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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Intellectuals and Society

If you trace back to the origins of almost any damaging public-policy idea in America, you find it rooted in the imagination of some intellectual. Just to pick one field, consider housing. Why do we have huge tracts of depressing, unsafe, unclean public housing in some of our largest cities? That did not simply happen—the idea for such projects came from “Progressive” intellectuals who were certain their thoughts on how cities should be planned would make life immeasurably better.

Eventually, politicians sensed there would be votes coming their way if they put supposedly expert and compassionate ideas like public housing into effect. The result was that many people were displaced into worse housing than they’d previously had and those “lucky” enough to get into the new government housing projects soon found them abominable. But what about the intellectual progenitors of public housing? They suffered in no way. No professorships were lost; no reputations were damaged. If any intellectuals who had advocated “urban renewal” had any pangs of conscience over it, they issued no mea culpas.

In Intellectuals and Society Thomas Sowell essays a devastating assessment of the role that intellectuals play in modern life. Their impact, he argues, is overwhelmingly detrimental and stems from their ability to use their primary skill (“verbal virtuosity,” he terms it) to get those in power to reorganize the world in accordance with their theories about how society should function. Those theories usually entail government coercion euphemistically called “planning” or “regulation.”

When it’s good, this book is magnificent. Here is one of many excellent, quotable passages: “Intellectuals are often extraordinary within their own specialties—but so are chess grandmasters, musical prodigies and many others. The difference is that these other exceptional people seldom imagine that their talents . . . entitle them to judge, pontificate to, and direct a whole society.” That sums up the problem with intellectuals very nicely.

Intellectuals are usually so absorbed in their visions for a better world that they have no patience for the gradual change that comes through market processes and voluntary action. Why wait for “social justice” outcomes such as the elimination of poverty or the end of discrimination if the government can simply mandate higher wages or outlaw “unfair” hiring practices? Sowell acknowledges that some intellectuals understand that State coercion, no matter how splendid the intentions behind it, is counterproductive. Most of them, however, continue advocating programs built around mandates, prohibitions, and taxes. Power is their opiate.

Sowell highlights a curious feature of many intellectuals: namely, their indifference to evidence that questions the wisdom of their pet policies. Gun control is a good example. Do gun control laws actually reduce violence? A wealth of data shows that antigun statutes have precisely the opposite effect. You might expect that people who are ostensibly committed to rationality would change their minds when faced with such evidence, but that is almost never the case. On the contrary, if you challenge a pro-gun-control intellectual, you are apt to be met with condescension and invective.

It is the same with scores of other issues in which intellectuals adhere dogmatically to cherished beliefs about the benefits of government intervention, no matter how strong the case that they’re actually harmful.

There is, however, a serious flaw in the book. Although Sowell quite correctly observes that the “Progressive” intellectuals managed to embroil the United States in needless wars (especially World War I, but also other conflicts), he cannot or will not see that “right-wing” intellectuals have done similar damage by providing the rationales for our disastrous military escapades this century. Sowell doesn’t explain why the influence of interventionist intellectuals who favored war in the former era was harmful, but the influence of interventionist intellectuals who favor war today is good.

Or we might turn this around and ask why the aversion to conflict and efforts at “nation-building” that characterized Woodrow Wilson’s opponents was sensible, but when (some) intellectuals today question the same sorts of policies, Sowell regards them as blind ideologues. It is the pro-intervention crowd here that is oblivious to the consequences of their favored actions. Convincing a neoconservative intellectual that our “war against terrorism” is counterproductive seems to be on the same order of difficulty as convincing a Progressive that rent-control and minimum wage laws are counterproductive.

Aside from that serious blind spot, however, Intellectuals and Society is a sharp and enlightening book.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.