Intellectuals and Society

In 1980, during a debate for Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series, Frances Fox Piven, of Cloward-Piven infamy, tried to lecture Thomas Sowell on race and economics. Her contention was that equality of opportunity had failed and what black people needed was a strong dose of socialism. “That’s why equality of results became an issue…for black people in the United States,” she said, “and they expressed their concern….”

“No, you expressed it, damn it!” Sowell shot back. “It’s what you choose to put in the mouths of black people.”

The moral of the story is that Thomas Sowell does not put much faith in Ph.D. degrees. Three decades later, at age seventy-nine, he once again pounces on armchair theorists and assorted ivory-tower types in his newest book, Intellectuals and Society. Sowell identifies his targets as “people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas.” In other words, ideas are the finished products of their labor. This category could include writers, philosophers, and the literature professor who thinks Hamlet is about a young man struggling with the horrors of capitalist society.

These intellectuals are different from others not only because of their interests, but because of their method of operation and the incentive structure that comes with it. Unlike carpenters, who produce tangible goods, or scientists, who produce theories that must be tested against results, the dealer in pure ideas is cut off from the normal feedback mechanisms that filter faulty notions out of the intellectual landscape. An auto mechanic who can’t fix transmissions is bound to go out of business, just as a civil engineer who designs a bridge that collapses is apt to suffer some problems with his career.

Not so with intellectuals. “Not only have intellectuals been insulated from material consequences, they have often enjoyed immunity from even a loss of reputation after having been demonstrably wrong.” Their insularity can also lead to dilettantism, as the intellectual is not constrained from wandering into fields completely outside his or her own. The pattern is clear: Chomsky the linguist becomes Chomsky the foreign-policy wonk. Michael Eric Dyson the minister becomes the expert on everything racial. Your anthropology professor becomes an expert on healthcare economics.

Though his main topic is focused, Sowell’s context is wide. He discusses economics, war, the law, the media, politics, and race. For decades, these subjects have been the canvases on which intellectuals have painted their grotesque portraits. Sowell documents not only the disastrous ideas themselves—straight out of the mouths of characters like John Dewey—but discusses why those ideas have failed so miserably.

Sowell is one of the greatest debunkers of our time, capable of laying waste to vast fields of demagoguery through slash-and-burn logic and empiricism. No one throws the wrench in the leftist chain quite like him. The most devastating chapter of the book is the one entitled “Intellectuals and Economics,” in which Sowell obliterates common claims about “income distribution,” poverty, and inequality. His bête noire is the person for whom evidence is merely optional filigree. (Who needs evidence when one is flying under the banner of “social justice”?) Bromides about the “widening gap” between rich and poor don’t consider that individuals are constantly moving between income brackets, as Sowell illustrates. Looking merely at statistical abstractions creates the illusion that “the rich” and “the poor” are merely static, immutable categories, rather than mere classifications through which many different people are constantly passing.

Intellectuals’ perverse desire to see some sort of “plan” imposed on society has made for a decidedly sordid history of their ilk. The Progressives of the early twentieth century, for instance, were bona fide racists, and the academic extension of their ideas was the eugenics movement. It comes as no surprise, then, that the revolutionary creeds of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were especially intriguing to the intelligentsia, despite their being mislabeled today as “conservative” or “right wing” movements. Sowell reminds us that these ideologies were originally considered left wing by the intellectuals themselves. Lincoln Steffens, who glorified Soviet Communism, also reserved praise for Mussolini. Other radical socialists who shared his sentiments included British novelist H.G. Wells and American historian Charles Beard.

Still more saw the ultimate promise of collectivism in the Nazi movement. During the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois, prominent black historical figure and devoted communist, became so fascinated with Nazism that he decorated the magazine he edited with swastikas. This love affair was not a one-night stand, either. As late as 1936, Du Bois remarked that “Germany today is, next to Russia, the greatest exemplar of Marxian socialism in the world.”

The ease with which intellectuals migrate from one squalid “ism” to another has necessitated some revisionism on their part. It was only after the West fully realized the horrors of the Italian and German dictatorships that the intellectual Left disowned them in a massive act of historical face-saving. Writes Sowell: “The heterogeneity of those later lumped together as the right has allowed those on the left to dump into that grab-bag category many who espouse some version of the vision of the left, but whose other characteristics make them an embarrassment to be repudiated.”

