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Thomas Sowell Live

An interview with the Hoover Institution's great economist.

By 4.13.12

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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.

In the later decades of the 20th century the intellectuals went to the other end of the spectrum. And now all differences in racial or ethnic groups were attributed to how they were mistreated by the larger society. So all the problems of the minorities were due to the minorities in the view of the intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century, and all of the problems of the minorities were caused by the majority as the intellectuals saw it at the end of the 20th century.

AmSpec: Yet you note that there are patterns among the intelligentsia that are constant regarding what they do to protect their prevailing vision.

Sowell: In both eras, they would not even engage in any serious discussion with people who went against the prevailing vision. Madison Grant called people who disagreed with genetic determinism "sentimentalists," and someone else called it the "Pollyanna School." Of course, toward the end of the 20th century, those who dared disagree with the prevailing vision were called "racists" or at minimum people who were "blaming the victim," which of course is a great phrase that begs all questions.

AmSpec: Why do they behave that way? Why won't they subject their vision to tests of logic and fact?

Sowell: I'm convinced it is because they have a huge "ego stake" in the vision of the anointed. Contrast it with the "Tragic Vision" of human nature -- people with the Tragic Vision might believe in judicial restraint, free markets, families, and all that. That doesn't exalt them in any way. But if you believe in the Vision of the Anointed, you become one of the Anointed. You're for social justice, you're for protecting the environment, you're anti-war. You are an exalted person. People with that vision have a lot more to lose if anything seriously challenges that vision than do people on the other side.

AmSpec: Let's talk a bit about race and disparities in income and their causes. How do intellectuals look at that, and given all the research you've done over the years, what would you say are the likely causes of those disparities?

Sowell: The great tendency of intellectuals is to look for a single, overriding cause, and in particular a cause which allows them to be the side of the angels against the forces of evil.

I would go about it an entirely different way. I would ask the question, what would lead you to believe that various causes, and there are an enormous range of causes, would come together in such a way that all groups, or even a substantial number of the groups, would have identical achievements, would have identical capacity to generate wealth? When you run through some of the ramifications of geography, climate, and history -- if, say, the Siege of Vienna (1529) had gone the other way Europe would be an Islamic continent now -- and it could gone one way or the other. So these are just the happenstances of military events.

So all the factors that go into achievement -- if you just begin to enumerate those factors, you begin to wonder if it was ever possible.

But if you go beyond the theoretical things like that, where on this planet or when in history over thousands of years have we found groups that were the same, that were equally distributed in occupations, income levels and so forth? The studies that I've seen and conducted myself, have turned up no such groups

One example: In a worldwide study of military forces, the author was unable to find any multi-ethnic society in which the military forces were even approximately representative of the ethnic makeup of the society.

AmSpec: How does the intelligentsia often respond to disparities? What are some of their ways to address them? In particular, there was this phrase in one of your chapters, "the surplus of intellectuals." How can that factor into it?

Sowell: In countries around the world newly emerging intellectuals from groups that are lagging behind, they almost always study in soft subjects. They do not study in subjects that would give them marketable skills, or for that matter great intellectual advantages in the sense of rigorous thinking and so forth. Moreover they're usually produced in numbers vastly greater than there is any demand for in the market. And so they are almost invariably disgruntled from both a personal point of view and from the point of view of being part of a group that is lagging and is not as highly regarded as other groups that are more advanced. So they launch attacks against groups that are more advanced. In a sense, it's insane.

I cited one counter-example. David Hume urged his fellow Scots in the 18th century to learn the English language, which they did. All over Scotland there were courses on the English language. What Hume was trying to do was to get the Scots to avail themselves of the same culture that had allowed the English to advance, so the Scots could advance themselves. And as they did, the Scots became wholly disproportionately represented among the leading British intellectuals from about the middle of 18th century until the middle of the 19th century.

But that is not the course taken by most intellectuals from most groups that are lagging in most countries around the world. On the contrary, they argue they must cling to their own culture. They must fight against those who have a different culture. And they must blame those who have a different culture for the gap that exists.

AmSpec: Is that one the reasons why multiculturalism is so damaging?

Sowell: Multiculturalism is absolutely fatal if you follow it to its conclusions, because its advocates are saying that you don't have to change your culture.

AmSpec: First off, what is your definition of multiculturalism?

Sowell: It's not simply that there are different cultures. We already knew that long before the word was coined. It is the idea that all cultures in some metaphysical sense are equal or entitled to equal respect. But in practical terms, it means you should not be trying to change people's cultures. For example, the schoolteachers in Harlem shouldn't be trying to change the English of the students there because their English is just as valid again in some metaphysical or even linguistic sense as any other type of English. But the fact of the matter is that it is not the language spoken by 90 percent of the people in this country. And since the whole purpose of language is to communicate, those students damn well better know how to communicate with the other 90 percent if they want to get somewhere in life.

There are no books in physics that are in "Black English." There are no books in higher mathematics written in Black English. There are no books about brain surgery written in Black English. If you want to become something that requires more skill that just sweeping floors, then you are going to have to learn the language in which the skills of those professions are taught.

AmSpec: So what you are saying here is that cultures that lag behind, they basically have to absorb the aspects of other cultures that have found ways to succeed?

Sowell: Absolutely.

Monday: Sowell discusses bilingual education, race and intelligence, and the upcoming presidential election.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.