For the New Chinese Intellectual

by Terry Hulsey





There is no Chinese intellectual.

A public intellectual is someone who speaks and writes to affect government policy. With government decision making closed to public discussion in modern China, such a class cannot possibly exist. Those Chinese who speak and write on policy matters immediately cast themselves as dissidents: They have no avenue of expression other than to condemn policy that has been decided without their influence. The best known Chinese intellectual so called, Ai Weiwei, is indeed an archetype for the misdesignation: From creating provocative art, to a reflexive advocacy of democracy, to calling the Communist Party Central Committee a bunch of motherf**kers, he has at last reached the ultimate cultural devolution as a rap artist. Indeed, the man knows not quite what to do with himself.

Perusing a list of top intellectuals offered by Foreign Policy magazine, if we strike off all who wrote to affect government policy – and this must mean every one with any standing in economics – who is left? Likely none. Even someone who at first glance seems to be a scholar with no advocacy of policy, someone like Hans Küng for example, on closer examination must be stricken. For if Mr. Küng had never characterized evolution as naive and unenlightened nor suggested that there is no peace among nations until there is peace among religions, he would not have made the list. In such case he would have written and spoken for learned colleagues, that is to say purely as a scholar, which is emphatically not a public intellectual. But let us consider a high-ranking member of this list, the late Christopher Hitchens, who proudly designated himself a public intellectual, and let us try to strip him of this title. Of course this is impossible unless we remove all of his many political pronouncements. Consider then his debating tours to promote atheism. His many ripostes skewering those who use religion to frame policy require removing this material as well. But if we could imagine him speaking only on religious subjects strictly with a view to changing opinions, he would then have to be designated an evangelist, admittedly of a special type, but not an intellectual. Well then, assume for the moment that – from being appalled by spongy handshakes, let us imagine – Mr. Hitchens was keen on proselytizing the virtues of manual pottery making. But in that capacity, delivering his remarks in the absence of public policy on the subject, he would have spoken or written only as an enthusiast.

A clear rectification of names is vital, since the public intellectual is the smallest functional unit of the modern state, analogous to the living cell in the life sciences or the atom in the physical sciences. Branches of government in the modern state may change, its bureaucracies may grow and die, and its constituencies mutate, but without its intellectuals it cannot exist for a moment. Without this clarity at the outset it will not be useful to consider two other key attributes of the intellectual that lie before us: The primary service he renders the state, and his enablement of democracy.


“Policy” cannot exist in the absence of public goods.

Imagine a state with no public goods. In such a state every man-made object, every inch of earth and all its waters would have a clearly titled owner. Such a state would be the consummation of private property. It would be a society of total private ownership, of total capitalism. Indeed it would not be a “state” at all. In such a society any public appeal for the common disposition of property would be purely advisory. The agent making such a public appeal would be merely a consultant; and the role of public intellectual would cease to exist.

Once again, let us test our own terms. Imagine a film critic in this private society, which we will suppose has come into existence in Xinjiang province in far west China. He views a film concerning the travails of a family during a draught in this region and reports to his reading public that he finds the characters convincing, the plot compelling, etc. In this capacity he is merely a species of literary critic. But now let us suppose that before seeing the film he goes to a cocktail party and hears a climatologist breathlessly describe the doom awaiting the province if vast preparations are not undertaken before an imminent draught. This time the film critic describes for his readers the travails of the draught-stricken family as a cautionary tale, a call to action for every thoughtful person in the province. Has our film critic now become an intellectual? How so, if there are no public goods to command? How so, if the larger property owners already have at their disposal not ill-informed film critics or would-be intellectuals, but expert climatologists? How so, if every one of his readers is free to ignore his admonitions?

Not to be dismissive, one can easily imagine members of such a society with broad interests and broad reading, having less than scholarly knowledge of many subjects. One can also easily imagine the society benefiting from such people, not to mention the pleasure of their company. But an honest person will see at once how very different such people are from what is currently designated as public intellectuals. The climatologist in the illustration above will likely be angling to network with others who see that government grants await those who yoke the private property owners to the regulations of a state whose primary interest is not a dispassionate study of the climate. The film critic will write not with a calm presentation of the facts but with a hectoring self-righteousness that proclaims himself wiser than the capitalists who have magically amassed their estates by caring only for themselves, with the foresight of no more than a summer’s day.

