Most reviewers of books on public policy, are, or at least aspire to be, public intellectuals. Moreover, everybody loves lists. A book whose central offering is a list of public intellectuals, ranked by fame and scholarly eminence would seem to be guarantted of receiving plenty of attention, favourable and otherwise. Richard Posner's study of public intellectuals has certainly done so. Posner is well-qualified to write such a book being one of the leading scholars in the field of economic analysis of law, a US Federal judge and a leading protagonist in the debate over the 2000 Presidential election and the Florida recount.
Posner's central thesis, reflected in his subtitle, is summarised in one of the quotation that heads the introduction 'the correspondence between the decline of the great public intellectuals and the resurrection of the professors is thus no mere coincidence.' Posner argues that the growth of the university system has provided a natural career path for intellectuals, but one that is inimical to the set of qualities required of a public intellectual. According to Posner, academics are too specialised in their knowledge, and lack the orientation to a general audience required
Posner gives plenty of reasons for thinking that the quality of public intellectuals may have declined, but presents no real evidence. He notes, but does not avoid, the trap of comparing the best of the past with the average of the present. Throughout the book, the intellectuals of today are compared to George Orwell, who is, to put it mildly, a hard act to follow.
But even reading only Orwell's side of the controversies in which he was engaged makes it clear that the British public intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s were a pretty mixed bag. Some of them were stars nearly as bright as Orwell himself, but others were decidedly dim bulbs.
A similar problem affects Posner's discussion of prediction and influence. As he points out, the predictions of many public intellectuals have been proved dramatically wrong, usually with little or no adverse effects on their subsequent careers. Most of his examples come from leftwingers. However, he correctly observes that the central claim of Hayek's Road to Serfdom, namely that the policies of the British Labour Party would lead to totalitarianism, was way off the mark. This contrasts with the assumption, common among rightwingers who have not read the book that it was an attack on communism, and therefore vindicated by 1989. Posner is right to say that public intellectuals have not done well in predicting social and economic trends.
But what is the appropriate standard for comparison? Predicting social and economic trends is exceptionally difficult, and the track record of full-time specialists, such as economic modellers and Wall Street analysts, is far from inspiring. These forecasters are typically looking at relatively easy issues like economic growth rates over a five-year horizon or the profitability of public companies and they still get things wrong as often as not.
Similarly, Posner argues that public intellectuals are not really influential, partly because their work is, in large measure, a form of entertainment. But again, we must ask, compared to what? Compared to an idealised view of the public intellectual as a generally-recognised fount of wisdom, whose pronouncements are sufficient to determine public opinion on any given issue, the real thing falls short. But if we take the 500 or so intellectuals on Posner's list, are they more or less influential, with respect to public opinion, than, say, the 500 or so members of the US Congress ? The answer is far from obvious.
And so we come, inevitably, to the list. The question of who is, and is not, a public intellectual is inevitably a subjective one. It is not too hard to identify people involved in public affairs, but, much trickier to distinguish those who bring an 'intellectual' approach to the debate from those who don't.
The main use Posner makes of his list is to argue that there is a weak or even negative correlation between 'publicness' as measured by a count of media mentions, and 'intellectuality', as measured by academic citations. However, a look at the leaders on each ranking suggests that it would be unwise to place too much weight on this finding.
The top ten 'public' intellectuals are Henry Kissinger, Daniel Moynihan, George Will, Lawrence Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich, Sidney Blumenthal, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, and William Safire. Safire and Will make the list only because of syndicated republication of their columns - apart from this they score few media mentions. Of the remaining eight, six are famous primarily as holders of public office and the remaining two, Miller and Rushdie are major writers whose lives have been thrust into the public spotlight, but whose contributions to public debate are relatively peripheral. It is necessary to go to 19th and 20th places on the list to find names (William Kristol and William F. Buckley) that would normally be associated with the term 'public intellectual'.
