on June 7, 2010
I think one of these days I am going to publish a list of the top 10 books that every single thinking person has to read. For a conservative like myself, there are books that have played a formative role in developing, defining, and defending an ideology. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Kirk's The Roots of American Order come to mind - classic works that no serious conservative reader would dare miss.
The list has grown by one this year thanks to Thomas Sowell, and I do not make such a claim easily. While his much earlier masterpiece, Conflict of Visions (1987), could arguably be on the list as well, I believe that his newest book, Intellectuals and Society, is not just Sowell at his finest but is perhaps the very essence of conservative thinking at its finest. The book is remarkably readable, extremely practical, and most of all, is such a lethal combination of head shots and body blows to the parasite of modern intellectualism that one finishes the book feeling splattered by the damage Sowell has done.
At its core, the book seeks to explore the phenomena of public intellectuals who Sowell carefully defines as "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas". There are extremely intelligent people in our society who we do not deem to be "intellectuals" - specialists who possess a particular expertise in a particular field. Sowell provides the important distinction that engineers and scientists and financiers, for example, while not considered to be "public intellectuals", are judged by external standards - by empirical notions of verifiability. Intellectuals, on the other hand, face no such external test. Rather, it is the mere acceptance their own peers provide them that defines their success. They are judged exclusively by internal criteria, devoid of methods of validation. Yet their ideas have consequences, and as Sowell demonstrates in every page of this 317-page delight, the ideas of the intelligentsia over the last century have largely been an unmitigated disaster. Often lethal and frequently incoherent, intellectuals have survived in the last 100 years despite the fruits of their labors. Sowell laments this development, questions its causes, and demonstrates its truth in crystal clear fashion. Intellectuals lack accountability for their disastrous ideas, aided and abetted by non-intellectual accomplices within the intelligentsia that share their unconstrained vision for humanity.
Sowell does not target the flaws of public intellectuals that may or may not exist within their particular field of specialization. The book calls these public intellectuals to the carpet for their espousing of ideas and policies to a wider audience than their field of study called for, carrying the same "air of authority" in the wider field that was outside of their field of expertise as they do within the more narrow field to which they claim some degree of knowledge. Sowell points out that "most non-intellectuals achieve public recognition or acclaim by their achievements within their respective areas of specialization, while many intellectuals could achieve comparable public recognition only by going outside their own expertise or competence." Public intellectuals feed off of a demand that is almost entirely self-manufactured. As Sowell has laid out in his aforementioned work, Conflict of Visions, the unconstrained vision of the left is one of an arrogant, elite, anointed - a vision that makes claim to the moral responsibility and intellectual ability to cure the world of its ills. The testing of this unconstrained vision through conventional and empirical validation methods has been devastating in its conclusiveness that the unconstrained vision has been a disaster. The challenge, though, is the lack of accountability that exists for these public intellectuals. Sowell makes clear that their vision is not only one for the world "as it exists and a vision of what it ought to be like, but it is also a vision of themselves as a self-anointed vanguard, leading toward that better world." For Sowell, "the role that they aspire to play in society at large can only be achieved by them to the extent that the rest of society accepts what they say uncritically and fails to examine their track record."
The real target of Sowell's book are those members of the "intelligentsia" who either make up these public intellectual frauds, or worse, serve as their willing accomplices. Judges in the legal system, politicians in government, journalists in media, and worst of all, academic charlatans in the academy, have all served as the support system for this age of public intellectuals promulgating their anointed vision to the world. Sowell meticulously walks through the effects intellectuals have had in 20th century economics, law, foreign policy, and media. He laments the attack on the very concept of truth itself that the intellectuals have launched, and again points out the self-serving nature of their vision.
Sowell is a brilliant thinker himself - an idea man - a scholar. But unlike the targets of Sowell's attacks, he does not claim that his expertise in socio-political thoughts exempts him from external validation tests should he branch out into other arenas of thought. Sowell invites external criticism. He holds himself to the standards that public intellectuals refuse to hold themselves to. And while Sowell is an ideologue, he is keenly aware that the repudiation of the unconstrained vision of the anointed - public intellectual leftism - is unlikely to take place as long as this vision maintains its dominance in our school system and modern media. The arrogance of collectivism and surrogate decision-making can be rebuffed in print (as Sowell does in decisive fashion), but the battle must be won where the battle is being fought. Sowell's book is a treasure for those who want to be armed when they engage this fight. The future of our civilization depends on those who hold to the constrained vision - the vision of the founders - taking this fight to the public square. The fight will not be won without Sowell's decimation of the likes of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Paul Ehrlich, and dozens of other blowhards whose ideas have represented indescribable agony for citizens of the 20th and now 21st centuries. But as Sowell makes painfully clear, the vision of the anointed is now the property of the teacher's unions and the New York Times. Conservatives have a lot of work to do.
I do not recommend doing anything else when you are done reading this review besides buying Sowell's book. Intellectuals and Society is the magnum opus of this man's life and career, and I have barely scratched the surface of what he accomplishes in this book. Read it. Encourage your kids to read it. And engage the fight. The arrogance of the self-anointed elites will not be defeated until we do.
