Intellectuals and Society 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
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About the Author
From the Back Cover
- File Size : 1111 KB
- Publication Date : March 6, 2012
- Print Length : 795 pages
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Basic Books; 1st Edition (March 6, 2012)
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B0077BONEY
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #105,031 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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“In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed, where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements which the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved – with these efforts to be based on actual experience, not on ‘exciting’ new theories. In the tragic vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings and civilization is simply a ‘thin crust over a volcano.’ This vision has few solutions to offer and many painful trade-offs to ponder.”
This book is helping me to understand that the “unconstrained vision,” the “vision of the anointed,” leads to a concentration of power, of "surrogate decision-makers" who end up disincentivizing personal responsibility in favor of their own anointed ideas whereas the “tragic vision” leads to the de-centralization of power that emphasizes personal responsibility and accountability and maintains that each person reaps both the benefits and the risks of their own decisions. In Sowell’s words, this centralization of power and decision-making side-steps “the crucial and painful question of the consequences of concentrating the vast new powers required for seeking social justice in the hands of political leaders, even though the history of the twentieth century provided all too many ghastly examples of what such concentrations of power can lead to," (pg. 165).
I am currently finishing up chapter 8 and about a third of the way through and am so impressed with what I'm reading that I wanted to write a quick review.
To say the least, he helped shape my intellectual wrote. Although I was a good little socialist as I started college, a year as vice president of the college Democrats destroyed any sympathy I had for socialism. I resigned, told him why I was resigning and that they should probably wake up too, lost a bunch of “friends” and have never regretted it. Anyone who believes in socialism will have no second thoughts about stealing from you. If they support the government stealing, they will just as quickly stick their hand in your purse.
That's the point of Intellectuals and Society. Sowell takes the pronunciamentos of the high and mighty, the great and gifted, and scrutinizes them against outcomes. In chapter after chapter on issues ranging from inner city crime to economics, to international security, he uses this method to measure stated goals with actual results. This method is hardly unusual in scholarly circles. Although trained as a quantitative economist, Sowell uses well-established ethnographic and comparative interpretations to arrive at his conclusions. In the end, he makes a convincing case that his theory (borrowed from Hayek) of expert knowledge (deep and narrow) versus accumulated common knowledge (broad, and nuanced) has validity.
Given that social action is inherently complex, dynamic, and virtually limitless in its permutations, the book demonstrates the risks of expert knowledge. Where Sowell, in my opinion, slips is in his analysis of war and international security situations. Here, the role of deception and misperception often influence outcomes and even copious amounts of post hoc research may only produce more questions and uncover more enigmas. Thus, Sowell's narrative of Germany after World War I is conventional and predictable while scholars such as Gerhard Weinberg have themselves challenged this view for years by, among other things, claiming that Germany got off relatively lightly at Versailles and not, as received opinion holds, that Versailles punitive terms played a significant role in the run-up to World War Two.
These minor demurrals aside, I still recommend the work if only for the description of the characterization of social knowledge and its impact on society.
Top reviews from other countries
Sowell defines intellectuals as people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas, in particular that they deal in the ideas and do not apply them. Scientists and engineers are not intellectuals. Mathematicians are not, so that Bertrand Russell as a mathematician was not an intellectual, however when suggesting in 1937 that Britain should completely disarm, he was. George Bernard Shaw, one of the great playwrights, felt confident in saying in 1939, just one week before war broke out, “Herr Hitler is under the powerful thumb of Stalin, whose interest in peace is overwhelming. And everyone except myself is frightened out of his or her wits!” – he was a professional as a playwright but an intellectual in geopolitics.
What does it mean when someone we regard as brilliant, a genius, a mind so superior to ours, says or writes things so silly? One’s own intelligence seems so complex, but so changeable, puny, prone to error – we expect individuals of generally accepted great intellect somehow not to suffer these problems. Yet these demonstrably silly writings belie that confidence. Sowell separates thinkers into intellectuals, for whom far more knowledge and intelligence are available to some people than others, from those who emphasise specialization and social processes whose economic and social transactions draw upon the varied knowledge and experience of millions, past and present.
Apart from the “no skin in the game” aspect of an intellectual, Sowell identifies the moralising element, describing an “anointed intelligentsia, on the side of angels against the forces of evil” while ordinary unintellectuals have a “tragic vision [which] is a vision of trade-offs, rather than solutions, and a vision of wisdom distilled from the experiences of the many, rather than the brilliance of the few”. For example, payday loans, where Sowell bravely argues against e.g. the New York Times’ attractive and furious argument against them (denouncing payday loan providers’ “triple-digit annual interest rates, milking people’s desperation” and “profiteering with the cloak of capitalist virtue” and describing a 36 percent interest rate ceiling as something needed to prevent “the egregious exploitation of payday loans”.)
How could anyone decent argue against such obvious moral rightness? Sowell writes:
“The sums of money lent are usually a few hundred dollars, lent for a few weeks, with interest charges of about $15 per $100 lent. That works out to annual interest rates in the hundreds - the kind of statistics that produce sensations in the media and in politics. The costs behind such charges are seldom if ever investigated by the intelligentsia, by so-called ‘consumer advocates’ or by others in the business of creating sensations and denouncing businesses that they know little or nothing about. The economic consequences of government intervention to limit the annual interest rate can be seen in a number of states where such limits have been imposed. After Oregon imposed a limit of 36 percent annual interest, three quarters of its ‘payday loan’ businesses closed down. Nor is it hard to see why - if one bothers to look at facts. At a 36 percent limit on the annual interest rate, the $15 in interest charged for every $100 lent would be reduced to less than $1.50 for a loan payable in two weeks - an amount not likely to cover even the cost of processing the loan, much less the risks of making the loan. As for the low-income borrower, supposedly the reason for the concern of the moral elites, denying the borrower the $100 needed to meet some exigency must be weighed against the $15 paid for getting the money to meet that exigency. Why that trade-off decision should be forcibly removed by law from the person most knowledgeable about the situation, as well as most affected by it, and transferred to third parties far removed in specific knowledge and general circumstances, is a question that is seldom answered or even asked.”