In other words, public intellectuals as such are not particularly famous. This is not so surprising. An analysis based on media mentions would probably conclude that America's top sporting figures were OJ Simpson, Mike Tyson and Tonya Harding. (Actually, sporting archetype Michael Jordan outscores all three according to Google, but these notorious figures outrank the real champions in their respective sports).
The analysis based on academic citations has similar problems. The top five are Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky. Except for Chomsky, who is sui generis, none of these can really be regarded as public intellectuals in the US context. After Chomsky, the first real public intellectuals are Steven Jay Gould at 10, and Posner himself, at 11.
Posner ranks 68th in media mentions, respectable, but just behind Camille Paglia, and JK Galbraith, both of whom come in for some nasty swipes. Readers inclined to malice might wonder whether Posner would be so dismissive of the public intellectual role if his academic and media rankings were reversed.
Still, Posner is probably right in saying that the correlation between public exposure and academic eminence is modest. As he points out, the skills required are different. Moreover, time is finite. Hours spent honing an opinion piece for the New York Times might alternatively be allocated to revising a journal article, or promoting one's work on the academic seminar circuit, both important tasks for those aspiring to Posnerian citation rates.
For an Australian reader, though, the really striking feature of Posner's list is the obscurity of so many of the names on it. and especially of the American academic public intellectuals who are the primary focus of the book. I could only recognise about half the names in this category, and my efforts were boosted by the overrepresentation of economists in the list, reflecting the fact that my academic roots and Posner's are much the same.
Although we are allegedly living in a globalised world, it is evident that the market for public intellectuals remains nationally segmented. Each country, it seems wants to hear its own policy problems discussed in its own accent. To illustrate this point, a Google search of Australian websites gives over 900 references to Donald Horne and over 2400 to the late Manning Clark, compared to just over 100 for William F. Buckley and 33 for William Kristol. Even rank-and-file Australian public intellectuals (such as the present reviewer) are better represented on Australian websites than these giants of the US scene.
Of course, the US itself is even more parochial, at least with respect to the rest of the English-speaking world. There are no Australian residents on Posner's list, and even prominent Canadians like John Ralston Saul and David Suzuki are omitted.
While the barriers to international trade are almost insurmountable, public intellectuals often find migration easier. In Posner's view, the most influential public intellectual in America today is bioethicist Peter Singer of Princeton University. Although Posner does not mention it, Singer is part of the ever-growing Australian intellectual diaspora.
The second half of the book is made up of a set of unconnected essays, ending with some recommendations for improvements in the 'market' for public intellectuals. In one of the essays, Posner compares the 'public philosophers' Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, observing that they reach almost identical (liberal and social-democratic) conclusions from diametrically opposing philosophical premises.
Posner's book and this review are in a similar position. Whatever the weaknesses in his analysis, Posner's key policy recommendations are eminently sensible. Aspiring academic public intellectuals should be pushed, through social norms or perhaps university policy, to maintain an accessible and checkable record of their contributions to the public debate. They should also review their own predictions, and confess their errors.
In the age of the Internet, such a public record is feasible. However, it's still a lot more work than one might suppose, and most universities are not interested enough in the public intellectual activities of their academics to support extensive personal websites. Only a fraction of Posner's extensive publication list is currently available at his website, and his is better than most. (The best is that of Berkeley economist Brad de Long).
The picture for the future looks brighter. At least among the minority of academics who maintain websites, current publications are usually made available online. Moreover, the advent of the Wayback Internet Archive presents a partial solution to the problem of 'Internet decay'. Wayback preserves the contents of old sites, making it difficult to erase, or retrospectively adjust, the record of one's past predictions.
The gap between the aspirations of public intellectuals and their actual performance is wide. Posner may be right in claiming that is getting wider. But as the barriers to entry are declining all the time, readers will have to make their own judgements.
Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Senior Fellow based at the Australian National University and Queensland University of Technology. Publications and assessments of past predictions are available at ..
Posner, Richard (2001), Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, pp vii + 408
Brad de Long's website http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/
George Orwell's, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, are published in four volumes by Penguin