If there’s any weakness with the book, it’s that Sowell is himself an intellectual, making it easy for left-wing bloggers to dismiss him even if they can’t refute the book’s arguments. There are differences, however, between this book and the putrid machinations of a Noam Chomsky or a Cornel West: Those intellectuals are so sure of their ideas they have no doubt they’d make the perfect blueprint for society. Sowell, on the contrary, has never advocated anything except leaving people alone. Also, part of intellectuals’ decidedly anti-intellectual strategy, as Sowell points out, is their inoculation against empirical evidence. That socialism killed millions in the twentieth century, and that quasi-socialist policies have wiped out inner cities in America, makes no difference to the tenured cultural studies professor.

Sowell, then, while being an intellectual according to his own definition, is in practice far more scientific and accountable. His awareness of human fallibility is straight out of Burke or Hayek. The absence of this quality in radicals is what makes today’s intellectual climate so uninviting. Sowell writes: “Because the vision of the anointed is a vision of themselves as well as a vision of the world, when they are defending that vision they are not simply defending a set of hypotheses about external events, they are in a sense defending their very souls—and the zeal and even ruthlessness with which they defend their vision are not surprising under these circumstances.”

Robert Wargas is a writer and graduate student who lives on Long Island, NY.

To order Intellectuals and Society, click here.

  • WestWright

    Thanks for a very good review of the brilliance of Thomas Sowell!

  • TraseroConservativo

    With the help of Dr. Sowell and others like him, we just might get on top of these morons. 'Too bad our memories are so short.

  • Sal

    Dr. Sowell and Mr. Wargas are masters at babble-speak. Try arguing against any of the multitude of facts contained in several (take your pick) of Prof. Chomsky's books on US foreign policy.

    No, you better stick to bogus generalizations and lofty ad hominem attacks, and continue to hope your readers are either too busy, uninterested or plain intellectually lazy to figure out the truth.

    The is a reason why this country was attacked on 911. You might read Michael Schuerer's book "Imperial Hubris" if you're interested in WHY?


    • Stephen D.

      “Babble Speak” Sal?? “…socialism killed millions in the twentieth century, and that quasi-socialist policies have wiped out inner cities in America, makes no difference….”
      Is this the “babble” you speak of? Answer to it then. Tell us how Socialism is good for us. Tell us how it works well. Tell us of a society that allows for individualism AND is Socialist.
      Sal, I bet you’d be welcome in those societies but you probably wouldn’t be able to freely express your individual ideas. Now, back to it. What of this charge Sal? Millions dead BECAUSE of Socialism. Don’t launch into how other societies have done the same or worse. Tell us about Socialism! You like to defend it’s mouthpeices so, defend it now. We’re waiting….

    • USMCSniper

      Professor Noam Chompsky and other liberal mediocrity who have no significant achievemnets, discovered early in life that they were really not the sharpest knives in the drawer in spite of their inflated opinions of themselves, so they choose to fake it and make spectacles out themselves, until they even believed their own bullshit.

      When I was at MIT, I considered him a non-colleague, an intellectual fraud, a charlatan, a joke, the equivalent of the fool they bring out as comic relief between acts in many of Shakespeares plays.

      • SFLBIB

        In case you missed this one:

        The Branding of the World's Top Intellectual: Noam Chomsky
        By Peter Schweizer

        Editor's note: In light of news that a British poll identified Noam Chomsky as the world's leading intellectual, we thought it would be a valuable exercise to run this excerpt from Peter Schweizer's new book Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy
        Note from the Author: Whereas readers of The Prospect found the top public intellectual in Chomsky, I found a poster child for modern-day capitalism and, because of his anti-capitalist views, a complete hypocrite.

      • Joy

        Ah, but the "fools" in Shakespeare plays were rarely "fools" in the conventional meaning of that word. They often saw things others did not and made observations that rang with truth. The blind Fool in King Lear is the great example: Even without eyesight, he saw & knew things that were both obvious and obscure, whereas the King – as he confessed after his own downfall – never saw the truth about his beloved daughter Cordelia. Maybe the Fool in Shakespeare's time might have been "comic relief," but is modern-day versions, his role is far less comic, per se – and much more truth-telling than anything else.