At the opposite extreme is the current Chinese government, in which all things are owned by the state – that is, where all goods are public goods. Though officially private property is accorded some protection, such rights are moot, since the land on which the property sits can only be leased from the state, never owned outright. Abstractly considered, the condition of total public goods might seem to demand the services of many intellectuals to assist in their allocation. But the extreme proves itself logistically impossible. The Shanghai Stock Exchange alone has about 90 million trading accounts. Even assuming that the government condescends to leave these unmolested to private traders, it must be assumed that allocations in public properties would be many times more numerous. Which properties would be allocated? By which set of intellectuals? According to what rules and standard of need? If indeed all property belongs to the public at large, why should the government rely on the perforce chaotic and incomplete information of an intellectual class anyway? One can alternatively imagine the happy communist going online every day and voting on spending more (or less) on rural electrification in Qinghai province, on closing a steel mill in Hebei, or on constructing a new workers’ resort at Yalong Bay in Hainan. If ever the phrase “one man, one vote, one time” had meaning, it would for this state of affairs, for the result would be immediately disastrous. Clearly, the calculation problem so clearly described by von Mises absolutely forbids the participation of a nation of voting commissars or of myriad intellectuals in deciding the allocation of public property in a country of 9.7 billion square kilometers and 1.3 billion people. In the last analysis, it is the 25 members of the Chinese Politburo who allocate the public property of China; they make their decisions in secrecy; and as long as the property remains public, they must, since no accounting can possibly be given.


Does the public intellectual require a democratic forum?

Obviously the affairs of any state require the skills of a literate class. But does this literate class require a democratic forum for its proper functioning?

In China for about 2,000 years, a literati of professional bureaucrats ran the Chinese imperium along Confucian principles. The system was successful, without the need for any democratic forum. Needless to say, it was a system of command from the top. But because it embodied Confucian ideals, its ideal was a perfection of virtue in the leader. Even for the West that knows all about virtue, this ideal may be hard to comprehend, especially its emphasis upon a harmony that flows naturally throughout society from a virtuous ruler instead of upon a set of mechanical laws:

Chi K’ang Tzu [a prince of the sixth century B.C. state of Lu] asked Confucius about government saying:

“Suppose I were to kill the unjust, in order to advance the just. Would that be all right?” Confucius replied: “In doing government, what is the need of killing? If you desire good, the people will be good. The nature of the Superior Man is like the wind, the nature of the inferior man is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it always bends.” (Analects 12:19)

In Korea for about 500 years, literati formed the chungin (jungin), the middle class who ran the Joseon (1392–1897) Korean dynasty, also along Confucian principles and also in the absence of democratic principles.

In the West, although the efforts of the Apostle Paul to disseminate a complex theology to a mass audience might characterize him as an archetypical intellectual, his work was not concerned with the allocation of public goods. Closer in this function would be the work of the Christian intellectuals who forged the False Decretals to increase the power and independence of the Church, and who forged the Donation of Constantine, which validated Church properties as a gift from that emperor. Thus before modern times, any case made for a Christian intellectual clearly stands as an aberration from the function and importance of the Church: Its scholars preached and wrote for the salvation of souls, not for the benefit of the state.

The scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance around 900 also seem out of place in this role, since this “renaissance” never reached a wide public nor defined itself in relation to the state.

The Italian Renaissance suggests more plausible candidates. The political works of two of the most notable writers of the period, De Monarchia (1312) of Dante and The Prince (1513) of Machiavelli had influence in spite of condemnation by the Church. With the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the burgeoning of the modern state, an agent that we might call the political scholar came into his own. But because his face was turned to wealthy patrons or learned colleagues, not to citizens, who in any case were disenfranchised and unlettered, we cannot designate him an intellectual.

It is with the French Revolution that the public intellectual can truly be distinguished in his modern form. Here he comes to life in his most flamboyant aspect: His ceaseless ranting about politics, his aggressive propagandizing on behalf of a revolutionary state that consciously employs him not just to allocate public goods but to reshape the very consciousness of a democratic mass that is passably literate enough to read his output, and his weakling’s sycophancy for the prevailing power.

It is in this period we find the trait that sets him apart from all his literate forebears: His role not so much as a “second-hand dealer in ideas,” to use F.A. Hayek's famous snub, but as a purveyor of legitimacy to frail democratic regimes deracinated from the phylacteries of church and the regalia of heredity. This is the great insight of Helmut Schoeck's Twelve Delusions of Our Time, a book available in English but read by no one: The modern state’s chronic need for legitimacy. Legitimacy is the golden article of trade of the intellectual, the ichor and ambrosia of the all-powerful that only he can provide. Whatever the power of a modern democratic regime, even if it spends more than all other nations on earth on its military, even if it is the economic envy of the world, it remains neurotically anxious that someday a will-o’-the-wisp electorate, aroused by one of the revolutionary democratic credos that ground its power, might awaken and sweep it into oblivion.

