Skip to comments.The battle of ideas: Public intellectuals are thriving in the United States
Posted on 03/23/2006 1:51:11 PM PST by USFRIENDINVICTORIA
ONE of the best passages of Gulliver's Travels concerns his visit to the Grand Academy of Lagado. Gulliver is naturally bemused by the schemes of the projectors for making life more comfortable: extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, or training pigs to plough fields with their snouts. But what really shocks him is their wild impossible chimeras for fixing politics: schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult the public good; of rewarding merit, great abilities and eminent services.
For much of the past 200 years Europe has been a more natural home of these projectors than America. Europe produced both grand visionaries like Marx and compulsive improvers like Bentham; America prided itself on being a businesslike civilisation. Europeans used the word intellectual (a French invention, naturally) as a term of praise. Americans regarded it as synonymous with egghead, if not sexual deviant.
But look at the world of public policy today and it is America that is the land of the intellectuals and Europe that is the intellect-free zone. Look at the Iraq war, and you can see the influence of the dreaded neocons. Look at tax policy, and you can see the influence of the supply-siders. Look at the debate about gender roles and, lo and behold, Harvey Mansfield, Harvard University's lone conservative, has just mounted a heavyweight philosophical defence of Manliness (though the references to Aristotle have not stopped Oprah Winfrey from flashing it on the cover of her magazine, next to a smiling picture of herself).
There are few, if any, bolder policy intellectuals than Charles Murray, who is publishing his sixth book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, this weekend. Mr Murray has never held either high office or an academic position. Yet he has done more to provoke serious debate on subjects ranging from welfare to IQ than any of the million or so members of American academe, and more to produce changes in America's welfare state than any of the army of professional politicians.
In Our Hands marks a return to the subject that first made him famous, welfare reform. In Losing Ground (1984) Mr Murray argued that the welfare state had institutionalised rather than alleviated poverty. In his new book he presents a bold proposal to fix welfare. Every year the American government redistributes more than a trillion dollars to pay for retirement, health care and poverty-alleviation, he argues. Yet millions of Americans are still left high and dry. The reason is simple: government screws things up. Why not forget about converting taxes into a muddle of services and subsidies, he asks, and hand out cash grants to all American adults? Make the grant large enough so that the poor won't be poor, everyone will have enough for a comfortable retirement, and everyone will be able to afford health care. We're rich enough to do it.
In Our Hands raises as many questions as it answers. What happens to people who squander their money either through innate dullnessMr Murray believes that IQ is partly inheritedor through poor character? And what happens to the children of improvident parents? But it would be foolish to underestimate Mr Murray's ability not just to stir debate but to steer policy: 12 years after Losing Ground was dismissed as the work of a wild-eyed fanatic, Congress had passed the welfare reform act.
Just as intriguing as what Mr Murray says is the fact that he says it at all. America now far outclasses Europe in its ability to produce intellectuals with root-and-branch schemes for improving society. There are lots of reasons for this. One is that America is much less consensus-orientated than Europe, especially when it comes to policymaking. In Europe policy is overwhelmingly made by the civil service or by political parties (which tend to be hierarchical and centralised). In America independent policy entrepreneurs have lots of chances to influence itpartly because the civil service is weak and partly because the political process has lots of entry points, from the states to the federal government, from the White House to Congress. Policy intellectuals can bend the ears of congressmen, who are always on the look out for the innovation that will make their name.
Think-tanks and chat-shows Another reason is that policy intellectuals can make a much better living in America than Europe. America has been fabulously successful at providing its projectors with Grand Academies in the form of lavishly-funded think-tanks, well over 100 of them in Washington alone. And American projectors have been superb at getting their message across. America boasts a vast array of magazines, such as the American Interest and the New Republic, which like nothing better than picking up hot new ideas. And America's policy intellectuals have a talent for packaging their ideas in provocative waysfor declaring not just that the cold war is winding down but that history is ending, not just that regional tensions are rising but that the world is entering a clash of civilisations.
Europe is showing signs of catching on. There may be a big difference between the current hot debate in Franceshould you give people jobs for life immediately or should you wait for two yearsand Mr Murray's vision of killing the welfare state. But Europeans will have no choice but to debate tough questions, about everything from the birth rate to their addiction to regulation. A growing number of Europeans are seeking inspiration in American-style think-tanks (which are spreading across the continent) and in American-style thinkers (Irwin Stelzer, the neo-conservative movement's ambassador to Britain, has already presented an inscribed copy of In Our Hands to Gordon Brown). Swift's projectors may soon be flourishing in Europe once againalthough this time with an American accent.
I thought that FReepers would find this interesting -- it seems that America actually has more intellectuals than Europe.
The article contains some droll British wit -- I liked this one: "Europeans used the word intellectual (a French invention, naturally) as a term of praise. Americans regarded it as synonymous with egghead, if not sexual deviant."
Interesting! If he had mentioned the blogs and forums, like this one, it would have been PERFECT.
European school children read everything, but learn nothing. They also come to despise the world of ideas as "schoolwork".
I should add that I am no defender of American public schools, either...but their problem is different.
Would you care to join us in the parlor? We have acquired a new zoetrope device. Young Herbert brought it back from the Continent recently...
My incipient dyslexia got me there. At first I read this as,
[...] more to provoke serious debate on subjects ranging from welfare to IQ than any million or so (randomly chosen) members of American academe, [...]
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.