    • Robert Wargas

      "Bogus generalizations."

      Try checking the endnotes section of any Chomsky screed and you'll see that many controversial claims are backed up by other Chomsky sources.

      I will have a great day, thank you.

      • bubba4

        Yeah, not like FPM and "Discover the Network".

        What would be a "Chomsky source" anyway? If you put his name in front of "source" is the source made invalid?

    • glpage

      If you want to know why this country was attacked on 9/11 you would do better to study the writings of Sayyid Qutb and the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood..

    • Tex Expatriate

      You need to study economics and stop reading nonsense about economics. You'll turn around.

    • jackbelias

      Oh look at the typical revolutionary, he repeats what the last revolutionary said again and again and again.

      The anti capitalist authors you mention are all filthy rich thanks to youth stupidity and willingness to shell out 29.95 for anything they write. Its wrong to have a pot to piss in if youre a tradesman, but its ok and pro revolutionary to have a mansion and a private jet if youre prophet of the revolutionary left. Youth and thier retarded ilk are better investments than oil and diamonds put together, one needs only tell them that there shouldnt be any rules, there shouldnt be any authority, and that they are entitled to whatever they want whenever they want it. They will buy everything and anything with your face on it from then on out. The authors mentioned figured this out a long time ago.

  • Joy

    I repeat what I posted on another site re this business about "Intellectuals" – Namely, an early and influential mentor of mine, the wonderful writer/journalist, the late Robert LeFevre, defined an intellectual as "a seond-hand dealer in ideas." That rang a bell then (45 years ago) – and it also does today. In other words, for these modern-day "intellectuals," the concept of an ORIGINAL IDEA is virtually alien; they know only how to discuss/absorb ideas originated & promulgated by others.

  • FBastiat
  • Phil Cowan

    Dr. Sowell is a tower of truth rising far above the lesser lights of intelligensia. His treatise on fairness is classic work.

  • Ricky

    Aintellectuals: think they are intellectuals, but they ain’t.

    • cheeflo

      Well done, Ricky. I must try to remember this.

  • myofba

    I have always viewed "intellectuals" as those who have been educated beyond their ability to learn.

    • Joy

      Great quotation! I shall enjoy using it -" Intellectuals are those who have been educated beyond their ability to learn!" Goes right up there alongside of my old chestnut, "Intellectuals are second-hand dealers in ideas."

  • guest

    this is a review? Usually reviews say a little more about the work they are reviewing, but i guess that's my leftist elitism speaking. This line doesn't even make any sense:

    "If there’s any weakness with the book, it’s that Sowell is himself an intellectual, making it easy for left-wing bloggers to dismiss him even if they can’t refute the book’s arguments."

    So the weakness of the book is that it can be dismissed but its arguments can't be refuted? Uh, whatever you say dude…

    • Robert Wargas

      "So the weakness of the book is that it can be dismissed but its arguments can't be refuted?"

      No. If you read the sentence correctly, you'd see I meant that lefties could dismiss Sowell on the grounds that he is an intellectual railing against other intellectuals, even though he makes solid arguments.

      "Usually reviews say a little more about the work they are reviewing."

      The entire piece is about the work. All the facts I mention are taken from the book, even if I don't preface all of them amateurishly with "Sowell tell us…."

      • guest

        Look, i know you have to be defensive and act like a tough guy here, but the fact is regardless of content this is not a review, it's more a celebration of the book and author.

        And the line doesn't make sense. Being able to dismiss the author, for whatever reason, if the arguments in the book can't be refuted (which is itself a nonsense claim that doesn't belong in a real review) is not a weakness of the book!

        And you're defense of your line also makes no sense. 'Lefties can dismiss him on the grounds that he is an intellectual …' Actually lefties would either deny he is an intellectual or argue he is a bad one, they wouldn't dismiss him on the grounds that he is an intellectual. That would be a characterization conservatives would make of a leftist critique. Seriously, what are you a grad student in???

        • Robert Wargas

          Well, then, please refer us to the book reviews you've published so we can be treated to the master course on literary criticism.

