- American war crimes and collective guilt Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
- The fringe and the moderates on the left and the right Arnold Kling, askblog
- Some thoughts on the Best of Enemies series (1968) Rick Weber, NOL
- Impeachment, the constitution, and civil literacy Adrian Ang U-Jin, American Interest
I am flattered to be in the company Brandon places me in. When I was still growing up, I wanted to be Tyler Cowen then, I figured he moved way too fast for me. I have the utmost respect for Robert Higgs but I wouldn’t dream of mimicking his nearly super-human determination. I suspect Brandon put me on purpose in that flattering company and that he will soon ask me to stay after the meeting to sweep the room in return. Brandon also implicitly gave me permission to do what old dudes love to do (and often do well): reminisce.
I had a mostly but not exclusively academic career. It began so long ago that the hardest part of my doctoral dissertation was getting it typed from its long-hand last draft (yes, “typed,” with a typewriter; do you even know what this is?) Few graduates students knew how to type. Those who did were all females who had taken the trouble to learn in high school,. Below are two things that have changed for the better since those days, changed specifically in connection with blogging.
When I was a young scholar, I quickly discovered that having good co-authors was extraordinarily important. Myself, with one exception I won’t name, I always had co-authors, that is, co-investigators, I did not deserve. The difference in quality, in reach, in scope, between what I could produce by myself and what I did with others was so great that I seldom even tried to go it alone once I had discovered the force multiplier of well chosen others.* But finding potential research partners was costly, haphazard and often disappointing.
Apart from the necessarily limited local offering at your own university, you had to wait for your first high-powered publication, hoping it would draw admirers who would then take the trouble to contact you. Of course, you could do the same with others. To some extent, it involved the same sort of hesitancy one experiences trying to pick up a good-looking person in a public place. And, in some disciplines, publishing an admirable article in a well esteemed periodical may take years, of course. The poor traditional remedy was attending academic conferences, listening to others at formal presentations sessions and then, making advances. This worked to some extent but it was an inefficient system with a piteous yield.
The contemporary blog with a theme, such as Notes on Liberty, offers the young scholar the immense advantage of being able to present in a stress-free fashion samples of his work to many strangers of a similar cast of mind who are also hanging out around the blog in a relaxed frame of mind. Some of these will turn out to be potential coauthors. The blog will give them a social context for reaching out that is less intimidating than most.
Needless to say, the same features of the blog may facilitate being noticed by useful senior scholars. (I said “may” because I have no certainty about the extent to which such august persons go slumming on blogs. I have my suspicions though.)
Next: many people who become academics begin a with a general interest in ideas. Soon, they discover that the organizations that are willing to put bread on their table while they indulge their tastes are mostly universities. This is certainly true in the English speaking world. It seems to me that this is also largely the case in the French speaking world, and in the Spanish speaking world as well.
Once involved in a university career, the same people soon figure out that to progress in that career, or simply to remain in the career, they must publish in scholarly journals at a good clip. Unfortunately, in most disciplines, journals require a much narrower enterprise than the typical aspiring public intellectuals dreams of. This is intentional: Specialization encourages attention to detail in reasoning and it punishes sloppy logic. It also promotes respect for facts. (I mean outside of the post-modern English discipline, of course). Scholarly formats often leave authors unsatisfied in one particular respect, the formal limits they imposes on their discourse. I have often myself been in a situation, – and likewise observed others to be – with an eighteen page empirical paper that seemed to me honestly to authorize fifty pages of innovative narrative. The journal format usually allowed only one to three pages, four, if you played your cards right, or if the editor dated your sister.
Some will comment that a person can pursue a two-track career with scholarly publications on one side, and more general narratives in other media, on the other. That’s true enough but if you consider the large number of America academics in general compared to the two handfuls nationwide who have a public voice, you will guess that the dual career path must present formidable obstacles.
The one I encountered personally – which I think is quite common – is that the gates of outlets for general well-informed but non-technical narratives were as narrow of those of the most respected academic journals, and also vastly more capriciously opened. And in case, you are wondering no, I am not thinking only of the New York Review of Books. It will take me a long time to recover from the contemptuous rejection I received from the newspaper of my local community college. (That was twenty years ago. I was a well respected scholar by then.)
A good blog with an open editorial policy such as Notes on Liberty will give many a chance to circulate opinion pieces and other narratives not fitting a normal scholarly format. Those may spring, by the way, from the same source as their scholarly production narrowly defined. When I was churning out statistical empirical papers in the sociology of economic development, I felt I had lots of things to say to the general intelligent public, springing from the endeavor of producing those papers, things that never got said.
