The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society
by Heather Mac Donald
Ivan R. Dee Press, 2001
Heather Mac Donald’s twelve essays, largely reprinted from the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, constitute an incisive pathology of the intellectual rot that lies behind much current social policy and the philanthropic (broadly understood) impulse that drives it. Ms. Mac Donald’s marvelous explorations are intellectual history in the trenches, elegant erudition with a chainsaw performed upon “institutions that have been perverted by today’s elite intellectual orthodoxy.”
Her bracing essays uncover a conspiracy between all levels of social policy, from the guiding ideologies and their sources to the useful idiots who implement them: the foolhardy policies of certain major private foundations; the deteriorating standards of intellectuals (specifically those of the New York Times) on what constitutes a legitimate social need; the perverse teaching about sexuality by public health officials; law schools’ capitulation to the nihilists known as Critical Legal Theorists; directionless schools of education and their effects in a nontraditional public high school; political correctness in our national museums; New York City’s counterproductive policies toward the homeless, teenage pregnancy, and disability and foster care hustlers; and anti-police demagoguery.
By contrast, the older notion of philanthropy bore enormous benefits: “Key institutions of modern American life—the research university, the professional medical school, the public library—owe their existence to the great foundations, which had been created in the modern belief that philanthropy should address the causes rather than the effects of poverty.”
Such philanthropy also evinced a moderation we would do well to imitate today. Mac Donald notes, “Building libraries was not a radical act . . . . Andrew Carnegie merely sought to make available to a wider audience the same values and intellectual resources that had allowed him to succeed.”
But our academic elites rejected the older “values and intellectual resources” and refused to “draw moral distinctions in our public discourse, to praise virtue and blame vice”—the common sense of older generations.
The result is that those who bear the “burden of bad ideas” are cut off from developing the skills and attitudes that might improve their condition. One welfare recipient put it: “Anything the government gives you and it’s free, it’s not good for you . . . . You get the program mentality and become a zombie.”
As Mac Donald illustrates, shamelessness and greed characterize many of the recipients, for example, in hustling foster child care payments. “[T]hose who behave the most irresponsibly should no longer have the greatest claim on city revenues.” The cities are incompetent, “for the most part,” to practice the “business of social uplift.”
For all her disdain, Ms. Mac Donald is not one of those 18th century London aristocrats she describes who would entertain themselves by gazing on madmen at Bedlam Hospital. She realizes that “Ultimately, only a change in the powerful culture of universities can restore America’s public culture.” (Mac Donald, following an education at Yale, Cambridge, and Stanford, and then legal practice, had an interest in returning to graduate school in English, but the postmodern trends dissuaded her.)
She goes astray only in the book’s most theoretical essay, “Law School Humbug.” While critical of the extreme tendencies of the legal realist movement that led to the politicization of the law schools and the evisceration of the notion that law reflects an objective reality, she regards its founder, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, as America’s greatest legal scholar.
“We are all Legal Realists now,” she declares, as an acknowledgement of the place of politics in judging. But Holmes’s ultimate enemy was the notion of natural law, and hence the achievement of the American founders and their regime of limited, constitutional government based on the philosophic realism of natural law.
Heather Mac Donald gives us a worthy companion to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society. Mac Donald’s work has won the attention of New York City’s Mayor. May The Burden of Bad Ideas also attract its new senator.
Ken Masugi is director of the Center for Local Goverment at The Claremont Institute.