          In the book, Sowell defines intellectuals as people whose work begins and ends with ideas. He then proceeds to skewer them. According to that definition, he himself is an intellectual, so my point is that people might dismiss him as a hypocrite regardless of the arguments.

          • guest

            Please, spare us the petulance. You have Google, you don't need me to point you to book reviews, literary or otherwise.

            Sowell does not skewer intellectuals, he cherry picks a handful to make a political argument and skewers them. Your line would make sense if his focus was on intellectuals generally, but he makes ideological distinctions between good and bad intellectuals and proceeds from there. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but you and other fawning reviewers act as though this is an academic, historical analysis of the intellectual. It isn't. It's a very long op-ed.

    • Tex Expatriate

      Very likely you ought to read this book and not stop at the review. I daresay most of us who know about Sowell have read his books, and have read this one. You ask if this is a review. Having read the book I'd say it is a darned good review.

  • Karim

    You want people like Sarah Palin and George Bush to rule you,to lay down the criteria for what is moral and just and healthy?People who dont have a thought in their head?It is people like Chomsky and Zinn that gave you the liberal, tolerant and productive sytem you live in.You morons rail against liberal and intellectuals,all the while forgetting that your political and social sytem is extremely liberal and was at one point strongly consteted by prior conservatives.

    • Kryteon

      When you mention liberal and conservative in their historical sense, you're either purposefully trying to redefine their conotation, or you're simply unaware of their evolution.

      If Noam Chomsky wants to talk about language, then I'll listen to what he has to say. When I want to know about foreign policy, he has nothing to offer.

      By the way, we don't want anybody to "rule" us. Sarah Palin, George Bush, or Obama.


    • jackbelias

      They didnt give us the productive system we live in, they make a living by calling for its total destruction. They have contributed nothing to society yet they are worshipped as living gods.

      Liberalism was given to us by our founders, it is defined as a state of limited govt and individual liberty. Modern liberals define it in the total opposite way. Empowered govt and forced collectivism. Americans in the past didnt pay a tax for everything they do and think of, they werent shouted down by revolutionary youth when celebrating the indiviual liberties granted by our constitution. If you told a liberal of the past that private property is a crime against the people he would show you his private rifle and demonstrate how it works for you. He would scoff at the idea that free speech was a violation of the right to freedom from feeling offended.

      Zinn is the biggest joke. He made himself rich by making shit up as he went along. He even admitted he was doing it and bragged that his youth fans were too stupid to spot his BS. Can you see how right he was about you? Suckers are a great investment.

  • Karim

    Stop thinking in categories and symbols.Just because Palin talks like a folksy hockey mom doesnt mean she can fix the economy or repair Americas standing in the world.A culture that hangs onto empty symbols and meanlingless gestures is a dying culture.Use your head.Liberals are not out to get you.They are fellow Americans like you.Dont listen to the traitors on FPM.Chomsky always repeats how much he appreciates and how free the American sytem is.

    • Robert Wargas

      Chomsky isn't a liberal.

      • Tryon

        What makes Chomsky so compelling to many, even on the right, is his profound and impartial humanity. A "leftist" who defends neo-nazis, a "Jew" who assails Israeli injustice, an "American" who attacks all instances of imperialism, Chomsky certainly is not a "liberal." But then again, he's not anything else, either, that can escape ironic quotes. His strength is a lack of prejudice, his weakness a lack of ground.

        • davarino

          Uh huh, he is a chamillian, a slippery weasal, very hard to nail down what he is or what he thinks. Just like most "liberals", you corner them intelectually and they change the subject, believe something else. Very squishy.

    • jackbelias

      Americas standing in the world? Thats just the problem with revolutionary peoples. You entire world view revolves around pleasing majority mobs and popularity contests.

      Palin is well liked because she comes from simple ordinary beginnings unlike all of the other rulers of both parties. Palin is an offense against the revolutionary peoples because she clawed her way from nothing and broke into a system reserved for elite royalty families. She threatens the status of your most sacred prophets. Her world view doesnt include empowering youth, pleasing mindless majority robotic mobs, or sacrificing us to a global popularity contest. She likes our constitution and and translates it as it was written by our founders (the real liberals). She isnt likely to get rid of the 1st article so you can feel free from feeling offended. She wont disarm us and leave us without defense against what the mob constructs.

