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A Review of Judge Posner's New Book On Public Intellectuals


Friday, Jan. 04, 2002

Judge Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard Univ. Press 2002)

Judge Richard A. Posner, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, is without question one of our nation's leading public intellectuals. Both learned and prolix, he has held forth on a broad range of issues in his thirty books, and also in frequent contributions (numbering more than 300) to legal and academic periodicals, as well as self-styled chronicles of public intellectualism such as the New York Review of Books. He has thus taken up a subject that he knows well in his latest book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

Judge Posner is a leading light in the law and economics establishment, and in this book he takes on the difficult task of applying the empiricism that is the hallmark of law and economics to what he candidly calls the "odd" market for public intellectuals. This effort is not entirely persuasive, largely due, I hazard, to shortcomings in the underlying data and the inherent subjectivity of judging the quality of a public intellectual. The book nevertheless is a stimulating and provocative exploration of a subject few would even attempt to approach with an economist's slide rule.

Posner's Claim: Academics' Speech On Public Issues Is Of Little Value

Judge Posner's thesis is straightforward. First, he contends that the much-chronicled emphasis on narrow specialization within the American university system has made it increasingly difficult for academics to speak with authority on issues in the public realm.

Second, he argues that when academics do speak they produce an inferior product of little predictive value, which tends to serve interests of reaffirming preconceptions rather than furnishing insights. This second point is an important one, for it may suggest not so much dysfunction in the public intellectual marketplace as its extinction within the broader marketplace of entertainment and ideas. Crossfire-style battles of punditry would seem to have supplanted the ideal pure public intellectualism to which the book hearkens back.

The Empirical Basis For Posner's Claims

The empirical engine of the book is Chapter 5, which contains an impressive array of charts and tables. I once heard another leading light of law and economics (not Judge Posner) state without irony that "some data is better than no data." That statement, to my mind, is dead wrong, and parts of this book left me with the same chill.

Simply put, data is not a good thing unless it is good data. Moreover, casual empiricism may be worse than no empiricism at all, if for no other reason than that all those charts and tables create an aura of scientific certainty where there is (or at least may well be) none. Is that a fair criticism of Judge Posner's empiricism? There seem to be some problems here.

The basic metric that Judge Posner uses to measure and (in what might be called the U.S. News and World Report effect) rank public intellectuals is "media mentions," as derived from various web and periodical database searches. But there is good reason to question whether media mentions is a reasonable proxy for "unit of public intellectual activity."

To take an easy example, Judge Posner's own ranking was undoubtedly inflated by the hundreds of media mentions that resulted from his role in the Microsoft antitrust case. Likewise, the media mentions of others who are likewise unquestionably public intellectuals of the first rank, such as Robert Reich, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Lawrence Summers, were undoubtedly inflated by their public service.

Judge Posner explicitly recognizes these problems, but after giving acknowledgement to the issue, he goes on to give close analysis to the charts and tables that are nothing more than a synthesis of what has to be considered questionable data. The empirical argument, to my mind, has not as yet been made.

A Portrait of Decline, Or Merely a Snapshot?

Putting the issue of the quality of data to one side, it is surprising that the subtitle of this book speaks of "decline" when the empirical data within its covers provides only a snapshot. There is no longitudinal analysis comparing, say, the market for public intellectuals in the period 1950-55 against the period of roughly 1995-2000 that is analyzed in the book.

Granted, Posner anticipates this critique and rightly points out that gathering data from prior periods, for which the electronic databases he relied upon are not available, would be a Herculean task. This only, however, brings us back to the same conundrum: is some data better than no data, when the absence of time set data makes a comparison impossible?

Judge Posner's thesis is both reasonable and well argued, but the success of this book must be judged against the benchmark that he has set for himself: empirical analysis. On several points, it appears to be acknowledged that numbers cannot tell the story. There is no objective scale on which to gauge the "care and insight" that goes into a public intellectual's work, and Judge Posner reaches his conclusion that the current state of that market is sorry through anecdote. In this regard, it will not escape the reader that the political bent of those public intellectuals singled out for analysis (Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, and Camille Paglia, among others) fall predominantly on one end of the political spectrum.

Likewise sure to raise hackles is the book's treatment of Ronald Dworkin, with whom Judge Posner engaged in a barbed public debate in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the jurist's book on the Clinton imbroglio, An Affair of State. There is no small measure of irony in the fact that, by reverting to argument by anecdote on inevitably subjective and political matters Posner has left himself (fairly or not) open to the same type of criticism that he ladles out on his public intellectual colleagues.

This is a fascinating book. It is not the final word on the topic - as Judge Posner readily acknowledges - but it breaks new ground in attempting to apply a rigorous analytical lens to an understudied cultural mechanism. As a self-conscious act of public intellectualism, the book succeeds marvelously in casting new light on its subject. As a public intellectual act, it is sure to attract a spirited storm of counterargument. It should, and if it does, that may be one piece of reliable data suggesting that the marketplace of ideas continues to function.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

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