Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Intellectuals Really Are Second Best

Time and time again we hear how intellectuals are out of touch, in ivory towers, or clueless. And for years I never understood the argument. The simple version of the argument assumes that intellectuals are too focused on abstract concepts and ignore reality, while the people on the ground know the ideas can't work in the real world. For example, criminologists and police officers often disagree over how to approach crime. The former deal with the concept of crime and try to use intellectual tools to fix the problem. Cops, on the other hand, are on the ground and focus on crime on a day to day basis. They understand that the plans coming from the universities won't work in the real world because they live in that world, while the intellectuals live in the world of the abstract.

I never bought this argument. Not being on the ground would seem to be a positive, not a negative. The people who rationally study the subject matter and are not affected by the day-to-day happenings are more likely to be dispassionate and objective. Police officers are probably more emotionally invested and less objective. If intellectuals are less emotional and more objective, why not listen to them?

I think I finally understand the argument. Economics (and now legal theory) understands that theory presupposes ideal conditions that cannot be obtained and therefore theory should look for the "second best" possibility. For example, many theories of constitutional interpretation presume judges of great intellect, conditions which are impossible to fulfill. They also ignore institutional constraints (such as how Congress or the President will react to certain constitutional ideologies). In short most legal theories assume optimal conditions, which are not just practical.

I think the same idea applies to intellectuals across the board. The ability to perceive flaws in the system that render it not ideal is the difference between judges and law professors. Judges, especially on the lower courts, deal with the day-to-day minutia of the system and understand that some methods of interpretation(without pragmatic overrides) are impractical and would make the problem worse. Law professors don't have that experience and are lacking information that would lead them to recognize that the legal system can only strive for second best.

Intellectuals, by virtue of their inexperience with the real world, are incapable of recognizing that the world is really only second best. They incorrectly assume ideal conditions, which are utopian, and therefore their theories fail.

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