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PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS

A Study of Decline

By Richard A. Posner

Harvard -- 408pp -- $29.95

In Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, federal appeals court judge Richard A. Posner trashes fellow smarties who expound on public issues outside their expertise. He says they abandon rigor when they write general-interest books and op-ed pieces, publish open letters, and speak on television. They are in decline, he says, because more of them than ever have safe jobs as professors, protecting them from the consequences of bad predictions and stupid proclamations. He writes: "Academics tend to think of themselves as being on holiday when they are writing for the general public."

Posner fires both left and right, nearly always hitting the mark. His victims include Noam Chomsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Allan Bloom, Ronald Dworkin, Gary S. Becker, Paul Krugman, Alan Dershowitz, Lester Thurow, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Robert H. Bork, Irving Kristol, Richard Rorty, Peter Singer, and Paul Ehrlich. The book may cost him some friends. In a blurb for a previous book, Martha Nussbaum, a professor at University of Chicago Law School, called him "one of the most distinguished and prolific legal thinkers of his generation." Her thanks? Posner writes in Public Intellectuals that she "may be tilting at philosophical windmills."

The book has earned buzz for its list of the 100 most-cited (not necessarily brightest) public intellectuals. Posner himself is smart, well-read, and scarily productive. He has written 37 books, 233 articles, 38 testimonies, and 151 reviews, comments, and miscellany. He also lectures at the Chicago law school and mediated settlement talks between the government and Microsoft Corp.--all aside from his day job as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

As brilliant as Posner is, this book falls short of his stated goal: to point the way toward improving the quality of public intellectuals' output. The fault may lie in his own ambivalence. Posner, after all, believes that the market gives people what they want. If people choose to consume low-grade public intellectuality, then it's not obvious what problem needs solving. Posner concedes in Chapter 4 that there is no failure of the market that would justify intervention. But in the conclusion, he argues that there is market failure in a "special, nontechnical sense." With that as a lukewarm rationale, he argues for increasing accountability by getting professors to disclose payments for their nonacademic work, and to post all of the work on a Web site for easy scrutiny. But in keeping with his libertarian beliefs, he would make it voluntary--and thus it's unlikely to happen.

Posner's angst over how to upgrade public intellectuals' output shows that he fits one of his own definitions of a public intellectual: someone who thinks that public intellectuals matter. The rest of us are happy with the status quo, throwing tomatoes at the television whenever Alan Dershowitz comes on. By Peter Coy


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