10 August 2011

Influential Intellectuals

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Which intellectuals have influence?

Ben Casnocha suggested to me that I have harsh standards. I don’t mean “influencing lots of other minds,” I mean changing the world. Here are a few intellectuals who have had real influence:

1. Jane Jacobs: City planners heed her strictures in many different locales, sometimes too much.

2. Rachel Carson, and numerous environmentalists: Obvious.

3. Milton Friedman: He inspired market-oriented reformers around the world, eased the way to floating exchange rates, helped legitimize early derivatives, and focused attention on monetary policy and away from fiscal policy, among other achievements.

What about today?

1. Peter Singer: [...]

2. Muhammad Yunnus: [...]

3. Richard Posner: [...]

Who hasn’t had much influence over events? I would cite Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Žižek, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Krugman, Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Charles Taylor, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, and Niall Ferguson, among many others including virtually all economists.
He left out all engineers and scientists. To take just examples from my field, where is Vint Cerf? Tim Berners-Lee? Kernighan & Ritchie? Gosling or Stroustrup? Brin & Page? Gordon Moore? Craig Newmark? Dijkstra? Knuth? Von Neumann? Turing? Frank Rosenblatt, John McCarthy, Allen Newell, David Rumelhart, Geof Hinton? True, they influence fewer minds, but they changed the world.

How about Frederick Taylor and the other professors and consultants who drove the 20th century business trends? (Bruce Henderson, Bill Bain, Michael Porter, Fred Gluck, ...)

What about the businessmen themselves?* Ray Kroc? Sam Walton? John Bogle? Gates? Bezos? Jobs?

(* Perhaps these businessmen are influential people, but not influential intellectuals. What is our definition of "intellectual"? The consultants have intellectual credentials, often in engineering, and were paid to think.  The latter makes them intellectuals in my book.)

Conspicuously absent, and I think for good reason, are artists. Many have changed how we think of art, but what visual artist** has significantly changed how people live their lives? I say that as someone who loves and values art, but artists as a community have a vastly over-inflated sense of their impact.  Has Guernica, for all its hideous beauty, made wars less common?  Judy Chicago has had no visible effect on the status of women compared to whoever invented the refrigerator.

(**  I think writers, musicians and filmmakers – those artists operating in middle- and low-brow mass media – have had more of an effect upon society than visual artists have.  That effect is still limited compared to the business and STEM people mentioned above, however.  Do even 1% of people listening to "Born in the USA" draw the conclusion Springsteen was aiming for? Upton Sinclar wanted to change how people thought about capitalism; instead he changed how they thought about charcuterie. As powerful as The Wire is has our legal regime changed at all as a consequence?

I think artists have the more influence over how we remember the past and anticipate the future than they do on how we actually live.)

PS I would add John Paul II to the list of influential intellectuals.

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