This is a marvelous meta-book. Posner studies in detail the personalities and the arguments that receive prominence in public debate. The result is the solid documentation of a paradox: The public intellectuals that dominate the media are not particularly good. In a deliberative democracy, this should be of profound concern. Posner's thesis, in addition to being painstakingly proven, is not only disturbing, but also undermines our confidence in the quality of public discourse and, consequently, in the quality of this society's democratic decision-making. Like every one of Posner's books, this too is profound, thought-provoking, and unsettling.
One cannot resist thinking about the thesis further. In a way, the idea of inadequacy of public debate is trite. Distinguishing a high-quality deliberative democracy from a debasing kowtowing to crowd impulses and manipulation is difficult. The difficulty has been recognized since Socrates and Pericles; the history of Classical Greece seems a perfect case study of the issues involved. Is Posner losing confidence in democracy? Is this book a justification for undemocratic features of our governmental structure? One cannot help but be reminded of the unelected federal judiciary-of which Posner is a leading member-and the extraordinary secrecy in which the judiciary operates. If public deliberation is defective, a secretive undemocratic deliberative body like the federal judiciary is a highly desirable component in an otherwise very public and democratic structure of government. A constitutional structure that denudes this high-capacity body from material power-from budgeting and military authority-prevents its dominance and preserves democratic balance. Thus, disquieting as this book may be, my confidence the judiciary makes me find it agreeable. The question that follows is how confident we should be in the decision-making of the federal judiciary. The Supreme Court has severely reduced the role of federal courts. The confirmation process shows no signs of favoring profundity and scholarship over political preferences. When Posner shows the inadequacy of public intellectuals, it would be comforting to be able to rest assured that an army of secretive Posners will continue to populate the courts. Unfortunately, no such indication exists.
Posner also makes the very true observation that contemporary public intellectuals lack a quality monitor. He emphasizes that as fields become increasingly specialized, the lay audience becomes less able to determine the quality and accuracy of the speech of public intellectuals. As a law professor, I should reply that a significant fraction of legal scholarship consists of sieving through other scholarship and presenting the conclusions of a deliberated evaluation of a large body of scholarship.
Although I deeply admire Posner and his work, I must add that he is not immune from errors that he points out in others. The Lewinsky issue rears its ugly head: "By forcing these attitudes [of different private views about sex] into articulate competition, Clinton precipitated a rancorous Kulturkampf." (p. 109) The obvious transgression here is the attribution of causation. When private attitudes are in conflict but hidden, how does one more hidden act-rather than the revelation of the hidden act by those who are politically motivated-"precipitate a war of cultures"?
In sum, this is a much more important book than it lets on. Perhaps unwittingly, it touches the foundational premises of democratic society. The quality of public debate is central to the quality of democratic governance and to the success of our political system. Yet, in this book, a component of political debate that some might have thought was important, is proven to be mostly driven by sensationalism and its entertainment value.
PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS, despite trivial displays of political susceptibility (as the above Lewinski example) should be acceptable to any non-extreme political ideology. It joins other books of Posner that belong to the same group. These books are accessible social science at its best, and this book may not only be one of the leading candidates but also the one that opens the gate for one of the largest and most important research programs, one about the detailed study of the social foundations of democracy. To the extent voluminous scholarship is based on the assumption that public discourse is of high quality, it is roundly debunked.