May 21st, 2022


Holding up a mirror to intellectuals of the left

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published May 8,2018

Paul Krugman recently made a splash in a New York Times column by suggesting there are no "serious, honest, conservative intellectuals with real influence," referring to the "unicorns of the intellectual right." I largely agree, but I would like to offer a very different perspective. This column is my corresponding warning to the left, like when somebody tells you your shirt is not properly tucked in.

Here is what I see:

More and more of the interesting discussions are going off-line and occurring in private groups, in part to escape the glare of social media and political correctness. Right now, it is especially hard to tell who will prove to be the important thinkers of our time. I'm struck by Scott Alexander, a blogger at Slate Star Codex and a thinker who is influential among other writers. He keeps his real name a secret.

Often my best conversations are with doers and practitioners, rather than intellectuals and writers. The politics of the doers are typically difficult to discern or to boil down to simple classifications. Even when they are registered Democrats, they often seem alienated from that party in intellectual terms.

I find that left-wing intellectuals complain more about the right wing than right-wing intellectuals complain about the left. This negative focus isn't healthy for the viability of left-wing intellectual creativity.

Probably the two best "market failure" books this year were written by colleagues of mine, coming out of libertarian traditions: Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson (with Kevin Simler, whose background I'm not as familiar with). In Hanson's case, the book was intermingled with influences from science fiction. The left continues to produce plenty of content on market failure, but rarely am I surprised by the material.

I see social media as leading to more left-wing than right-wing intellectual conformity. If only because many more intellectuals are on the left, it is a more significant phenomenon where leaders on the left announce talking points, or the villain of the day, and their followers pick up the charge.

I consider foreign policy to be the most important topic for the U.S., in terms of final impact on the world. It is easy for the right to have a dynamic and substantive debate in this arena, given the right includes both conservatives and libertarians in large numbers. I find that left-wing discussions of foreign policy are more likely to consist of criticizing Republicans, rather than outlining a conceptual approach or facing up to their own internal failures and contradictions. The same is largely true for the topic of immigration.

Many of the next generation of important thinkers will come from countries or backgrounds "off the grid" with respect to the usual American political spectrum. Try Bruno Maçães from Portugal, or Saku, a young woman living in London but of mixed Filipino and Sri Lankan background.

Religion has been a major force in world history, and today is no exception. The popular intellectual who probably has made the biggest splash this year, Jordan Peterson, describes himself as a Christian. Right-wing intellectuals, overall, aren't nearly as religious as is the broader right-wing electorate. Still, I find they are much better suited to understand the role of religion in life than are left-wing intellectuals. For intellectuals on the left, the primary emotional reaction to religion is to see it as a force standing in the way of social liberalism, feel awkward about how many Americans are still religious, and then prefer to change the topic.

I see the main victims of the political correctness movement as standing in the center or center-left. In fact, some intellectual superstars, such as Peterson or Steven Pinker, have thrived and received enormous attention by attacking political correctness. But if you don't have a big public audience, you work in a university, and you wish to make a point about race or gender that isn't entirely along "proper" lines, you will probably keep your mouth shut or suffer the consequences. Those intellectual victims are not mainly on the right, and it means the left has ended up somewhat blind on these issues. This underlying dysfunction is a big reason the left was so surprised by the election of President Donald Trump.

Every intellectual on the right is extremely familiar with the doctrines of the left and center-left, but the converse is somewhat less true. It is virtually impossible to imagine a conservative or libertarian analog of Krugman's earlier claim that there are no conservative sites he reads regularly.

In short, the new world of ideas is a free-for-all, and it is hard to wrap your arms around it. But the overall picture is by no means as favorable to left-wing intellectuals as left-wing intellectuals might wish to tell you.

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Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."