Politics & Policy

Intellectuals and Society

Ideas have consequences, for good or ill.

There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When intellectuals who generate ideas are surrounded by a wide range of others who disseminate those ideas — whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges — the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge. Trying for years to understand the nature of that influence eventually led me to write the book Intellectuals and Society, which has just been published.

Intellectuals generate ideas and ideas matter, whether those ideas are right or wrong, and they matter far beyond the small segment of society who are intellectuals. Ideas affect the fate of whole nations and civilizations. Nowhere is that more true than in our own times, when some people make suicidal attacks to kill strangers who have done nothing to them, as on 9/11, because the attackers are consumed with a set of ideas — a vision — and driven by the emotions generated by those ideas and that vision.

Whether in war or peace, and whether in economics or religion, something as intangible as ideas can dominate the most concrete things in our lives. What Karl Marx called “the blaze of ideas” has set whole nations on fire and consumed whole generations.

#ad#Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas — the intellectuals — have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.

The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, during the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers, or apologists among the leading intellectuals — not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted.

Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by their wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic, and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used.

The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels that we now take for granted.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public. Whether their ideas turn out to work — whether they make life better or worse for others — is another question entirely.

The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx’s intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxian ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.

Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave-labor camps.

Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps — slated for extermination — if he had succeeded.

The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras — including our own — intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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