Intellectuals and Society

Why Thomas Sowell does not put much faith in Ph.D. degrees.

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.