With his new work, Intellectuals and Society, Sowell has finally made good on his 20-year-old promise to write about intellectuals. He has also made good on his threat. Sowell takes aim at the class of people who influence our public debate, institutions, and policy. Few of Sowell’s targets are left standing at the end, and those who are stagger back to their corner, bloody and bruised.
Sowell defines intellectuals as an occupation, as people whose “work begins and ends with ideas.” This includes academics, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, policy wonks, and, to a certain extent, journalists. This distinguishes them from occupations in which the work begins with ideas and ends with the application of ideas. Physicians or engineers usually start with ideas about how to approach their work, but eventually they have to put them into practice by treating patients or constructing bridges.
As a result, intellectuals are free from one of the most rigorous constraints facing other occupations: external standards. An engineer will ultimately be judged on whether the structures he designs hold up, a businessman on whether he makes money, and so on. By contrast, the ultimate test of an intellectual’s ideas is whether other intellectuals “find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious. There is no external test.”
An intellectual’s reputation, then, depends not on whether his ideas are verifiable but on the plaudits of his fellow intellectuals.
Intellectuals, of course, have expertise — highly specialized knowledge of a particular subject. The problem, according to Sowell, is that they think their superior knowledge in one area means they have superior knowledge in most other areas. Yet knowledge is so vast and dispersed that it is doubtful that any one person has even 1 percent of the knowledge available. Even the brightest intellectuals cannot possibly know all the needs, wants, and preferences of millions of people. Unfortunately, they have considerable incentive to behave as if they do.
Reinforcing these incentives is what Sowell dubs the “Vision of the Anointed.” Intellectuals’ belief in their own superior knowledge and virtue leads to a belief that they are an anointed elite who are qualified to make decisions for the rest of us in order to lead humanity to a better life. Under this vision problems such as poverty, injustice, and war are not due to inherent human weaknesses, but are the products of society’s institutions. Solving those problems requires changing those institutions, which requires changing the ideas behind the institutions. And who is better suited for that task than those whose work begins and ends with ideas?
“There could hardly be a set of incentives and constraints more conducive to getting people of great intellect to say sweeping, reckless or even foolish things,” Sowell states. He warns that if “no one has even 1 percent of the knowledge currently available . . . the imposition from the top down of the notions favored by the elites, convinced of their own superior knowledge and virtue, is a formula for disaster.”
The most telling portions of Intellectuals and Society are the ones in which Sowell chronicles the disasters that occur when intellectuals succeed in getting politicians, judges, and other policymakers to impose their vision on society.
Sowell writes that it “was part of a long-standing assumption among many intellectuals . . . that it is the role of third parties to bring meaning into the lives of the masses.”
Sowell also emphasizes the fact that intellectuals take their beliefs as axiomatic truths rather than hypotheses to be tested.
Since the 1980s, conservatives and libertarians have pushed back to the point that intellectuals’ “overwhelming dominance has been reduced somewhat.” Yet he warns that the intellectuals’ vision is still dominant: “Not since the days of the divine right of kings has there been such a presumption of a right to direct others and constrain their decisions, largely through expanded powers of government.” But now that Sowell has given us a penetrating analysis of that vision, perhaps it will be easier to fight it.
A previous post dealt with the folly of intellectuals presumed divine right.