Thursday, December 16, 2010


Walter Russell Mead on "The Crisis of the American Intellectual" in The American Interest:
Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society -- but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost -- and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.
There's lots more; read the whole thing. And see also Warren Meyer in Forbes magazine:
Progressives are often as overwhelmed by the world economy as primitive man was by his natural environment. Just as the primitive man was confused by and fearful of storms and earthquakes and drought and disease, progressives are befuddled by the rise and fall of industries, booms and recessions, wealth and poverty. And just as primitive men invented gods and myths to help bring order and a sense of controllability to events they didn’t understand, progressives create governments in the hopes of imposing top-down order on a chaotic economy. . .

Because capitalism is based so completely on individual decision-making, because its operation is inherently chaotic, and because its rewards can’t possibly be divided equally and still be "rewards", progressives are hugely uncomfortable with it. Ironically, though progressives want to posture at being "dynamic", it turns out that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them. Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms. Progressives want comfort and certainty. They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. Which is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave, just like the invention of Apollo assured the Greeks that the sun would indeed rise the next day.


Whitehall said...

Cicero was an intellectual but a lot of good that did him and the Roman Republic.

We've got too many intellectuals with too big a hold on our Republic and allocated too many resources.

There is a sense of sour grapes here because as a youth I aspired to be an intellectual but realized that this was a fool's errand and not the best use of my talents.

Still, being a tenured professor is a nice gig.

Mead is just reading the tea leaves and sees a diminshed role for intellectuals in American society. This piece was his lament.

OBloodyHell said...


People keep using that word.

I do not think it means what they think it means.

"An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself."
- Camus -

I do not believe one should mistake the narcissism of self-adoration and self-concern of a Chomsky, an Estrich, or an Oliver Stone with "your mind watching itself".

The two processes are not only not the same, they are largely anathema to one another.

To watch your own mind makes you MORE aware of your own folly, not less.