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March 15 2018

Think Tank Head: Competition of Ideas Is Under Attack

by Charlotte Hays

Arthur C. Brooks, who is in his tenth year as president of the American Enterprise Institute, has asked the board to begin a search for a successor. Brooks announces this in a must-read piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Reflecting on Gresham's law, that bad money drives out good money, Brooks says something similar is happening in the world of ideas. Here is a nugget:

[W]hat worries me most today—not for AEI, but for America—is that the competition of ideas is under attack. Many would rather shut down debate than participate in it. Politicians from both parties try to discredit their opponents with name-calling and ad hominem attacks. On too many college campuses, people with the “wrong” viewpoints and ideas are unwelcome. Much of the mass media has become polarized, meaning readers and viewers on the right and left are never challenged in their conviction that the other side is made up of knaves and fools.

Americans must commit to stand athwart this trend. That doesn’t mean advocating mushy moderation or abandoning strong policy positions. My AEI colleagues are warriors for democratic capitalism, here and all around the world. But we also fight for respectful debate and repudiate the holy war of derision on both left and right, which makes dialogue increasingly untenable.

Part of this stance is pragmatic—no one has ever been insulted into agreement. Further, we need opposing viewpoints to challenge our own. If we’re wrong, the best way to learn it is through challenges from our friends on the other side of the issue.

More important, this is a moral concern. A couple of years ago I was giving a speech at a large conservative event, and I said that while my own views are center-right, I have no reason to believe progressives are stupid or evil. An audience member countered, “You’re wrong: They are stupid and evil.” This bothered me because the person was insulting many of my family and friends. You probably love someone with whom you disagree politically.

Another threat to the world of ideas is arguably even more insidious: mediocrity through trivialization, largely from misuse of new media. To understand this, remember Gresham’s law: “Bad money drives out good.” If one form of currency is inherently more valuable than another in circulation, the better one will be hoarded and thus disappear.

Brooks says that today we see "a kind of intellectual Gresham's law." Brooks sees this in famous academics' tweeting insults at each other and journalists' letting it all hang out on social media.

This must-read joins another Brooks classic, "My Valuable, Cheap College Degree," which appeared in the New York Times in 2013 and described how Brooks took courses by mail and took courses from a local university. He acquired a B.A. for around $10,000.

He obviously hasn't been held back by not having an Ivy League degree and in this era of preposterous college tuition this essay is the starting point for any discussion of higher education reform or alternatives.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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