by Daniel W. Drezner
For the past five years, there has been an orgy of autopsies detailing, analyzing and projecting America's relative decline. When one looks at military effectiveness, national economic power or ideological cachet, the United States seems to be on the downside of history. Whether these assessments are accurate or not, the perception is quite powerful. Nevertheless, it is curious to note that Americans still possess an overwhelming advantage in one area: supplying ideas to the public sphere.
Whether they are called public intellectuals, thought leaders, or idea entrepreneurs -- all such labels are equally hideous -- the United States dominates the pack. A few years ago James Harkin wrote an oped in the Financial Times entitled 'Europe must fight back in the battle for good ideas'. In the essay, he lamented, 'one of the oddities of this new landscape of ideas is that Americans seem to be much better at generating them'. The numbers would seem to back him up. Foreign Policy magazine publishes its Top 100 Global Thinker list each year, and in 2012 more than half the list was based in the United States. Since Foreign Policy is based in Washington, maybe this is just home bias. Britain's Prospect magazine just released its list of 2013 World Thinkers, however, and Americans made up 40 per cent of the places.
Why does the United States still maintain such an unparalleled lead in this area? Some reasons are obvious. The United States remains a large, powerful country, with a native language that happens to be the lingua franca on planet Earth. Still, there are other countries in the 'Anglosphere' that possess these qualities, and yet do not rival US-based thinkers. Indeed, by this logic, the United States should have been more dominant a half-century ago, when US relative power and wealth were greater. Back then, however, French intellectuals such as Sartre, Camus or Raymond Aron held a privileged place. Now, Bernard-Henri Levy cannot even crack Prospect's list, no matter how unbuttoned his shirt might be.
The reason that the United States still dominates the 'ideaplex' is that the American system confers greater economic, political and cultural rewards on thought leaders than any other country in the world. Economically, the rise in economic inequality has created a class of plutocrats that demand ideational and ideological sustenance as well as material comfort. This has made the rewards for supplying accessible ideas considerable. Politically, both the left and the right have appreciated the need for creating an infrastructure that can promote ideologically friendly ideas. Culturally, the combined effect is to create a 'superstar' class of public intellectuals.
The financial incentives for catering to the growth in demand for ideas are considerable. It is no coincidence that the surge in intellectual opportunities has coincided with the growth of the super-affluent. As the One Percent has become richer and richer, they can afford to do anything they want -- and it turns out a surprising number of them want to go back to school. While some donate their funds to their alma mater, others set up their very own intellectual salons. There has been an explosion of Davos-like 'Big Idea' events -- TED conferences, the Aspen Ideas Festival, anything sponsored by The Atlantic -- that tap 'provocative' thinkers to sate the curiosity of attendees.
Nor are these the only lucrative outlets for marketing new ideas. Speakers' bureaux can enable someone like Fareed Zakaria to deliver the same speech multiple times for high five or low six-figure payments. Niall Ferguson relinquished his academic position at Harvard Business School -- though not his endowed chair in Harvard's history department -- because the rewards from public speaking exceeded his business school salary.
More ideologically motivated individuals are also using their money to reward simpatico intellectuals. Dinesh D'Souza, for example, was paid a salary of $1 million to be the president of King's College, a small Christian liberal arts college in New York City. John Allison, a former chief executive of a bank, has used a charitable trust to fund university professors to teach the ideas of Ayn Rand in their classrooms. Left-leaning billionaire George Soros has funded the Institute for New Economic Thinking to promote more heterodox takes on economics.
Businessmen devoted to the bottom line, or social scientists who believe that power and interest drive everything, might scoff at the independent effect of ideas. Only the most dogmatic of them, however would deny that they matter at all.
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As John Maynard Keynes wrote close to eighty years ago: 'The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.'
Recent revealed preferences back up Keynes's assertion. Consider that at the end of 2012, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina decided to resign his seat to become the new president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. DeMint clearly believed that he could exercise more political power as a thinktank president than as a ranking member of Congress. Similarly, at the beginning of 2012, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prizewinning economist, took to his New York Times blog to squelch online enthusiasm for him to succeed Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. Speaking candidly, Krugman observed, 'those who hold the position [of a New York Times columnist], if they know how to use it effectively, have a lot more influence on national debate than, say, most senators.'
Political and economic incentives have created a 'superstar' economy for public intellectuals in the US. Big Thinkers now pontificate on multiple complementary platforms. Ferguson cannot write a book without a corresponding TV documentary. Zakaria writes books, a weekly column, and hosts a talk show for CNN. D'Souza branched out from books to political films.
Of course, as these thought leaders try to fashion their own brands, they run the risk of being over-extended. As Zakaria, D'Souza and Ferguson have discovered, brands can be threatened if one is too careless with public musings or actions. In the cases of Jonah Lehrer, who has admitted making up quotes from Bob Dylan for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and Johann Hari, the Independent columnist, the brand can be destroyed.
These cautionary tales point to a hidden advantage for American thought leaders: over time, the market functions as a useful disciplining mechanism. The demand for interesting and accessible books in the US has never been greater -- see Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson's Why Nations Fail or Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, for example. At the same time, however, the market eventually punishes an erosion in quality. Over time, bad ideas lead to fewer and less prestigious invitations. To paraphrase Mao, in the United States a thousand thought leaders contend -- which means that those who thrive usually have something to offer.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and blogs for Foreign Policy. He is finishing a book on post-2008 global economic governance
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