A Voice in the Wilderness In Defense of "Mere Conservatism"


Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society”

intellecutuals_society_thomas_sowellBy: R.J. Moeller

G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kind of sin; and intellectual cruelty is the worst kind of cruelty.”

Written a century after Chesterton’s remarks, Thomas Sowell’s latest effort, Intellectuals and Society, is, broadly speaking, a 317-page cultivation of precisely those sentiments.  Combining the heady ideological exegesis of Conflict of Visions (1990) with the utterly graspable dissemination of facts and statistics in both Basic Economics and Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Dr. Sowell offers the reader of Intellectuals and Society a part-academic lecture, part-fireside chat, and part-Greek tragedy glimpse into a world few of us would otherwise ever experience.

That world is the realm of the “Intellectual”.  It is a world where ideas, so long as they conform to the agreed upon norm, reign supreme, and consequences are rendered inconsequential by the insulation afforded to the idea-makers by things like academic tenure, a highly complicit media, and the unnecessary (and unhealthy) intimidation John and Jane Q. Taxpayer feel in the presence of intellectuals and their ideas.

Sowell’s intent in this book is to explain what an intellectual is, expose what it is an intellectual actually does, and examine what impact an intellectual’s end-product (ideas) has on the society around them.  I picked up on seven primary themes/concepts which are developed throughout the entire book.

1)    It’s not enough to know; you must be able to apply (and apply correctly).

Using the formula “Intellect < Intelligence < Wisdom”, Sowell stakes out his position on the undue levels of prestige given to those who are, as my generation would say, “book smart.”  He explains:

The capacity to grasp and manipulate complex ideas is enough to define intellect but not enough to encompass intelligence, which involves combining intellect with judgment and care in selecting relevant explanatory factors and in establishing empirical tests of any theory that emerges.  Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect.  Wisdom is the rarest quality of all – the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding.  Wisdom is the fulfillment of the ancient admonition, “With all your getting, get understanding.”

2)    Incentives and Constraints are universal

”Intellectuals”, as a group, are people whose professional task it is to create and cultivate ideas, as opposed to implement them.  An intellectual is a member of an occupational category, and the behavior of the members of this category can (and should) be studied to discover characteristics and patterns among them.  In Sowell’s mind, the pivotal question that is asked far too infrequently is: What incentives or constraints affect the behavior and patterns of Intellectuals?

Society as a whole suffers when people erroneously assume that the only people with incentives (i.e. money, fame, advancement of ideological beliefs, prestige amongst colleagues, etc.) are “capitalist fat-cats” in expensive suits.  Another serious error occurs when people assume that to put any constraints on an Intellectual, on a professor for example, is a horrible thing that will limit creativity or curb academic curiosity.  This is rubbish.  Without constraints of any kind you have anarchy, even in the academic world.

3)    If you ain’t Left, you ain’t right

The “realm of ideas” in which Intellectuals reside is overwhelmingly Left-of-Center in its political and economic ideology.  Sowell defines the “vision of the political left” as follows:

…Collective decision-making through government, directed toward – or at least rationalized by – the goal of reducing economic and social inequalities.

The majority of the academic world is progressive, liberal, or far-Left.  The majority of the academic world would be included in Sowell’s definition of an Intellectual.  You do the math.

4)    It’s nice to be needed

Intellectuals tend to “manufacture” a public need for their ideas.  There are three basic explanations Sowell offers for why this happens.

The first is completely understandable: intellectuals, like anyone else, want what they do to matter and have a positive impact on the world.plato2

The second is not very flattering: ego.  From the time an intellectual is a young student in junior high or high school, they have been told they are the “smart” kid.  After attending the best universities for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate degrees, many intellectuals succumb to the notion that they are the “philosopher elites” envisioned by the likes of Plato and Karl Marx, destined and ordained to guide the un-enlightened masses to social utopia.

The third explanation for why intellectuals often “manufacture” a public need for their ideas (and services) is, put simply, “dolla’ dolla’s bills ya’ll.”  By manipulating the very free market principles so many of them hold in open disdain, intellectuals help to create a demand for themselves, which they are only too happy to supply.  Intellectuals need funding, and it is hard to get a grant from the federal government if your area of intellectual expertise involves the teaching of such ideas as limited government.

5)    Intellectuals have an influence on society and culture, and friends to help facilitate that influence

After creating a need for themselves, it comes as no surprise that intellectuals end up having a tremendous impact on the society and culture around them.  Intellectuals influence public opinion, which is the very air politicians (the decision-makers) breathe, even though the vast majority of Americans do not know the names and faces of the intellectuals who have influenced them.

