The Death of the Intellectual

Given the current state of international politics, the sooner we find someone who can stand up to populist politicians the better, says Mark Casson

Do you remember The Brains Trust? Probably not. But I do. It was a popular TV programme in the 1950s. My parents never missed it. The brains were four intellectuals and the viewers wrote in with questions. ‘Every year we go on holiday to Tenby. There’s a beautiful house with views of the bay. This year it is for sale. Should we buy it?’ Today, an economist would say ‘Only if the price is right’. My neighbours would say ‘Why not ask Phil and Kirsty?’. But in the 1960s it made perfect sense to ask a group of intellectuals. Professor Joad would have said ‘Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘beautiful’’ while Dr. Bronowski would have muttered ‘Is this supposed to be a rational decision?’ But nobody would have doubted that intellectuals were the appropriate people to ask. 

The hey-day of the intellectual was the 1930s. Albert Einstein was at the height of his fame. The German economist Moritz Bonn wrote a book, ‘Wandering Scholar’, about the exodus of Jewish intellectuals to the US, which transformed the US into a post-war world-leader in science and technology.

My favourite intellectual from that period is the economist Frank Knight. From humble beginnings – one of eleven children reared on a prairie farm – he became a clerk and then a student of philosophy. He was expelled from Cornell, switched to economics, and finished up at Chicago. He is remembered for two main things: training no less than three Nobel Laureates in Economics, and giving awful lectures (is there a connection?).

In political terms the 1930s were, in certain respects, not unlike today. At that time the new sectors of the economy (motor cars, radios, department stores, etc.) prospered, while mature sectors (notably agriculture) declined. Life was tough for manual workers in declining sectors. Knight believed that US politicians instinctively favoured the newer sectors, since they were rich, but the enormous number of losers in the declining sectors meant that to win enough votes to stay in office they had to identify with the losers instead.

Politicians, said Knight, were populist, larger than life, and fond of making promises they knew they could not keep. The responsibility of the intellectual was to analyse ‘the system’ and educate the public as to how the system worked. It wasn’t necessary to take sides, but it was necessary to debunk exaggerated or misleading statements and hold the perpetrators to account.

The leading US universities of that time were chiefly private charitable institutions, and their primary function was to educate their students in the liberal arts. Knight upheld this tradition. He maintained that economics was just ‘horse sense’. Its propositions were blindingly obvious once you thought about them. The fashionable up-and-coming maths and stats was a frivolous distraction. When confronted with a new mathematical theory Knight denounced it as ‘proving that water runs down hill’. In economics, Knight believed, market prices find their own level in the same way that water does. That is all you really need to know.

Populist politicians, in Knight’s view, claimed that they could move water up hill. But however many buckets you have, and however much energy you expend, you can only a make a difference in the short run. In the long run the system finds its own level. The intellectual can tell you where that level lies.

If Frank Knight were alive today he would give Donald Trump and Boris Johnson a good run for their money

‘The Brains Trust’ of the 1950s was the final flowering of this pre-war intellectual tradition. During the Cold War science and technology were harnessed to defence. Many US economists worked for the RAND Corporation, which was part of the military effort. Computers were an unintended by-product of code-breaking and the Boeing 707 was a spin-off from defence logistics. In the 1970s Asian competition devastated consumer industries in both the US and the UK, and their governments re-directed science and technology into consumer product development in order to restore competitiveness. Leading intellectuals became research managers and younger intellectuals became technicians. Specialists replaced generalists and intellectuals lost the ability to communicate with the public. Populist politicians, with a smattering of history, a taste for poetry and experience of foreign travel expressed themselves with greater clarity and greater conviction than the academic elite.

The TV audience of the 1960s was predominantly middle class, or aspiring middle class, but as the audience increased media moguls dumbed down the content. By 2000, academics had larger disappeared from TV screens (except for a few history and archaeology programmes). They were replaced by celebrities, journalists, bankers, and, of course, politicians. The public itself also acquired a starring role on TV, appearing on game shows or as the man or woman in the street.

‘Horse sense’ tells us that the spread of new communications technologies has replaced an elite media audience with a mass media audience. But the colourful characters that populated ‘The Brains Trust’ have disappeared as well. I blame the universities for this. Mass higher education has failed to produce a generation of academics who can hold their own on the media.  Modern academics work in silos and talk amongst themselves – if they socialise at all. They speak in jargon and rarely use a metaphor.

When faced with an intellectual problem, Frank Knight, in his own words, liked to ‘take the bull by the tail and look the situation square in the face’. How politically incorrect is that? If Frank Knight were alive today he would give Donald Trump and Boris Johnson a good run for their money. But he isn’t, and there is no obvious successor. Given the current state of international politics, the sooner we find someone who can stand up to populist politicians the better. Can the universities help? Who has the breadth of knowledge, the command of words and the passionate commitment required to make an impact? Which university might they come from? I don’t know. Do you?

Mark Casson is a Professor of Economics at the University of Reading. 

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