Politics & Policy

The Divine Right of Intellectuals

Too many intellectuals believe they have a duty to make decisions for the rest of us.

In his 1988 book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Paul Johnson wrote that one of the lessons of the 20th century was “beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.”   

Not long after Johnson released his book, economist Thomas Sowell appeared on the C-SPAN program Booknotes. The host, Brian Lamb, asked Sowell what his next book would focus on, and he said he was considering writing about intellectuals. When Lamb asked how his book would be different from Johnson’s, Sowell threatened, “Mine would not be as generous as his.”

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.

What makes Intellectuals and Society even more withering than Johnson’s historical-biographical work is that Sowell approaches his subject as an economist, analyzing the incentives and constraints intellectuals face. 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.” If the intellectuals are like-minded, as they often are, then the validity of an idea depends on what those intellectuals already believe. This means that an intellectual’s ideas are tested only by internal criteria and “become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality.”

An intellectual’s reputation, then, depends not on whether his ideas are verifiable but on the plaudits of his fellow intellectuals. That the Corvair was as safe as any other car on the road has not cut into Ralph Nader’s speaking fees, nor has the failure of hundreds of millions of people to starve to death diminished Paul Ehrlich’s access to grant money. They only have to maintain the esteem of the intelligentsia to keep the gravy train running.

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.

Sowell notes another important distinction between intellectuals and other professions. “There is a spontaneous demand from the larger society for the end products of engineering, medical and scientific professions,” he writes, “while whatever demand there is for the end products of linguists or historians comes largely from educational institutions or is created by intellectuals themselves.” Members of other professions can achieve fame and fortune by finding ways to meet the demand for their end products. But for intellectuals to prosper they must create demand for their ideas by stepping outside their areas of expertise to offer “solutions” to “social problems” or “by raising alarms over some dire dangers which they claim to have discovered.” Chances are slim that Noam Chomsky would ever have achieved the acclaim that he did if he had stayed in the field of linguistics instead of venturing into U.S. foreign policy, nor the entomologist Ehrlich if he had limited himself to studying butterflies rather than making gloomy predictions of human overpopulation.

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?

#page#“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. In the section on crime, Sowell examines what happened to the U.S. when intellectuals imposed on the criminal-justice system their vision of crime as being as much the fault of society as of the individual. In the 1960s, the Warren Court made it more difficult to convict and imprison criminals with decisions such as Miranda and Mapp. Other judges and policymakers followed with an effort to alleviate the so-called “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and discrimination. Rehabilitation was emphasized over prolonged imprisonment. The result was a reversal of a decades-long improvement in the crime rate. For example, in 1961 the murder rate was half what it had been in 1933. By 1974, it was double that of 1961.

By the early 1990s, voters had had enough and began electing politicians who emphasized longer prison terms for convicted criminals. As incarceration rates rose, crime rates dropped. Yet this made no dent in the vision of the intellectuals. The New York Times ran numerous variations on the article headlined “Crime Keeps Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling.” Times columnist Tom Wicker dismissed voters’ desire for tougher penalties as “panicky public fears and punitive public attitudes.” Sowell notes that this is a common tactic among intellectuals, to dismiss the differing views of others and treat them as “mere emotions (‘panicky’), rather than as arguments that had to be analyzed and answered with facts.”

To date, the biggest disaster perpetrated by intellectuals is the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. After World War I, pacifism — the belief that the real enemy isn’t other nations, but war itself — became part of the intellectuals’ vision. Being a pacifist was a badge of honor among intellectuals in the inter-war period. They were so successful in promoting pacifism in the public sphere that politicians in England and France worried about losing the next election if they advocated military action against Germany. As in other fields, intellectuals seldom addressed the arguments against pacifism, instead dismissing them as, in the words of John Dewey, “the stupidity of habit-bound minds.”

