Monday, March 13, 2006

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What is the state of the intellectual in politics?

Over at The American Interest's web site, Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henri LÚvy have a fascinating exchange on the relative merits of LÚvy's American Vertigo. The part I found particularly fascinating comes near the end:

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: The idea that an intellectual must always speak truth to power and never compromise means for ends seems to me a rather naive view of how intellectuals actually behave, and reflects in many ways the powerlessness of European intellectuals and their distance from the real world of policy and politics. Of course, the academy must try to remain an institutional bastion of intellectual freedom that is not subject to vagaries of political opinion. But in the United States, to a much greater degree than in Europe, scholars, academics and intellectuals have moved much more easily between government and private life than in Europe, and are much more involved in formulating, promoting and implementing policies than their European counterparts. This necessarily limits certain kinds of intellectual freedom, but I'm not sure that, in the end, this is such a bad thing.

I myself worked for more than ten years at the RAND Corporation, the original "think tank" satirized in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove that did contract research for the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department. Obviously, one cannot be a free thinker in a place like that (Daniel Ellsberg tried to be and he was fired), and that is one of the reasons that I eventually left to go to a university. But overall, I believe that a democracy is better off having intellectuals pay systematic attention to policy issues, even if it is occasionally corrupting. Having to deal not with ideal solutions but with the real world of power and politics is a good discipline for an intellectual. There is a fine line between being realistic and selling one's soul, and in the case of the Iraq war many neoconservatives got so preoccupied with policy advocacy that they blinded themselves to reality. But it's not clear that virtue necessarily lies on the side of intellectuals who think they are simply being honest....

BERNARD-HENRI L╔VY: That's it. I think we have come to heart of what divides us....

The problem lies with the definition of what you and I call an intellectual, and beyond its definition, its function. Unlike you, I don't think an intellectual's purpose is to run the RAND Corporation or any institution like it. Not because I despise RAND, or because I believe in Kubrick's burlesque portrayal of it. No, I just think that while some people are running RAND, others no more or no less worthy or deserving should be dealing with, shall we say, the unfiltered truth. A democracy needs both, imperatively and absolutely bothŚ"realistic" intellectuals and "idealistic" intellectuals. Both types and the functions they embody have recognizable places inside society, even if some societies value one type more than the other. America needs intellectuals with a selfless concern for sense, complexity and truth. This is just as essential to its equilibrium (possibly even to its moral fiber and therefore to its good health) as the existence of universal suffrage or the separation of powers Ó la Montesquieu.

I suspect that Fukuyama would not disagree with LÚvy's express desire for both kinds of intellectuals. I do wonder, however, about the health of the institutions that support both sets of intellectuals in the United States. [What about Europe?--ed. Oh, Lord know, the situation is probably worse there -- but that's not my concern here.] The trouble with think tanks and the like is a seasonal topic of conversation in the blogosphere. As for the academy, well, let's just say that many of my colleagues make Hollywood seem politically grounded by comparison.

Is the system broken? If so, can it be fixed? If so, how?

posted by Dan on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM


BHL sets up a false opposition, and one or two other things besides. First, in social policy, there is no "unfiltered truth." Even when the facts are agreed on, questions of what led to those facts and what to do about them will be hotly contested. Further, the Bush administration appears to be littered with people who are willing to ignore or deny facts in order to retain deeply held beliefs. Second, concern for sense, complexity and truth is very rarely selfless. In well-run institutions, it is also a good career move.

In the American scene, the most crassly bought think-tank opinions--think Heritage and Malaysia-- seem to be arising on the right-hand side of the political aisle. I'll skip the prescriptions of how to fix this and could someone please pass the popcornl?

Over in Europe, London has the liveliest set of think tanks that I am acquainted with, though every capital has its set (Moscow is also quite lively, for example). Brussels is doing better than one would think observing from afar, but the technical nature of much of the EU's work, and the lack of a truly pan-European media space mean that their profiles are proportionally lower than their DC counterparts. Germany is an underserved market in this respect, an artifact of tax laws, political culture and the strengths of the party apparats. I suspect that in many parliamentary systems, the expertise that would be found in a US think tank is found in party structures.

posted by: Doug on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Intellectuals opining on the need for intellectuals is like priests advocating for the priesthood: both exist because of a particular dynamic that supports them but their 'value' may be irrelevant outside of simply belonging to the dynamic, a reality which both must ignore in order to maintain their existence.

posted by: saintsimon on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

I think Funkymama has it right. It's good for Big Brains(tm) to work in the real world occasionally. It does keep them grounded, and prevents their 'intellectual' work from vearing off into realms of pure fantasy and wish-making.

