Media

Niall Ferguson crosses the John Yoo line: The paradox of influence

Sep 12 '12

I don’t think Ferguson is just about the money. By now, he must have enough to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K for a lecture is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.

The paradox, though, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say–not by giving them his unique insights and understanding–but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.

The paradox is not insurmountable–talented entertainers ranging from George Carlin to Bob Dylan seem to have been able to say what they want to say and still maintain an audience. And Ferguson could go that route, indeed that’s what he used to do, back when he was merely an extremely successful academic historian and bestselling author. He didn’t need to sell out, he was doing just fine back when he was a serious thinker–but I think the promise of influence (and, sure, the money too) sucked him in. Again, the paradox is that the anticipated influence becomes valueless if you end up saying whatever it takes to keep it.

Longer discussion here.

P.S. To anyone who would reply that, no, Ferguson’s no hack, he really believes the stuff he’s writing: I say, No way! Yes, I think he’s politically conservative and is happy to do his part to help defeat Obama, get the world back on track with free enterprise and economic growth, etc.–but it’s hard for me to believe that Ferguson takes seriously the specific claims he’s made in his shark-jumping columns. As we’ve discussed before with the Don Draper analogy, this shouldn’t be such a shocker: hacks exist and hackery is an accepted mode of operation.

What I’m trying to explore in this post is, what does Ferguson think he’s getting out of his hackery? I don’t think it’s just the money, nor for that matter do I believe that he’s impaling his scholarly reputation purely as a personal sacrifice in order to decrease Barack Obama’s probability of reelection by some small amount. I’m sure both these are contributing factors, but my guess is that Ferguson’s big goal here is influence, hence my discussion of the paradox.