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An urgent need to regulate our 'public intellectuals'

By Ken Nielsen - posted Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Clive Hamilton is a public intellectual. His website says so. So is Robert Manne, according to his publisher. John Quiggin claims to be one though I have not read anyone else call him that. Naom Chomsky won the gold medal in a competition held by the journals Prospect and Foreign Policy in 2005 to find the world’s top public intellectual. There were, incidentally, only three Australians in the top 100 in that contest - Hughes, Greer and Singer - all expatriates.

Despite the frequent use of the term, there is no useful definition. Deconstructing it does not help. There are many uses of the word “public” before a noun. Public road, public hospital, public library, public toilet, to mention a few. All are facilities or services that can be used by anyone either free or for a nominal charge. I do not think this helps define a public intellectual. I cannot see someone going to Clive Hamilton with the request: “Hey Clive, I’m stuck on the last two clues in this cryptic crossword. Can you help? Would a couple of dollars cover it?” No, that is not the meaning.

It does seem that a public intellectual is someone who has expertise in a specialised field but chooses to write or speak on matters outside it. This rings true. Chomsky’s field was linguistics, not anarchism, libertarian socialism, American foreign policy or any of the many other subjects on which he has shared his views. Hamilton was an economist, not a moral metaphysicist.


More remarkable than the lack of a precise definition is the fact that the profession of public intellectualism is completely unregulated. As our own Prime Minister has said “This fundamentalist ideology of self-regulating markets has imploded comprehensively with the current crisis”. If a few greedy and careless bankers could wreak so much havoc on the world, imagine what a rogue public intellectual could do.

Clearly there is a need for regulation. A Public Intellectuals Registration Board must be set up without delay. But how do we decide who is qualified? As we have seen, a public intellectual is expected to write or speak about matters in which he or she has no qualifications and perhaps no knowledge at all. So an examination testing knowledge would not be at all appropriate.

No, the test must be of the ability to write plausibly on an area the candidate knows absolutely nothing about. The essays would be judged by people who also have no knowledge in the subject matter. What the examiners must be convinced of is that the writings sound appropriate and believable even if, objectively studied, they are nonsense.

There is already something in this country called The Public Intellectual Network. I first thought this might be a trade association, fighting for better rates of pay and such, but it turns out to be a publishing house. To preserve the integrity of the “Public Intellectual” brand, the Network would be required only to publish work of registered public intellectuals.

There should be some limit on the number of practicing intellectuals in the country. Until recently the government limited the number of marriage celebrants to ensure there is enough business to go around. That is a useful precedent. The National Trust, whose main business is protecting interesting but useless old buildings, has the franchise to nominate Living National Treasures. It has fixed the number of those at 100, with a one out/one in procedure, but that seems too high a quota of public intellectuals. To start 25 sounds about right.

Whatever the number, it is a cause for concern that ,as we have seen from the Encounter/Public Affairs contest, we have no public intellectuals of world class in Australia. How can we be the Clever Country with so few? Surely the Prime Minister would agree that public intellectuals are a vital part of our national infrastructure?


When the country had such a disappointing result at the Montreal Olympics (one silver and four bronze) the Fraser government responded by setting up the Australian Institute of Sport to train elite athletes. The result has been a great success, although as the Australian Olympics Committee points out, there is now an urgent need for several hundred million dollars in further funding if our medal count is not to suffer.

An Australian Institute of Public Intellectualism could, I am sure, be set up with only a hundred million dollars or so. The training would involve learning how to write and speak on subjects the students know nothing about, while sounding believable and keeping a straight face. Close study of opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Guardian and The Age would help teach these skills.

It would also be valuable for students to work through Papal Encyclicals. In these, one does not find such wishy-washy expressions as “it seems to me”, “it could be argued that”, “many might disagree, but”. It will be important for candidates to develop the direct, confident, brook-no-objection writing style that is used by the Pope. Humanae Vitae from 1968 would be an excellent model though of course only for its tone, not its substance. As with the encyclicals, a good public intellectual piece must be sufficiently authoritative to end debate on a particular question.

I have merely outlined an approach to the training and regulation of public intellectuals. There is much more to be done. A procedure for striking off a public intellectual found guilty of misconduct - such as writing on a subject he or she actually knows something about; public liability insurance coverage and so on.

Then, should a public intellectual have a formal title? A badge? Perhaps even formal robes when speaking ex cathedra?

I cannot in this brief note solve all the issues. I suggest that a journalist who finds my arguments persuasive might raise the matter with the Prime Minister on his next visit to a hospital or construction site. I am sure he will order a detailed review.

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First published in Catallaxy on November 4, 2009.

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About the Author

Ken Nielsen has been a lawyer, law teacher and dogfood salesman in his career. He now spends his time listening to music (opera,chamber and bluegrass, mostly), bicycle touring and grandchild wrangling.

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