Intellectual Capitals Are the Root of All Evil?

by Michael Auslin

Jonah, I certainly wouldn’t disagree that probably all our major policy and institutional problems today came from intellectual “capitals” like D.C. or Cambridge, Mass. But I’m not sure I agree that ipso facto, the solution to those problems have to come from outside the capitals from which they emerged. One reason is the environment in which ideas (whether policy-related or not) are germinated. Places such as D.C. or Cambridge probably have a higher self-selecting population of people interested in ideas, in part due to the intellectual infrastructure (think tanks or universities) or traditional culture (Boston’s salons).

As a proud Midwesterner, I’m as sensitive as the next prairie-dweller about being labeled as an un-intellectual rube, but having lived on the East Coast for the past decade, I’d say there is an undoubted pull towards these centers more than other locations. If that’s the case, then the potential solution to the problems caused by elites in the intellectual capitals might be more likely to come from the same milieu. I would wager there are simply more people interested in policy issues in D.C. than in other areas. I guess that’s why artist or writer colonies were similarly popular — if you wanted to be creative, there was something about being in a community of like-minded individuals.

I think the bigger question I was interested in was whether we even take intellectual activity seriously enough today to have a self-identified intellectual capital, no matter how misguided, ideologically blind, or intolerant it may be. Because if we do, then there is the still the cultural resonance of the importance of seriously grappling with problems in a communal atmosphere which can give hope to those fighting against the statist path we’re on. Again, maybe it’s now a digital community, and that would be fine. I wasn’t trying to make a hard and fast point, but rather to wonder where a density of thinkers resides in America today, or whether that matters.

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