An interview with the Hoover Institution’s great economist.
The economist Thomas Sowell has just released the second edition of his book Intellectuals and Society. The American Spectator sat down with him recently for a lengthy interview. In this first part of the interview, we discuss the impact intellectuals have on society, why the second edition contains chapters on race while the first edition did not, and how intellectuals affect the issue of race.
AmSpec: How do you define an intellectual?
Sowell: An intellectual is someone whose end product is ideas. Not everybody who produces an idea is an intellectual because there are many intellectually demanding ideas that end up as products or services such as brain surgery or computer operating systems, etc. But those kinds of things differ in the sense in that there is an external test of the validity of the ideas, other than the approval of one’s peers. For deconstructionists, the only test is whether other deconstructionists like what he is saying. But for a financial wizard, he may be held in awe by his contemporaries and yet if he goes broke his ideas are regarded as failures. Consider that between the two World Wars, intellectuals promoted pacifism to the point they impeded the military build up of any military deterrents against Hitler or Japan, and yet men paid with their lives in the beginning of the war especially because Britain and America had far inferior military equipment. Men died needlessly but no one ever held them accountable for what they said.
AmSpec: How does that affect the incentives and constraints that intellectuals face?
Sowell: The crucial thing is there is virtually no external constraint on what the intellectuals do. They may believe in anything, say anything, and the consequences don’t matter. One of the books that people no longer know much about but was very influential at the time, was a 1916 bestseller called The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant. It was really a shallow book by a dilettante. But it was bestseller, it got translated into several languages including German, and Hitler called it his bible. And six million people were murdered on the strength of that. Madison Grant died before that happened, but had he lived I doubt he would have had to pay the price of unpopularity.
AmSpec: What is the “Vision of the Anointed?”
Sowell: It is the idea that third parties should preempt the decisions of ordinary people. Especially when those third parties are intellectuals or are operating on the prevailing ideas promoted by intellectuals
AmSpec: Obviously this affects the issue of race. But why did the first edition of Intellectuals and Society not have any sections on race, and why did you add them into the second edition?
Sowell: Very simple. I learned from the history of the book The Bell Curve. It was not a book about race. There were only two chapters on race and intelligence out of twenty-two chapters. Yet when the book was published, those two chapters became the tail that wagged the dog. And the whole major thrust of the book was lost in all the controversy and hysteria over those two chapters. So I decided that if the message I was trying to get out in Intellectuals and Society was to have any chance of being examined it would be by leaving out any chapters on race.
AmSpec: Have you gotten any critical feedback on including the chapters on race this time?
Sowell: No. And I would say more generally I seldom get any critical feedback on my writings on race, and the reason is the people who run the civil rights movements and “black leaders” and so on, they’re following what is their best strategy which is to ignore what I say and even if it gets a certain amount of attention just wait until that blows over and then resume saying what they’ve always said.
AmSpec: If they’re not out there stirring up trouble, the money stops coming in.
Sowell: I should have included a section on race as an industry. It’s really poisonous. I’ve recently been reading some writings by the late Derrick Bell, who has been in the news lately. I remember talking to Derrick Bell years and years ago when he was just a civil rights lawyer saying sensible things about civil rights. And to read his later writings you realize how he degenerated into a totally irresponsible charlatan. I attribute that to the fact that he was put into situations where he had nothing to gain by playing it straight. Whatever significance he might have would come from his ability to stir thing up and to appeal to a racial constituency on and off campus.
AmSpec: Could you give a general overview of how intellectuals impact the issue of race?
Sowell: Intellectuals can predetermine the whole position on race. One of the peculiar things of the 20th century is that for the first two decades, intellectuals, by which I mean primarily progressive intellectuals, were the biggest promoters of racism in the country. The seized upon evidence that was emerging from IQ tests, studies of difference in crime rates and rates of advancing and not advancing in the schools and so on, in order to argue that there were superior and inferior races, that they were genetically predetermined. And they were pushing very hard for a ban on or severe restrictions on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe that actually became law in the 1920s. They were also for eugenics, with any number of them calling for the sterilization of people. Our only president with a PhD, Woodrow Wilson, was right in the middle of all that. People who are admirers of Wilson try to portray this as an odd aberration of his, but by no means was it. He was absolutely in the mainstream of progressive thought at the time. He became president. There were government agencies that were unsegregated. He segregated them. When the movie Birth of a Nation, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, came out, he had it played privately at the White House, and he invited political dignitaries to come and watch it with him.
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H/T to National Review Online