Too many intellectuals believe they have a duty to make decisions for the rest of us.
In his 1988 book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Paul Johnson wrote that one of the lessons of the 20th century was “beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.”
Not long after Johnson released his book, economist Thomas Sowell appeared on the C-SPAN program Booknotes. The host, Brian Lamb, asked Sowell what his next book would focus on, and he said he was considering writing about intellectuals. When Lamb asked how his book would be different from Johnson’s, Sowell threatened, “Mine would not be as generous as his.”
With his new work, Intellectuals and Society, Sowell has finally made good on his 20-year-old promise to write about intellectuals. He has also made good on his threat. Sowell takes aim at the class of people who influence our public debate, institutions, and policy. Few of Sowell’s targets are left standing at the end, and those who are stagger back to their corner, bloody and bruised.
What makes Intellectuals and Society even more withering than Johnson’s historical-biographical work is that Sowell approaches his subject as an economist, analyzing the incentives and constraints intellectuals face.
Sowell defines intellectuals as an occupation, as people whose “work begins and ends with ideas.” This includes academics, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, policy wonks, and, to a certain extent, journalists.
This distinguishes them from occupations in which the work begins with ideas and ends with the application of ideas.
Physicians or engineers usually start with ideas about how to approach their work, but eventually they have to put them into practice by treating patients or constructing bridges.
As a result, intellectuals are free from one of the most rigorous constraints facing other occupations: external standards.
An engineer will ultimately be judged on whether the structures he designs hold up, a businessman on whether he makes money, and so on.
By contrast, the ultimate test of an intellectual’s ideas is whether other intellectuals “find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious.
There is no external test.” If the intellectuals are like-minded, as they often are, then the validity of an idea depends on what those intellectuals already believe.
This means that an intellectual’s ideas are tested only by internal criteria and “become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality.”
An intellectual’s reputation, then, depends not on whether his ideas are verifiable but on the plaudits of his fellow intellectuals.
That the Corvair was as safe as any other car on the road has not cut into Ralph Nader’s speaking fees, nor has the failure of hundreds of millions of people to starve to death diminished Paul Ehrlich’s access to grant money.
They only have to maintain the esteem of the intelligentsia to keep the gravy train running.
Intellectuals, of course, have expertise — highly specialized knowledge of a particular subject.
The problem, according to Sowell, is that they think their superior knowledge in one area means they have superior knowledge in most other areas.
Yet knowledge is so vast and dispersed that it is doubtful that any one person has even 1 percent of the knowledge available.
Even the brightest intellectuals cannot possibly know all the needs, wants, and preferences of millions of people.
Unfortunately, they have considerable incentive to behave as if they do.
Sowell notes another important distinction between intellectuals and other professions.
“There is a spontaneous demand from the larger society for the end products of engineering, medical and scientific professions,” he writes, “while whatever demand there is for the end products of linguists or historians comes largely from educational institutions or is created by intellectuals themselves.”
Members of other professions can achieve fame and fortune by finding ways to meet the demand for their end products. But for intellectuals to prosper they must create demand for their ideas by stepping outside their areas of expertise to offer “solutions” to “social problems” or “by raising alarms over some dire dangers which they claim to have discovered.”
Chances are slim that Noam Chomsky would ever have achieved the acclaim that he did if he had stayed in the field of linguistics instead of venturing into U.S. foreign policy, nor the entomologist Ehrlich if he had limited himself to studying butterflies rather than making gloomy predictions of human overpopulation.
Reinforcing these incentives is what Sowell dubs the “Vision of the Anointed.” Intellectuals’ belief in their own superior knowledge and virtue leads to a belief that they are an anointed elite who are qualified to make decisions for the rest of us in order to lead humanity to a better life.
Under this vision problems such as poverty, injustice, and war are not due to inherent human weaknesses, but are the products of society’s institutions.
Solving those problems requires changing those institutions, which requires changing the ideas behind the institutions.
And who is better suited for that task than those whose work begins and ends with ideas?
Thomas Sowell on Intellectuals and Society: Chapter 3 of 5
What is the vision to which contemporary intellectuals subscribe? Thomas Sowell responds.