Intellectuals and Society MP3 CD – Jan 1 2010
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“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.”
“Mr. Sowell builds a devastating case against the leftist antiwar political and intellectual establishment."
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Intellectuals and Society has one very big point to make: People who are experts in one realm of the world of ideas are inclined to opine about areas where they know very little. If we take what they say seriously about area B because of their credibility in area A, shame on them and shame on us.
If that's all there were to the book, you wouldn't need to read it. Thomas Sowell often makes the exploration of specific examples lots of fun, especially when he draws on his own deep expertise in economics and economic research. When the subjects being explored aren't as easy to subject to economic analysis, I thought that his points didn't necessarily score. It was more like one intellectual disagreeing with another intellectual, without much basis to distinguish the two.
I found the book's general point to be thought provoking. Why do so many people make strong public statements for which they have little or no evidence? I suspect that two incentives dominate:
1. One side or the other "feels" more emotionally "right" to them.
2. They either like the media limelight or cannot avoid it, and a hot topic has come up.
Thomas Sowell eventually gets around to the problem of many people in the media not caring about the accuracy of the views being presented concerning public issues. I think the problem is even more fundamental: Many people in the media are young and inexperienced concerning what they are writing about. They are in no position to discern a sound position from an unsound one.Read more ›
If you're a bookworm, if you like to geek out on politics and how society works, and especially if you'd like to learn more about the Nazi propaganda machine & I.Q. and race, you gotta get this book.
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In each area, Mr. Sowell's complaint is that intellectuals -- "people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas - writers, academics, and the like" - are having negative effects. And, maddeningly, these intellectuals are "unaccountable to the external world," immune from sanction, insulated even from the loss of reputation that those in other fields suffer after having been proven wrong.
The reputation of certain intellectuals may not be quite so immune after Mr. Sowell has finished with them, because he is withering in assessing and recording their failures.
The newspapers take it particularly hard from Mr. Sowell, and not just the American ones. There was the Daily Telegraph's prediction that Hitler would be gone before the end of 1932, and the Times of London's description of the Nazi dictator as a "moderate." Add to this a New York Times column issued by Tom Wicker on the collapse of the Communist bloc, cautioning, "that Communism has failed does not make the Western alternative perfect, or even satisfying for millions of those who live under it."
This book does a wonderful job at marshalling facts to puncture commonly held notions of intellectuals and others who tend to be political liberals. It'd be hard to think the same way about income inequality ever again after reading Mr. Sowell's tremendously clear explanation of confusion between income and wealth and "confusion between statistical categories and flesh-and-blood human beings." By the time Mr. Sowell is done, the confusion is gone.
He does the same job on gun control, on the supposed epidemic of arson fires at black churches in 1996, and on various topics related to crime and punishment. Mr. Sowell can turn phrases back around at left-wing intellectuals like boomerangs. "What is called 'planning' is the forcible suppression of millions of people's plans by a government-imposed plan," he writes. "Many of what are called social problems are differences between the theories of intellectuals and the realities of the world - differences which many intellectuals interpret to mean that it is the real world that is wrong and needs changing."
Even those already steeped in free-market economic thinking will find new facts and perspectives here. Who knew, for example, that restrictions on land use have so artificially inflated housing prices in San Francisco that "the black population has been cut in half since 1970"?
"The power of arbitrary regulation is the power to extort," Mr. Sowell writes, giving as an example a San Mateo, Calif., housing development whose approval was contingent on the builders turning over to local authorities 12 acres for a park, contributing $350,000 for public art, and selling about 15% of the homes below their market value.
Some of these historical facts may be relevant to our own times, such as Mr. Sowell's observation that, "As President, Hoover responded to a growing federal deficit during the depression by proposing, and later signing into law, a large increase in tax rates - from the existing rate of between 20 and 30 percent for people in the top income brackets to new rates of more than 60 percent in those brackets."
Mr. Sowell does sometime tilts his facts to favor his thesis. For example, there's a whole scathing section about intellectuals who opposed President Bush's "surge" in Iraq, but there's no mention of the fact that the idea for the surge came from a right-of-center policy intellectual, Frederick Kagan. While Mr. Sowell faults "intellectuals" for all kinds of bad thinking, in so doing he relies on and cites approvingly a string of other intellectuals -- Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, Robert Bartley, James Q. Wilson, Victor Davis Hanson. Mr. Sowell himself, by his own definition, qualifies as an intellectual.
