Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
Published Jun 28, 2011  printer-friendly

               One eminent historian called Thomas Sowell “America’s leading philosopher” for the breadth, depth and originality of his writings.[1] But Thomas Sowell actually earned his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago and has published about one book a year for roughly 40 years. He claims his latest book, Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books: 2009), will be his last book. It is a fitting capstone to a career spent revealing the shoddy thinking of our country’s leading thinkers and the disastrous consequences their ideas have had.

                In Intellectuals and Society Sowell shows how left-leaning intellectuals have influenced public opinion, and therefore, public policy, to our detriment. What he examines specifically is how intellectuals go about thinking what they think; what kinds of values and techniques they use to formulate their analyses and conclusions about issues.

              It’s important to recognize that Sowell is not using the term “intellectual” as a term of flattery, nor as an epithet. He gives a technical definition to the term: “intellectual” “refers to an occupational category – people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas – writers, academics and the like” (p. 3). So, although surgeons and engineers are intellectuals in the sense of having a quality mind and many years of university education, they are not the kind of people Sowell is writing about. Bill Gates, for example, is a computer genius, but his end product is an operating system, not ideas about how operating systems affect society. Sowell is not writing about people whose work is a tangible product, such as a surgeon’s reconstructed knee, or a financier’s stock portfolio. He is writing about people whose end product is the idea itself, such as an English professor’s theory of “deconstructionism” or a philosopher’s theory of justice.

                Using his technical definition of an intellectual, Sowell divides intellectuals into two broad categories with two different visions about knowledge and about how the world works. One view he calls the Tragic Vision (or the Constrained Vision), which is the one he subscribes to. It’s called Tragic because it acknowledges the limits we have in trying to resolve the things that plague human existence. The second view is called the Vision of the Anointed, to which the vast majority of today’s intellectuals subscribe to.

                Those with the Tragic Vision see the ills and frustrations of life as part of the tragedy of the human condition and part of the way the natural world works. The Tragic Vision focuses on the constraints we face regarding our knowledge and ability to accomplish things. It regards “civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved – with these efforts based on actual experience, not on ‘exciting’ new theories” (p. 78). This vision recognizes that “barbarism is always waiting in the wings” (p.78). The Tragic Vision also holds that ultimate, final solutions to the problems of the world are not available, and what people should focus on is making the right trade-offs in implementing policies and institutions, recognizing that any action will have some negative consequences. In other words, there is no pie without crust. Sowell quotes one scholar for the pithy encapsulation of the Tragic Vision’s approach: “The study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections” (p.79).

                On the other hand, those with the Vision of the Anointed are only constrained by their own imagination and their sense of their own importance. For these intellectuals, “the ills of society are seen as ultimately an intellectual and moral problem, for which [these] intellectuals are especially equipped to provide answers, by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight . . .” (p 77). Those who function under the Vision of the Anointed believe that “social contrivances are the root cause of human unhappiness” (p. 76). These social contrivances “explain the fact that the world we see around us differs so greatly from the world that we would like to see” (p. 76). One of the things that distinguishes those who hold the Vision of the Anointed from those who hold the Tragic Vision is that holding the Vision of the Anointed confers on one special moral significance: they are not just thinkers trying to understand some aspect of reality, instead they are crusaders “saving the environment” or “rescuing the downtrodden,” they are “compassionate” people who are for “peace;” they are anointed with a special quality of character and mind that will make the world a better place for the rest of us, the benighted.

               So the Vision of the Anointed is not just a vision of what’s best for society, it is also a vision of the anointed themselves. They are the special ones with the special knowledge and to criticize their theories is to criticize their moral status. This is why disagreeing with those on the left is met with such a hostile response. When you disagree with someone from the anointed class he is likely to accuse you of some deficiency of character – a sell-out, greedy, selfish, insensitive, uncaring, heartless and even just downright evil, instead of just mistaken (pgs. 83-84).

               Unlike those with the Tragic Vision who would leave individuals alone to make the major decisions in their lives, practitioners of the Vision of the Anointed always look to third parties, usually the government, to impose how it is people should live. In order to limit the freedom of individuals to deal with each other on a voluntary basis and on their own terms, those with the Vision of the Anointed have certain ways of thinking and using language that is peculiar to them. These approaches to thinking and language are used to promote the power of government to forcibly implement the Anointed Vision’s schemes for improving society.

