License to Ink

A review by Caleb Crain of Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Originally published in The Nation, 11 February 2002.

The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics “A Study in Total Depravity.” The really bad news concerns the title: The term “public intellectual” is practically obsolete.

It’s dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term—he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958—but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn’t any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. “To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching,” Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; “it was not a real possibility.” By the time of Jacoby’s book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective “public.”

Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today “a certain redundancy in the term ‘public intellectual.'” One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.

The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. “There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor,” Posner writes. “That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market.” Nowadays the term “public intellectual” merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moon-lighter. The qualifier “public” is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.

In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of “Intellectuals cannot be professors” and the rise of “All intellectuals are professors.” About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. “A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom,” Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found “almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy.” Posner, by contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.

The market has reasons that reason know not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. “In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market,” he writes. “But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious.”

But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. “The disappointment lingers,” he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.

How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.

You won’t be put through his grinder just because you’re smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out, too—too academic. Harvard’s new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill. Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust of the balance beside Michael Jordan’s 108,000.

Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. “Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals,” Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault’s score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)

Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner’s analysis. Here is the news, in summary: If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.

At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of non-academics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner’s sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, “Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals”—64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.

“Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa),” Posner observes. “An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!” But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner’s sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that “public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship.” The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds.

So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observes like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.

Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer’s behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a “credence good”; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled “Dow 36,000,” it is too late to get your money back. By now even the writers have been paid.

Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by “the cost . . . of exit from the market.”

The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.

Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naive, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.

With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. “He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer,” Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. “Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers,” academic intellectuals behave like a movie-star politicians.

You’re so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don’t you?

Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband’s adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth’s attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum—did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining (“The ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is not improved by being made risquéˆ, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick,” writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges—or recycle old articles—the tail is wagging the pig.

In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.

Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn’t think the reforms will be adopted, because “the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual.” But even if Posner’s suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.

As near as I can tell, only one of Posner’s suggestions have even the faintest chance of success: “One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community.” Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.