Which intellectuals have influence?

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.


You appear to be looking to intellectual leadership more than political leadership. Even so I'd offer up Ronald Reagan.
Many of the contours of American society today - low tax rates, marginalization of trade unions, trickle-down economics, dependence on the private sector, exorbitant defense spending, social Darwinism - trace back to his presidency.
These ideas existed, but Reagan's take on them has become the background assumption in our debates. I can't cite chapter and verse except to say I'm old enough to remember how things were until 1980. If you want proof, talk to an old liberal about how things used to be.
He didn't come up with the ideas, but he did more to put them into effect than, say, Arthur Laffer. And I think, 25 years on, he has more influence on U.S. policy than our current president.
I happen to despise his policies, but I recognize his influence.

Everything on the list sounds good, except "exorbitant defense spending" which has actually been declining as a percentage of GDP since the Vietnam War.

As Reagan, as I understand him, would prefer, having precipitated (supposedly) the fall of the Soviet Union. The Cold War is over. Walk softly and carry a big stick remains, and we are getting that bass ackwards.

Defense spending may have declined...but offensive war spending has been increasing rapidly the last decade.

This is why I said that what we are doing is the exact opposite of (what I understand to be) Reagan's strategy. By bulking up we helped to bankrupt the overextended Soviet Union with the arms race. What we are doing is overextending and bankrupting ourselves in ways that makes other countries increase their defense spending in ways that are sustainable for them, making the world riskier.

What is the difference between "issuing judgments" and "writing up opinions"?

The "judgment" is the outcome; usually one or two sentences. The opinion explains how that outcome was reached.

Also of note, appellate courts review judgments, not opinions.

Betty Friedan--far more, I'd think, than Germaine Greer.

Still no Jim Watson. Curiouser and curiouser.

Good call. Crick and especially Watson changed the way scientists approach a goal.

He said intellectuals. Not scientists.

If we're talking scientists I'd say Norman Borlaug by leaps and bounds.

Anyone for reviving a zombie Milton Friedman?

To install in the zombie banks? One problem, there are no brains there to eat.

Most of these people are known for espousing ideas that many people supported, with more precision and flair -- Jacques Cousteau or Hugh Hefner, for example. Julia Child, OTOH, may have been an example of someone who brought an idea that few people had foreseen.

Richard Stallman? Free Software must be one of the most powerful social movements to have grown so clearly out of an ideology in recent years.

The feminists are more of an ensemble act -- it's fair to pick Greer as a figurehead of that, but she's just one of many. I suspect this is a typical pattern.

Ensemble acts are arguably far, far more common. In some sense, nobody is actually "influential"; people more or less randomly generate ideas and arguments, and other people pick up on them according to their preferences. Picking up on ideas changes preferences, of course, which leads to feedback, and every once in a while you'll get significant feedback around one person's ideas, but more commonly you'll have feedback with a group of people at its core.

Charlie and I (Buffett and Munger).

I'd nominate Naomi Klein.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are two economists(?) who have changed me, personally - the way I think, the way I approach problems, the way I live.

2nd this motion and add Richard Thaler 2 this mix;

Kahneman and Tversky are (were, in the case of Tversky) were both psychologists (although Kahnemen was awards and Economics Nobel, which he surely would have shared with Tversky had Tversky not died). Great point though. I use the lesson of the taxi-cab hit and run example almost every day.

Also, is Robin Hanson a "futile crusader"? Being an intellectual is not about influence, he would probably answer.

If not, then what is it about? ("personal satisfaction at learning" doesn't count, as there are plenty of people who learn but don't feel a need to publish)

It's about signalling. Everything else is about signalling, apparently, so why not that?

Alice Waters.

Kahneman is definitely having a big influence on management and is probably as good a person as any to be credited with the overall 'movement'.

Tom Friedman will surely never be influential on anything, he has no expertise or idea other than the desire to be influential.

Tom Friedman is a great man and you are just jealous.

We'll know if Friedman is a great man in six months.

"Not everything feeds into a long and powerful stream, and every now and then there is a reset. "

What does this sentence mean?

[email protected] Lessig for IP reform as a futile crusader. The war is certainly still being fought, isnt it?

Tuomas Sandholm (CMU) for multi-donor kidney transplantation matching algorithms.


Hal Varian for his influence on auctions?

Julian Assange. Though again, hard to tell how much is him and how much he's just a figurehead of the "cypherpunk" hacker movement of the late nineties that he grew out of.

How much of that "influence" is actually having championed changes that were already on their way to happening anyway?

I place Lessig higher on the totem pole, simply because his ideas start to permeate the public who's concerned about his issues. It's going to be one of those situations where everyone who is knowledgeable about IP agrees with Lessig, but everyone who passes the laws doesn't.

But, yes, Richard Stallman. I remember reading the EFF manifesto as a freshman and thinking he was a crank. Now the idea of huge amounts of the computing world sustaining themselves on free, open software is pretty much mainstream.

edawrd bellamy, daniel deleon, john dewey, walter lippman, felix frankfurter, frederick gates, john j. mcloy, harry hopkins, dean acheson, etc., etc.