      You arent fellow Americans, you are little more than pampered pink metropolitan brats with severe narcisistic personality disorders. America is an ideal not a people, a fact that your population just cant seem to understand.

      • Karim

        Ofcourse Palin is not an elitist!Never!She only abuses her political position for personal interests,makes a shitload of money by charging 500 dollars a plate dinners and appearing on vapid talkshows,lies about how folksy she is and how she stopped the "bridge to nowhere",quits in the middle of her term and ghostwrites shitty autobiographies.She is an elitist.She has all the money and all the access to elite institutions which most Americans will never have.She is also a complete and utter ignoramus.And by the way Obamad didnt fight his way up from nothing to become what he is now?Why so selective?

        • Karim

          And Palin is not well liked.37 Percent approval ratings is not exactly well liked.Dont make up stuff.

          • Karim

            Ofcourse the Teabaggers are not a mob.Never.How dare we think that!

  • Karim

    No, but you dont mind if they steal your tax dollars and give them to banks,waste your childrens future by declaring illegal and destructive wars,shred your constitution,spy on you,legalize torture ecs.But ofcourse you are not ruled.Never.You are Americans.You are free.What a joke.

    • LibertyLover

      Karim – My suggestion for a Koranic suppository still holds…

    • jackbelias

      Wow you are probably the most collectivised little robot I have ever heard of. Torture of terrorists and war criminals wasnt legalized all the sudden. Elite German infantrymen were executed without trial out of fear that they were superhuman threats to the peace process. Waffen SS men had their fingers broken one by one until they pled guilty to all of the charges against them. The leftist soviet revolutionaries used gang rape and mass killings of men as a weapon against communities not in agreement with their views.

      Our methods dont involve what was used in the past. We arent ordering our troops to gang rape all of the Arab women in Iraq and fill mass graves with all of its men. We arent breaking bones until they plead guilty. We arent executing anyone with better than average training without trial as superhuman threats. We waterboard for information, a practice that leaves them with all of their digits intact.

      All war against what god wants is illegal in the eyes of the revolutionary peoples. What you little robots dont understand is that Allah if he exists at all is a war criminal who has commited countless genocides and held human evolution back. Any who fight for him are just as guilty as he is.

      • Karim

        That pathetic rant really says EVERYTHING about you and how you turn your prejiduce,aggression and smallness into an idol and call it god.Cant you get into your mind that torture was always illegal in the United States and that its legality is completely independent of whether is has been commited in the past or not?That 250 gramm of flesh in your skull is there for rational thought.Start using it.You are a lousy Christian if there ever was one.The things you justify are just abhorent.I am sick to my stomach.That is what is so strange about you people,you call me a collectivist and then justify crimes simply because YOUR country has commited them in the past or is commiting them presently.Where is the logic in calling me a collectivist?

        • coyote3

          No, the only thing that was illegal was "cruel and unusual" punishment. Punishment is something initiated after conviction.

          Now, I guess we have to ask you how do you define "torture"? If you are talking about information coerced from defendants, being used to convict them, that is not really illegal. What the law says is that if the information is coerced, the information may not be used to convict, i.e., it is excluded, in civilian criminal trials. That is called the "exclusionary rule", or in a broader sense, "the fruit of the poisonous tree.." Until the Supreme Court developed the excusionary rule, not too many years ago, coerced information was routinely, and until that time, legally used in prosecutions. Even today, the exclusionary rule does not necessarily mean the defendant will go free. Our agency often, either had evidence excluded, or chose not to use evidence, because it might have been considered to have been coerced, and we still convicted the defendant.

  • Karim

    The jealousy and the inferiority complex towards people who are more intellectually gifted and educated is rampant on this site.

    • LibertyLover

      Yes, you are a prime example of sophistry.

      • John C. Davidson

        This guy is really quite the narcissitic fool.

        • bubba4

          Ah the old "I am rubber, you are glue" defense.

  • John C. Davidson

    Sociologiclly speaking, Dr. Sowell will be looked upon in the same vein as Thomas Paine and Dr. Martin Luther King, At the moment, the Liberals continue to ignore reason.