               So when discussing successful businesses, the Anointed often talk about how these companies “control” this or that. They usually say that such and such a corporation has too much “control” of a market and so should be restricted by the government in some way. This language hides the reality that people are freely choosing to do business with these corporations and that these corporations only have that business as long as they are satisfying their customer’s needs. When they no longer can do that or when other companies do that better, corporations lose their “control.” The long history of companies that had this “control” and lost it include IBM, Xerox, Pan Am Airlines, A&P Supermarket and thousands of others. Although Sowell doesn’t address this explicitly, we see in their use of the term “control” how those with the Vision of the Anointed look only at an isolated moment in time, ignoring the process of change that occurs when people are free from government coercion: they talk of this “control” as if a corporation always had it and always will have it unless the government controls those with “control.

                “Planning” is another tool in what Sowell calls the verbal virtuosity of the anointed, another tool in their quest to expand government power over our lives. What they mean by “planning” is not individuals making arrangements among themselves, but arrangements dictated by the government. All “planning” is really the use of government force to prevent the freedom of individuals to plan their own affairs. Thus the doublespeak among the Anointed where freedom to buy from the companies you like is called “control” and government telling you what to do is called “planning.

               Another ploy is to refer to everything the Anointed like as a “right.” The anointed only see things that they want others to have, whether it’s an education, food, retirement benefits, health care benefits, whatever it is. This approach to rights ignores those who produce what the Anointed want others to have and also refuses to hold so-called victims in need of these so-called rights responsible for their own lives. So there is no obligation to have protected sex, but if you get herpes from unprotected sex you have a right to health care. There is no obligation to reproduce responsibly, but if you have an illegitimate child you have a right to housing for yourself and your baby. There is no obligation to refrain from criminality, but if convicted you should still have the right to vote. The term “rights” for the Anointed is thus a substitute for saying people should be given free stuff and reckless people should be free from standards of civilized conduct and free from the consequences of their own recklessness.

               In promoting their schemes the Anointed always say they are for “change,” whereas their opponents are for the “status quo” or for “turning back the clock.” In actuality everybody is looking to change some things and keep others things the same. Anointed intellectuals also conveniently ignore the major movements in the 20th century that sought “change” to make societies more egalitarian. The change these movements brought created Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, all of which resulted in the mass murder, terror and imprisonment of tens of millions of people.  

               The major approach to thinking for those with the Vision of the Anointed is to see people as abstract categories rather than flesh-and-blood individual human beings. The notion of undoing historic wrongs done to one group by another, for example, assumes that the people who can fit into those groups today are the same people who were involved in committing the wrongs and suffering the harm done in the past. This is common for the analysis of the wrongs done to “blacks” by “whites.” The result is Affirmative Action where the poor son from an Irish immigrant family is turned down from a school in favor of a rich black student whose mother is a professor in order to correct the historic wrong of racial discrimination. The abstract categories “black” and “white” ignore the concrete reality of the actual people involved.

               “Rich” and “poor” is another set of these abstract categories. Discussions of income, for example, arbitrarily divides people into five groups, the top 20%, the bottom 20% and the three groups in between. The “poor” who are at the bottom will for the most part be young people who are starting their careers or only working part-time while they go to school. But by the time they have been in the work force for 20-30 years they make more money because of their education and experience. Thus the categories “rich” and “poor” generally reflect that the young and inexperienced became older and experienced. Talking about “rich” and “poor” without clarifying who are the actual human beings you are talking about is ridiculous. Sowell reports one study that showed 75% of the people in the bottom 20% of income distribution were actually in the top 40% 21 years later. And again we see how the Anointed look at a tiny sliver of time to draw conclusions which ignore the decades long processes involved in the topic being analyzed. The Anointed’s abstractions such as “disparities,” “iniquities,” and “classes” often confuse statistical categories over real people. That is a real problem if you want to understand reality, but a necessity if you want to see American society as filled with a mass of victims who need a scheme dreamed up by an anointed intellectual that will save the victims from their victimhood.

               It is because of the above mentioned linguistic practices and approaches to thinking that Sowell says, “Mistaken beliefs about society by intellectuals are not random errors.” This is because “[i]n practice, their misunderstandings and mischaracterizations promote the overall vision of a deeply flawed society, urgently in need of political intervention to carry out the vision prevalent among the intelligentsia” (p. 112). When failures are too closely attached to their programs, the intellectuals use their “verbal virtuosity” to engage in “verbal cleansing,” thus removing the taint from their failures. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century people who espoused government intervention into the economy and society to dictate how others should live their lives called themselves Progressives. (pgs. 141-42). By the 1920s, however, experience led the American people to reject such candidates for national office on a wide scale. During the 1930s Progressives performed one of their verbal cleansings by changing what they call themselves to Liberals. This not only hid the failures associated with Progrssivism, it was dishonest in that liberalism was historically associated with movements seeking freedom from government intervention, the opposite of what the Liberals/Progressives were setting out to do. The social disintegration created by liberal policies in the 60s and 70s have been discredited. Therefore, in another act of verbal cleansing, at the end of the 20th century these people started calling themselves Progressives again because most people now do not remember the disrepute the sobriquet had condigned in an earlier era.