A largely complicit media do what they can to advance the ideas of intellectuals, and thus their influence grows and grows.  In the chapter entitled “Optional Reality in the Media and Academia”, Sowell discusses the ease with which the Intelligentsia (Intellectuals + Gate-keepers of information) ignore facts that contradict their worldview, manipulate data that doesn’t corroborate their hypotheses, and in some extreme cases, lie as if their trousers were engulfed in flames.

Like the militant Muslim who has convinced himself that it is okay to lie under oath to “infidels”, the insulated, self-satisfying world intellectuals can create for themselves is a place where the truth is secondary to the “cause.”

6)    Heads in the proverbial sand

It isn’t just that intellectuals, like all fallible human beings, have been wrong about certain things, but it is that they seemingly refuse to learn from their mistakes, and the mistakes they make involve some of the most important things with the furthest-reaching ramifications.

In chapter three, “Intellectuals and Economics,” Sowell gives the example of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs enacted in 1930.  In the year following the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment topped out 10%, and by the time the federal government took its first (of many) giant Keynesian steps and signed the protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff into law, unemployment had already dropped to just over 6%.  The stated goal of the tariffs was to reduce unemployment, and was based on the idea driven by leading intellectuals of the time that the State must act, and act big, to save an economy from crisis.  By 1931, however, unemployment was more than 15% and in 1932 it was 25.8%.

Have intellectuals learned their lesson in subsequent decades regarding the detrimental nature of government intervention into the economy?  NOT EVEN CLOSE!

See: The Obama administration, one saturated with intellectuals, and its preposterous economic antics of the previous year-plus.

7)    How are the people who won’t change their minds called “progressive”?

There are three reasons why intellectuals typically do not learn from their mistakes.

First, their presumptions about human nature and knowledge are innately flawed.  Intellectuals, on the whole, tend to believe that human beings are inherently “good”, and simply need guidance and direction from the powers on high.  This then leads to their fundamental error in how they view knowledge.   Knowledge is dispersed among the people and no one person, or oligarchy of intellectuals, can know everything.  This logically infers that it is impossible to centrally plan something as big and vast as a nation’s economy (or educational system).  A refusal to accept this truth is, as F.A. Hayek wrote, the intellectual Left’s “fatal conceit.”

Second, intellectuals tend to be removed from the results of their ideas.  There are so few external tests or criteria for an intellectual to meet.  An engineer building a bridge is judged on the soundness of the bridge.  Vince Lombardi was judged by his winning record.  Intellectuals who come up with a horrendous idea, say, for example, that paying able-bodied “poor” people not to work, and preventing them from saving or investing the money you pay them, will have no ill effects on society, suffer no real consequences for their wretched schemes.

Third, and final, they are surrounded by so many like-minded people, who hail from equally impressive intellectual backgrounds and pedigrees.  How can I be wrong when so many of my colleagues (i.e. the other “smart” kids) think the same way?  In business they call it “group-think.”  In the land of the intellectual, it’s known as “progressive thought” to walk lock-step in line with your peers.

Thomas-Sowell-Don’t think for a moment that Dr. Sowell isn’t aware of the fact that his is a book about the potentially dangerous influence intellectuals can have on society, written by an intellectual trying to influence society.  Sowell is open, honest, frank, and uncompromising in his assessment of the career he chose for himself.  His aim is to educate, not indoctrinate; lead a horse to water, not drown it in elitist condescension.

Thomas Sowell’s writing is an oasis of reasoned thought and discourse, and after finishing (and thoroughly enjoying) Intellectuals and Society, I can confidently say that I’ve been refreshed.

(Do yourself a favor and watch the 5-part interview with Sowell at National Review Online here.)

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. So interesting! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. Sowell is a genius, but doesnt flaunt it. You can tell in the interviews he does that he is uncomfortable accepting laudatory praises, and simply wants to pursue the truth and share it with others. Do you know, RJ, what his religious beliefs are? Not that it matters for the purposes of this book or anything, but I’m just curious.

    Thanks as always. Keep up the great work.

  2. I believe Sowell is Catholic, but I could be wrong. Like you said, Colin, it’s not an all-important factor in analyzing his wisdom and insights, but I always try and check out a little bit about people I look up to. What we prize and champion are common ideas, not the man. The Left does that.

  3. I just ordered this book based solely (or is it Sowelly) on your review. Well done, sir. Dr. Sowell is a giant.

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