From our reasoning and our brief transit of the history of the intellectual, we infer several additional characteristics:

• The intellectual’s influence depends on a modicum of public goods, excluding the extremes of none or all of the society’s wealth.

• Democracy may not be so much a prerequisite forum of the intellectual as a process by which he trades legitimacy to unstable regimes.


Democratic regimes are inherently ungovernable.

The state; public property; democracy; the intellectual: These four work with a baneful synergy. Without public property there is no need for a state, its formal cause, as allocator; without public property there is no need for democracy, its efficient cause, to decide how to allocate it among its many owners; without public property there is no need for an intellectual class to give legitimacy to the necessarily small number who benefit most from its existence.

History, especially the recent record, testifies that even as public property grows as a percentage of the state’s wealth, ever greater claims are made upon it, while ever greater license and power is given to the central government to enforce those claims. The boast that democracy is central to the freedom and prosperity of modern states is iterated by their intellectuals in defiance of this history, and inculcated in their public schools. In particular, this boast that democracy is central to the freedom and prosperity of the United States betrays a willful misunderstanding of its history. The word “democracy” does not appear in its founding documents; all of the Founders considered it an evil as bad as tyranny; and the primary architect of its constitution, James Madison, in Federalist 10 famously stated

that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed is a critical demolition of the claims of democracy, primarily from the consideration of its comparative lack of future orientation:

[D]emocracy is seen as promoting an increase in the social rate of time preference (present-orientation) or the “infantilization” of society. It results in continually increased taxes, paper money and paper money inflation, an unending flood of legislation, and a steadily growing “public” debt. By the same token, democracy leads to lower savings, increased legal uncertainty, moral relativism, lawlessness, and crime. Further, democracy is a tool for wealth and income confiscation and redistribution.

Democracy cannot be defined without the existence of public goods. And yet this very requirement of its definition makes it fatally unworkable. Consider the classic paradigms for the disposal of property, viz., monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, aristocracy. It is easy to imagine a clear assignment of property to the ruling group in each of these cases. But only in the case of democracy is this impossible. It is exactly the insurmountable obstacles to having public goods assigned to its several members that require it to have proxies acting in its name, proxies that must have ever greater discretionary powers as the proportion of public goods increases. The example of a total public goods society like China makes this obvious.


The new Chinese intellectual offers a program of freedom and prosperity.

We live in a democratic era. And the inability of most to think outside the ideological framework of the age in which they live will lead them to suppose that a critique of democracy is somehow a denigration of the legitimate aspiration of all people to freedom and prosperity. Exactly the opposite is true.

The overarching principle is the institutionalization of the right of each person to freedom and property. Therefore the first mandate in realizing this general principle is the eradication of democracy. This mandate is realized in klerostocracy: The polity where power resides in randomized elections.

As Étienne de la Boétie observed in the sixteenth century, the masses can easily throw off their outnumbered masters if only they awaken to the possibility. The masters of the modern state have institutionalized democratic elections to simultaneously pander to this ideal while narcotizing its realization. These machiavellians have every reason to live in anxiety that the masses are waking up to this pious fraud. Regardless of their party, the depressingly unvarying class of politicians year after year promises solutions to the electorate and year after year not only fails to provide solutions but actually compounds the problems. This class does not vary, except perhaps in its members’ personal peccadillos, because the proxies who allocate the public goods architectonically exclude any who would challenge their power. But by randomly selecting from a pool of highly qualified candidates, instead of voting among a very few candidates carefully filtered by the state, all political machinations surrounding the election process are eliminated and truly capable officials have a chance of serving.

This process has been detailed elsewhere for the case of the United States, but it might be applied for China as follows. Currently there are somewhat less than 100 million Chinese men over the age of 60, or about 7 percent of the total population. Taking round numbers, groups of 100 of them would meet several months before the start of the next term of the revised lower national assembly and choose 10 candidates not of their group, living in their electoral district and known to be capable and willing to serve in public office. Assuming for the moment that the area of 10 of these elder groups formed the smallest electoral unit, that unit would represent about 14,300 people. From the 100 candidates submitted by this unit, one would be picked at random by a bonded private agency. Winners at this level would form sub-provincial legislative assemblies representing a convenient number of electoral units formed into electoral districts. As the district elders did, these sub-provincial assemblies would then submit candidates for random selection for service in the provincial legislative assemblies. And likewise the provincial assemblies would submit candidates for random selection for service in the national legislative assembly. Those who had served at least one term in either house of the provincial or national assembly would then form the candidate pool for random selection to serve in the upper national assembly. At each level a different bonded private agency would receive these submittals and guarantee the randomness of its choices. The term of the lower national assembly might be six years; the upper, nine years.

