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Sounding Off,” a review of Richard Posner’s “Public Intellectuals”

The Washington Post Book World, January 20, 2002

Richard Posner’s “Public Intellectuals”

It is rare to read a book whose central thesis is undermined by the very existence of its author. Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline is one.

The chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Posner teaches law at the University of Chicago and is the author of 31 books on topics ranging from sex and literature to the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 election deadlock. Widely known as the court-appointed mediator in the Microsoft case, he has authored more than 1,500 opinions and is the most frequently cited American legal scholar alive.

Posner’s most significant contribution has been in law and economics, the influential legal movement he practically created. In Economic Analysis of Law (1973, now in its fifth edition) and The Economics of Justice (1981), Posner argues that the primary goal of law should be outcomes that are efficient rather than “just” (the latter being the kind of fuzzy moral notion he scorns).

“Economics,” Posner has written, “wields the baton of my multidisciplinary orchestra.” Looking at the world through a strictly economic lens, he writes with a refreshing, parsimonious intensity. He also, occasionally, produces outrageous conclusions, such as his contention in a 1999 article in the literary journal Raritan that the rule of law is an accidental and readily dispensable element of our legal ideology, and his argument in favor of buying and selling babies on the free market in lieu of government-regulated adoption. Add his advocacy of legal marijuana and LSD, and it is clear that Posner – despite his obvious brilliance – will never sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Public Intellectuals is in the genre of “snit-lit.” A self- described “sourpuss,” Posner is annoyed that his fellow public intellectuals have not wielded their powers as judiciously as he. Scores must be settled, names must be named. Posner is particularly dismayed by the low level of commentary during the Clinton impeachment and the 2000 election deadlock, and by the false prophets (such as Ronald Dworkin, Laurence Tribe, Sean Wilentz and Bruce Ackerman) who had the gall to disagree with him.

The modern public intellectual debate has its origins in Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987), in which he argued that America’s vigorous public intellectual tradition has been diminished as iconoclastic critics were smothered by the university’s loving embrace. Jacoby’s insight has been thoroughly parsed in the years since (I’ve written on the topic myself), and although Posner gestures toward some genuinely provocative questions (“Why is pedigree important? Why can’t ideas stand on their own without being tied back to an illustrious progenitor?”), he doesn’t add much, preferring to chew more than he bites off. Noting that “Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals,” he takes the task upon himself, lending his analysis of “the public intellectual market” a veneer of statistical rigor by way of the data provided by rankings and popular press citations. The possibility that ideas may catch on or die for nonmarket reasons is evidently too disturbing for Posner even to contemplate.

Despite his methodological ham-handedness, Posner identifies some real problems. With every assistant English professor who has published an op-ed in his local paper dubbing himself a public intellectual, the term has (justifiably) become devalued. Posner’s point is simple. Public intellectuals aren’t accountable to the market: They don’t pay a price for their mistakes (which they seldom acknowledge in the first place); there are no gatekeepers to maintain “the quality controls that one finds in other markets for goods and services” (as in an academic setting); they speak outside their areas of expertise (using their credentials to misrepresent themselves); and they take their public pronouncements less seriously than their academic ones. “Academics tend to think of themselves as being on holiday when they are writing for the general public.”

All too true, but in order to make his case, Posner sneaks in a dubious premise – that “prediction is the stock in trade of the public intellectual” – so he can properly evaluate the market for their services. Essentially, Posner considers public intellectuals (slightly) more sophisticated versions of the Sunday morning pundits who handicap that week’s news. (“Frankie Fukuyama! You predicted the ‘end of history,’ but now we have Osama bin Laden! Wrong!”) In contrast with Posner’s caricature of an intellectual (public or otherwise) as a secular soothsayer, he suggests that a public intellectual should be a nonpartisan, programmatic wonk, akin to an “expert witness” with a penchant for public policy.

In other words, a judge. But the reason the best philosophical ideas are so fascinating is that they are unpredictable: They (occasionally) make things happen by upending the status quo and rewriting the rules. Posner is so reductionist – and so anti- intellectual – that it makes me wonder why he took the time to study a group whose very identity depends on ideas.

Perhaps he leaves us a clue to his motivation. “Most people, including most academics, are confusing mixtures. They are moral and immoral, kind and cruel, smart and stupid. . . . [A] successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot. It doesn’t help that successful people tend to exaggerate their versatility; abnormal self- confidence is a frequent cause and almost invariable effect of great success.”

To paraphrase that great public intellectual Pogo, Posner has seen the enemy. And the enemy is him.