Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell
George Orwell famously said some things are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool.
Thomas Sowell has made a career out of debunking those very things—most famously elite assumptions about racism and economics in classic books likeEthnic America, Race and Culture, Knowledge and Decisions, and The Vision of the Annointed.
I've often defined a postmodern intellectual as someone who is trained to be sure he knows better. Thomas Sowell, however, is a true intellectual in the best sense. His mind is not only open to the fact that he might not know better, his superb new book explains why it is impossible for one dictator or a small group of elites to know better than the great unwashed how to run their lives.
A constant theme of Sowell's work is that elites regularly—and with disastrous effect—substitute their assumptions for the actual on the ground knowledge of the masses of people. In Intellectuals and Society, he singles out so-called "intellectuals," those whose profession is trafficking in ideas, and the echo chamber they tend to inhabit.
He charges that such people may be "intellects," but that doesn't mean they are very smart.
Of course, once you have spent a lifetime debunking things that are accepted as Gospel by the "intellectual class," and prove Orwell's thesis on a daily basis, the term "pseudo- intellectual" starts to lose its meaning:
Recently, Boston College's Alan Wolfe, a prime example of the above definition– wrote an intellectually dishonest pseudo-review of Intellectuals and Society for the usually rigorous New Republic—which David Horowitz dispatched quite nicely.
Wolfe's review might as well have been titled, "I Represent That Remark." (I have done a couple of radio interviews with Wolfe, and found him to be less than impressive.) While Horowitz doubted that Wolfe, who protested the lack of musicians and novelists in Sowells' discussion, had read the parameters of the discussion on page 2, I think it's more likely Wolfe made it to the page 4 definition of pseudo-intellectuals, felt the pang of self-recognition, and then went on hisvery personal rant against Sowell.
Wolfe, ironically supplies the perfect example of how intellectuals who share the currently anointed vision of the world make what Sowell calls "Arguments without Arguments:"
Usually, economists who discuss Adam Smith's "invisible hand" do so in the context of business and the economy. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell not only gives the best explanation of why the invisible hand of self-interest works better than a central plan, he then applies it to subjects as far afield from economics as war and police shootings.
Sowell argues that the intelligentsia devalue "mundane knowledge" in favor of special knowledge. However, mundane knowledge is what it takes to actually get anything done.
For instance, it may be impressive that a physicist understands Bernoulli's principles of aerodynamic lift, but you wouldn't want him in the cockpit second guessing your pilot. Sowell argues that the smartest man cannot know even 1% of what would be required to run the lives of the people in a community, but that is what experts, politicians and intellectuals attempt in their hubris.
Intellectuals and Society is one of those books you want to read with a red pencil, to highlight nuggets like those above for later use.
While intellectuals' visions cause social and economic disruption in many areas, none are so immediately deadly as their approach to war and foreign relations. Sowell indicts the anointed for ignoring all empirical evidence and experience to the contrary, and insisting that the next dictator—from Hitler to Ahmadinejad—is the one who can be dealt with diplomatically.
Sowell concludes with a list of the anointed intelligentsia's assumptions which have turned the world upside down, of which, he says, a complete refutation would fill volumes. "More important," he says ruefully, "It fills our schools and colleges."
Of course, as he points out early in the book, an intellectual is someone who can lecture a police department on how many shots are sufficient to bring down an armed suspect under stressful conditions—when he himself has never even fired a pistol on a range.
Long before the Freakonomics phenomenon, Thomas Sowell was making this kind of real life critique from an economist's point of view. Intellectuals and Society is accessible, witty, practical, brilliantly argued, and essential reading. It's sure to infuriate self-important elites.
In other words, it's a typical Thomas Sowell book.