The NYT’s “milking people’s desperation”, “profiteering with the cloak of capitalist virtue” and “egregious exploitation of payday loans” are examples of what Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity .. obscuring, rather than clarifying, rational analysis”. Would that analysis be so very difficult, in plainer words? If borrowers are assumed to have their wits, then laws or regulations would only be needed that prevented lenders using confusion (rather than outright fraud, which is already illegal) to hide loan costs or make them seem cheap. Given that one in ten of of us does not understand percentages, intellectuals’ focus on interest rates is probably misplaced, and borrowers must know more: the cost of the loan as well as its rate. If we wish something that protects borrowers too confused or incapable not to harm themselves with unrepayable loans, then legal, regulated lenders that cannot pursue defaulters with knuckle-crushers (and so have to accept defaults and factor them into loan interest, like any lender) are better than the loan sharks that Oregon-style restraints empower.
Where do these intellectuals come from and why are they there, advising, lecturing, haranguing? As one might perhaps expect from an economist, Sowell discusses Supply and Demand… of intellectuals. Why is there a supply? People in utilitarian fields’ results are their own fame – cars, medicine, smartphones, etc.) whereas:
“for intellectuals in general, where the primary constraint is peer response, rather than empirical criteria, currently prevailing attitudes among peers may carry more weight than enduring principles or the weight of evidence. This can produce patterns much like those found among another group heavily influenced by their peers - namely adolescents, among whom particular fashions or fads can become virtually obligatory for a given time, and later become completely rejected as passé, without in either period having been subjected to serious examination, either empirically or analytically.”
Among the hundred public intellectuals mentioned most often in the media, only eighteen are also among the hundred intellectuals mentioned most often in scholarly literature. Furthermore, most public intellectuals speak outside their expertise (for example Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist, whose LALR grammars are much less known to the public than his extravagant political utterances, or John Maynard Keynes, whose biographer wrote “he held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance; the air of authority was the same in both cases”,) or else their expertise is something that can only be tested by other intellectuals, and not empirically.
The demand for intellectuals on the other hand is to an extent manufactured, due to an over-supply, by intellectuals, who put themselves endlessly forward, offering “solutions” to social “problems” or by raising alarms over some dire dangers which they claim to have discovered. Don’t forget that the demand for the output of non-intellectuals (cars, planes, medicine, etc.) is spontaneous in the public, whereas the demand for intellectuals has to be stimulated by this endless promotion.
How can a few intellectuals have such an effect on governments, public policy and the public at large? Sowell describes the “penumbra” of journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges and other members of the intelligentsia, whose influence on the course of social evolution can be crucial. In the case of teachers:
“who lack either the inclination or the talent to become public intellectuals can instead vent their opinions in the classroom to a captive audience of students, operating in a smaller arena but in a setting with little chance of serious challenge. In such settings, their aggregate influence on the mindset of a generation may be out of all proportion to their competence—not simply in what they directly impart, but more fundamentally in habituating their students to reaching sweeping conclusions after hearing only one side of an issue and then either venting their emotions or springing into action, whether by writing letters to public officials as part of classroom assignments or taking part in other, more direct, activism”
That problem has become entrenched in that this learnt activism is often tested in university interviews; in Sowell’s robust words:
“As early as elementary school, students have been encouraged or recruited to take stands on complex policy issues ranging up to and including policies concerning nuclear weapons, on which whole classes have been assigned to write to members of Congress or to the President of the United States. College admissions committees can give weight to various forms of environmentalism or other activism in considering which applicants to admit, and it is common for colleges to require “community service” as a prerequisite for applicants to be considered at all—with the admissions committee arbitrarily defining what is to be considered a “community service,” as if, for example, it is unambiguously clear that aiding and abetting vagrancy (“the homeless”) is a service rather than a disservice to a community.”
Should schools teach views of complex issues a lot, a little, or not at all? In any measure proselytising must cut into teaching basics accurately, and undermine the difficult business for the pupil of learning and understanding basics and outside classes evaluating complex issues in the world, trying to apply the basics correctly rather than falling for the much easier and more pleasurable route of following our instincts or prejudices, or the urgings of furious and righteous public intellectuals, at which point the process becomes self-sustaining and fact-free.
What are the costs of all this intellectualism? How does one begin to calculate the costs of all the mistaken policy, the needlessly state-employed advisors, the subsidies, the deadweight loss of the mistaken interventions, etc.
Intellectuals and Society is an attractively written book, but more so a very well informed work, with strong arguments against the expensive, sanctimonious intellectual.
In some areas it reinforced my preexisting views, in a well argued, fact oriented way. which is always nice. In other areas (gun legislation, welfare state etc.) it challenged my preexisting views. I spend a couple of years digesting and trying to find arguments to uphold most of my challenged views, but in the end, I had to concede to the better argument. In the end Sowells writings, starting with I&S profoundly impacted the way I view the world and interpret news, and, I think, made me wiser.
I wholeheartedly recommends this to anyone who'll listen. Unfortunately, I have found it almost impossible to get people to even read a book that would challenge their world view. I hope that you will take my advice and give a chance. By the way, it is well suited for listening as audiobook as it, quite frankly, repeat the same points, by different examples over and over.