Intellectuals For Sale

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Friday, Feb 23, 2024 - 05:05 PM

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via,

Four years after the pandemic, it’s still hard to predict where any particular public intellectual stands on lockdowns, mandates and the entire calamity of the response to COVID.

Very few have apologized.

Most have moved on as if nothing has happened. Some have dug into their own apostasy even more deeply.

One reason seems to be that much of the professional intellectual class is currently dependent on some institution. It is not lost on anyone that the people today who are most likely to say what is true about our times — and there are some major and brave exceptions to this — are mostly retired professors and scientists who have less to lose by speaking truth to power.

That cannot be said for many who have undergone a strange metamorphosis over the last several years. For example, I’m personally sad to see Stephen Davies of the Institute for Economic Affairs, formerly one of the most compelling libertarian intellectuals on the planet, come out for travel restrictions, universal disease monitoring and turnkey crisis management by government, not only for disease but also for climate change and any number of other threats.

Why? Because of “unusual vulnerability” to global catastrophic events caused by human activity plus artificial intelligence… or something that is hard to follow.

I was preparing a sincere response but then stopped, for one simple reason.

It’s hard to take seriously a book that also promotes “effective altruism” as any sort of solution to anything. With this slogan, one detects a lack of sincerity.

A year ago, this slogan was unearthed as nothing but a cover for a money-laundering racket pushed by the company FTX, which was accepting billions in “venture capital” funding to hand out to the pandemic-planning industry, including many of the very same catastrophists with whom our author is now aligned.

Sam Bankman-Fried’s mentor was author William MacAskill, the founder of the movement who served on the board of FTX’s Future Foundation. His Center for Effective Altruism plus many affiliated nonprofits were direct beneficiaries of FTX largess, receiving at least $14 million with more promised. In 2022, the center bought Wytham Abbey, a massive estate near Oxford University, and currently has a $28 million per year budget.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of this as much as I’ve looked. Still, it’s deeply discouraging to see the framework and lines of thinking in this strange new ideological penchant, which is bound up with a several-trillion dollar pandemic planning machinery, show up in the work of a great scholar.

Forgive me, but I suspect there is more going on here.

And in so many ways, I’m deeply sympathetic. The trouble really comes down to the market for intellectual services. It’s neither broad nor deep. This reality goes against all intuition. Looking from the outside in, one might suppose that a tenured professor at an Ivy League university or famous think tank would have all the prestige and security necessary to speak truth to power.

The opposite is the case.

Taking another job would at the very least require a geographic move, and this would come with a likely downgrade in status. In order to ascend up the ranks in intellectual pursuits, you must be wise and that means not bucking the prevailing ideological trends.

In addition, places where intellectuals live tend to be quite vicious and petty, and instill in intellectuals an eye toward adapting their writings and thoughts toward their professional well-being.

This is especially true in working for a think tank. The positions are highly coveted as universities without students. A job as a top scholar pays the bills. But it comes with strings attached. There is an implicit message in all these institutions these days that they speak with one voice, especially concerning the big issues of the day.

The people there have little choice but to go along. The option is to walk away and do what? The market is extremely limited. The next-best alternative is not always clear.

This kind of non-fungible profession is different from, say, a haircutter, drywall installer, restaurant server or lawn-care professional. There is a huge shortage of such people so the worker is in a position to talk back to the boss, say no to a customer or simply walk away if the working conditions are not right. Ironically, such people are in a better position to speak their mind than any professional intellectual is today.

This creates a very odd situation. The people we pay to think, influence and guide the public mind — and possess the requisite intelligence and training to do so — also happen to be the least capable of doing so because their professional options are so limited. As a result, the term “independent intellectual” has become nearly an oxymoron.

If such a person exists, he is either very poor or otherwise living off family money, and not likely making much of his own.

These are the brutal facts of the case. If this shocks you, it certainly shocks absolutely no one employed in academic or think tank spaces. Here, everyone knows how the game is played. The successful ones play it very well. Those who supposedly fail at the game are the principled people, the very ones you want in these positions.

Observing all of this for many years, I’ve encountered perhaps a dozen or so earnest young minds who were enticed into the world of ideas and the life of the mind out of pure idealism, only to discover the grim reality once entering into university or think tank life. These people found themselves exasperated with the sheer viciousness and factionalism of the endeavor and bailed very quickly to go into finance or law or something where they could pursue intellectual ideals as an avocation instead.

Was it always this way? I seriously doubt it. Intellectual pursuits before the second half of the 20th century were reserved for the extremely gifted in rarified worlds and certainly not for mediocre or petty minds. The same was true of students.

Colleges and universities catered not to people headed to applied fields in finance or industry but rather focused on philosophy, theology, logic, law, rhetoric and so on, leaving other professions to train their own. (One of the first professions in the 20th century to be devoured away from practitioner-based training to academic training was of course medicine.)

I’ve never worked directly at a university but I’m told by many who do that collegiality and the free exchange of ideas are the last things you find in these institutions. There are exceptions to be sure, such as Hillsdale College and other smaller liberal arts colleges, but in major research universities, genuine colleagues are rare.

Meetings are not really about big ideas and research but are more often characterized by one-upmanship and plots of various sorts, toxic settings for true creativity. The truth about these places is being revealed these days, with terrible revelations out of Harvard and other institutions.

The number of intellectuals who have let down the cause of freedom over these terrible years is astonishing. Some of them used to be my personal heroes. So yes, that hurts. Tom Harrington is correct to nail this as the treason of the experts. That said, let’s grant that many are in a tough spot. They are trapped by their institutions and walled in by a limited range of professional options that prevent them from telling the truth as they see it.

It should not be this way but it is.

We’ve lived through this and seen too much to have the same level of trust we once had. What can we do? We can rebuild the ideal as it existed in the old world. The kind of genius we know was on display in a place like interwar Vienna, or even in the coffeehouses of London in the 18th century, can return, even if on a small level. They have to, simply because the shape of the world around us depends fundamentally on the ideas we hold about ourselves and the world around us.

Those should not be for sale to the highest bidder.