Does America have an intellectual capital?
Over at National Review, Michael Auslin raises the question:
I just ran across a line in Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples (I know, not his best, but a fun read anyway) about Boston long being America’s intellectual capital. Do we have one today? It’s not a frivolous question. Given the massive problems facing us, isn’t it important to try and figure out where the solutions may come from? I’d vote for D.C., but you have to correct for the inertial drag of non-stop politics, where ideas get expropriated at birth for policy purposes, without the time to grow and develop. New York? A decaying crust of liberal opinion facing a daunting economic future that may take the best minds out of the city. Certainly not Boston anymore, or L.A.
As a society, we are a bit schizophrenic, inasmuch as we can’t seem to decide between glamorizing sophisticated urban-ism versus lionizing the American pastoral existence.
But history seems to imply there is something to be said for the hustle and bustle of cities. More people, after all, equals more ideas (which is one of the many reasons population alarmists are wrong) — and environments which force ideas to occasionally bump into one another can have a multiplier effect.
(It’s no surprise that big ideas tend to be conceived, as Matt Ridley says, where “ideas have sex.)
Auslin understands this, noting the “coffee-house fervor or the intellectual melting pot of 19th-century Boston” — but he also wonders if modern technology might have made physical closeness less important. This, of course, is a fascinating debate, and it’s probably not surprising that others are weighing in.
Jonah Goldberg, for example, dismisses Auslin’s hypothesis, arguing that so-called intellectual capitals might ultimately “create more of the nation’s problems than they solve?”
He doesn’t say as much, but Goldberg’s skepticism seems to reflect a conservative concern regarding elites. The notion that DC might be a hub of great ideas seems to undermine the Hayekian critique of central planning, as well as the notion that the states are incubators of ideas.
Meanwhile, The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher has penned a thought-provoking post on the subject. Ultimately, he seems to agree with Auslin:
I’d say the NYC-DC-Boston axis is the intellectual capital, but that’s cheating, isn’t it? Those are three cities, and they cover a wide area. NYC is the cultural capital and the financial capital, but Washington is not only the political capital, but the place where policy ideas come from. Most countries have their capitals concentrated in one city. Not us.
The fact that conservative writers seem to agree (granted, an incredibly small sampling of them, but still) that if we have an intellectual capital, it would reside in the “NYC-DC-Boston axis,” not only reveals a certain eastern bias (how many times can ESPN air the Yankees versus Red Sox per year, any way?) — but it might also reveal a subtle bias towards certain industries — namely Wall Street and politics.
Perhaps a better way to find America’s intellectual and cultural centers is to ask people from outside the United States. My guess? For culture, they’d say New York — and Los Angeles. For business and innovation, they might say the Silicon Valley — or Seattle (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, after all, should qualify as important influencers) — or a host of other vibrant cities.
America is decentralized, and that is an important part of her incredible strength. The real question to be asked in this discussion isn’t, “Where is America’s intellectual capital?” but rather, “Does America need an intellectual capital?”
And the answer is “No.”