Ben Casnocha suggested to me that I have harsh standards. I don’t mean “influencing lots of other minds,” I mean changing the world. Here are a few intellectuals who have had real influence:
1. Jane Jacobs: City planners heed her strictures in many different locales, sometimes too much.
2. Rachel Carson, and numerous environmentalists: Obvious.
3. Milton Friedman: He inspired market-oriented reformers around the world, eased the way to floating exchange rates, helped legitimize early derivatives, and focused attention on monetary policy and away from fiscal policy, among other achievements.
What about today?
1. Peter Singer: Many fewer people eat meat and he has given the animal rights movement greater intellectual credibility.
2. Muhammad Yunnus: He popularized micro-credit and spread the notion to many countries, even though he is by no means its inventor.
3. Richard Posner: Many more judges use economic concepts when issuing judgments or writing up opinions.
Most of the people in this category have spent a big chunk of their lives pushing a single, fairly specific issue or method. You could add Bernanke (a special case, but still a yes), Charles Murray on poverty, and Germaine Greer. Art Laffer maybe. Friedman is a throwback to the time when generalists could be quite influential.
Who hasn’t had much influence over events? I would cite Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Žižek, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Krugman, Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Charles Taylor, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, and Niall Ferguson, among many others including virtually all economists.
Perhaps these individuals will have long-run influence on people’s broader views, and thus on longer-run events, but I wonder. Not everything feeds into a long and powerful stream, and every now and then there is a reset. We do not know, but we do know that some very focused individuals have had real influence.
I would put Esther Duflo, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Romer, and Jacob Hacker (public option) in the “still have a good chance to have a big influence” category.
There is also the “futile crusaders” category, for instance Thomas Friedman for pushing for a centrist movement for green energy and Larry Lessig for IP reform and campaign finance reform, although of course subsequent events could upgrade them. We may well end up with green energy and IP reform but more likely as the result of technologies and market prices, rather than from successful intellectual battles.
Overall it is very hard to have much influence.