“Intellectuals and Society,” by Thomas Sowell, (2009) Basic Books, New York, 398 pp.
Arguments about ideas are the bread and butter of the academic, journalism and think tank worlds. That is as it should be. Honest intellectual debate benefits any society where its practice is allowed. The key element is honesty.
Today, someone is always looking to take out the fastest gun, and in the battles over the hearts and minds of the public many weapons are brought to bear. Unfortunately, and too often, among the artillery deployed by both sides in an argument are rhetorical deception, misleading statistics and an air of authority, which can immediately bury facts in the Boot Hill of honest debate.
Seldom held accountable for the violence brought to bear on the verifiable when their ideas lead to long-lasting negative effects, many of these intellectual gunslingers head into battle confident that their wits will save the world from another perceived plight.
Fortunately, Thomas Sowell is one of the fastest intellectual guns in the proverbial corral. His latest, Intellectuals and Society, finds the erudite economist turning his guns on the so-called intellectuals who attempt and too often succeed in swaying public opinion and political policy where the arrogance of intellect too often is the smart bomb dropped squarely on empirical evidence.
Indeed, intellectual folly knows no ideological parameters. However, Sowell divides intellectuals into two classes, where ideological divides are readily identifiable. The first is comprised of those with a constrained, or tragic, view of the world. To a conservative sympathetic to writers such as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, there is an understanding that humankind is fallen and that there can be no heaven on Earth. Eliot and Kirk held that a worldview is only viable inasmuch as it reflects what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination, which he defined as, “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment …”
Sowell, however, forgoes the transcendent definition in favor of a quotidian earthbound understanding:
In the tragic vision, social contrivances seek to restrict behavior that leads to unhappiness, even though these restrictions themselves cause a certain amount of unhappiness. It 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 a few. … In the constrained vision, there are especially severe limits on how much any given individual can know and truly understand, which is why this vision puts such emphasis on systemic processes whose economic and social transactions draw upon the knowledge and experience of millions, past and present. (p. 78)
The other class of intellectual, according to Sowell, possesses an anointed vision, which is a belief that humanity is perfectible and the world is one large Petri dish where superior intellects can craft an earthly paradise through bold experiments:
[S]ocial contrivances are the root cause of human unhappiness and explain the fact that the world we see around us differs so greatly from the world we would like to see. In this vision, oppression, poverty, injustice and war are all products of existing institutions—problems whose solutions require changing these institutions, which in turn require changing the ideas behind those institutions. In short, the ills of society are seen as ultimately an intellectual and moral problem, for which intellectuals are especially equipped to provide answers, by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight, as well as their not having vested economic interests to bias them in favor of the existing order and still the voice of conscience. … This vision of society, in which there are many ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’ by applying the ideas of morally anointed intellectual elites is by no means the only vision, however much that vision may be prevalent among today’s intellectuals.(pp. 76, 77)
Sowell presents specific examples of the anointed urge throughout several chapters respectively dedicated to media and academia; economics; law; social planning; and war. His rogues’ gallery includes 20th century leaders and thinkers such as Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Dewey, Neville Chamberlain, John Maynard Keynes and Rachel Carson. Wilson’s academic background is credited by Sowell as providing him with the intellectual arrogance to allow American shipping in German blockaded water, giving him an easy excuse to seek war against Germany when those ships inevitably were attacked. Russell, Dewey and Chamberlain are all taken to task for their ill-timed and irresolute pacifism at a time when stern diplomacy and a big stick approach would’ve yielded better results prior to World War II. The furor against the pesticide DDT caused by Carson’s research is credited by Sowell (and many others) as causing the subsequent deaths of millions from malaria and dengue fever.
Rather than engage in simple character assassination, however, Sowell gives his devils their respective dues. No one doubts, for instance, Carson’s correct conclusion that unchecked application of DDT was causing softening of shells for eagles and other raptors. What is questionable is the subsequent overstatement that all levels of pesticide had detrimental impacts on all wildlife. Likewise, Sowell praises the linguistic work of Noam Chomsky while lamenting Chomsky’s straying from the fields of language to the swamps of political debate where his ideas provide succor to other intellectual elites.
While characterizing the anointed as individuals besotted with their own intellect, Sowell argues that their ideas would not gain traction without the use of rhetorical parlor tricks. Here, Sowell shines as he offers his own “guide to talking to intellectuals.” Often the first shot over the bow of a constrained thinker’s argument is the anointed’s charge that it is “simplistic.” Sowell explains why this dismissal is more often than not dishonest as it expands the original “question to unanswerable dimensions” and derides “the now inadequate answer as simplistic.”
Sowell is perhaps more convincing when he identifies the demonization of opponents as the favorite rebuttal of the anointed. The refusal to accept the goodwill of one’s opponents – as a starting point for honest debate — is an all too common device employed by the anointed, according to Sowell and this writer’s personal experience. This often leads right away to personal attacks. From John Stuart Mills’ admonition of Conservatives as the Party of Stupid to pacifist J.B. Priestley’s assertion that the British public favored war only out of ennui and the desire for patriotic displays, Sowell portrays the ad hominem as a first line of attack.
Should insults fail, the assumption of the moral high ground is the second wave of attack: How can one defeat an opponent who presents him or herself as more compassionate toward fellow humans or presents themselves as more caring about the beauty of nature and the state of the environment? As Sowell aptly puts it:
While the conflicts between the tragic vision and the vision of the anointed can lead to innumerable arguments on a wide range of issues, these can also lead to presentations of views that take the outward form of an argument without the inner substance of facts or analysis – in other words, arguments without arguments.
Elsewhere, Sowell’s prodigious knowledge is brought to bear on his discussion of intellectual claims for rights where none exist, including the supposed “rights” to affordable health care, living wages and other social justice issues. In each instance, he concisely eviscerates the intellectual arguments for the necessity to enact change. And he does so in a fresh way, without a hint that he might be simply rehashing his weekly columns.
Sowell’s book is a handy compendium of point/counterpoints. For every John Dewey who claims, “Having the knowledge we may set hopefully at work upon a course of social invention and experimental engineering,” Sowell quotes the wisdom of a Friedrich Hayek:
Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct. They are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge. (p. 14)
Intellectuals and Society is a great read for those who increasingly engage in debate on the polarizing issues of the day. Had Sowell not finished writing the book prior to the recent release of the Climategate emails, one can imagine the firepower he would’ve brought to bear on that topic. His defense of commonsense and empirical facts over intellectual arrogance and rhetorical sleight-of-hand should serve as a handbook for anyone interested in engaging in honest debate.