Late last week, Bloomberg’s Noah Smith asked quite the question on Twitter:
Open question for Twitter folks: Who would you list as the 5 most important intellectuals in America today?
— Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) January 19, 2018
Fans of Spoiler Alerts might be aware that last year I wrote “The Ideas Industry” about this particular marketplace. I can claim some expertise about this topic. One would imagine that I should have an easy answer to this question.
But it’s not an easy question (unless you are Michael Brendan Dougherty).
The problem is that it is necessary to separate the importance of the intellectual from the importance of the position they occupy in the marketplace of ideas. For example, one of Tyler Cowen’s answers to this question simply listed important tech moguls Elon Musk and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos. To put it gently, however, many of these plutocrats are only treated as intellectuals because they are sitting on obscene gobs of money. And as I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” if you think speaking truth to power is hard, try speaking truth to money.
David Frum noted back in 2016, “One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.” Folks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg take ideas seriously. But they are taken seriously as intellectuals because of their money.
There is a similar problem with intellectuals who occupy an institutionalized position in the Ideas Industry. When someone like David Brooks opines about gourmet sandwiches, or Democrats and Foucault, it generates all kinds of reactions because Brooks occupies some primo intellectual real estate on the New York Times op-ed page. Take, for example, Nicholas Kristof off that op-ed page, and suddenly not so many people care when he declares academics to be irrelevant.
If we live in a meritocracy, then ostensibly these individuals acquired their place through skill and will. Still, to answer Smith’s question, I tried to puzzle out the following counterfactual: which intellectuals command the most influence regardless of their institutional attachments? In other words, if all these intellectuals were doing was posting on Medium, would you still care what they said?
Using this criteria here are my top five for 2018, in no particular order:
2) Masha Gessen: I have found her thoughts about the Age of Trump, and the Age of Hysteria surrounding Trump, to be invaluable. She might even be right about Trump acting more like a teenager than a toddler.
3) Francis Fukuyama: An awful lot of people would have a hard time repeating something like “The End of History,” which holds up better than you think. Fukuyama’s latest work on political decay, however, has proven to be both prescient and vital.
4) Ron Chernow: I suspect some might not think of Chernow as an intellectual, to which I would respond by noting that Chernow’s biographies lead to reinterpretations of American history. If nothing else, reading Grant will cause multiple generations to rethink what we were taught about Grant — and Robert E. Lee — when we were kids. Since the Civil War seems to still play a role in current political life, that is no mean achievement.
5) David Autor: The hardest-working labor economist in the profession, and probably the least well-known name on this list. His research into the effects of technological change and globalization on the American worker guides much of the conversation on these topics in the current moment.
So that’s my list. Let the outraged reactions commence. Let me conclude with one small observation. These five people have very little in common. But it is interesting that none of them are terribly active on social media.