Julian Sanchez on the Ideological Proclivities of Wordsmith Intellectuals

by Reihan Salam

One of the persistent themes of The Agenda is that our political affiliations are shaped by identity and aspiration. That is, we align ourselves politically — and otherwise — in accordance with who we think we are and who we would like to become. These categories aren’t fixed, and preferences and affiliations can change over time, often in response to exposure to new communities and new ideas. But if you want to get a sense of where someone stands politically, it helps to have an understanding of how she consumes and the image she wants to project. 

Recently, my friend Michael Schrage, an innovation consultant and veteran journalist, wrote a fascinating ebook, Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?, that advances a novel theory of what the most successful business enterprises actually do:

He argues that asking customers to do something different doesn’t go far enough–serious marketers and innovators must ask them to become something different instead. Even more, you must invest in their capabilities and competencies to help them become better customers. Schrage’s primary insight is that innovation is an investment in your client, not just a transaction with them. To truly innovate today, designing new products or features or services won’t get you there. Only by designing new customers–thinking of their future state, being the conduit to their evolution–will you transform your business. Schrage explains how the above question (what he calls “The Ask”) will incite you and your team to imagine and design ideal customer outcomes as the way to drive your business’s future.     

Google, for example, has transformed millions of Americans into “searchers” — people who expect instant gratification for even the most trivial queries, and who will search for the population of Saskatchewan or the birthdate of some famous actor or the career field goal percentage of your favorite basketball player. And this bottomless appetite for searching has actually improved the quality of search over time, as more data allows Google to have a better sense of what people actually want to know. According to Schrage, this transformation of how we consume represents a little-understood form of human capital investment.

I hope to write at greater length about Schrage’s concept. But for now I was thinking how it relates to other organizations. Political parties, for example, have implicit ideas about the kind of virtues they want to cultivate in citizens. Shirley Letwin’s The Anatomy of Thatcherism distilled the “vigorous virtues” that Margaret Thatcher aimed to cultivate in the British citizenry:

The individual preferred by Thatcherism is, to begin with a simple list: upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies. 

Letwin argues that Thatcher’s policy initiatives generally aimed to encourage the spread of these virtues by rewarding those who demonstrated them and creating institutions designed to inculcate them. 

One could construct a similar list for the individual preferred by contemporary American social-democratic liberals: tolerant, open-minded, intellectually curious, empathetic, respectful of scientific expertise, ecologically-minded, deferential towards the credentialed but not towards those who have amassed private wealth, and willing to question traditional family structures and gender roles, etc. I’m sure someone else could come up with a much better list. 

This all came to mind as I read Julian Sanchez’s really insightful post on why intellectuals tend to favor government-centered solutions to addressing social problems. The entire post is worth reading, but here is a brief excerpt:

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

Julian’s post reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s concept of “threshold earners,” which we’ve discussed on a few different occasions. And it evokes one of my favorite ideas, namely that our ideological debates flow at least in part from a positional competition over whether society will have greater regard to those who have a preference for nonpecuniary goods (which are harder to tax and redistribute) or for those who have a preference for pecuniary goods (which are relatively easy to tax and redistribute). One of my big frustrations with how we talk about social problems is that we fixate on tractable things that we can easily measure, like income and wealth, while discounting intractable things that are extremely hard to measure, like the robustness and breadth of one’s social network. 

Tyler has said that London is one vision for the future of the world’s advanced market democracies. Because dining out is so expensive in London — relative to comparable U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles, for example — London is more of a “dinner-party culture,” in which social life revolves around visits to the homes of one’s friends. Another way of putting this is that social networks are more important relative to money than is the case in the U.S. The incentives to accumulate private wealth are somewhat weaker, but the incentives to be included in a desirable social group are somewhat stronger. The trouble is that social mobility of this kind is arguably more difficult to achieve than increasing one’s income in a well-functioning market economy. But not for those Julian describes as wordsmith intellectuals, who specialize in conversation and persuasion.

This is obviously a stylized portrait, and I’m sure there’s a lot I’m missing or getting entirely wrong. Regardless, Julian has given us a lot of food for thought.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.