The Chronicle Review

Why Intellectuals Are All Bad

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

February 14, 2010

Is there anything new to say about intellectuals? Thomas Sowell, the conservative economist and writer who hangs his hat at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, gives it a shot. Sowell is a rare being, an intellectual who makes his life half in the university and half outside it. He has taught on several campuses, writes a syndicated column, and produces a book almost every year. As a black conservative, he occupies a visible perch, and has not been shy in advancing tough critiques of busing and affirmative action. Sowell gets noticed. With a nod to his provocative ideas, Bates College established an endowed chair in economics after him. Now Sowell turns to intellectuals.

He intimates in its preface that his new book, Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books), should be considered the third of a conservative trilogy that blasts intellectuals. Paul Johnson in Intellectuals (1988) cataloged the personal misconduct and dishonesty of the species. From Johnson we learned, for instance, that Ibsen sometimes got drunk and wrote suggestive letters to young women. Johnson concluded that a dozen people picked "at random" on the street should be preferred to immoral intellectuals, which may include himself, inasmuch as his long-term mistress later denounced in public the long-married author for hypocrisy. Richard Posner in Public Intellectuals (2003) snared the species in a scientific net to show that it behaved poorly outside its narrow terrain. For example, law professors who protested the Bush military tribunals were not specialists in criminal or international law and could not understand the pertinent issues. For Posner, intellectuals should stick to things they know, advice he flouted in his own book.

In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell cleans up what is left and—in his eyes—on the left, intellectuals who influence policy. They are not necessarily "public intellectuals," but "writers, academics, and the like" who have enormous impact on society. The question of who these intellectuals are does not much interest Sowell. He specifies that his targets are less engineers and financiers than sociologists and English professors. Their influence on millions of people, he writes, "can hardly be disputed." He mentions the impact of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, but does not explain how English professors influenced those figures.

Sowell is more eager to skewer intellectuals than quibble over definitions. His position is straightforward. Intellectuals do not understand the genius of the market. They ignore empirical evidence. They are elitists. They operate with ideological blinders. Ultimately, they are "unaccountable to the external world." They judge ideas by how clever or complex they are, not whether they work. "But no one judged Vince Lombardi's ideas about how to play football" by their complexity or novelty, writes Sowell, but by "what happened when his ideas were put to the test on the football field." Mr. Sowell champions what might be called the Vince Lombardi Interpretation of Ideas, or VLII. Test ideas in the field.

VLII might be a tad simplistic. After all, Nazism "worked" and yielded a bustling economy, until it was militarily defeated. Would Sowell say all was well with Nazi ideas until 1945? The Soviet Union lasted many decades. Did Stalinism "work" until it did not?

Putting aside those bigger issues, Sowell slams Western intellectuals for their misconceptions about society. Activist judges, teenage pregnancy, gun control, city planning, the war in Vietnam, income distribution, and crime all get brief hearings. Everywhere intellectuals miss the boat. They do not understand the facts and their consequences. For instance, intellectuals agitate over the "widening income gap." While that gap exists—and has grown—intellectuals do not understand the difference between statistical categories and real people. Studies of income mobility show that individuals move between economic strata, Sowell claims.

Intellectuals and Society covers many topics but feels like an "oldies but goodies" compilation for conservative seniors at Leisure Lakes Golf. Everything here has been played countless times. Inasmuch as Sowell rarely identifies intellectuals he derides, except in discussions of the past, where he becomes fearless, the book lacks punch. He slams Bertrand Russell's pronouncements on peace and George Bernard Shaw's statements on the Soviet Union, but he pussyfoots about the present. For instance, he disdains city planners for the usual reasons. They are biased and insular. He gives "a typical example" where planners ask leading questions from the audience about their preferences. "Would you like to have more or less time commuting? Would you like to live in an ugly neighborhood or a pretty one?" Sowell judges those queries "tendentious" and dishonest to boot. They show no awareness of costs. But who are these planners? In fact, the "typical example" derives from a book published by the conservative Cato Institute, in which the author paraphrases the planners he wants to put out of business.