               Sowell ends by explaining how intellectuals with the anointed vision have made society worse off in several respects. The detriment they bring ranges from specific policy failures to the general disintegration of the social bonds that hold a nation together.

               One specific failure was Paul Ehrlich’s famous prediction in 1968 that the 1970s would see hundreds of millions of people dying from starvation. His understanding of the world is simply wrong. In 1980, in order to highlight that Ehrlich's view of the world was false, economist Julian Simon made a $10,000 bet with Ehrlich. Simon bet that if Ehrlich's theory of resource scarcity were correct, then the prices of commodities should increase over a ten year period. Simon let Ehrlich pick any five of the 100 or so commodities listed on a commodities exchange. If even one of them were more expensive ten years later, Ehrlich would win the bet. Ten years later, however, every single one of those commodities was actually cheaper. Ehrlich lost the bet. Yet it is now Ehrlich who is well-known to the world as a staunch environmentalist, winner of famous academic awards and generous government grants. Simon, on the other hand, died of cancer and no one but the well-read even know who he is. Despite being wrong, however, Ehrlich and his ilk remain influential in public policy debates as he and they are seen as men of science promoting the good of society.

               Ralph Nadar is another intellectual who adheres to the Vision of the Anointed. He became famous for his crusade against American cars, the Corvair in particular. Despite empirical studies showing that the Covair was at least as safe as all the other cars on the road, “Nadar not only continued to have credibility but acquired a reputation for idealism and insight that made him something of a secular saint” (p. 9). Being wrong has a price, a price paid by lost jobs when a safe product is forced off the market or higher prices as companies spend money to fight more government oversight created by false charges. For the anointed, however, there is only gain, the gain of fame and the money that fame can be parlayed into in book sales and speaking fees.

               These specific failures of the Vision of the Anointed are in addition to their more generalized detrimental effects on the bonds that hold societies together. This is done by imagining a perfect world under the guise of what they call “social justice” and then judging America’s current and historical shortcomings against this imaginary world. This harsh standard of judgment is only applied to America, or whites or to the West, as all others who fit within a special victims’ category are excluded from any standards whatsoever. The result is the promotion of the self-hatred of America or whites or the West and a splintering of society into those with grievances that must be addressed by those who are smarter and more productive.

               One example of this harsh critique of America and the west that generates groups with grievances is how the Anointed deal with slavery, which the Anointed portray as a unique evil of Europeans against blacks. But slavery has been around for thousands of years and was practiced by Africans against other Africans and by New World Indians against other New World Indians before any of these victim groups ever saw a white face. In fact, whites did not enslave Africans, but bought them from other Africans who had enslaved them. And before whites began enslaving Africans, Africans were enslaving whites. In fact, the number of Europeans enslaved by Africans “greatly outnumbered the African slaves brought to the United States and to the thirteen colonies from which it was formed” (p.308).

              What is unique to the West was that western societies were at the vanguard of ending slavery. They not only ended it in their own countries, but fought Africans to end it in Africa where Africans didn’t want to give up the practice of enslaving other Africans. None of this is of interest to the Anointed because such fuller discussions of slavery and the West’s role in ending it eliminate the clear distinction between victim and oppressor and leave no room for the Anointed to claim a special status as a crusader against the evils of white racism.    

              Similar modes of analysis apply to those the anointed categorize as “rich” and “poor” in that the anointed lead the poor to believe that they are poor because the rich have made them so. They also refuse to blame criminals for their criminality and look to the police as well as to society in general as the true source of the problems with crime. Furthermore, they glorify the unproductive and reckless, such as people who don’t work or women who birth illegitimate children as deserving goods and services for free, which must be provided by those who do work and are sexually and reproductively responsible. On top of this the anointed romanticize primitive cultures and egalitarian dictatorships, both which suffer from poverty, chaos, disease and violence all the while trashing America and the west where the standards of living are highest. The result is a weakening of the bonds that hold our society together.  

                Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society is a first rate book and essential reading for students who want to understand how their professors think.  

[1] Paul Johnson. 


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