I'm not sure our current institutions can be 'fixed' though. It seems to me that all of the industries which have the least connection between "work put in" and "value turned out" result in high concentrations of Big Brain Liberals. Most Hollywood flicks never make any money, despite hard work by all involved. Same for University research, sculptures, and social work. These types of work attract people who define themselves by their "internal self worth", because if they defined themselves by the success of their work they'd literally be worthless for the majority of their lives. No person could handle that.

As long as Universities pay people to sit around and dream big dreams in the hope that one of them, maybe once in a decade or two, will say "E=mc2", we'll have liberals dominate the Academy. The Psychological defense mechanisms required to be happy in those environments will self-select for them.

That's why it's good for them to get out of the Academy for a while and bill by the hour or sell some equity. It's important for them to see how the rest of the world lives every now and then. It's only the Departments which have NO redeeming value outside of a University that stew in their own juices for decade after decade, producing the most radical Leftists.

posted by: Brock on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Most Hollywood flicks never make any money, despite hard work by all involved. Same for University research, sculptures, and social work. These types of work attract people who define themselves by their "internal self worth", because if they defined themselves by the success of their work they'd literally be worthless for the majority of their lives. No person could handle that.

Looking at it this way, you'd be amazed how many times all sorts of businesses fail to make money doing what they do, yet survive nonetheless. I know a good deal of folks in the "international trade" business who just haven't made that big score yet. All professions are a bubble of a sort- they have to be, or else they couldn't be professional.

"Internal self-worth" is the true measure of the professional, not merely that of the liberal (though they both have it.) A professional will work on a lost cause because that is what he is there to do.

posted by: perianwyr on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

An "intellectual compromising means for an end" sounds perverted. Doing some kind of moral calculus to arrive at the greatest good for the greatest number is problematic exactly because control of the equation is given to a "compromised" moral arbiter. And this group LOVES to choose variables such as "capitalism good: socialism bad" in some cases, but then sit us down to understand trickle down economics and the meaninglessness of budget deficits. Oh please, explain me some more 'bout intellectuals.

posted by: jf on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Problems start when Intellectuals equate Knowledge to Truth. Since Knowledge is no longer the realm of esoteric elites, or of a particular race, nationality, or gender, it will be interesting to see how (or if) political policies change.

posted by: Ronny Max on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Quoting Brock:

"think Funkymama has it right. It's good for Big Brains(tm) to work in the real world occasionally. It does keep them grounded, and prevents their 'intellectual' work from vearing off into realms of pure fantasy and wish-making."

I've got no problem with scientists/accademics/intelectuals working in the real world per se. For example, I'd have no problem with, say, estimating the demand function of widgits for a company that just wants to know the true demand function. It's when the result looked for is predetermined I have a problem with. For example, being asked to help show term limits are good for a reform group. Or being asked to show capitalism is good for a conservative think tank. Or being asked to show a certain regulation is working by a liberal think tank.

Even prejudicing the outcomes for your own notions of what's right disgusts me. If I believe there's a 70% that capitalism is super, but I begin working toward a project that seems to provide some weak evidence that capitalism is bad, I do not drop the project because I'm worried it'll convince someone out there that capitalism is bad.

The image of a scientist working as an advocate for a predetermined outcome fills me rage - whether they do it for cash, or for ideology, or even in pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. Your function is to find the truth. Not to advocate, not to save the world. Leave that stuff to the lawyers and activists.

I guess maybe there is a role for people trained as social scientists to... serve as advocates... (so hard not to type "corrupt" or "debase" themselves) but there should be a clear hard wall between the two different... professions. They may study some of the two techniques, but they have different value systems, and so serve two different incompatable functions. It's like the difference between a dancer and a courtesan, or a judge and a defense lawyer. There may be overlap in skill sets and prerequisites, but the moral codes are different and therefore the professional service you get from each is different.

It may even be the case that, just as I hold advocates in contempt, they ought to hold people like me in contempt (for being too disconected or whatever) and it's a good thing we hold each other in contempt. It reinforces the wall separating the two sub-professions.

What does this mean for RAND? In my mind the question is whether RAND is simply providing truth to defense agencies and the like, or if they are providing rationalizations/justifications to defense agencies and the like for policies that that their clients have already resolved to do. If the former then they are professionals like me. If the latter then they are professionals in the same sense as people at Cato. It sounds like Fukuyama is conceeding that RAND is closer to the latter then they'd care to admit. Of course, to be fair, even academia is far from perfect as well. But at least our paychecks don't depend on getting the "right" answer.

posted by: wml on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Obviously, any "think tank" with a political agenda is by definition anti-intellectual, and the people who work there are not intellectuals but propagandists. If the outcome of your thinking has been pre-determined, then you're not really thinking at all, you're marketing.

posted by: Econoclast on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

I wonder: when intellectuals state the need for more intellectuals, and funding of intellectuals, to what degree is this simply self-interest speaking?

