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Intellectuals for Sale


In the first week of March 2020, as news of a virus was everywhere, intellectuals associated with the Yale University school of public health penned a letter expressing the conventional wisdom of the moment: we should not lock down. That harms the poor and vulnerable populations. Travel restrictions achieve nothing. 

Quarantine, if it is deployed at all, said the letter, should only be for the very sick and only in the interest of the health of the community. Government should never abuse its powers but instead find “the least restrictive measure” that still protects community health. 

The letter writers gathered signatures. They found 800 others in their profession to sign it. This was an important document: it signaled that a China-style lockdown would not be tolerated here. Of course the whole text was discarded by governments at all levels everywhere in the world. 

Reading it now, we will find that it makes mostly the same points as the Great Barrington Declaration that came out seven months later. After that document, which was wrongly seen as partisan, many of the people who signed the original Yale letter then signed a new letter, this one called the John Snow Memorandum, calling for a zero-Covid policy and universal lockdowns. 

What happened? It’s like the world had turned upside down in a matter of months. The ethos changed. The lockdowns happened and the authorities backed them. Nobody is as talented as intellectuals in discerning the mood of the moment and how to respond to it. And respond they did. 

What had been unthinkable was suddenly thinkable and even a mandatory belief. Those who dissented were dismissed as “fringe,” which was crazy since the GBD was merely expressing what had been the conventional wisdom less than a year before. 

It’s usually best to take people’s statements at face value and not question the motive behind such shocking turns. But in this case, it really was too much. In the course of barely a few weeks, an entire orthodoxy had changed. And the intellectuals changed with it. 

The signers of the original Yale letter were hardly the only ones. Academics, think tankers, authors, and major public pundits all over the world changed suddenly. Those who should have opposed lockdowns switched to favor them once every major nation in the world other than Sweden adopted them. This was true even of the scholars and activists who had made names for themselves in favor of human rights and liberties. Even many libertarians, whom you might think of as the last to side with such senseless, destructive governmental policies, were silent, or, even worse, invented rationales for these measures.

It was only the beginning. By the fall of 2020, we heard major figures, who later said the vaccine should be required for everyone, were warning against Trump’s vaccine. The people who urged against taking the Trump shot included Anthony Fauci, Senator Kamala Harris, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Dr. Eric Topol, Dr. Peter Hotez, and Dr. Ashish Jha. They all said that the public should be extremely wary. They were the “anti-vaxxers” of the day. 

Every last one of these skeptics became convinced converts only a few months later. Based on no data, no evidence, no new information other than that Trump had lost and Biden had won, they became enormous proponents of the very thing against which they had previously warned just a few months earlier. 

Once again, they turned on a dime. It was an experience lifted straight out of the pages of Orwell, truly stranger than fiction. From opposing the shot, they came around to the idea that it should be mandated, based mostly on who was in power. 

Here we are four years later and the deck is still massively shuffled. It is hard to predict these days 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. 

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

Maybe Davies’ book Apocalypse Next, which is published by a division of the United Nations, deserves a full and thoughtful critique. It shows no evidence of having learned a thing from the experience of the last four years in which governments of the world attempted to wrestle with the microbial kingdom and ruined whole societies. 

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 is 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 is 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, 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, dry-wall 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.) 

Years ago, it was my great privilege once to walk the halls of the amazing University of Salamanca in Spain, which was the home of the greatest minds of the early Renaissance, scholars who wrote in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. There were the graves of Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546), Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), Luis de Molina (1535-1600), Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), and so many others besides, along with all their students. Another remarkable thinker from the period in Madrid was Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) who wrote ferocious works against power, and even defended regicide. 

Perhaps we over-idealize that world but these were incredibly brilliant and creative thinkers. The university was there to protect their ideas from a dangerous world and grant such great minds financial and professional security to come to a great understanding of the world around them. And they did just this, while arguing and debating with each other. They wrote treatises on law, economics, international relations, and so much more, that ushered in the modern age. 

Being there, you could feel the spirit of learning, listening, and discovery in the space. 

I’ve never worked directly at a university but I’m told by many who do that collegiality and the free exchange of ideas is the last thing 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. 

How can we recapture the ideal? Brownstone Institute last year began a series of retreats for experts in the many fields in which we take an interest. They take place in a comfortable but not expensive location with meals provided. The meetings are set up not in a classroom environment but a salon. There are no long speeches but rather relatively short segments of presentations that are open to all participants. What follows is unstructured, fundamentally depending on the goodwill and open mindedness of everyone there. 

What emerges over three days is nothing short of magic – or so everyone who has attended has reported. The environment is free of backstabbing faculty politics and bureaucracy, and also emancipated from the performance that comes from speaking in front of the media or other audiences. That is to say: this is an environment in which serious research and ideas are put on display and highly valued for being what they are. There is no unified message, no action items, and no hidden agenda. 

Brownstone is holding its third such event in the coming two weeks, and another is planned in Europe this spring. We are looking toward doing something similar in Latin America as we approach the fall. 

True, these are not year-round but they are enormously productive and a tremendous respite from the clamor and corruption of the rest of the academic, media, and think tank worlds. The hope is that by holding such idealized meetings, we can make a contribution toward rekindling the type of environment that built civilization as we know it. 

Why are such settings so rare? It seems that everyone has some other idea on what to do. In addition, these are difficult to pay for. We seek out benefactors who are willing to back ideas for their own sake rather than pushing some agenda. That is not easy these days. They do exist and we are deeply grateful for them. Perhaps you are one of these people and can help. If so, we very much welcome that. 

The number of intellectuals who have let down the cause of freedom over these terrible years is astonishing. Some of them used to be more 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 Salamanca, or in interwar Vienna, or even in the coffee houses 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.

Republished from The Daily Sceptic

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  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey Tucker is Founder, Author, and President at Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Life After Lockdown, and many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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