  • Richard

    The "liberals" I know are among the most smug, narrow, and often ignorant people of my acquaintance. Nice people, for sure, but quite narrow minded and self-satisfied in their sense of superiority.

  • bubba4

    Maybe this was the guy on Prager Radio the other morning. I remember the declaration that "Intellectuals" produced only "ideas" and what a hard on Prager had for that.

    Sowell does have his finger on the pulse of the bizarro world though. "Intellectual" is the perfect next target for redefinition within the FPM sphere. I know it will come as a big shocker to FPM writers, but ideas are important. If you want people to be able to dedicate their lives to learning, teaching, and coming up with ideas, then you create a vibrant, free culture where there is enough spare time to pursue such interests and institutions dedicated to ideas and the pursuit of knowledge….kind of like America.

    On Prager's radio program, the host made very clear (just as the writer of the article) that they don't mean writers and musicians….oh and they don't mean anyone that produces anything. What they mean is a certain type of person that produces nothing but "ideas"…someone who " thinks Hamlet is about a young man struggling with the horrors of capitalist society. This is of course because they don't want to come out against culture or art or movies or anything you might like…so to be clear….when Sowell says "intellectual" he no longer means what the word means.

    I can't think of anyone that gets away with just coming up with ideas and not actually doing or producing anything. Chompsky is singled out of course, but he has written many books and lectured all over the world. He has written articles and essays for fifty years. How is this different from a screenwriter or novelist?

    Isn't coming out against "intellectuals" under this new definition like coming out against "mean people" or any other vague category that you shape and then beat the stuffing out of?

  • Jon

    "There are differences, however, between this book and the putrid machinations of a Noam Chomsky or a Cornel West: Those intellectuals are so sure of their ideas they have no doubt they’d make the perfect blueprint for society." Really? They say that? Give me some examples. For one thing, Chomsky is mainly a critic of American foriegn policy. You could make the argument that he often identifies the problem without giving any solutions, but you can't say he has a blueprint of how to run the world. This is unsupportable slander. I understand you don't like him and his ideas, and that's fine. But you should critize him for what he actually advocates rather than accuse him of things he has not done.

  • irishbeauty

    So many of you have said things I could not say as well. Even if I could, I would just be a redundancy. But, please allow me to say this: I cannot find the words to describe how much I love and admire this wonderful human being, Thomas Sowell.
    There's a reason why his last name rhymes with "soul". A beautiful one, at that!
    You truly are a National Treasure, Sir!


    As a person with a degree in philosophy I have to say I agree with the fact that intellectual snobbery is a big problem with those in academic world. However, I learned that despite the fact that ideas may not always reflect how the real world works they often influence the direction that politics and economy are going. For example, Adam Smith was a philosopher that had focused on morality…and also is heralded as the father of capitalism. The apostle Paul, Jesus, Newton and Kant used ideas that still impact our world. Strauss, the brain that so heavily influenced the neo-conservative movement took heavily from Plato. My point is that while philosophers and all the rest of those in the ivory tower are just people who are, yes, fallible. I have agreed with Chomsky on some stuff, but I think he's wrong about stuff, too. They do have to defend their arguments in debate with opposing thinkers, but don't think these thinkers don't influence policy (Chomsky's debated Richard Perle). Personally, I like to understand the arguments of the people I don't agree with. Usually I agree with some of their points and causes me to reexamine my own views. Or if I think the person is a demagogue I just don't pay them too much mind.

  • MKS

    Sowell's point is very strong: a poorly cultivated field brings a scant crop, a poorly built car brings high maintenance costs, and a poorly served meal causes a restaurant to lose business. Intellectuals, whose products and services are ideas, are not bad – in fact, they are needed. What is bad is that their ideas are not held to the same standard of quality as are other products and services. When ideas of government-guided wealth distribution, eugenics, or utopia are shown again and again to be faulty and damaging, their promoters simply claim improper implementation, and their reputations as idea-makers do not suffer in the least. And that lack of feedback causes bad ideas to be promoted and tried again and again, to the detriment of humanity.

    Thank you, Dr. Sowell.

  • USMCSniper

    Glen Becks spoof of Joe Klein is a gut splitting classic. Watch it and enjoy!!!

    • John C. Davidson

      He scored a bulleye on that one, Snipe~