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I have read most of Sowell's books, and I think this is his best. In this book, his various strands of thought and wisdom, which are many indeed, come together as a coherent philosophical statement. It is difficult to review a Sowell book, as the very act of reducing his text to a few sentences squeezes out of it most of the hard-won insight. So, I should just say that this is a solid 5-star one-of-a-kind required-reading book, and leave it at that. But I can't...
"Intellectuals and Society" offers a fascinating tour into the worldview of today's leftist intellectuals: how they think, why they think what they think, and where their elitist, anti-Western, pro-government-meddling ideas came from. The book basically boils down to two core themes.
First, intellectuals (that is, people whose job output is ideas, as opposed to engineers, doctors, and scientists) are, as opposed to other professions (where people are directly accountable to patients, customers, etc.) answerable only to themselves. That is, tenured professors, elite media professionals and the like publish and then comment on each others' work, feeding off this internally-generated feedback for career success and personal gratification, answering to and conversing with few outside their credentialed circle, and in the process divorcing themselves further and further from the common sense ideas and traditions of society at large that are usually rooted in "what works". Intellectuals disdain "what works" because it originates in the mundane, everyday activities of the uncredentialed masses and offers no opportunities for advancement through idea generation or feelings of intellectual superiority. As journalists, teachers, and others on the outer rim of the intellectual class propagate the ideas of the idea-generators and get rewarded for it with grants, promotions, and self-esteem, the ideology developed and advanced in a vacuum by intellectuals trudges on, century after century. All of this would be irrelevant if public intellectuals were doing no harm. But as Sowell points out, intellectuals cannot exist at room temperature. They must constantly challenge the "conventional wisdom", that is, everything that works and has been tested, because they have no root canals to perform, bridges to design, or businesses to run; their only path to fame and status is the shocking new idea that gets people upset or outraged. There is thus a constant drive within the intellectual class to challenge, prod, change, redesign, and in the end, overturn and oversee the lives of the common folk, whom they disdain for their simplicity and adherence to traditions. Intellectuals are the quintessential people who cannot leave well enough alone, because to do so would be to put their entire cohort out of a purpose and out of a job.
Second, intellectuals' lack of tangible output other than words leads them to have a huge need for recognition for being intellectually superior to the masses. A doctor can see patients and do what thousands of doctors have done for hundreds of years, and feel pretty good about it, without being "better" than anyone else. An engineer can do what engineers do, and be satisfied in doing it about as well as other engineers. An intellectual, in contrast, has no prestige or status aside from the public recognition that the intellectual knows more than other people and is better able to solve big societal problems. This leads to a continual search for new social mega-problems to solve, with new untested mega-solutions that exist only in the realm of ideas and usually fail upon implementation. Sowell explores this basic idea from roughly 1900 to the present, detailing how lefty intellectuals have pretty much blown it every time, from misguided belligerence leading up to WW1, to misguided support of communism as millions died of starvation and in labor camps in Russia, to misguided pacifism in the 20's that led to overconfidence and belligerence on Hitler's part and thus WW2, to misguided defeatism in the cold war and Vietnam, to the present misguided defeatist, pacifistic self-loathing we see all around us. Sowell's argument is, ultimately, that intellectuals' separation from the society for which they feel contempt, and their boundless belief in their own superior ability to solve problems solely within the realm of logic and separated from practical experience is, in fact, very dangerous.
Sowell's book is so thoughtful, insightful, and well thought out that it really left me wondering: what would someone from the left think of this book? Not some DailyKos type who reflexively responds to conservatism with aggressive, ill-considered platitudes, but a thoughtful person of the left who actually reads and ponders Sowell's work? I just don't know. I don't actually know many people on the left, because I find them too irritating. I found the book extremely interesting and compelling, and highly recommend it.
on January 18, 2010
Intellectuals and Society is the latest in a series of books on Western `intellectuals', by Thomas Sowell. Intellectuals deal with ideas, but may not do so intelligently. Sowell is mainly concerned with the verifiability of ideas. The social visions of intellectuals like Rousseau, Marx and Engels, Galbraith, and Keynes have had dire consequences.
This book contains a plethora of examples of how many high profile intellectuals in the media and academia have been proven wrong- but without losing credibility among their peers or target audience. This is a serious problem because intellectuals affect public opinion, and with it public policy. Intellectuals of the past successfully agitated for defective policies: for so-called protectionism, living wages, and social justice has hindered economic progress. The naïve attitude that some intellectuals have had towards totalitarian movements proved disastrous. Yet many of the same defective arguments from earlier periods are still in use by today's intellectuals.
Sowell does a good job of illustrating the pernicious influence of leftist intellectuals. What is less clear is why opposing intellectuals, like Sowell himself, have not been more successful. Is there a simple lack of data among certain people? Does ideology cause a lack of cognitive dissonance? Are there self-serving reasons for spreading faulty theories, visions, or data? These are an important question, the answers to which will tell us if we need better education or a better vision (or maybe both). The fact of the matter is that this book does help to discredit certain intellectuals, and this is an important next step. Unfortunately, it will be read least by those who need to most urgently: those who are routinely swayed by defective ideas need to read this book, but how many of them will?