Sunday, October 02, 2005

My Five Votes in the Prospect/FP Poll

Below is the list of the five people for whom I voted in the Prospect/Foreign Policy poll of the top 100 public intellectuals. I think you have until October 10 if you want to vote too.

They also allowed you to nominate one person whom they did not list:

Four of these people -- Eco, Paglia, Posner, Crouch -- are represented in one way or another in my blogroll. Why these and not others? (Some of the other nominees that presented themselves included Christopher Hitchens, Tom Friedman, Robert Hughes, Francis Fukuyama, and Michael Ignatieff.)

For one thing, to be straightforward, there are quite a few of these folks that I have never heard of. I suspect I would benefit from reading things by Eric Hobsbawm or Peter Sloterdijk, but I have not yet simply because their names had not yet passed into my view. (I just did my own tally of the nominees and found that there are exactly 50 of whom I have never even heard. There were 19 I have heard of but of whom I lack any but the most basic familiarity. There are 31 for whom I have at least read a book, article, or blog by or about them, or else seen an interview with or documentary about them.)

For another thing, the poll's stated objective is excerpted below. And guess what? Maybe I don't want to pick them based on what Prospect is asking for. I think I feel like just picking the ones that I think are personally most interesting. I can do that, because this is Teh Internets.

The irony of this “thinkers” list is that it does not bear thinking about too closely. The problems of definition and judgment that it involves would discourage more rigorous souls. But some criteria must be spelled out. What is a public intellectual? Someone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.

Candidates must have been alive, and still active in public life (though many on this list are past their prime). Such criteria ruled out the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Milton Friedman, who would have been automatic inclusions 20 or so years ago. This list is about public influence, not intrinsic achievement. And that is where things get really tricky. Judging influence is hard enough inside one’s own culture, but when you are peering across cultures and languages, the problem becomes far harder. Obviously our list of 100 has been influenced by where most of us sit, in the English-speaking west.

So, I think I will share brief (brevity being subjective, of course -- just ask any of my co-workers who ask me for "The Short Version") points about my five (six) picks over the course of the next couple of weeks. Let's start alphabetically.

Hernando de Soto is an economist from Peru who wrote a fascinating book (one among many, but this is the only one I've read) called The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. One of its main ideas is that the prosperity associated with free-market capitalism is based on a society's propensity and ability to respect, transfer, and keep track of property in an orderly, accurate, and efficient manner. Record-keeping and paperwork may be a PITA, but they are essential to our way of life.

Let's say that a Haitian farmer wants to get a loan to fix up his farm. Let's say he has ten cows that he wants to use as collateral against that loan. He gets a bank or some other institution to loan him the money under certain terms, with the understanding that if he defaults, he loses the cows. He comes home with the money, and his brother-in-law finds out and wants a loan for himself, but only has 4 cows. He gets the first farmer to loan him six cows to add to his four, and the brother-in-law walks them all down to the bank, shows them to the loan officer, and gets another loan. The farmer next door finds out, doesn't have any cows, borrows some from the other two, and shows the same bank 14 cows against which he borrows a bunch of money. This could all be done with the best of intentions, to improve their farms and businesses so as to provide for their families. But, let's say all three default on the loans. Even if the bank collects all 14 cows, they have shelled out 34 cows worth of loans. Throw into the mix that some thuggish local militia colonel decides that he's just going to take some of the cows, cash, or stuff bought with the cash from the farmers (or the bankers!) who would have little recourse but to surrender their property. Multiply that by X number of people doing the same thing, and no one will ever want to (or be able to) loan anything to anyone else ever again. If you envision that scenario on a large scale, you will understand (as one of many related reasons, no doubt) why the capitalist engine that works well in the West has difficulty running in many Third-World nations where the concept of private property is not well-defined and does not have a strong tradition.

Here is the website of de Soto's think tank, The Institute for Liberty and Democracy.


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