Like many conservatives, Sowell stands tall in the name of the people against the intellectual elite. He writes that his book is "about intellectuals," but not "for intellectuals," and he cannot be bothered if his victims find fault with him. But who besides intellectuals would be reading a book on intellectuals? He also writes in the name of the market, but sometimes his loyalties conflict. "Many intellectuals," he says, do not grasp executive compensation. "They do not understand how corporate executives can be worth such high salaries—as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their acquiescence should be necessary." Is it only "intellectuals" who have doubts about executive pay and bonuses? Where has Sowell been?

Intellectuals have seldom been so disparaged and elevated at the same time. Sowell gives us a chapter "Intellectuals and War" that largely focuses on the appeasement of the 1930s and its usual villains. He believes "the intellectuals" contrived appeasement, and the English and French governments followed in lock step. Never was a leader of a democratic nation more acclaimed than Neville Chamberlain, writes Sowell, when he returned from Munich with an agreement with Hitler. Why? Because of intellectuals and their "steady drumbeat of pacifist anti-national-defense efforts."

That is far from the truth. The 1930s appeasement had roots in a popular pacifism and war weariness as well as an anticommunism that saw Hitler as an ally, not an opponent. After all, Hitler expanded to the East and threatened the Soviet Union, not the West. Moreover, many intellectuals opposed appeasement, a fact about which Sowell seems to know nothing. He might add to his reading list books on the Spanish Civil War, even George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, in which he may discover that intellectuals fought with their lives against appeasement.

Sowell likes history, but he likes it on Post-it notes. He also prefers to revisit stale arguments rather than intervene in current controversies. In a book about intellectuals and society, he manages to ignore the health-care and financial crises. Instead, he argues that intellectuals have misunderstood Herbert Hoover. Wouldn't VLII help us with the current economic crisis, to find out which ideas "worked"?

In a rare foray into something immediate or contentious, Sowell ducks. He discusses the Iraq war in just a few pages. His focus? The 2007 increase in troops under George W. Bush known as "the surge." Guess what? The intellectuals opposed it. Sowell employs VLII. The surge succeeded. "There was fierce resistance among the intelligentsia to news that the surge was working."

What does this mean, the "surge" worked? That Iraq has become a peaceful country? Sowell does not say. Even if one accepts that the surge "worked," what about the larger Iraq war and the role of intellectuals? What about the reason and ideas for the war? The plan to bring democracy to the Middle East? Is the aggressive foreign policy Sowell cherishes "working" in Iraq after eight years? Moreover, many "intellectuals," armed with facts and verifiable theories, supported the war. How does the accountability he champions apply to those foreign-policy intellectuals? This would seem a perfect situation in which to employ VLII.

What does Sowell say about the Iraq war—its motivating ideas and the role of intellectuals in it? Nothing. Or only that he will put "aside" the "debatable issues about the wisdom of the invasion or the nature of its goals." Instead he segues into the nagging criticism of the "surge." He prefers to declaim for pages about the pacifists of the 1930s, rather than reflect on the current war. Has it occurred to him that the 10-cent critique of appeasement that he offers has helped lead us into this mess? In any event, little could illustrate more his spinelessness. As the house burns down, Sowell observes that the fire-resistant curtains seem to be holding up.

In the Conservative Series on American Politics, Sowell has given us the Idiot's Guide to Intellectuals, Big Print Edition. We should take him at his word. This is not a book for intellectuals. It is a gift item for conservatives who do not read. They can shelve it next to Paul Johnson's screed. If conservatives want something more, however, they should spring for Posner's Public Intellectuals. Posner may be wrong-headed, but he has bite and verve. Moreover, if they buy Posner in paperback instead of Sowell in hardback, they will save 10 bucks. In Sowell's universe, that clinches any argument.

Russell Jacoby is a professor in residence in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles. A columnist for The Chronicle Review, he is author, most recently, of Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (Columbia University Press, 2005).