David Rockefeller has been pretty influential. Hired and cultivated the careers of both Kissinger and Zbignew Brezinski(two of the most notable foreign policy people of the last 60 years).

Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle certainly had some influence.

Lessig's influence on the Internet's behavioral norms might be greater than his influence on IP law.

You haven't defined the term influence with any measurable specificity, so the whole essay is meaningless, nor have you defined the word intellectual either but it is a good early morning starter for people to signal who they like or dislike.

Also good for google traffic counts.

Next week: who is your favorite movie star.

Vaclav Havel would be my choice.

Alfred Kahn didn't do a bad job.

Jeffrey Sachs has already had a big influence. If Muhamed Yunus is on there for popularizing microcredit then Sachs should be for popularizing bed nets and massive (arguably over-) spending on AIDS. Microcredit was more likely to take off without Yunus (profit incentive) and does less for poor people, so Sachs' provided more MB and less MC.

Esther Duflo is a better economist but I think you're right that the payoff to the RCT revolution has yet to come.

Given our incarceration rates or the flip side safer streets - James Q. Wilson has had impact on millions of lives. Just through the pithy phrase "broken widows". Religion isn't big here and John Paul 2 gets all the press, but I'd be willing to bet in 100 years Benedict 16 looks a lot more important as he is focused on core Catholicism which has impact on many millions - Catechism of the Catholic Church, Youth Cat, New/Old Mass Liturgy, real actions in regard to other church bodies and other faiths, all stemming from Benedict.

I was thinking the same thing. Perhaps JPII and B16 are special cases since they have real leadership positions. But who else on the list has a built in audience of a billion people (even though many ignore what they have to say)? Or look at it this way: who on Tyler's list will be read in 100 years much less 1,000 years? John Paul II would seem to have the best chance of being that person from our own time. In any event, surely there must be some religious intellectual of real influence on the list.

Jimmy Carter - for his focus on human rights? Any other President been awarded a Nobel prize?

Barack Obama was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Theodore Roosevelt won the Peace Prize for his mediation of the Russo-Japanese War a century and change ago.

Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Kurt Vonnegut, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,

I'm sure I got at least one

Milton Friedman has clearly had little influence on monetary policy or we wouldn't be in this mess.

Robert Mundell -- the Euro, for good or ill, is a direct outgrowth of his work on optimal currency areas....

Finance gives us a few: Burton Malkiel -- author of a Random Walk Down Wall Street, for popularizing index funds. Merton and Scholes for derivatives. And for the "still have a good chance" category: Robert Shiller for the potential effect the Case-Shiller index on housing policy.

The Fed apologists like to pretend that the crisis created in 2008 and the crisis in 1929 were “accidents”.

It seems that some will try to mark this crisis down as another “accident” of monetary policy in spite of the clear evidence that we are intentionally being driven into a ditch to create a big enough crisis to do what they want to get done politically.

It is the job of knowledgeable economists here to make sure people are aware that we do not have to have a deflationary period now.

Austrians and the Sumner-NGDP targeting-school and others may disagree on how many problems it will eventually cause/solve in the long run to create some inflation now…but IMO these diverse schools are in complete agreement that the current deflation is completely avoidable.

I believe that papering over the current deflationary environment will not solve our real underlying problems, but I also prefer certainty to uncertainty so I'd actually prefer the Fed follow the Scott Sumner policy of inflating away now instead of intentionally creating a financial panic. Then we can debate why our problems are still festering on once Sumners advice is followed.

I hope you're wrong about Lessig, the whole IP situation is totally out of control for both patents and copyright.

Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Alan Brinkley, Karl Popper, Michael Lessnoff, and several heads state in Eastern Europe identify Hayek as the thinker who most significantly transformed how to think about how to organize society and the relation of the individual and the economy to the political process.

"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."

So why do conservatives still insist that tax cuts are the best way to provide stimulus. This clearly flies in the face of Friedman's permanent income hypothesis.


"Over the years, I have again and again asked fellow believers in a free society how they managed to escape the contagion of their collectivist intellectual environment. No name has been mentioned more often as the source of enlightenment and understanding than Friedrich Hayek‘s."

-- Milton Friedman

Dozens of more supporting quotes backing the statement just above here:


No to Hitchens influencing events? I remember him as being a very prominent warmongerer, always touting his leftist credentials to convince people to bomb Iraq. He was very visible and he got what he wanted.

I'm going to agree with people upthread that you're under-rating Lessig. Creative Commons alone has a large impact, albeit one that isn't always visible. Even if he fails at his broader IP/campaign finance goals, the idea of open licenses for everyday creative works is a big change from where we were 15 years ago.

Alvin Plantinga is as deserving of a spot as Peter Singer. Plantinga almost single-handedly made it respectable for intellectuals to be theists.

Garrett Hardin -- Tragedy of the Commons
Norman Borlaug -- the green revolution that saved many millions of lives

I keep forgetting Norman Borlaug. He's probably touched more people directly than almost anyone else on that list.