I am not sure how many of those who read these words are academics, or aspiring academics, or frustrated academics who long to be also public intellectuals. I hope I reached a few of you, all the same. What I can tell you is that my life would have been more satisfying (even more satisfying) if blogs such Notes on Liberty had been available when I was just sharpening my pencils.
* Nonetheless, I wrote alone and off the top of my head a little paper that keeps cropping up in the class syllabi of several military schools forty years later: “The distributive state in the world system.” Studies in Comparative International Economic Development, 15-3: 3-21. 1980. (A little harmless bragging!)
Consider the post-Hayek/Rothbard/Friedman era of libertarianism.
Who has stepped up to fill their shoes? It’s hard to say, but 4 academics who stand out are Tyler Cowen, Mike Munger, Robert Higgs, and Bryan Caplan. Their scholarly output is comparable to our own Jacques Delacroix, and their influence within the libertarian quadrant is – or was at some point in time – much greater than Jacques’.
All four of these scholars cut their teeth blogging. The blog is how they teach. The blog is how they vent. The blog is how they share news and knowledge. The blog is how they went from well-respected to essential. All four write opinion pieces for professional outlets, but that’s not how they became essential to libertarians across the globe. Sharing their day-to-day thoughts about the world, to the world (and not just their walled-off social media accounts), is how they were able to step up and usher libertarianism into the next generation.
As the new year approaches, I encourage you to think about what liberty means to you. (Is it best left in the hands of professional Libertarians? You know the incentives they face. You know the choices they’ve made.) I also encourage you to be bold in your goofiness. Be strange! Be strong. Be artsy. Be rude (but never cruel). The professional outlets will always be there, waiting patiently to edit out your voice from The Message. Make 2020 the year a new generation of libertarians stepped up and took on the burden of responsible citizen-scholarship.
Joakim’s latest post is so good that I can’t help but add my own thoughts. I disagree with nearly all of Joakim’s picks (though Jared Diamond and Niall Ferguson are good choices), but I can’t put my finger on why this is. So, in the hopes that maybe you can figure out why my list is so different than Joakim’s, here are my six public intellectuals, and the fields they write about, that everybody should know (aside from my fellow Notewriters, of course):
Evolution: Joe Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and author of 2016’s The Secret of Our Success, a book that has done better than any other at explaining cultural evolution and its relationship to biology and genetics. Dr Henrich is the guy doing all of that excellent work on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) people, too. Here is a pdf to a recent article of his on the Roman Catholic Church.
History: With apologies to Kevin, Charles C. Mann is the author whose work on history should be more popular. Mann’s 1491 (2005) is not only what revisionary work should look like, but it’s also a great primer on the history of science. 1493 (2012) was not as groundbreaking as 1491 but it’s still the best work of popular history out there that explains the world we live in today. Mann’s focus on history as a global phenomenon and on the history of science is what sets him apart from all of the others. His The Wizard and The Prophet came out earlier this year.
Exchange: The science of exchange has gone through a bit of a down spell lately, and for good reason: many in the profession have long claimed to be prophets. Tyler Cowen is not one of those economists. His public conversations and blogging and have done wonders for those who follow along, and his books are breezy, informative, and entertaining. My favorite Cowen book is 2009’s Create Your Own Economy, and his newest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, came out earlier this year. His popular work strives to balance a moderate attitude towards all ideas while still leaning strongly on the counter-intuitive ideas that have helped make economics stand out among its peers in the social sciences.
Ethics: Yes, ethics is still important, and John Lachs is the philosopher we don’t deserve. Lachs, a Vanderbilt professor, authored 2014’s Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Other People Alone, which is a great, easy-to-read book on an idea that should be much more popular.
Literature: Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor’s voice has the potential to revitalize conversations on literature throughout the world. Okorafor dabs mostly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, but she also writes for Marvel Films and Dark Horse Comics. Start with her Binti trilogy. Literature needs a big change in order for people to start talking about books again, and Okorafor has the potential and the swagger to make that happen.
Inequality: The left is almost entirely unreadable on the most important topic in the world today, with the notable exception of Branko Milanovic (his
2018 2016 book Global Inequality is wonderful, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his newest book: Capitalism, Alone), and conservatives, led by Ross Douthat, have retreated inward and focused on their well-worn hobbyhorses: church attendance, community, and familiarity (Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism is perhaps the hottest book from this sector of the political quadrant). Unfortunately, inequality has always been best dealt with by libertarians, and nobody from the libertarian camp has felt quite comfortable enough, or been good enough, to step up and write the book that needs to be written. Oh wait, that can’t be right. Deirdre McCloskey exists. I’m tempted to put Bourgeois Equality on the list, but a 700+ page book just doesn’t count as popular. Will Why Liberalism Works, her newest book (2019), finally catapult her into the broader consciousness of the West? Let us hope so, but we don’t deserve her.