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Can’t Live With Them…

Is Thomas Sowell too disdainful of intellectuals?

By From the September 2010 issue

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Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell

(Basic Books, 398 pages, $29.95)

IRVING KRISTOL ONCE DEFINED an intellectual as someone who "knows a little bit about everything." And, as he was quick to add, he did not mean that disparagingly.

Thomas Sowell, who knows quite a lot about many things, is much more disdainful of intellectuals. He's now written a whole volume trying to explain why they are so troublesome. The illustrations of his argument are quite compelling. But at the risk of sounding like a special pleader, I'd register some skepticism about his explanation of why intellectuals are that way.

But first the fun part. If you like Sowell's columns, you will enjoy most of the material in this book. Sowell takes aim at the fatuousness so often displayed by professorial pundits and public intellectuals. He doesn't just offer a string of contemptuous snorts at their delusions. He offers clear, patient expositions, demonstrating why the only reasonable response is… a contemptuous snort.

As Sowell was trained as an economist, the chapter on intellectuals and the economy is, naturally, among the most illuminating. So, for example, commentators have repeatedly told us in recent years that the gap between rich and poor has been widening. It is true, if you compare the income of those in the top fifth of earners with the income of those in the bottom fifth, that the spread between them increased between 1996 and 2005. But, as Sowell points out, this frequently cited figure is not counting the same people. If you look at individual taxpayers, Sowell notes, those who happened to be in the bottom fifth in 1996 saw their incomes nearly double over the decade, while those who happened to be in the top fifth in 1995 saw gains of only 10 percent on average and those in the top 5 percent actually experienced decline in their incomes. Similar distortions are perpetrated by those bewailing "stagnation" in average household incomes -- without taking into account that households have been getting smaller, as rising wealth allows people to move out of large family homes.

Sometimes the distortion seems to be deliberate. Sowell gives the example of an ABC news report in the 1980s focusing on five states where "unemployment is most severe" -- without mentioning that unemployment was actually declining in all the other 45 states. Sometimes there seems to be willful incomprehension. Journalists have earnestly reported that "prisons are ineffective" because two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. As Sowell comments: "By this kind of reasoning, food is ineffective as a response to hunger because it is only a matter of time after eating before you get hungry again. Like many other things, incarceration only works when it is done."

So why do intellectuals often seem so lacking in common sense? Sowell thinks it goes with the job-literally: He defines "intellectuals" as "an occupational category [Sowell's emphasis], people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas -- writers, academics and the like." Medical researchers or engineers or even "financial wizards" may apply specialized knowledge in ways that require great intellectual skill, but that does not make them "intellectuals," in Sowell's view: "An intellectual's work begins and ends with ideas [Sowell's emphasis]." So an engineer "is ruined" if his bridges or buildings collapse and so with a financier who "goes broke… the proof of the pudding is ultimately in the eating…. but the ultimate test of a [literary] deconstructionist's ideas is whether other deconstructionists find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant or ingenious. There is no external test." The ideas dispensed by intellectuals aren't subject to "external" checks or exposed to the test of "verifiability" (apart from what "like-minded individuals" find "plausible") and so intellectuals are not really "accountable" in the same way as people in other occupations.

I'm happy to stipulate that many practitioners of literary deconstruction are fools (if I can generalize from the ones I've known). But I'm skeptical that the world is divided between professors of comparative literature talking only to themselves and real people, facing the test of the market.

We have a whole lot of middle managers in large corporations (as in nonprofit organizations and government agencies) who spend most of their time reading and writing memos. Is it true that these people are accountable for the opinions that guide their decisions? How many of them actually make decisions -- as opposed to murmuring concerns, admonitions, considerations, and covering their own backsides in their endless stream of e-mail traffic? Corporations may face market discipline, but that doesn't mean every manager (let alone every employee) has to focus on how to improve sales.

On the other hand, it is not quite true, even among tenured professors in the humanities, that idea-mongers can entirely ignore "external" checks. Even academics want to be respectable, which means they can't entirely ignore the realities that others notice. There were lots of academics talking about the achievements of socialism in the 1970s (I can remember them) but very few talking that way after China and Russia repudiated these fantasies.

Sowell offers two chapters on the prattling of intellectuals about foreign policy -- first in the 1930s, when they undermined the will to resist Fascist aggression, and then in the 1960s, when they undermined the will to win the war in Vietnam. He shows that many of the same arguments reappeared in the 1960s as if they were new insights. But the fact is that people who spouted antiwar rhetoric in 1935 were either much more hesitant by 1940 or much less heeded. More than two decades had to pass, after the end of the Second World War, before their arguments could regain respectability.

THE MOST DISTORTING ASPECT of Sowell's account is that, in focusing so much on the delusions of intellectuals, he leaves us more confused about what motivates the rest of society. In a characteristic passage, Sowell protests that "intellectuals...have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been rated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class -- and more recently 'gender' -- have been projected as either more real or more important."

There's no disputing the claim that most "intellectuals" -- surely most professors in the humanities-are down on "patriotism" and "religion" and probably even "family." But how did people get to be patriotic and religious in the first place? In Sowell's account, they just "sorted themselves" -- as if by the invisible hand of the market.

Let's put aside all the violence and intimidation that went into building so many nations and so many faiths in the past. What is it, even today, that makes people revere this country (or some other); what makes people adhere to a particular faith or church? Don't inspiring words often move people? And those who arrange these words -- aren't they doing something similar to what Sowell says intellectuals do? Is it really true, when it comes to embracing national or religious loyalties, that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating"?

Even when it comes to commercial products, people don't always want to be guided by mundane considerations of reliable performance. People like glamour, prestige, associations between the product and things they otherwise admire. That's why companies spend so much on advertising. And that's part of the reason people are willing to pay more for brand names -- to enjoy the associations generated by advertising. Even advertising plays on assumptions about what is admirable and enticing-assumptions that may change from decade to decade, as background opinions change. How many products now flaunt themselves as "green" -- and how many did so 20 years ago?

If we could somehow prohibit advertising, would people not care about glamour or style or intangible associations? If we closed down universities and stopped subsidizing intellectual publications, would people really judge every proposed policy by external results? Intellectuals tend to see what they expect to see, as Sowell's examples show -- but that's true of almost everyone. We have background notions about how the world works that help us make sense of what we experience. We might have distorted and confused notions, but we don't just perceive isolated facts. People can improve in their understanding, developing background understandings that are more defined or more reliable. That's part of what makes people interested in the ideas of intellectuals -- the hope of improving their own understanding.

On Sowell's account, we wouldn't need the contributions of a Friedrich Hayek -- or a Thomas Sowell -- if we didn't have so many intellectuals peddling so many wrong-headed ideas. But the wealthier the society, the more it liberates individuals to make different choices and the more it can afford to indulge even wasteful or foolish choices. I'd say that means not that we have less need of intellectuals, but more need of better ones. 

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About the Author

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law and the author of Law without Nations? (Princeton University Press), The Case for Sovereignty (AEI Press), and Why Sovereignty Matters (AEI Press).