Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, $29.95,
Review by David Forsmark
George Orwell famously said some things are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool.
Thomas Sowell has made a career out of debunking those very things—most famously elite assumptions about racism and economics in classic books like Ethnic America, Race and Culture, Knowledge and Decisions, and The Vision of the Annointed.
I’ve often defined a postmodern intellectual as someone who is trained to be sure he knows better. Thomas Sowell, however, is a true intellectual in the best sense. His mind is not only open to the fact that he might not know better, his superb new book explains why it is impossible for one dictator or a small group of elites to know better than the great unwashed how to run their lives.
A constant theme of Sowell’s work is that elites regularly—and with disastrous effect—substitute their assumptions for the actual on the ground knowledge of the masses of people. In Intellectuals and Society, he singles out so-called “intellectuals,” those whose profession is trafficking in ideas, and the echo chamber they tend to inhabit.
He charges that such people may be “intellects,” but that doesn’t mean they are very smart.
“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.”
Of course, once you have spent a lifetime debunking things that are accepted as Gospel by the “intellectual class,” and prove Orwell’s thesis on a daily basis, the term “pseudo- intellectual” starts to lose its meaning:
The term “pseudo- intellectual” has sometimes been applied to less intelligent or less knowledgeable members of this profession. But just as a bad cop is still a cop — no matter how much we may regret it — so a shallow, confused, or dishonest intellectual is just as much a member of that occupation as is a paragon of the profession.
Recently, Boston College’s Alan Wolfe, a prime example of the above definition– wrote an intellectually dishonest pseudo-review of Intellectuals and Society for the usually rigorous New Republic—which David Horowitz dispatched quite nicely.
Wolfe’s review might as well have been titled, “I Represent That Remark.” (I have done a couple of radio interviews with Wolfe, and found him to be less than impressive.) While Horowitz doubted that Wolfe, who protested the lack of musicians and novelists in Sowells’ discussion, had read the parameters of the discussion on page 2, I think it’s more likely Wolfe made it to the page 4 definition of pseudo-intellectuals, felt the pang of self-recognition, and then went on his very personal rant against Sowell.
Wolfe, ironically supplies the perfect example of how intellectuals who share the currently anointed vision of the world make what Sowell calls “Arguments without Arguments:”
Although many intellectuals are especially well-equipped by talent and training to engage in logically structured arguments using empirical evidence to analyze contending ideas, many of their political or ideological views are promoted by verbal virtuosity and evading structured arguments and empirical evidence. Among the many arguments without arguments are claims that opposing views are “simplistic” and opposing individuals unworthy, as well as assertion of “rights” and attributing to adversaries a belief and panaceas or golden ages.
…Before an explanation can be too simple, it must first be wrong. But often the fact that some explanation seems to simple becomes a substitute for showing that it is wrong.
Usually, economists who discuss Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” do so in the context of business and the economy. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell not only gives the best explanation of why the invisible hand of self-interest works better than a central plan, he then applies it to subjects as far afield from economics as war and police shootings.
Sowell argues that the intelligentsia devalue “mundane knowledge” in favor of special knowledge. However, mundane knowledge is what it takes to actually get anything done.
Someone who is considered to be a ‘knowledgeable’ person usually has a special kind of knowledge — perhaps academic or other kinds of knowledge not widely found in the population at large. Someone who has even more knowledge of more mudane things — plumbing, carpentry, or baseball, for example — is less likely to be called “knowledgeable” by those intellectuals, for what they don’t know isn’t knowledge.. .. It is by no means certain that the kind of knowledge mastered by intellectuals is necessarily more consequential in its effect in the real world.
For instance, it may be impressive that a physicist understands Bernoulli’s principles of aerodynamic lift, but you wouldn’t want him in the cockpit second guessing your pilot. Sowell argues that the smartest man cannot know even 1% of what would be required to run the lives of the people in a community, but that is what experts, politicians and intellectuals attempt in their hubris.
Despite the often expressed dichotomy between chaos and planning, what is called “planning” is the forcible suppression of millions of people’s plans by government imposed plan.
….what is called “social” planning are in fact government orders over writing the plans and mutual accommodations of millions of other people.
That is why free markets, judicial restraint, and reliance on decisions and traditions growing out of the experiences of the many — rather than the presumptions of elite few — are so important to those who do not share the social vision prevalent among intellectual elites.
The intellectuals’ exultation of “reason” often comes at the expense of experience, allowing them to have sweeping confidence about things in which they have little or no knowledge or experience.
Intellectuals and Society is one of those books you want to read with a red pencil, to highlight nuggets like those above for later use.
While intellectuals’ visions cause social and economic disruption in many areas, none are so immediately deadly as their approach to war and foreign relations. Sowell indicts the anointed for ignoring all empirical evidence and experience to the contrary, and insisting that the next dictator—from Hitler to Ahmadinejad—is the one who can be dealt with diplomatically.
Sowell concludes with a list of the anointed intelligentsia’s assumptions which have turned the world upside down, of which, he says, a complete refutation would fill volumes. “More important,” he says ruefully, “It fills our schools and colleges.”
The intelligentsia have treated the conclusions of their vision as axioms to be followed, rather than hypotheses to be tested.
Some among the intelligentsia have treated reality itself as objective or illusory, thereby putting current intellectual fashions and fads on the same plane as verified knowledge and the cultural wisdom distilled from generations of experience…
They have filtered information in the media, in the schools, and in academia, who to leave out things that threaten their vision of the world.
Above all, they exalt themselves by denigrating the society in which they live and turning its members against each other.
Of course, as he points out early in the book, an intellectual is someone who can lecture a police department on how many shots are sufficient to bring down an armed suspect under stressful conditions—when he himself has never even fired a pistol on a range.
Long before the Freakonomics phenomenon, Thomas Sowell was making this kind of real life critique from an economist’s point of view. Intellectuals and Society is accessible, witty, practical, brilliantly argued, and essential reading. It’s sure to infuriate self-important elites.
In other words, it’s a typical Thomas Sowell book.