Usually when I raise a problem in this column I arrive with the answer in hand. On this matter of stature, however, I am pretty much at a loss. Certainly the intellectual credentials of the people whom either a Republican or a Democratic president might appoint to a government post are as impressive as ever. Yet for some reason even highly credentialed candidates for public service have no stature.
The other day, I put this question to Henry Manne, an accomplished economist now in retirement who has been a major figure in economic study for several decades. He too was at a loss. Yet he did venture this thought. The economists who gained stature in the past, for instance Milton Friedman and George Stigler, gained their eminence because they solved big problems. There do not seem to be many such big problems to solve nowadays. This might also explain the lack of stature among Moynihan's successors in the social sciences. The serious problems that social scientists tangled with from the 1930s through the 1970s are now sufficiently ameliorated; for instance what was once called "urban decay," for instance racism and extreme poverty.
That leaves us with the question of why yesteryear's public thinkers of stature have not been replaced. I am sure that amongst the liberal brethren there are many who are perfectly content that Michael Moore and Al Franken are liberal intellectuals comparable to Galbraith and Vidal, and possibly in some ways, they are. Yet who from the right is the equivalent in terms of stature of Buckley? Is it one of our radio talk hosts? Not even Rush Limbaugh would make such a claim. I would welcome your thoughts. Why do public servants and public thinkers not attract the esteem they had in earlier eras?