarianism thesis in a psychology course taught by Rokeach around the time he was polishing a complementary tome, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (related links). The bankruptcy of the Adorno-Rokeach thesis has been amply documented. (See this and this, for example.) The question is why academic leftists like Adorno and Rokeach would go to such pains to concoct an unflattering portrait of conservatives.

Keep in mind, always, that modern “liberals” are anything but liberal, in the classical sense. (See this and this, and be sure to consult Jonah Goldberg’s former blog, Liberal Fascism.) Modern “liberals” are authoritarian to the core, as is evident in the state to which they have brought us. They nevertheless persist in believing — and proclaiming — themselves to be friends of liberty, even as they seek to dictate how others should live their lives. They deny what they are because they know, deep down, that they are what they profess to abhor: authoritarians.

A classic way to resolve a deep psychological conflict of that kind is to project one’s own undesired traits onto others, especially onto one’s social and political enemies. That, I maintain, is precisely what Adorno, Rokeach, and their ilk have done in The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and similar tracts. And that, I maintain, is precisely what “liberals” do when they accuse conservatives of base motivations, such as racism and lack of empathy. Nothing is more racist than “liberal” condescension toward blacks; nothing is more lacking in empathy than “liberal” schemes that deprive blameless individuals of jobs (affirmative action) and prevent hard-working farmers and business-owners from passing their farms and businesses intact to their heirs (the estate tax). Nothing is more authoritarian than modern “liberalism.”

Milton Rokeach, rest his soul, acknowledged his penchant for authoritarianism, at least  in the case of the “Three Christs.” If only the “liberals” who govern us — and the “liberals” who cheer them on — would examine their souls, find the authoritarianism within, and root it out.

That will be a cold day in hell.

*     *     *

Related reading:
James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?,” March 2012
John J. Ray, “A Counterblast to ‘Authoritarianism’,” Dissecting Leftism, December 20, 2013
James Lindgren, “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?,” February 2014

Related posts:
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the “Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited