The Public Intellectual Par Excellence
A recent radio interview with Zach Carter, senior political economy reporter for The Huffington Post, reveals a characteristic problem with democratic journalism. The host, Hugh Hewitt, began the interview by asking about what Carter had read and how he had prepared to become a journalist. Part of the inquiry concerned historical knowledge that seems relevant to the kind of reporting done by the journalist.
Showing amazing good humor, the struggling Carter confronted one of Hewitt’s stock questions: “Do you know who Alger Hiss was?” Hewitt typically asks this because he assumes the answer is yes and this allows him to proceed to more important questions of whether the journalist knows that the historical assessment of Hiss’s spying exonerated his accusers and shamed his defenders.
Hewitt was stopped cold by Carter’s saying he had never heard of Hiss and knew nothing about one of the most controversial subjects in modern American history. Stunned by the historical ignorance of a rather high-profile young journalist, Hewitt seemed as surprised by Carter’s absence of self-doubt as by his historical ignorance.
Neither deep liberal learning nor a high regard for history come naturally to modern, democratic societies. A preoccupation with the new and the next are likely to inspire a journalism that devalues the role of the humanities while elevating the play of ideas and opinions that emerge from the thin sheen of contemporary events. Yet, America’s greatest opinion journalist, Walter Lippmann, was a humanist whose knowledge of history was deep and central to his vocation.
Craufurd Goodwin’s book, Walter Lippmann: Public Economist, raises the question of whether Lippmann serves as a reasonable model for American journalists or was he an exception. Goodwin purpose is ostensibly narrow—he wants to explore Lippmann’s role as a public intellectual who brought complex, often technical, problems of economics and political economy into the broader public conversation through his columns and books. Lippmann, perhaps the most influential educator of the American public in the 20th century, was that rarest of journalists, for he could unfurl complex ideas, placing them in their proper context while neither talking down to his audience nor sacrificing precision and clarity.
Today, Lippmann (whose career spanned almost six decades—he died in 1974) is remembered for advancing general understanding in a number of fields, from the problem of public opinion in a democracy to the challenges of the Cold War (a term he coined). But he has not been remembered as a public economist—until now. This detailed and serious historical account of Lippmann as public economist does so much more: it helps explain (better than any previous account) how it was that Lippmann was able to become such an influential public intellectual on so many different topics.
It is much more important than simply a history of a journalist’s evolution as an economic thinker. Its description of Lippmann’s education and intellectual preparation, along with a painstaking reconstruction of Lippmann’s modes of work, helps us understand not only Lippmann but the vocation of the journalist as intellectual.
Goodwin stresses Lippmann’s commitment to self-education, by which he means the ability and willingness to pursue arcane and complicated subjects until he was deeply conversant with theory, well-versed in the literature, and had a full grasp of the competing schools of thought. As an opinion journalist, Lippmann was expected to engage regularly and seriously with pressing and practical matters, but he did so with the depth of understanding that only comes from understanding the relevant scholarly—theoretical and empirical—material.
The task of continuous self-education requires a thoroughly humanistic mind. As described by Goodwin, Lippmann’s formal education and his early intellectual tastes stressed history, art, literature, and philosophy. (He was a member of the famous Harvard class of 1910, which included T.S. Eliot among other luminaries.) Throughout his adult life, Lippmann advocated time and again the importance of a “liberal education” that is rooted in history and the classics and avoids narrow specialization. He counseled aspiring journalists not to study journalism but to embrace an education that cultivates a cosmopolitan mind capable of discernment about a wide array of subjects.
His education, Goodwin argues, stocked Lippmann’s mind with rich metaphors and analogies, making him peerless in explaining intricate subjects, full of subtle distinctions, in such a way as to be faithful to the richness of the subject while effectively communicating to a broad public. More importantly, Lippmann’s humanism made him a superb consumer of social science and of other contemporary intellectual developments. From very early in his career, when he chided public intellectuals for not properly incorporating the Darwinian and Freudian revolutions, to his later embrace of John Maynard Keynes, whose key insights he explained to a Depression-era public, Lippmann’s humanism made him simultaneously open to and critical of emerging intellectual trends.
The relationship between a deeply humanistic education and the role of a public intellectual (immersed in the constant flux of political life, the changing intellectual fashions, the rise of claims to new knowledge) warrants a serious examination, and this book is an excellent place to start. What kind of discernment is possible because of this intellectual formation, and how valuable is it for the many tasks associated with educating a democratic public? For Lippmann his vocation involved not only instructing the public about pressing policy matters but also serving as a guide to deeper questions about the fate of their imperiled civilization.
Of course Lippmann’s brilliance was not simply a product of a well-wrought education. Goodwin stresses his subject’s drive to master the many and diverse fields that his job as public intellectual demanded. To accomplish this, he cultivated a stunning array of intellectual friends with whom he kept up a substantial correspondence. He corresponded with the best historians, with Supreme Court justices, with novelists, political scientists, philosophers, scientists of various sorts—to say nothing of his relationships and correspondence with the most important statesmen and politicians around the world.
This network of thinkers and doers would grow in very identifiable ways as Lippmann sought to understand some field or problem that he believed was going to be a pressing public matter. Goodwin focuses on the stable of economists whom Lippmann acquired when the Depression forced him to take seriously economic theory and practice. In this case, while Keynes was his most influential interlocutor, Lippmann sought out many others in order to understand competing economic theories and gain detailed knowledge of monetary and fiscal policies.
At the beginning of the economic crisis, Lippmann needed historical context as he groped his way toward a basic accounting for its causes. His early journalism on the Depression was intellectually conservative and, as he sought to navigate what was for him still foreign territory—monetary policy—he would often insert in his columns tentative advice, along with a promise to his readers to become deeply versed in these matters so as to better guide them.
Immerse himself he did—with expansive, almost heroic, reading, but also by going directly to his expanding and intellectually varied network of economists. The result: In macroeconomic policy, Lippmann reversed his views, as he did on other subjects whenever experience and a deeper knowledge compelled him to see things differently. But among the consistencies that transcended his changing understanding of economic policy (and this was a thematically unifying ideal of his entire career) was a deep commitment to the stability of a regime of freedom in an age of growing collectivism.
Even before his Keynesian conversion, Lippmann believed that the executive branch should act boldly. The President ought to seek out the best knowledge of experts and then institute bold policies. More than that, the President had an obligation to educate Americans about policies that, Lippmann had already perceived, were going to strike them as counter-intuitive. Lippmann never let go of this democratic problem—the need for politicians who educate and lead the citizenry rather than manipulate and follow it. In the case of the Depression, his final assessment of Roosevelt was quite dim on all counts.
Broadly speaking, Lippmann quickly realized the need for abandoning laissez faire ideas and embracing some necessary government management of the economy. The trick was to make sure this “collectivism . . . which acknowledges the obligation of the state for the standard of life and the operation of the economic order as a whole” was enacted in a way that preserved expansive liberty of private transactions. The threat to Lippmann’s ideals of freedom and independence amid the new realities of political economy were evident throughout his writings in this period. Note how, in 1934, he struggled with this problem:
If the virtues and values of individualism and self-reliance are to preserved, we must not put upon the individual person burdens that are greater than he can by self-reliance carry. This is the surest way to kill individualism: by making it intolerable.
Lippmann’s confusion about how best to thread this needle is evident in retrospect—but his changes of opinion were the result of his unwillingness to give up on the preservation of freedom in a world that seemed to be tumbling toward tyranny. By the mid-1930s, Lippmann had grown frustrated with New Deal policies that created new forms of dependency and that encouraged the worst sorts of self-interested behavior by groups now claiming new entitlements. But his greater emphasis was on the corrosive power of monopolies, which distorted competition and poisoned the wellsprings of freedom.
For economists, Lippmann’s primary contribution to their discipline was his 1937 book, The Good Society. The most obvious way of interpreting the book is to see it as roughly consistent with the Austrian School rather than as a Keynesian argument. The Austrians (particularly Hayek) were deeply impressed by this book and called a “colloquium” in Paris (that included Lippmann) to discuss it—the “Lippmann Colloquium” would be the precursor to the Mont Pelerin Society. While Goodwin’s account of The Good Society and its argument is not fully adequate to navigate the distinctions between his theory and the Austrian School, it does a good job of situating the work in the context of Lippmann’s broader concerns at the time he wrote it.
Lippmann had come to understand the New Deal as a perversion of Progressivism; one infected too much by alien, “Oriental,” ideas. (In many respects Lippmann’s arguments about FDR’s betrayal of Progressivism express the same claims made by Herbert Hoover.) As a dangerous new understanding of government led to a creeping collectivism in the United States, large parts of Europe were descending into political darkness. Lippmann thought he was witnessing a most dangerous moment for Western civilization and its most cherished principles. It was as part of his effort to defend these principles that he wrote The Good Society.
The governing assumption of the book is that the West had lost contact with its essence and, in economics, with philosophical and moral foundations laid in the 18th century. Two wrongheaded streams of political economy emerged in the 19th century: liberals (“classical economists”) and collectivists/institutionalists.
Liberals had inherited, wrote Lippmann,
the science which truly interprets the progressive principle of the industrial revolution. But they had been unable to carry forward their science; they have not wrested from it a social philosophy to carry forward their science.
Unable to engage these principles with the dynamic nature of political and economic reality, liberals clung to understandings of freedom that were ill-suited to the new realities of the Industrial Revolution.
“The collectivists,” meanwhile, possessed the “zest for progress, the sympathy for the poor, the burning sense of wrong, the impulse for great deeds . . . .but their science is founded on a profound misunderstanding of the economy at the foundation of society.”
Lippmann believed that civilization proceeds by way of seeking out the “permanent ideals of humanity,” and that understanding those permanent ideals as well as the “vital necessities” of any given time is essential for meaningful progress. Civilization is both conserving and progressive, but when progressive forces (such at the American Progressive movement and its extreme version in the New Deal) lose sight of the freedom ideals of liberalism, their remedies go after a problem while undermining the higher principle.
In 1937, Lippmann rejected the idea that we solve social problems by way of public administration. Rather, a free government seeks the “reformation of the economic order through the reconstruction of the legal.” In The Good Society he was groping, with difficulty, for an understanding of the relationship between law and economics that would sustain individual freedom while adjusting to changing political and economic realities.
This book is, as I’ve said, remarkable, and deserves a much broader readership than those interested in the history of political economy. Still, it is not without its challenges and limitations. Goodwin’s characterizations of Lippmann’s broader philosophy are inadequate with regard to his complex appropriations of the thinking of William James, George Santayana, and Graham Wallas, among others.
More importantly, his narrative stresses continuities (accurately), but at the expense of very real and painful intellectual reversals. Lippmann’s body of work is more consistent than most scholars recognize, but its enduring power and influence lie in its continuous struggle to solve the problem of the relationship between authority and liberty—a struggle that took Walter Lippmann down many blind alleys and forced many retreats. It was this American writer’s peculiar grace, brilliance, and honesty that allowed every one of those retreats to be the starting place for a new advance.