This randomized election process would be conducted in similar fashion for elective offices of the executive branch, conveniently at the same times and places as the legislative election.

This process admits of a great deal of variety. For example, the consolidation of the electoral units, though this would require an extra random drawing, can vary to fit the number and size of the electoral districts; the electoral unit itself can vary slightly, so long as the number remained small enough to preserve the principle of personal discussion among electors and candidates; the elders of the electoral unit might include women, so long as the principle of the primacy of elders remained intact; specific techniques for guaranteeing the randomness of choices would admit of elaboration, as would the standards of randomness and the penalties and remedies for failing the guarantee.

A second general principle for the Chinese program of reform is the reduction of the pool of public goods. For the United States Constitution, James Madison provided an ingenious method to accomplish this goal: He divided the national public goods from the states’ public goods with the principle of federalism. This technique lasted until April 9, 1865. It is certainly worthwhile to pursue this principle in China by increasing the autonomy of the provinces. However, the following technique may prove useful in realizing this second general principle.

At every level of Chinese government there should be a sharp distinction between public goods spent on common goals and those spent on the redistribution of wealth. No government entity shall extract or borrow funds for any redistributive scheme. All funds for redistribution, for example relief of the poor, emergency assistance, “health and human services,” pensions for public officials at every level, etc., will come solely from the voluntary contribution of citizens, entering a pool at the level of the smallest electoral district. The executive branch may spend these funds to benefit those outside its district, but in every case the expenditure must be authorized by its legislature.

Furthermore, only by formally agreeing to the Terms of Citizenship does a citizen become eligible for the pool of voluntary funds. This formal agreement would come from signing and bearing a card on which these terms are printed. This card would read something as follows:

• I will not support any public policy that initiates violence against others.

• I will not support any public policy that would be unethical were an individual alone to follow it.

• I will not consider religious arguments as reasoned support for any public policy.

The first two items represent a personal defense of freedom and property; the third, a commitment to reason in the public forum. The last is not to denigrate religion or religious motives. For example, the defense of traditional marriage may spring from religious motives; but policy arguments for supporting it must come from history, sociology, and other forms of reasoning, which provide ample support indeed.

The principal source for funding government shall come from the value added tax, set uniformly at the national level and collected solely at the provincial level. Direct personal taxation is forbidden since it would only have support on a proportional basis, and this condition would constantly muddle the distinction just made between common goods and redistributive goods. Poll taxes are forbidden for similar reasons. Local governments may acquire additional resources through a property tax, assessed at no more than 5% on 5% of valuation, but these governments must provide a scale of options to the citizen to not pay the local tax in exchange for foregoing specified local government services.

The primary instrumentality of the national government shall be an Imperium of Virtue, unarmed, with no enforcement powers whatever and no powers of arrest, with complete freedom of travel throughout the nation. Its members will be selected by national examination. They shall have wide-ranging powers of inquiry, much like investigative reporters; they shall accept petitions from any citizens bearing the card of Terms of Citizenship; they shall be given appropriate venues by the local governments for holding public assemblies for considering grievances, for conducting inquiries, and for elaborating the national agenda. They shall wear distinctive clothing with distinctive insignia, e.g., an image of two cranes in flight to signify the highest rank, with other markings conferred by provincial authorities to indicate special personal courage and integrity. Anyone who assaults these agents of the Imperium shall receive exemplary and public punishment.

This program is not a constitution, but an outline of the main elements that will limit the claims of the state, sharply demarcate public property, eradicate the cancer of democracy, and transform the role of the Chinese intellectual.


The prospects of the program for a new Chinese intellectual.

It will be immediately claimed that this program is both wildly bumptious and impractical. We concede the sweeping ambition of the program, but maintain that no scholar could expect to advance anything like it and maintain his state sinecure. As for impractical, we are eager to hear in what way the program is logically unworkable or productive of unintended consequences; we have no interest in that special coterie who hide behind the term to mask their sloth and lack of courage to promote this or any program of action.

We anticipate the criticism that the program temporizes with the Communist Chinese Politburo. It is true that the program has no provision for sweeping the current Chinese government off the map in order to replace it with an anarchist paradise. It is also true that we do not set the best as an enemy against the good.

The current Western crisis in the closely related institutions of the state, public property, democracy, and the public intellectual will not be resolved by any reasoned program. The cancer is too close to its vitals and its parasites too tightly fastened to their host. The crisis may be resolved but only after the collapse of these four institutions. China may avert this fate by another dramatic top-down revolution similar to the one accomplished in 1978, after the promotion of a program by a new breed of Chinese intellectuals.