What enabled intellectuals to explain away Hitler’s increasing military aggressiveness leading up to World War II, from the Rhineland to Czechoslovakia to Austria to Poland, is what Sowell calls “one-day-at-time rationalism.” This sort of rationalism restricts “analysis to the immediate implications of each issue as it arises, missing wider implications of a decision that may have merit as regards the issue immediately at hand . . . but which can be disastrous in terms of the ignored longer-term repercussions.” Intellectuals focused on each of Hitler’s aggressions separately and considered only the immediate consequences of taking military action against Germany. For example, the French political scientist Joseph Barthélemy asked, “Is it worth setting fire to the world in order to save the Czechoslovak state?” When Hitler demanded annexation of the Polish port of Danzig, a French newspaper asked, “Do We Have to Die for Danzig?” Looking at Hitler’s actions this way obscured the larger and more important question, which, as Sowell states, “was whether one recognized in the unfolding pattern of Hitler’s actions a lethal threat.” Public- opinion polls from the summer of 1939 suggest that shortly before Hitler invaded Poland the French people caught on to what he was doing, but by then it was too late for the Third Republic.

Sowell’s book serves not only as a history of intellectuals but also as a guide to what is currently unfolding in the United States. A constant theme in Intellectuals and Society is the intellectual as a “surrogate decision-maker” who thinks his preferences should override those of the parties directly involved in a decision. For example, Sowell notes that intellectuals often complain that they do not understand why corporate executives are paid such high salaries, “as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their understanding and acquiescence should be necessary, in order for those who are directly involved in hiring and paying corporate executives to proceed on the basis of their own knowledge and experience, in a matter in which they have a stake and intellectuals do not.” However, companies that received TARP money do need the acquiescence of White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg, who recently decreed that the top executives at these companies could not earn more than $500,000 annually. That Feinberg has no experience at running a company, and that it will be the employees and stockholders of those companies, and not Feinberg, who will suffer the consequences of that decision, is consistent with an administration culled from the anointed.

#page#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.” Many people were shocked when in early 2008 Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. . . . That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Sowell probably just shook his head in knowing disgust.

Sowell also emphasizes the fact that intellectuals take their beliefs as axiomatic truths rather than hypotheses to be tested. In the current health-care debate it is axiomatic among many intellectuals that a public plan will improve the health-insurance market. As one liberal blogger put it, “If the public plan works, then private insurance will work better as well. In this telling, the simple existence of the public plan forces a more honest insurance market.” But treating that claim as a hypothesis shows that the evidence points in the opposite direction. Medicare, the “public plan” for seniors, drove private insurance for the elderly out of the market.

The intellectuals of today are continuing a long tradition, according to Sowell, going back at least to Rousseau, who dismissed the masses as “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.” He was succeeded by John Stuart Mill, who said that intellectuals are “the best and wisest” and “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling.” If Mill were not long dead, it would be easy to conclude that he ghost-wrote George Clooney’s Academy Awards acceptance speech for Syriana.

In a way, Clooney represents one of the few weaknesses of Intellectuals and Society. Sowell excoriates intellectuals for believing that their superior knowledge in one area can be generalized to other areas, but he states that “chess grandmasters, musical prodigies and others who are . . . remarkable within their respective specialties . . . seldom make that mistake.” Yet actors and singers seem to be making it almost every day now. The likes of Clooney, Sheryl Crow, Rosie O’Donnell, and many others never seem to tire of giving us the benefit of their ignorance. Sowell should extend his analysis further into what motivates people to pronounce on matters over which they have no expertise. After all, most celebrities already have oodles of fame and fortune and don’t need to make reckless and foolish public statements in order to get a share of the limelight.

It would also be helpful if Sowell trained his sights on some of the recent variants of conservatism. For example, one author has stated that Compassionate Conservatism makes “solving the problems of the urban underclass a top priority,” as if conservatives are qualified to guide the poor. Or consider National Greatness Conservatism, which is about more than just organizing “citizens’ resentments”; it is about “informing their hopes.” This looks eerily like intellectuals trying to bring “meaning” into the lives of the masses.

Despite the book’s gloomy tone, Sowell does offer a hopeful note. 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.

– David Hogberg is a reporter living in Washington, D.C.  

 

 

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