Too smart for our own good: How The “Best and Brightest” may hurt society

March 18, 2010

Book Review

Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books
400 pg
CA$37.95, US29.95

Reviewed by Grant Morgan
Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Should the label “intellectual” be considered one of admiration or derision?

This question is especially relevant given the occupational backgrounds of current occupants of the White House and Stornoway. Barrack Obama, in particular, received widespread acclaim for his intellectual background, earning endorsements from ostensibly conservative pundits such as David Brooks and Christopher Buckley on the basis of his Harvard Law education and impressive vocabulary. Yet the overall impact of professional intellectuals on public life, both positive and negative, has yet to receive a comprehensive study.

Thomas Sowell’s provocative new book looks at this question. Intellectuals and Society will make both public intellectuals and their supporters decidedly uneasy. In this book, Sowell argues that . Specifically, he argues that people defined as “intellectuals” have, for at least the past century, promoted a centralized, statist, and anti-democratic vision which undermines both individual freedom and the effective functioning of the state. Furthermore, they have done so without facing any consequences for the results of their (mostly failed) ideas.

An intellectual with a difference

Sowell’s relationship with the class of people about which he writes is both close and ambivalent. A scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a former member of the economics faculty at Cornell and UCLA, as well as the author of a dozen previous books, Sowell clearly falls into the occupational class of “intellectual” as he defines it. However, much of Sowell’s work, in books, the popular media, and scholarly publications, consists of criticizing and debunking the notions which pass for profound ideas within the intellectual class. Thus, Sowell is both an intellectual by his own definition and a strident critic of the primary product which intellectuals produce.

Sowell’s thesis on the effect of intellectuals on society has several distinct elements. To start, he defines “intellectuals” as the class of people who produce ideas as the primary end product of their work. Thus, engineers and neurosurgeons, while certainly possessing specialized knowledge, are not intellectuals per se. The problem with professional intellectuals, according to the author, is not that they possess specialized knowledge but that they assume that this specific knowledge also endows them with expertise on unrelated matters.

Thus, in order to implement this general expertise, intellectuals consistently advocate a political vision characterized by a strong central state which will allow them greater technocratic control over human activity. This vision, Sowell argues, in fundamentally flawed because intellectuals, while possessing specialized knowledge in a single field, do not possess the consequential “on the ground” knowledge necessary to make wise decisions in most cases. For example, the Soviet Union employed large numbers of economic planning experts, but they could not efficiently set the prices of the 25 million different consumer goods over which they had control, because they could not possibly know the local demand for each product at all times.

Intellectuals remain attached to their specific vision of the state and society despite its failings, Sowell argues, for two main reasons. First, unlike other citizens, whose political opinions are generally only a small part of their lives, intellectuals have a great deal of their self-worth rooted in the correctness of political opinions. Indeed Sowell argues that the respectability of an intellectual among their peers is derived largely from the extent to which they adhere to the “vision of the anointed” – the statist liberal/progressive vision dominant among intellectuals.

The second main reason why intellectuals are able to persist in advocating previously failed policy ideas is that unlike engineers or physicians, who face consequential feedback if they fail (in the form of deceased patients or collapsed bridges), intellectuals are insulated from the direct consequences of their ideas because they are rarely responsible for implementing them.

Intellectuals-and-SocietyBecause intellectuals face no consequences if their ideas fail they can continue advocating them and be lauded by their peers for their “principles” even if those principles are counter-productive. Where respect from other intellectuals (and approval, in matters such as awarding tenure) is the primary currency, Sowell argues that being faithful to the “vision of the anointed” is more important than being correct.

The author outlines several areas in which he believes intellectuals have distorted the debate or advocated poor policy because of their lack of knowledge of the concrete consequences of their ideas.

In the media and academia, for example, intellectuals have encouraged the systemic filtering of information and depictions that do not coincide with their vision. Thus, statistics that show relatively high levels of social mobility for individuals are replaced with those that show low mobility for abstract groups – because the latter statistics support a statist agenda, while the former do not. Likewise, statistics that show that individual outcomes have grown are mentioned far less often than those that show that household income has stagnated, because the reason – smaller households due to lower marriage rates- would be favorable to a social conservative vision.

This intellectual distortion of evidence in pursuit of a specific agenda, regardless of the consequences, extends beyond information published in the media and academia.

No regard for consequences

In the law, intellectuals have consistently sought a restructuring of legal norms and interpretations consistent with “compassion” or “social justice”, even to the extent that it overturns centuries-old precedents in the interpretation of legal principles or constitutional requirements. The ongoing tendency of intellectuals to push their agenda regardless of the consequences to others (and without consequence to themselves) is most apparent in foreign affairs. Sowell recounts in details the intellectual popularity and the persistence of the “disarmament” movement, both in the inter-war period and during the Cold War. The general picture Sowell gives the reader is one of attractive ideas, pursued without regard to their real-life consequences, with disastrous results for society but immunity for those who produced those ideas as a profession.

One minor failing in the book is how Sowell fails to give significant space to the cases where intellectuals have been correct; the success of the Civil Rights movement and the post-war conservative intellectual revival are mentioned only in passing. Comparing the failures of intellectuals to their successes might have been instructive. But overall, with “intellectuals” in power or desirous of power in Canada and in the United States, this book could not be more timely.

Grant Morgan is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Channels: The Calgary Beacon, March 20, 2010

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