Culture

Intellectuals Are Better Than Thought Leaders

How the thinkers make their money meets the complexities of reality.

The narrow path.

Photographer: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Airbnb

The modern intellectual entered this world in the 1700s, sociologist Lewis A. Coser argued in his 1965 history, “Men of Ideas.” 1  Salons in Paris and coffeehouses in London provided free-thinkers with places where they could discuss and debate -- and the growth of the reading public began to provide a few of them with a comfortable living not dependent on patrons or royal favor.

The English poet and polemicist Alexander Pope was one of the first to support himself in style through book sales, building a villa on the Thames outside London in 1720 with the proceeds from his translation of the “Iliad,” and writing:

But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,

Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive.

The French playwright and philosophe Voltaire, who dined with Pope at the villa during a London exile in the 1720s, later did him one better, purchasing and rebuilding a grand chateau outside Geneva and becoming de-facto ruler of the surrounding village with money earned from his plays, pamphlets, books and some astute investments. 2 As he wrote to a young friend:

A fortune easily maintains a philosophe in his independence. He has more courage to speak the truth; he runs fewer dangers.

This potential for financial independence shaped what intellectuals wrote and even thought, which in turn shaped what everybody thought. The 18th-century Enlightenment was thus to some extent the product of the changing economics of intellectual production -- as I would imagine intellectual movements often are.

In the 1800s, book sales kept rising, a few magazines started paying their writers healthy sums, and the lecture circuit offered another means of support for those capable of keeping a crowd entertained. English novelist and critic William Makepeace Thackeray denounced the work as an “ambulatory quack business,” but he nonetheless conducted two long lecture tours of the U.S. in the 1850s that netted him the equivalent of today’s $650,000. 3

Most intellectuals couldn’t count on paydays like that, of course, so many had day jobs. But in the 19th century, the kinds of jobs that intellectuals could get still usually left lots of time for hobbies. Writes Coser:

The amount of leisure time available to professionals and intellectuals was much greater than it was in the twentieth century. When we read that James Mill or John Stuart Mill worked for many years in the India Office or that Sidney Webb and his colleague and friend Sidney Olivier worked at the Colonial Office, we must understand that these offices were not making such strict demands on their personnel as do modern bureaucracies.

Another approach was to keep living costs low -- which led early 20th–century intellectuals in the U.S. to, of all places, lower Manhattan:

Why did they come to Greenwich Village? First, because living there was so inexpensive. The rush of traffic could not make its way through the many streets that crossed and recrossed the area, and so, as New York expanded northward, what had once been a fashionable residential district decayed into a picturesque slum.

Just how inexpensive was Greenwich Village circa 1910?

For $30 a month one could rent a whole floor in an old house with enormous high-ceilinged rooms and huge fireplaces.

That’s about $775 now 4  -- so not nothing -- but significantly less than even the tiniest Village rental goes for today. Pretty much the only intellectuals who can afford to move into the neighborhood these days are New York University professors with subsidized housing and entrepreneurs who have figured out how to turn their ideas into lots of cold, hard cash.

Academization was the big trend of U.S. intellectual life in the post-World War II decades, with ever-growing, ever-richer universities luring in thinkers with steady jobs, TIAA-CREF accounts and, in some cases, even Manhattan apartments. Coser took note of this development in “Men of Ideas,” and in 1987 historian Russell Jacoby devoted a whole book, “The Last Intellectuals,” to lamenting it -- although before long others were proclaiming that Washington think tanks had stolen the universities’ thunder.

In his smart and entertaining new look at American intellectuals, “The Ideas Industry” (which is what inspired me to check Coser and Jacoby’s books out of the library), Tufts University political scientist Daniel Drezner devotes ample ink to universities and Washington think tanks. But he describes the idea entrepreneurs as today’s ascendant intellectual grouping. They take two separate if often intertwined forms: as part of for-profit think tanks or as “thought leaders.”  

As Drezner tells it, the pluses and minuses of for-profit think tanks such as the McKinsey Global Institute or the Eurasia Group seem pretty straightforward. They’re quicker to explore new territory than university or think-tank scholars are, and they can do it quite well, but their research findings can sometimes be hard to sort from their marketing priorities.

As for the thought leaders, Drezner defines them in opposition to “public intellectuals,” a term popularized by Jacoby. The former are

experts who are well-versed and well-trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of public issues. As Friedrich von Hayek put it, public intellectuals are "professional second-hand dealers in ideas."

A thought leader, on the other hand, “is an intellectual evangelist.” And as with most successful evangelists, most successful thought leaders have to be willing to say a variant of the same danged thing, over and over again, for years on end.

The resulting predictability has understandable appeal to those who book guests for television shows and keynote speakers for conferences -- and speaking fees offer perhaps the clearest path to Alexander Pope-style affluence for the modern intellectual. But as psychologist Philip Tetlock documented in his great 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” those who traffic in simple, bold ideas tend to be terrible at understanding and interpreting complex reality.

This isn’t the end of the world. As Drezner argues in his book, there is much to appreciate and admire about today’s ideas-production infrastructure. But if how intellectuals make a living really does shape how societies think, I worry that the rise of the thought leader could be making all of us less thoughtful.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. There are actually women in the book, among them novelist George Eliot, social reformer Beatrice Webb and The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson.

  2. This actually isn’t in Coser’s book, but I read Roger Pearson’s “Voltaire Almighty” a few months ago and couldn’t resist including the guy.

  3. That’s in simple consumer-price terms. The amazing MeasuringWorth site also provides an estimate of the current “economic status” of the 5,500 pounds Thackeray earned (which measures the relative ‘prestige value’ of an amount of income or wealth between two periods using the income index of the per capita GDP”), and it’s $8 million!

  4. It was $772 in 2015 in consumer-price terms, according to MeasuringWorth. Its “economic status” was $4,610, but I don’t think that’s really the best metric for comparing real estate prices.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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