Why is it that academics in universities around the world seem to portray themselves as champions of the working class?
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the intellectuals and the ruling elite have viewed themselves as separate from and above the affairs of everyday working life and those who perform the mundane tasks upon which their own material survival depends. In the ancient world, "work" was performed by slaves, and anything connected with manual labor was considered beneath the dignity of a "free man" of the Greek city-state. The lower slave class worked the land, harvested the fields, manufactured the implements and objects necessary for the household so the free men could pursue the "higher purposes" of beauty, the good, and the affairs of the city-state.
That elitist attitude has never left many intellectuals over the centuries. The average man's intellect cannot rise above material needs and pursuit of profit, the elite believes. The intellectual's mind and time is too valuable and too superior to be taken up with such matters. This partly explains the condescending and contemptuous attitude of many intellectuals toward the merchant, the businessman, or the manufacturer.
The intellectual's concern for the condition of the "working class" can partly be traced back to the philosophical scholars in the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, who, while recognizing temporal authority, reminded earthly kings and princes that there is only one Lord over all men. And that in the eyes of that one Lord all are equal. Commoners and slaves have souls just as precious to God as those of noblemen and kings. Earthly rulers should temper their power with justice and mercy, and by doing so their reward would be much greater in heaven.
In the 18th century, with the beginning of the development of what today we call modern economics, a concern for the material betterment of the common man became more distinct. After all, in a period increasingly concerned with "natural rights" and the "rights of man," it was logical that attention would also turn to how the material and social situation of the common subject would be raised and improved. Adam Smith's famous work is entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, meaning all the members of society, not merely the material conditions of the monarch and his state.
The French Physiocrats and the Scottish moral philosophers explained that there was a "natural order" to society, just as in the realm of the physical sciences. The task of political economists (as they then called themselves) was to uncover the nature of that social order and to understand which government policies would enhance the productive capability of that order and which would retard the capacity for the production of wealth.
Their conclusion was that given the nature of man and the potentials for material improvement through division of labor, the best set of government policies were those of respect for individual rights and private property, free competition, and free trade.
John R. McCulloch, writing in the 1830s, expressed it this way in his book, Principles of Political Economy:
"[The greatest] misfortune [is] to be subjected to a government which does not respect and maintain the right of property. This is the greatest of calamities. The ravages of civil war, pestilence, and famine, may be repaired; but nothing can enable a nation to contend against the deadly influence of an established system of violence and rapine. . . . Let us not, therefore, deceive ourselves by supposing that it is possible for any people to emerge from barbarism, or to become wealthy, prosperous, and civilized, without the security of property. . . . Where it is wanting, it is idle to expect either riches or civilization."
McCulloch goes on to emphasize that a respect for private property benefits all members of the society, not just the "rich":
"The right of property has not made poverty, but it has powerfully contributed to make wealth. . . . It is a mere error and delusion to suppose that the rich have been benefited at the expense of the poor. The right of property gives no advantage to one over another. . . . The protection afforded to property by all civilized societies, though it has not made all men rich, has done more to increase their wealth than all their other institutions put together. . . . The establishment of a right to property enables exertion, invention and enterprise, forethought and economy, to reap their due reward. But it does this without inflicting the smallest imaginable injury upon anything else. . . . Without its protection, the rich would become poor, and the poor would be totally unable to become rich--all would sink to the same bottomless abyss of barbarism and poverty."
But at the same time, in the last decade of the 18th and the early decades of the 19th centuries, a different intellectual current emerged: socialism. One of the most influential of these first works was William Godwin's book Political Justice, in which he argued that property was not a natural institution of man. Rather it was an artificial creation that assured exclusive control over resources and land to a few, who then had the ability to obtain wealth from the efforts of others.
He argued further that private property created in man an acquisitive nature, i.e., a selfish desire for wealth at the expense of others. If only private property could be abolished, dreamed Godwin, then men would no longer be selfish: they would share and work in common for the general good. Greed and a drive toward violence would leave the human heart. Government, as an institution to protect the property of the few against the just needs of the many, would no longer be necessary, either. Communal anarchism was man's future, if only men could come to see the evil of the institution of private property and transform it into the common property of all.
The French socialists and the German socialists (including Marx) of the 19th century all came to have a conception of themselves as the true seers of the human condition. They had transcended, in their understanding, the everyday misconceptions and "false consciousness" of the exploited and oppressed "working class." Their duty was to educate the workers to see their "true" interests and lead them to the utopia of tomorrow.
There was only one problem: the workers were not easily convinced. For the longest time in the early and middle decades of the 19th century, socialism as
a vision of society remained the plaything of the intellectual elite of the political left. Workers were interested in equal rights before the law; the right to acquire and inherit property; the freedom of occupation and profession; and the right to freely compete. And when workers did combine for collective action in bargaining over wages and work conditions, their concern was with their material situation in the workplace; not with remaking the world into a collectivist paradise.
Only in the later half of the 19th century, especially in imperial Germany, did the "social democrats" begin to succeed in persuading a growing number of the "working class" that their material improvement required nationalization of the means of production and centralized redistribution of wealth through government welfare programs.
While many intellectuals in the United States did not accept the socialist agenda of full collectivization of the economy under central planning, in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, a growing number of these intellectuals in Europe and America accepted the socialist (and Marxian) critique of capitalism. But they believed that the socialist vision of a fully transformed society was too extreme, so instead, they became advocates of intervention, regulation, redistribution, and partial control of the market economy to reduce and ameliorate the "cruelty," "exploitation" and "greed" of the property owners against the working class.
As philosophers, political theorists, economists, sociologists, and writers concerned with justice, goodness, beauty, and "right" against the wrongs and
evils of the world, the intellectuals increasingly came to see themselves as the champions of the weak and powerless.
Besides, as disinterested thinkers (as they have seen themselves) they can rise above the narrow, petty, and selfish interests of the participants of the profit-oriented and money-making activities of the market economy. Theirs is the duty and task to remake society for the better future that can belong to all, and most especially for the "weak" and the "poor."
In his 1944 book, Civitas Humana, the German free market economist Wilhelm
Roepke called it "The hubris of the intellectual." In the title of his 1974 Nobel lecture, Friedrich A. Hayek called it "The Pretense of Knowledge." Unfortunately, under whatever name, it still dominates the thought of most of the intellectual community around the world.
For additional reading on intellectuals and the working class, I recommend:
On Intellectuals and Society:
"The Opium of the Intellectuals" by Raymond Aron (1957)
"The Treason of the Intellectuals" by Julien Benda (1928)
"How Economics Became the Dismal Science" by Richard M. Ebeling in "Economic Education: What Should We Learn About the Free Market," edited by Richard M. Ebeling (1994)
"The Political Myths and Economic Realities of the Welfare State" by Richard
M. Ebeling in "American Perestroika: The Demise of the Welfare State" edited by Richard M. Ebeling (1995)
"The Intellectuals and Socialism"  by Friedrich A. Hayek reprinted in Hayek's "Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics" (1967)
"The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait" edited by George B. Huszar (1960)
"The Attitude of the Intellectuals to the Market Economy" by Bertrand de Jouvenel in "The Owl: A Quarterly Journal of International Thought" (January,1951)
"The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality" by Ludwig von Mises (1956)
"The Vision of the Anointed" by Thomas Sowell (1995)