By: 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.
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!
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.
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.)
By: R.J. Moeller
Back in November of last year I began publishing essays here at A Voice in the Wilderness under the “Mere Conservatism” heading. My intentions in formulating and disseminating Mere Conservatism are simple: I want to explain the core tenets of conservatism, as well as the thinking behind them. We’ve learned liberalism from liberals in our schools, universities, and media, but rarely do we have the opportunity to learn what conservatism truly is from actual conservatives.
Here's an example of someone doing just that:
The process of learning what constitutes Mere Conservatism involves analyzing the socio-political world around us through the three intellectual lenses of Theology, History, and Economics. I’ve already written essays on Theology and History, so today we close out the trio of clarification pieces with a treatment of Economics. In Part I here below, I will explain what underlies a Mere Conservative‘s conclusions about economics, and in Part II next week, I will explain in more detail what specific, free market conclusions this Mere Conservative has come to.
Part I - How we think about economics
Part II - What we think about economics
But to start us all off on the right foot and same page, I quote now from Fredric Bastiat’s The Law:
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life – physical, intellectual, and moral life. But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production – in other words, individuality, liberty, and property – this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
In these two paragraphs, Bastiat masterfully melded his own views on theology, history, and economics into one glorious commentary on the human condition, and our duties as Creator-endowed beings in a fallen world. A significant part of what it means to be human is on display when our “marvelous faculties” combine with “natural resources” to create goods, services, and property. This is the beginning of Economics.
Economics, it has been said, is a way of thinking. Whether you realize it or not, Economics is a part of your worldview and life philosophy. It impacts and influences nearly every part of your daily life. It is so much more than numbers and charts and long-run aggregate demand curves being drawn on a chalkboard as you sleep-walk your way through freshmen year of college. It touches where you work, live, and worship. It impacts your bank account, the prosperity of your nation, and the ability of charities to help the needy. Economics touches everything.
If you’re looking for a basic, academic definition, I defer to the insights of Dr. Samuel Gregg of the conservative, free market think-tank, The Acton Institute, who says, “Economics is the study of how free persons choose to cooperate through voluntary exchanges to satisfy their own and others’ needs in light of the reality of scarce resources.”
Fair enough. But before I learn all the jargon, terminology and data involved in Economics, I need to begin formulating a strategy for what faculties I will draw upon to analyze the things I learn. How does one approach an issue as broad and diverse as Economics? What is the best plan of attack for the average, concerned citizen who wants to move beyond high school English teacher talking points about how “greedy” all businesses are (and, conversely, how benevolent all government programs could be if we only spent more on them) to get to the heart of the economic matter?
I believe the following formula not only helps one to think through matters of Economics, but will be a tremendous aid in thinking through many important issues of life.
Economics = Math + Morality + Experience
There are two categories that must be distinguished when discussing Economics. The first is the “Math” side of things, where numbers, statistics, charts, and trends come into play. This is the realm of what can be called “economic theory.” As Dr. Walter E. Williams of George Mason University’s School of Economics explains in his book Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism, economic theory deals with normative, or objective, questions and answers. Discovering where tax dollars are spent by the federal government is an objective task. Insisting that tax dollars would be best spent on welfare or national security is a subjective claim. So keep in mind that the “Math” part of my equation deals with economic theory, and the statistical, quantifiable side of things.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the second category: “Morality”. It is here where we factor in such things as: personal beliefs about God, mankind’s purpose on this earth, distinctions of “right and wrong”, and political ideology. Here is where our subjective views of life, love, God and politics can (and should) find a home. Here we say “The room should be longer” instead of “The room is 20’ X 20’”.
What we want to be true is often much more important to us than what is true. What is true is often not an easy sell to voters if you are a politician trying to get elected. We all hope that the two line up, that what we believe and what is best are one in the same, and I believe in the case of free market conservatism they do; but anyone who claims that their personal convictions about the existence of God or the nature of “good and evil” does not impact their understanding of Economics is not being honest with you, or is not being honest with themselves.
Straddling the two extremes of what constitutes my Economics equation is “Experience.” We all live and breathe and work and die on the same planet, but our personal experiences as cognizant creatures are just that: personal. We are uniquely created. This isn’t by mistake, either. Our input, our unique perspective and our talents are what make a free society (and economy) work, and work well.
We learn facts (“Math”), we are convinced of what is right and what is wrong (“Morality”), but until something can be felt, can be experienced, it is difficult for human beings to grasp an idea’s true, full meaning.
But experience is a double-edged sword. The things you know from your life are facts to you, but something as simple as a hazy memory about a particular event or a misinterpreted gesture between friends can fundamentally alter the “facts” of your experiences. Sometimes we don’t learn anything from our experiences, or worse still, learn the wrong thing.
Perhaps your dad was a union worker and your idealized notion of what it was like back in the “good old days” influences how you vote, when in reality he had been coerced into joining a union and resented the fact that his union’s strong-arm tactics led the company he worked for to re-locate factory jobs to Mexico.
Or maybe you grew up in a cozy suburban town enjoying the benefits the child of a successful entrepreneur enjoys, and instead of being appropriately grateful for the type of economic system that could produce such wealth and comfort, you ended up resenting what you’d been given and began supporting far-Left, progressive economic policies that punish hard work and success by “spreading the wealth around.”
Experience can aid both “Math” and “Morality”, but it can also distort them. We can tend to rely solely on experience because it is the only thing that falls right in our lap just by waking up and living every day. The truth is – you need all three. You need all three to interact in your heart, mind, and day-to-day life.
But for free market capitalism to entrench itself in the hearts and minds of Americans, ultimately you need to provide people with some concrete, specific ideas that they can really know for themselves (and then can impart on to others). You need to move from the abstract to the tangible, to what people know.
Let me give you one quick example of how this Mere Conservative processes an economic issue using my “Math + Morality + Experience” equation. Let us suppose that an American president actually said out loud that the best and quickest course of action to “fix” a broken economy is to spend money we don’t have on health care reform most people don’t want. My train of thought goes like this:
We are already in staggering debt as a nation, and the idea that we can add more than 30 million people to any system and end up with better, cheaper results does not add up (Math). It is not the job of the American government to run something as massive as health care, and for other moral and religious reasons I feel that families, charities, and churches are the primary groups that should be helping the needy (Morality). The experiences of life, and the wisdom I’ve soaked in from those I love, trust, and respect, confirm that while reform is most certainly needed in our health care system, we need reform away from government involvement and towards free market solutions, more consumer choice, and tort reform (Experience).
There are six specific points that create the intellectual framework for the Economics of Mere Conservatism. These six points are what I consider to be concrete realities of this world. These six ideas and concepts are the starting point for any future analysis of economic issues done here at A Voice in the Wilderness.
They are: scarcity, private property, division of labor, competition, law and order, and religion and morality.
I will explain each of these in “The Economics of Mere Conservatism: Part II” next week.
Until then, watch this:
(for Part II of the Economics of Mere Conservatism, click here)
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What is “Mere Conservatism”?
The basic ideas, ideals, and values that generally define and characterize the central tenets of what today might be termed "modern conservative thought."
We believe that a proper understanding of history, economics, and theology leads to certain conclusions. Many of these are the same conclusions our Founding Fathers arrived at in constructing a "more perfect union."
All ideas and opinions are welcome; not all are correct.
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