Vote for your favourite public intellectuals

Back in 2005, the British magazine Prospect, in a joint project with Foreign Policy, asked its readers to vote on the top 100 public intellectuals. It set off a wave of local public intellectual lists. Now Prospect is seeing how our public intellectual tastes have changed with another vote. (At least one change the editors have decided on already – Naomi Klein who came 11th last time isn’t even on the 100 person short list.) Anyone can vote for up to five of their favourite intellectuals, plus offer a suggestion as to who the short list misses, with the poll closing on 15 May.

There were about 20 names on the short list I’d consider voting for, but for quite different reasons so it is hard to rank them. But here are my choices and why:

Steve Levitt: I wasn’t as keen on Freakonomics as other people were, but following on from my criticism that moralists and storytellers are over-represented on these lists an economist with a technical reputation should get support. Krugman is there as well, but he will pick up plenty of partisan votes for his anti-Bush polemics (remember that Chomsky came first last time) so I’ll go for Levitt.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I don’t think her ideas are very original, but she is bravely arguing for liberalism against Islam.

Richard Posner: He’s amazingly productive across a wide range of subjects, despite having a day job as a judge. Plus it would be fun to have a person who wrote a book that was critical of public intellectuals do well on a list of them.

Steven Pinker: The science of what goes on in our heads as been very important to intellectual life for the last 15 or so years, and Pinker has been one of its most effective explainers.

Michael Walzer: On the left, but as my fellow classical liberal Jacob Levy noted earlier this year, Walzer is very impressive in the breadth and scale of his intellectual achievement (and I say that without even having read his most famous book, Just and Unjust Wars.) A political theorist whose work is rich in insightful consideration of specific detail rather than abstract theory.

And who would I have added? There are no glaring omissions from my perspective. But if they can put on the list someone like Malcolm Gladwell, an excellent journalist but only a populariser of other people’s work, there is a case for putting Tyler Cowen on as well, who is a different kind of populariser via his excellent blog Marginal Revolution, a columnist for the New York Times, and the author of several good books. I think I suggested Louis Menand last time, but perhaps people who are primarily critics rather than promoters of their own ideas belong on a different list.

11 thoughts on “Vote for your favourite public intellectuals

  1. I think Tyler Cowen is more than a popularizer, he does original and also critical studies. For the original work, check out his latest book on the funding of the arts.

    And for criticism, his demolition of the alleged effetiveness of the Marshal Plan could have saved billions of wasted dollars in the Third World.

    My list is pretty useless because I know next to nothing about most of the candidates – I would list Pinker, Posner, Llosa, Lomborg and Easterly. I would not list Dawkins because the root cause of the fanaticism that he attacks is a kind of rigid attitude towards beliefs and that is propagated by his own mode of argument (but that is another story).


  2. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams seem to be missing from the list (or is it my poor eyesight?). I suffer from the same problem Rafe has, I don’t many of the names on the list. I like Easterly, but is he really a public intellectual?


  3. From that list, number one should be Daniel Barenboim – heard his Reith Lectures on Radio National (what would we do without it?) – electrifying and important. You can hear them at

    Too early to gloat about Naomi Klein – she’s young and may be on the list again in future! Probably too late for Susan George though …

    Here’s a little quote from Susan:
    “Recently, the [World] Bank to its credit commissioned an assessment of its research output and, as we all know, the Bank’s research has been hugely influential. The report was amazingly negative, showing that the Bank’s research is shoddy and a poor basis for policy. Let me quote just one passage concerning the Bank’s claim that trade liberalisation leads to poverty reduction. The report says, “Much of this line of research appears to have such deep flaws that, at present, the results cannot be regarded as remotely reliable”. Professor Robin Broad of American University has also shown in detail how the Bank’s research is designed to provide “paradigm maintenance”, that is, support for policies the Bank plans to apply anyway, for ideological reasons. ”


  4. Oh no, Greg Mankiw, doesn’t seem to be on the list =[

    In that case I would pick:

    Lawrence Summers
    Steven Levitt
    Hernando De Soto
    Richard Posner
    Steven Pinker


  5. Russell – Because we have no clear definition of public intellectual or criteria by which to rank them it is hard to know what to do with people like Klein (or for that matter Chomsky, outside of linguistics). On the one hand, it is hard to take them seriously as intellectuals, but on the other they do articulate the sentiments of a large sub-culture within Western societies. Given that there are numerous other people saying similar things to Klein or Chomsky it is some credit to their skill as ‘public intellectuals’ that they have come out on top in a competitive niche market.


  6. I think Tim Harford (the undercover economist) and author of “The Logic of Life” is worth considering for the list. In my view in the “The Logic of Life” he does more to illustrate the broad relevance of economic thinking than anyone since Gary Becker started writing about the economics of everything in the 1960s.
    And why not add Gary Becker to the list? Doesn’t he deserve to be on the list just as much as his blogging associate, Richard Posner?


  7. Krugman, for the sheer volume and influence of his work – both academic and his column for the times.

    Stiglitz, another economic heavyweight – nobel winner, prolific writer….

    Levitt may go close..

    Jeff Sachs will be in the mix too…

    I think Krugman will take it out for sure…


  8. Ok Stiglitz didn’t make the list….. but, like mankiw, probably should have… still, i voted for him with my extra vote!

    I also forgot Amartya Sen… he will also figure prominently.


  9. These are people I agree with sometimes, disagree with at others – but they always get me thinking:

    Richard Nile
    Niall Ferguson
    Inga Clendinnen
    John Hirst
    Hernando de Soto
    Victor Davis Hanson

    I’d make the case for Paul Kelly with The End of Certainty, which had a thesis beyond a mere work of reportage, but not Michelle Grattan nor any other Australian journalist. Definitely not Bill Kristol, Dinesh d’Souza or Grover Norquist – each have bent over so far in defending Bush they are mere propagandists. Great claims are made for George Pell’s intellect but I find him bombastic.


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