If Mr. Sowell is angry at intellectuals, one reason is for covering up the progress and prosperity of his own country and the open-mindedness of its people. "Data showing the poverty rate among black married couples in America to have been in single digits for every year since 1994 are unlikely to get much, if any, attention in most of the media. Still less is it likely to lead to any consideration of the implications of such data for the view that the high poverty rate among blacks reflects the larger society's racism, even though married blacks are of the same race as unmarried mothers living in the ghetto on welfare, and would therefore be just as subject to racism, if that was the main reason for poverty," he writes.
Intellectuals and Society seems to have been written by Mr. Sowell out of a belief, or a hope, that the society will ultimately outsmart the intellectuals. Armed with Mr. Sowell's book, readers will be in a better position to help do that.
This book contains a plethora of examples of how many high profile intellectuals in the media and academia have been proven wrong- but without losing credibility among their peers or target audience. This is a serious problem because intellectuals affect public opinion, and with it public policy. Intellectuals of the past successfully agitated for defective policies: for so-called protectionism, living wages, and social justice has hindered economic progress. The naïve attitude that some intellectuals have had towards totalitarian movements proved disastrous. Yet many of the same defective arguments from earlier periods are still in use by today's intellectuals.
Sowell does a good job of illustrating the pernicious influence of leftist intellectuals. What is less clear is why opposing intellectuals, like Sowell himself, have not been more successful. Is there a simple lack of data among certain people? Does ideology cause a lack of cognitive dissonance? Are there self-serving reasons for spreading faulty theories, visions, or data? These are an important question, the answers to which will tell us if we need better education or a better vision (or maybe both). The fact of the matter is that this book does help to discredit certain intellectuals, and this is an important next step. Unfortunately, it will be read least by those who need to most urgently: those who are routinely swayed by defective ideas need to read this book, but how many of them will?
Mr. Sowell is further very careful to credit intellectuals who have made a mark in their specific core knowledge or field and only faults them when (believing themselves intellectually superior and apparently all-knowing) they opine on things over which they have no expertise (in some cases) or on which they are wholy ignorant (in others). Therefore, scientists that have created or discovered cures for previously deadly diseases are to be commended; similarly, writers whose "verbal virtuosity" separates them from the rest ought to be commended for their cleverness. When they apply that cleverness to mistaken notions is when they become dangerous.
It is precisely those notions that this book sets out to examine.* In the process, undeniably, Mr. Sowell slaughters many of the Left's sacred cows. Nowhere is he more effective at that than in Chapter 3 (Intellectuals and Economics) where he not only manages to slay some of the left's most sacred cows--the notions surrounding "Income Distribution"--but also grounds them, cooks them, and makes juicy hamburgers out of them. After several well-substantiated examples of intellectuals disregarding and/or ignoring proven (even basic) economic principles, Sowell concludes that many of the intellectuals who have sincerely and passionately supported economic re-distribution are simply economically illiterate!
Mr. Obama would definitely benefit (and the country along with him) from an earnest reading of this book.
*(In the interest of truth, let me state the obvious. Dr. Sowell himself fits the definition of an Intellectual as he defines them in his book--except when he is talking about Economics, as he is an expert in that field. But this is beside the point. There are (were) intellectuals (from the left, the middle, and the right) whose ideas may be valid, whose input does benefit society, and whose influence is still inspiring others to generate beneficent ideas. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln (to name just three), come to mind. The whole point of the book is not to deny that some intellectuals are brilliant. The point is to examine those ideas that did not work, and why even though they did not work, they're still permeating society).
Dr. Sowell then describes the effect of the ideas of leading intellectuals in economics, law, social issues, and matters of war and peace. In most cases the ideas of the intellectuals turned out to be disasters. Yet the intellectuals suffered no consequences. In essence the intellectuals are sealed off from feedback of the negative outcomes of their ideas.
Dr. Sowell points out that the work of scientists, medical doctors, engineers and other mentally demanding occupations have added vastly to human health and well being. He questions whether the impact of intellectuals in toto is in its net effect is positive at all, or whether the intellectuals in general caused much more hurt than benefit.
I do have some quibbles with the book. For example I do not think Herbert Hoover, even if a decent man otherwise, was anything but an abject failure as President. Hoover did not go off the gold standard when such a move was a matter of necessity. However this work is still excellent. The book is one of the better treatment of the intellectual class and is very well written in the bargain. The book should be read by everyone with a interest in the modern world.