When you talk about changing the world, do you mean necessarily improving it, or just changing it, even if for the worse?

Just changing it.

Can Peter Drucker be the figurehead for the growth of corporations? They are one of the mechanisms for globalization and economic liberalization, if not the driving force. To the extent that Naomi Klein failed, Drucker won.

....Karl Marx needs to be on the list.

Where are the technologists?

Let's take the definition of "influence over events" and play with that a bit.

First, we have to start with a definition of intellectual, which hasn't been provided (there can be people who are intellectuals AND actors in the sphere of activity (e.g. Paul Samuelson serving on the CEA), and assume we share the same vague notion of an intellectual.

But, then it gets fuzzy--"influence events." Direct influence: I can see where a person of ideas who is also an actor in the sphere of activity per influences events--e.g. Samuelson in the 60's, Galbraith during WWII, Hitler? Lenin? etc. Indirect Influence: Is it people who follow or apply the ideas of the intellectual? By that standard, a Nobel economist influences others who then apply their ideas to the field of work. So, by that definition, Krugman's work on spatial economics is used by economic geographers, development agencies who recommend specialization, etc. Tools and insights that enable others to do their work. Nash would be a similar, and more striking example, because he couldn't implement, but others could.

Influence events or intellectual shouldn't necessarily imply for the good either. If I were to have asked this question in the 1890's, you would have had a whole set of characters you never heard of, and some you did, like Herbert Specer or some eugenicists whose thoughts influenced Adolph Hitler's view of the world.

Besides, movie stars and sports heroes have more influence than intellectuals anyway, so what you need are true intellectuals like Yogi Bera..

This strikes me as a question where limited knowledge of other languages and cultures, especially in Asia, leaves a void of unknown but possibly large extent.

What about people's belief that AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) is a serious problem? Previously a majority opinion (in the USA), it's now a minority opinion. Regardless of whether this is a good or bad, why have beliefs shifted? I nominate Steve McIntyre. (Al Gore's stature is diminishing.)

I'd definitely not call him an intellectual, but Alex Jones has had a profound effect on the conspiracy-theorists of today.

I'm confused.

Intellectual does not include scientists or engineers or inventors?

If it does include these categories, many examples of enormous influence (inventor of MRI, just to name one).

Let me add a fourth voice for Norman Borlaug, not only because of how much palpable and salutary influence he had, but because of the resistance he met with along the way.

"Who hasn’t had much influence over events? I would [...], among many others including virtually all economists.
Overall it is very hard to have much influence."

Not surprising, given that unemployment is at 9.1%, the percentage of the population that is employed is at a historical low for the past several decades, and the only solutions economists have offered in response to these problems are all extremely unpopular ("inflation" and "spend now and inflate/tax later!") while still using the explanation of "low consumer demand" as the reason for economic woes despite record corporate profits resulting from that same consumer demand.

The reason that both economists and the average person are wrong about how to raise employment (and if either were correct, then obviously employment would not exist as a problem as both express desire to fix it) is described here:

About 1~2% of people who read this comment will click that link.

Intellectual: one who deems hypertrophy of the mind just compensation for constipation of the soul.

Naomi Klein, no influence over events? She's terribly sloppy with facts, but how else to write the instruction manual for the plutocracy's management of the past three years? Duflo, by contrast, is tirelessly detail-oriented and rigorous, but until the oligarchs get bored of the whole wanton predation thing I don't see how she becomes influential.

You're joking, right?

So banksters needed to be taught how to be banksters? And Naomi Klein is the one who wrote the instruction manual that they followed religiously, without which they never would have figured out on their own how to screw up the global economy?

You can't possibly be saying that, so WTF are you saying? How exactly did she supposedly influence or bring about any aspect of the events of the past three years?

It's a Western-centric list. A future in which the West has less clout is a world in which issues and events of importance to us may come to be seen as mere footnotes and curiosities by posterity. That future is presently threatening to unfold at a startlingly brisk pace.

Economic power focuses the world's attention, and cultural and social ideas spread by riding its coattails, in a sort of intellectual cargo cult whereby imitating the dominant global economy's sociocultural practices makes the "cargo" of prosperity materialize. If, say, China should become the 21st century's dominant economy, then we will probably get a brand new (and retroactive) set of influential intellectuals. If Japan had lived up to its hype in the 1980s, we'd probably have W. Edwards Deming on the list.

Almost certainly some of the theoreticians of the global surge of Islamic fundamentalism fulfill the criteria of influencing events, all the more so if Egypt tilts over into that camp and if the Afghan mujahedin send home a second superpower in a row to lick its wounds. Ayatollah Khomeini certainly belongs on the list: he is not disqualified as an "intellectual" by the fact that he eventually attained actual political power (this is after all the very epitome of achieving influence over events), nor by the fact that his intellectual program for a new society was decidedly obscurantist.

No Internet visionaries? Perhaps these ideas were "in the air" but so was feminism?

Why no Amartya Sen on the list?

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