Get thee to an ivory tower and stay put
Samuel Brittan: Financial Times 02/02/02
Review of Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline By Richard A Posner Harvard 20.50, 408 pages
Judge Richard Posner occupies a unique position in American intellectual life. He started off as an academic lawyer who pioneered the application of economic analysis to his subject. He has since become a judge in the federal appeal court; but in contrast to others who have taken this route he has continued to pour out a stream of books. He has also been in the forefront of public affairs; for instance, he was appointed to try to mediate between the US anti-trust authorities and Microsoft. When I knew him for a brief spell he was learning classical Greek to pass the time.
He has now turned his attention to what he calls the public intellectual. By this he means a writer who speaks in an accessible way on political or ideological matters. They may be people like Milton Friedman, or Galbraith, or Posner himself, who try to popularise their own academic work but then branch out in more opinionated directions. More often, however, they are pontificating way outside their own expertise, but use their authority to pronounce on every subject under the sun.
The archetypal example is Noam Chomsky, who uses the distinction he has achieved in linguistics to denounce US society, which he regards as worse than Stalin's Soviet Union. Posner, not surprisingly, has a low view of the breed. Their comments tend to be opinionated, judgmental, sometimes condescending, and often waspish. They are controversialists, with a tendency to take extreme positions, and are often careless of facts and rash on predictions. They can be novelists, literary critics or journalists; but to a large and growing extent they are moonlighting academics a fact which Posner regrets. The more public they become the less intellectual they get.
There is nothing new in this line of attack. Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, conservative Austrian economists who settled in Britain and the US, came out with very similar analyses in the 1940s and 1950s. They despised this whole class of writing, even though they had to enter the arena themselves to express their dislike. The Austrian critiques appeared mainly as asides in volumes devoted to other topics. Posner has brought the role of the academic media superstar to centre stage in a book devoted exclusively to the subject.
Posner would regard his contribution to taking the debate beyond Hayek and Schumpeter in the statistical analyses he has made of the relationship between frequency of media and of scholarly citations. Some of his tables show no correlation whatever, others a modest negative correlation and yet others nothing of statistical significance.
European readers should be tolerant of this exercise in Chicago positivism, as it has produced lists of names in which we can all wallow some of the most frequently cited being dead or European. But I found far more convincing his verbal reminders of the false predictions made by these eminent men and women, which in many cases have not in the least reduced their prestige with the lay public. George Soros is a rare example of a pundit admitting his error - in this case his 1998 prognostication that global capitalism was about to collapse.
Posner accepts the need for public intellectuals - his ideal is John Stuazrt Mill who died in 1873 - but regrets their low and deteriorating quality. He has an economic explanation for this, similar to that of his Austrian predecessors. Public intellectuals operate in markets without quality control. The public has no means of judging the gurus' credentials and their academic peers do not deign to monitor their work. As Schumpeter once put it, a highly educated lawyer quite rationally treats public affairs as a sub-hobby, which he can do little to influence, and he brings to them less critical intelligence than he would to a game of bridge.
Like so many of its kind, this book is far too exclusively based on the US. His remarks about pundits moonlighting from the leisure and status of the tenured university post will make European academics green with envy. Although he notes that two-thirds of the public intellectuals enumerated from media mentions are on the left, there are various corrective forces. For instance, he concedes that the think tanks, which are on a par with universities as a source of these intellectuals, are predominantly right wing which would hardly be the case in Europe.
Moreover, the US media compensate for the preponderance of left-wing intellectuals by giving them relatively fewer mentions. Any despairing conservative fearing that the list of mentions would be headed by people such as Galbraith or Chomsky might be reassured to find that the largest number of mentions in 1995-2000 is achieved by Henry Kissinger. The second, third and fourth positions are occupied by former Senator Daniel Moynihan, a Democrat who delighted in puncturing left-wing preconceptions, the conservative columnist George Will and Larry Summers the outgoing US treasury secretary a Democrat all right, but one who came to personify globalisation in the eyes of the left-wing protest movements.
What I enjoyed most were Posner's more personal essays on particular writers. He is just as severe on the right-wing cultural critics of American society (the Jeremiah School) as he is on the knee-jerk left. He dismisses George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as prophecy but reinstates it for its literary and human qualities. He is less kind about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. This is because Posner's conservatism is of the optimistic, individualist kind that celebrates business and technology, and not that of the doom-mongers who look back on some mythical golden age. These latter, although classed as conservative in US parlance, sometimes sound almost identical to the French intellectuals who have arrived in London for the Royal Academy Paris Exhibition and who would like I hope only figuratively to explode a bomb over the modern city.
Posner believes that his anti-heroes have little influence, citing other empirical studies to this effect. But he obviously has a nagging worry that their discourse affects the climate of opinion and what may or may not be regarded as politically possible. He has also an aesthetic distaste for seeing capable academics going slumming for the sake of their egos or political prejudices.
As a reluctant interventionist, Posner's suggested remedies are relatively mild. He would like universities to compel faculty members to put on the internet all their non-academic utterances, in the hope that they will then be more critically inspected. But I suspect that once they get the hang of the technology they will need little further urging.
The sad thing is that his book will
mostly be read by people who already agree with the message
such as the present reviewer rather than those who would
benefit most, but who are more likely to read the attempted
rebuttals which have already been proliferating in the US.
Home page: www.samuelbrittan.co.uk
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