May 8, 2017
THE IDEAS INDUSTRY
By Daniel W. Drezner
344 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.
The word “idea” comes from the Greek “to see.” Originally, an idea was a pattern, something that, when you saw it, enabled you to understand the true nature of a phenomenon. “Industry” comes from the Latin for “diligence,” and means an economic sector producing a particular product. An industry that reliably produced understanding of the true nature of things would be an extraordinary achievement of civilization.
But the political scientist and blogger Daniel W. Drezner’s new book, “The Ideas Industry,” isn’t about anything so revolutionary. Rather, it’s an account of how the market place of ideas, the metaphorical bazaar where academics and think tankers and pundits hawk their intellectual wares to policy makers, has changed over the past generation.
As he tells it, three large-scale forces have remade the market place of ideas. The erosion of trust in prestigious institutions has weakened the position of both academia and the traditional journalistic perches of public intellectuals. The polarization of American politics has segmented that market place into distinct and separate niches. Most important, the dramatic growth in economic inequality has made wealthy individuals and corporations into the primary buyers, dominating the market.
It’s this last trend, Drezner says, that accounts for the transformation of a market place into an industry. In a market place, wares are traded among participants with diverse needs, but an industry produces to meet the specific demands of its customers. Whether it’s the predominance of economics over political science, the transformation of research institutions and the rise of private intelligence operations, or the phenomenon of the superstar intellectual — each of which gets a chapter in Drezner’s book — a common thread is the enormous financial incentives that now exist to cater to the intellectual tastes and prejudices of modern wealth.
Those pressures — and the opportunities they present — have clearly affected Drezner himself, in ways that both gratify and worry him. His book’s subject lies well outside his area of expertise (Drezner is a professor of international politics), but he obviously relishes his ability to reach an audience beyond academia. Moreover, his book is framed as an explanation of the world’s new rules in the style of David Brooks or Thomas Friedman, people Drezner calls “thought leaders,” as distinct from the more traditional “public intellectuals,” because they push big, contrarian ideas rather than critiquing and complicating the public’s understanding of a topic. This very distinction, meanwhile, is his own buzz wordy bid for “thought leader” status.
But in chapters on the perils of intellectual super stardom, on social media and in the final one, where he discusses the takeoff phase of his own career, he expresses profound concerns about how the incentives of the ideas industry work against careful or serious thought. The thin reed on which he places his hopes for reform is the notion that intellectuals will police themselves.
The question Drezner doesn’t ever ask explicitly is: What is the ideas industry’s real product? If the plutocrats who dominate the market demand ideas that are already congenial to them, then they aren’t evaluating ideas based on their efficacy — as, indeed, they have little incentive to do if they are insulated from their consequences. It’s probably not an accident that the industry Drezner describes frequently sounds like a luxury brand of entertainment, the ideas akin to the witty confections served up by Louis XVI’s courtiers in the French film “Ridicule.”
I make the comparison advisedly, for looming in the background of Drezner’s narrative is Donald Trump. Drezner calls Trump the “brassiest thought leader in existence,” but this is to stretch his own definition of the term beyond utility. Trump won the presidency substantially by running against the entire edifice of ideation that Drezner’s book describes, both traditional academic experts and the Davos and think tank sets. He may well be a consequence of many of the trends Drezner identifies. It remains to be seen just what ideas, if any, that consequence has.