Intellectuals and Society
by Thomas Sowell
It is a commonplace observation that very smart people often have no sense. Writers since Aristophanes have been making sport of their intellectual superiors. Jonathan Swift had the academicians of Lagado striving to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. Twenty years ago Paul Johnson wrote a fine book titled Intellectuals, in which he tossed and gored such luminaries of nineteenth and twentieth-century deep-browdom as Emerson, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell. Roger Kimball covered some of the same ground more thoughtfully in Lives of the Mind. It is useful and necessary work to point out how silly and clueless the most brilliant people often are. It is also fun, and a salve to our envy of those who have attained eminence just by thinking hard.
Why are intellectuals often so daft, though? Thomas Sowell has been ruminating on the matter for a quarter of a century. In Conflict of Visions (1987) he posited two different approaches to human affairs: the constrained vision, which acknowledges our limitations, and the unconstrained, which believes us to be perfectible. It is adherence to the second view, he thinks, that leads intellectuals into folly. In 1996 Sowell enlarged on this theme in Vision of the Anointed, memorably subtitled "Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy." There he settled on the terms "tragic vision" and "vision of the anointed" to describe the two contrasting outlooks, and showed the dire consequences of the latter when applied to public affairs.
Intellectuals and Society continues the theme. (I wonder whether Sowell's publisher has considered issuing the three books in a boxed set.) There is some repetition of arguments from the earlier books. I see no harm in that: we more often need reminding than instructing. Each of the particular ways in which intellectuals have their effect on society is given a chapter to itself: "Intellectuals and Economics," "Intellectuals and War," and so on.
What is an intellectual, though? Plenty of people — engineers, architects, surgeons, lawyers, generals — make a living by applying their intelligence to learned knowledge, but are not considered intellectuals on that account. Even academics are not necessarily intellectuals: we would hesitate to pin the tag on, for example, a professor of biochemistry. Contrariwise, some non-academics have been counted as intellectuals: a few jurists (including, surely, Sowell's favorite, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.), a poet or two, the founder of this magazine.
Sowell defines an intellectual as one whose work begins and ends with ideas. "Work" refers here to one's primary occupation, though the occupation need not be a paying one. The ideas should be big, general ideas about human nature, life, and society. Ideas in, ideas out, for most of one's working day: If that's your life, you're an intellectual. There are quibbles one can raise against this definition (historians? economists?) but for a book-length discussion, it is quite good enough.
Anyone can come up with an idea, of course. The ideas that matter are the ones that possess staying power by virtue of having survived some agreed validation process. In mathematics the validation is by logical proof; in the sciences, by confirming observations. Sowell, whose training was in economics, would like to see that kind of empirical rigor applied to the utopian schemes of those intellectuals he calls "the anointed." What he sees instead is self-congratulation, the blithe ignoring of unwelcome facts, the pathologizing of disagreement, herd behavior, and "the fatal talent of verbal virtuosity."
The only validation process the anointed will submit their ideas to is "the approval of peers." When rigorous empirical validation is applied, as it often is by conscientious social scientists, the results usually contradict the utopian vision. Then they are ignored and forgotten. A recent study of Head Start, for example, showed that this venerable Great Society program, now in its 46th year of lavish funding (currently $7.1 billion a year), accomplishes nothing measurable. Every previous study, all the way back to 1969, said the same thing; they were all shoved down the memory hole, as no doubt this latest one will be.
Similarly with the "root causes" theory of crime, which, says Sowell, has remained impervious to evidence on both sides of the Atlantic. "In both the United States and England, crime rates soared during years when the supposed 'root causes of crime' — poverty and barriers to opportunity — were visibly declining." Gun control, a great favorite with the anointed, has likewise been a bust, gun crime rising steadily in Britain through the later twentieth century as laws against gun ownership became steadily more severe. That other criminological favorite, "alternatives to incarceration," has been so thoroughly internalized by liberal intellectuals as to give us the famous 1997 New York Times headline Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling.
The follies of the anointed in matters of war and peace are so abundant Sowell spreads them over two chapters. The first covers the twentieth century to 1945; the second, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the two Iraq wars. This gives the author an opportunity to note parallels across the decades, the "peace movements" of the 1960s and 2000s echoing the sentiments, and often the actual slogans, of pacifists in the 1920s and 1930s.
Here Sowell points up a change in the methods and targets to which intellectuals of the anointed type address themselves. Before the age of mass media, intellectuals sought to influence power-holders by offering advice on statecraft. From Daniel and Confucius to Machiavelli and Locke, an intellectual wanted to be the "voice behind the curtain," whispering advice in the ruler's ear. Once public opinion came into its own, however, an alternative form of influence offered itself — one that removed the intellectual further from the results of his advice. This distancing from real power and real consequences has allowed modern intellectuals to be irresponsible, leading to the displays of silliness recorded by Paul Johnson. Of the 1960s antiwar movement Sowell says: "The intellectuals' effect on the course of events did not depend on their convincing or influencing the holders of power."
The sentence following that one is: "President Nixon had no regard for intellectuals." That is not quite right. While it is true that Nixon preferred to spend his leisure hours with practical men like Bob Abplanalp and "Bebe" Rebozo, he was none the less an intelligent and well-read man — something of a closet intellectual, in fact. It is worth recalling John O'Sullivan's very perceptive observation here: that while John F. Kennedy made a great show of patronizing the arts, it was Nixon who actually knew how to play the piano.
The intersection of politics with the anointed intelligentsia is an area I wish Sowell had explored in more depth. (A fourth book, perhaps?) Politics is properly the domain of Big Players: men or women skilled in persuasion and the judging of others, single-minded in pursuit of dominance, deft at hiding ruthlessness behind idealism. Intellectuals do not perform well in this hyper-worldly zone. Politicians of course have no objection to being presented as intellectuals, but the façade rarely survives close scrutiny. Sowell offers Adlai Stevenson as an illustration. "No politician in the past two generations was regarded by intellectuals as more of an intellectual," he reminds us. Stevenson's loss of the 1952 presidential election was taken by Russell Jacoby to illustrate "the endemic anti-intellectualism of American society." Harry Truman, by contrast, was looked down on as a provincial hick. Yet of the two men, Truman was much the better-read. He once corrected Chief Justice Fred Vinson's Latin, Sowell tells us. Stevenson could happily go for months on end without picking up a book.
Stevenson had the intellectual demeanor, though, as does our current president; and that proved quite sufficient to make the left intelligentsia bond to the man in both cases. Having little contact with reality, the anointed do not see deeper than the surface of things. Addicted to that "verbal virtuosity," they are easily swept off their feet by high-sounding rhetoric.
Of the Republican victory in the 1920 presidential election, Calvin Coolidge remarked that "It means the end of a period which has seemed to substitute words for things." Alas, that period soon came back with a vengeance. The substitution of words for things is now a mighty industry. Thomas Sowell is the chronicler and analyst of that industry. Intellectuals and Society is a fine addition to his work. I hope he will give us more books like it.