Daniels reviews Sowell

One of my two favorite thinkers reviews the other:

Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell, Basic Books, 2010, £17.99.

Antony Daniels

Thanks to the expansion of tertiary education, there are more intellectuals, or perhaps people with intellectual pretensions, credentials and careers, than ever before. However, the sum of human wisdom has not been much increased by this proliferation of intellectuals, rather the reverse. In this book Thomas Sowell shows us why. Sowell is a black American economist and social philosopher not nearly as well known in this country as he should be. This, perhaps, is because he does not say what the vast majority of intellectuals want a man of his ethnicity to say. He lays about the pieties of our age with gusto, always writing with maximum clarity. He wants to be understood, not admired.

Intellectuals, in Sowell’s sense, are people who live by ideas that have no immediate practical effect or direct empirical confirmation, and have a high level of abstraction and generality. Although engineers and doctors obviously live by ideas, they are not ipso facto intellectuals. By contrast, opinion journalists, who generally deal in second-hand thoughts of much lesser rigour and complexity, do count as intellectuals.

This is not to say that the ideas that intellectuals peddle are not without effect, very far from it, they are often of the deepest historical significance. As Sowell shows, one of the reasons for the French collapse in 1940 is that the teachers’ unions in France, under intellectual leadership, had for many years expunged reference to heroism or national pride in school accounts of the First World War. They wanted to instil the idea that war, any war whatsoever, was the greatest calamity that could befall mankind, and they succeeded. This, no doubt, was an understandable emotional reaction to the slaughter of the Great War; but intellectuals (not only in France) consistently preferred preserving the purity of their own rejection of war in the abstract to serious reflection on the obvious practical intentions of the psychopath who had taken power on the other side of the Rhine. The will to resist him had been sapped; for, as Churchill put it (so succinctly that Sowell quotes him), Britain cannot avoid war by dilating on its horrors.

Dilating on horrors is the speciality of the intellectual class. It is its raison d’ être and perhaps its sine qua non. By constantly focusing on what is wrong in society, by taking civilisational achievements for granted and not believing that conservation is as important as change, intellectuals have exerted in many cases a deeply destructive influence. Possessing what Sowell aptly calls the vision of the anointed, that is to say a blueprint of the good society in their minds that is so unarguable that anyone who opposes or even casts doubt upon it is not worthy of serious consideration (and that gives the anointed the right to direct society at their will), most intellectuals are unable to see that deterioration is as possible as, and often easier to bring about than, improvement.

A good case in point and one which Sowell uses to effect is crime in Britain. Within the space of half a century, Britain went from being among the least crime-ridden societies in the western world to being the most (the same pattern is discernible in New Zealand, which so often follows Britain, God help them). It did so because of years of intellectual propaganda that sapped the will to suppress crime. British intellectuals took for granted as indestructible the achievement of a low level of criminality. They thought that Britain could avoid crime by dilating on the horrors of punishment.

The interest of intellectuals in what they have wrought is generally minimal. Like Mr Brown (an intellectual) they prefer abstractions to realities, indeed the two change places in their mental economies, and are therefore capable of no remorse or guilt. If the selling of the country’s gold reserves resulted in a huge loss well, at least it was right in theory, and done for the best motives, which is what counts. The judgment of intellectuals is often wrong, in ways that would be hilarious if they were not disastrous. Sowell lucidly analyses the systematic reasons for their ill judgments.

Perhaps the most important is that intellectuals live in a costless world in which there is every incentive to devise other theories that defy common sense. A doctor who believed that the best treatment of appendicitis was green cheese would soon lose his licence to practice; but an intellectual suffers nothing, however absurd his theories. This is for several reasons: the connection between what he propounds and its practical effects is usually arguable, and in any case delayed. A man treated for appendicitis with green cheese is likely to die; the abandonment of punishment as a means of suppressing crime occurs in the context of many other changes.

Intellectuals, like everyone else, live and work in a marketplace. In order to get noticed they must say things which have not been said before, or at least say them in a different manner. No one is likely to obtain many plaudits for the rather obvious, indeed self-evident, thought that a street robber cannot commit street robberies while he is in prison; but an intellectual who first demonstrates that the cause of an increase in street robbery is the increase in the amount of property that law-abiding pedestrians have on them as they walk in the streets is likely to be hailed, at least until the next idea comes along. Thus, while there are no penalties for being foolish, there are severe penalties (at least in career terms) for being obvious. This automatically increases the propensity of intellectuals to espouse extreme or preposterous ideas that would never occur to anyone obliged by circumstances to keep their feet on the ground.

There is a further reason why intellectuals espouse preposterous ideas. Because they live in a world in which preposterous proposals are costless (that is, costless to them, not to others) they believe in benefits that are brought about without cost. They seem often to believe, for example, that you can have positive discrimination without negative discrimination. And if by some chance they are forced to face this thought that is not, after all, very difficult to grasp, they will keep it at a high level of abstraction. They will say, for example, that white males are paying the cost of their past dominance, not that an injustice is being done to Smith or Jones. Intellectuals want to be just.

Opposing the vision of the anointed is the tragic vision: while many aspects of life are susceptible to improvement, not all things that are desirable are compatible, and in any case human life has inherent limitations. All the advances in medicine notwithstanding, man is still mortal; what Dr Johnson called ‘the pains of separation’ are still an inevitable part of human existence.

Throughout the book, Sowell gives instances of what one might call the stupidity of clever people. Some of them are hilarious: the eminent economist, Lester Thurow, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by no means therefore a fringe figure, claimed that the United States had the worst unemployment record of any country in the western world, a conclusion he reached by considering the unemployment figures in the United States alone. You don’t have to be a professor to know that it is advisable, before saying that a is larger than b, to have some idea about the size of both. Nor was this an isolated slip on the part of Professor Thurow, a valued member of the commentariat. He also immortalised himself in 1989 by writing that ‘Today the Soviet Union is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States’, a misjudgement in the area of his supposed expertise that has not, however, deeply affected his career as a pundit. Intellectuals are like indebted Latin American governments: their mistakes are always forgiven and forgotten.

The need to stand out from the common herd of mankind by having original thoughts (that is to say, in many cases, thoughts that are original only because no sensible person would entertain them), the lack of personal consequences for the propagation of these thoughts, and the loss of caste that follows the enunciation of obvious but unpalatable truths means that intellectuals as a class are more often wrong than right.

This book might be subtitled ‘The Economics and Sociology of Intellectual and Emotional Dishonesty’ Of course, we have not yet got to the point at which public exposure of such dishonesty is impossible or illegal, but the auguries are not good, especially in this country, in which legislation founded on such dishonesty is constantly passed unopposed and even unnoticed, and where, to the hosannas of many intellectuals, ruthless, self-interested benevolence vies for predominance with unfathomable incompetence.


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