These men all have seperate incomes from book publication, which seems a sufficient funding for their needs. It's a traditionally a conservative suspicion of such arguments. Strange, that a liberal needs to make it here.

I have a hard time finding the line between Fukuyama et al, and the traditional role of Courtier.

posted by: mac on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

> Of course, to be fair, even academia is far from
> perfect as well. But at least our paychecks don't
> depend on getting the "right" answer.

For tenured academics, paychecks don't depend on, well, anything at all, do they?

posted by: Roy on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

"For tenured academics, paychecks don't depend on, well, anything at all, do they?"

Everybody's gotta hang their hat somewhere. But nobody HAS to compromise the standard of living of fellow citizens by fleshing out the arguments to rationalize a tax policy that increases the disparity between top and bottom earners. Sure, tenured academics might be too cozy for the taste of big business, but the antidote to this societal poison is the "think tank?"

Sing it.

"Have Brain, Will Travel" is the card of a man!
A nerd without hang-ups in a wealthy land.
His free-agent soul head's the calling wind.
A policy whore is the man called Fukuyama.

Fukuyama, Fukuyama
Where do you roam?
Fukuyama, Fukuyama,
Far, far from home.

posted by: jf on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

What I find odd is that Fukuyama made such a bald statement about the need for thinkers to get their hands dirty in the world of actual policy making, without acknowledging the value of seeking out ideal solutions. The fact that there is room for both, and that having both makes for a healthy exchange is the first thing I though of, and turned out to be part of Levy's response, as well. Having sold honesty for influence himself, Fukuyama finds virtue in selling honesty for influence, without noticing there is room for both honesty and influence on the same continent.

A number of the comments here (Econoclast, wmi, jf) seem to come to similar conclusions. The "gritty reality" outside real think tanks and the universities seems a convenient cover for fake think tanks, where the answer is known before the question is asked.

posted by: kharris on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

There are two problems in the discussion on this thread. 1) everyone assumes that advocacy doesn't ever lead to truth and 2) everyone assumes that there's something especially dishonest about right-wing or Republican-oriented people and organizations. Neither of these assumptions is theoretically or empirically plausible.

I won't bother to argue about 2), because prejudices are pretty immovable here, but 1) doesn't make sense for a communitiy that supposedly values argument and thinks that dialectical and even adversary processes are important protections against the abuse of authority. If a labor-union funded group puts out a ridiculous study, the Chamber of Commerce folks can chow down on it and vice versa. I sure don't think it would be healthy for a small group of self-interested experts to decide everything behind closed doors, with a surrounding belt of powerless intellectuals on the outside histrionically complaining without responsibility.

There is a tension between being honest and forthright in propounding one's views and maintaining political viability as a potential appointee. We see this with judicial nominees, who cannot have a "paper trail" any more and still get confirmed.

posted by: steve on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

"There are two problems in the discussion on this thread. 1) everyone assumes that advocacy doesn't ever lead to truth and..."

Actually THE central tension in BHL's view is that 1) there are people who don't believe in a 'truth,' and 2) they are the same people who are arguing that intellectuals should spare themselves gritty reality in order to pursue that 'truth.'

In other words, according to intellectuals, intellectuals should exclusively pursue a truth that intellectuals don't accept as possible!


posted by: Steve on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

BHL may care about "truth," but he's too unconcerned with empirical reality to pass as an intellectual in an Anglo-American context.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

Tim Newman recently wrote this on Syriana. Since it's pretty good at identifying the general economic myths that motivate hollywood morality, it seemed relevant to the claim that the Academy was worse than Hollywood.

It doesn't dispute that claim, but it does seem to emphasise the horror that is being claimed. This will all be old hat to you, of course, but if you're bored with neat new formulations of old thought then it seems to me like it's time to leave economics.

More usefully, it identifies a number of regional factors that make the myths more offensively wrong, and those seemed likely to be unfamiliar (some of them certainly were to me).

As a side note, thank you so much for your DPW coverage. It's been the most unpleasant news story that I've been aware of in years, a very rare example of the US Congress as out and out villain on a matter of importance. One could read comforting material in a lot of places, but yours was the blog I turned to in hope of updates most often.

posted by: James of England on 03.13.06 at 10:00 PM [permalink]

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