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A new kind of expert is flourishing in the modern marketplace of ideas. Should we be worried?

The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas

Daniel W. Drezner
Oxford University Press
2017
356 pp.
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The Ideas Industry, by Daniel Drezner, is a book about how modern America produces and interacts with the marketplace of ideas. Although ideas are ubiquitous, manifesting in think pieces, TED talks, and all manner of conventional wisdom, we rarely take the time to examine the people and institutions that give rise to them. Because we have paid this important phenomenon little heed, Drezner maintains that we have missed an “industrial revolution in the public sphere.” Below the surface of his analysis lie the questions “How did we get here?” and “What did we get wrong?” that so many of us are grappling with these days.

Drezner posits that changes in public life, notably rising levels of economic inequality, political polarization, and distrust in once-esteemed institutions, have affected the way ideas are disseminated to the public. We now have the power to cherry-pick our media outlets, allowing us to hear only voices that we agree with. The supply side of intellectualism is more of the same. A conservative intellectual, he notes, can “intern at The Heritage Foundation, … win a Koch grant, author a book for Regnery Publishing, … and then talk about it on Fox News.” (Replace the institutions, he adds, and liberals can do the same.) Further, Drezner suggests a striking heterogeneity in the type of public figure who benefits from these changes, with the industry disproportionately empowering issue evangelists over broadly trained experts.

Antonio Liebana

Drezner notes the decline of the “fox” (who knows many things) and the ascent of the “hedgehog” (who knows one big thing).

The book focuses specifically on foreign policy, an area in which Drezner has considerable expertise, and begins by documenting the overarching changes that have driven the demand for experts in the modern world. Here, Drezner marks the differences between the traditional model of the “public intellectual” and the relatively recent emergence of the “thought leader,” using the fox and hedgehog terminology popularized by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1953: A fox (public intellectual) knows many things, whereas a hedgehog (thought leader) knows one big thing (1). He argues that as we retreat into like-minded bubbles, as trust in intellectual gatekeepers erodes, and as the wealthy bankroll more of the generation and promotion of new ideas, thought leaders are rapidly supplanting public intellectualism.

Each chapter follows a standard formula, introducing a prominent thinker (e.g., the investment banker Jim O’Neill) or a popular idea (e.g., “technological disruption”) and then documenting his, her, or its rise and decline. In this way, The Ideas Industry fits into a rich school of commentary on the ebb and flow of societal morals and ideals in the vein of Alexis de Tocqueville and Henry Kissinger.

As de Tocqueville and Kissinger have noted, systems of order—whether foreign relations or the ideas that give rise to these relations—are precarious, and this turmoil necessarily brings about regular change. But what is curious about the changes noted in The Ideas Industry is that the ebbs never seem as great as the flows, the falls never as dramatic as the rises. O’Neill, whose views on emerging markets have fallen out of favor, is still the managing director of a multibillion-dollar capital firm, while technological disruption, despite widespread scholarly and public takedowns of the theory, is still taught in nearly every entrepreneurial strategy classroom. Drezner posits that both entry and exit of ideas are necessary for a well-functioning marketplace, and the perseveration of outdated ideas indicates that things are not working as they should.

Drezner’s brief history of Walter Lippmann was, to me, especially compelling. Lippmann, a journalist and political commentator, is best known for his role in founding The New Republic and is often praised as a founding father of modern journalism. In Drezner’s analysis of Lippmann’s legacy of skepticism and elitism, the reader becomes privy to an arc of how ideas are developed, change over time, and influence the public and politicians alike.

The book’s shortcomings enter when Drezner tries to make claims about causes and effects. I was never quite convinced, for example, that the rise in thought leaders is necessarily the result of increased polarization and not simply a reflection of how foreign policy is becoming more difficult in an increasingly globalized world.

Industries, by construct, exist to serve a market, and market failure happens when they no longer do so, a phenomenon that Drezner maintains is currently happening to the marketplace of ideas. One clue that Drezner might be right is that he himself uses shibboleths like “fox and hedgehog” that should have long ago exited the ideas stage. Even the concept of “thought leadership” is itself a buzzword, overused and increasingly devoid of meaning.

Overall, however, The Ideas Industry serves as a competent primer on the birth and flow of foreign policy ideas both inside and outside the Beltway. By bringing to light the changing nature of contemporary intellectual life, Drezner may ultimately revitalize the very industry about which he writes.

References

  1. I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA.