Liberty Matters

IEA v. Heritage

A theme of several contributions here is the unique nature of the IEA as conceived by Arthur Seldon and why other think tanks have not followed this model. Blundell describes this accurately as making material accessible to the general educated layperson, while still being of use to the expert and the classroom.
Blundell mentions that the IEA focused on the high end of the structure of production. He is talking about the production and distribution of knowledge. There is no consensus on the precise nature of that structure. I follow Hayek (as did Seldon) as outlined in “The Intellectuals and Socialism.”[20]  Political change begins with the scholars of original thought, whose ideas then reach “the second hand dealers in ideas,” such as professors, journalists, teachers, church ministers, artists, etc. What professions should we add today to the list of intellectuals? Hayek assumes that intellectuals are those who work full time in the realm of ideas.  Are there now intellectuals whose income may come from other sources but whose passion is writing and distributing ideas, through a blog, website, or Facebook group? According to Hayek, the intellectuals form the opinions of ordinary people. Politicians and policy makers then respond to public opinion. In this model of political change, the scholars and the intellectuals are at the top. Seldon was focused on the interchange between these two groups. Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton describe this structure in much more detail than Hayek in Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers.[21]
Reviewing the work of many think tanks, I think very few would meet Arthur’s standards. They have, in Blundell’s phrase, “slipped down the structure of production.” Boettke contrasts the IEA with policy think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. “They are policy think tanks focused on politicians or grassroots think tanks focused on the voting public.”  I would amend that. Most are directed towards specialist “policy communities.”  There are at least three problems with the think-tank books of today. First, they are directed at a narrow audience of specialists, not the educated layperson.  Second, they seek to solve current policy issues within the existing paradigm, rather than shifting the paradigm. Third, they are written in the jargon that Seldon worked so hard to avoid, thus excluding not only the general public and politicians but also economists in other fields. There is value in this specialist literature, but it leaves “a deep hole.” Why does this gap exist?
Is the problem on the supply side, the academics? Davies suggests that changes in the academic world are a major factor: narrow specialization, mathematical formalism, and the lack of career incentives.  Blundell suggests that the problem can be overcome by drawing upon other sources than academia, that a wider talent pool exists in industry, banking, finance, and consultants.  While many such writers have produced fine books, I believe that academics have unique advantages. First, they are able to conduct basic research. Second, they have a high degree of credibility with general audiences. Third, they are thought be neutral. So why are academics less interested? At IHS, our FIND Scholars program encourages professors to reach out to a wider audience. The two biggest obstacles are that:  it never occurs to them and they are never asked; and they do not know how to translate their academic research into a form accessible to the educated reader. So this would suggest two steps are necessary. First, it requires think tanks to actively reach out to academics and offer them opportunities. Second, it requires professional editors who can replicate the skills of Arthur Seldon.
Is there a problem on the demand side? Davies identifies changes in the workings of the media.  Journalists are less likely to be the medium of transmission between academics and policy makers. The explosion of outlets makes any particular outlet or journalist less important.  Davies rightly warns of the danger of trying to satisfy the 24-hour short-term news cycle of daily commentary. The mass media have certainly changed, but the multiplication of outlets has not reduced the amount of serious journalism still to be found in quality newspapers, opinion magazines, and increasingly on the Internet, as Boettke suggests.  If anything, the number of intellectual consumers is larger now than ever before in history. In a more competitive media environment, more attention needs to be paid to promoting books. I am amazed at the number of academics who feel that their work has ended once the book has been published. They need a marketing strategy. This is an area in which think tanks could assist, including promoting books they themselves have not published but that further their mission. Holding one book forum in London or Washington, D.C. is not enough. More attention should also be given by think tanks to how to make their books appealing for teaching purposes, course adoptions, and university libraries.  Seldon always included questions for class discussion. One valuable project that would be ideal for an IEA-type think tank is to support the one-volume version of Deidre McCloskey’s work on the bourgeois virtues,[22] in cooperation with Art Carden.
We should encourage the adoption of the IEA (Seldon) model, rather than the Heritage model, while adapting to both the demand and supply side of a much different market for knowledge than the one facing Arthur Seldon. He successfully met the challenges of his day. Who will do the same for today?
[20] F. A.. Hayek, The Intellectuals and Socialism (London: IEA, 1998). <>. See also, F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, with 'The Intellectuals and Socialism' (19 Jul 2005). The Reader's Digest condensed version of 'The Road to Serfdom'. Now includes 'The Intellectuals and Socialism’. <>. PDF <>.
[21] Wayne A. Leighton and Edward J. Lopez, Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford Economics and Finance, 2013).
[22] Deidre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and its sequel Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics can't explain the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Art Carden's homepage <>. Guest blogger at Econlib <>.