What Happened to Intellectuals?
By Staff News & Analysis - April 20, 2010

Should the label "intellectual" be considered one of admiration or derision? … Thomas Sowell's provocative new book looks at this question. Intellectuals and Society will make both public intellectuals and their supporters decidedly uneasy. Sowell argues that people defined as "intellectuals" have, for at least the past century, promoted a centralized, statist, and anti-democratic vision which undermines both individual freedom and the effective functioning of the state. Furthermore, they have done so without facing any consequences for the results of their (mostly failed) ideas. – Canadian Province

Dominant Social Theme: Navel gazing is necessary. But not too much.

Free-Market Analysis: We have often wondered about the issues that Dr. Thomas Sowell is tackling. His point seems to be – and we confess we are responding to a book review ABOUT his book (called "Intellectuals and Society") – that the thrust of the Western intelligentsia in the past century anyway has been decidedly statist. Sowell, having pointed out this salient fact, then apparently explains why this should be the case, according to the Province review (excerpted above) as follows:

Sowell's thesis on the effect of intellectuals on society has several distinct elements. To start, he defines "intellectuals" as the class of people who produce ideas as the primary end product of their work. Thus, engineers and neurosurgeons, while certainly possessing specialized knowledge, are not intellectuals per se. The problem with professional intellectuals, according to the author, is not that they possess specialized knowledge but that they assume that this knowledge endows them with expertise on unrelated matters.

Thus, in order to implement this general expertise, intellectuals consistently advocate a political vision characterized by a strong central state which will allow them greater technocratic control over human activity. This vision, Sowell argues, in fundamentally flawed because intellectuals, while possessing specialized knowledge in a single field, do not possess the consequential "on the ground" knowledge necessary to make wise decisions in most cases. …

Intellectuals remain attached to their specific vision of the state and society despite its failings, Sowell argues, for two main reasons. First, unlike other citizens, whose political opinions are generally only a small part of their lives, intellectuals have a great deal of their self-worth rooted in the correctness of political opinions. Indeed Sowell argues that the respectability of an intellectual among their peers derives largely from how much they adhere to the "vision of the anointed" – the statist liberal/ progressive vision dominant among intellectuals.

The second main reason why intellectuals are able to persist in advocating previously failed policy ideas is that unlike engineers or physicians, who face consequential feedback if they fail (dead patients, collapsed bridges) intellectuals are insulated from the direct consequences of their ideas because they are rarely responsible for implementing them. Because intellectuals face no consequences if their ideas fail they can continue advocating them and be lauded by their peers for their "principles" even if those principles are counter-productive. Where respect from other intellectuals (and approval, in matters such as awarding tenure) is the primary currency, Sowell argues that being faithful to the "vision of the anointed" is more important than being correct.

We suppose we will read Sowell's book. But we have always found him, unfortunately, to be a bit partial to the idea of an expansive state in certain areas. (The think-tanks to which Sowell is attached are "conservative" – advocating free-market thinking except when it comes to the American military-industrial complex.) Still, Sowell has an idiosyncratic and interesting turn of mind and his points regarding the statist tinge of American (and Western) intellectuals are well taken.

Before we go any further, let's examine the etymology of intellectual. The following is taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary: "Intellectual (adj.) … from L. intellectualis, from intellectus … 'discernment, understanding,' … "

The root words of intellectual are "discernment" and "understanding." Unfortunately, it is hard to have either if one lacks the fundamental facts to make an informed decision. This was the case in the 20th century when much that should have been imparted was kept hidden. The intellectual production of the 20th century was in a sense, therefore, an unknowing fraud because those involved were operating with an insufficient knowledge base.

The bottom line is that the canon of Western literature, certainly in the 20th century, became corrupted by the propaganda of the power elite. Author Thomas Sowell would likely disagree with this assessment, however. He apparently believes the statist tinge of Western literature is evolutionary and results from certain societal influences on intellectuals (see above).

But having long tilled the vineyards of putative literacy – economic and otherwise – we can say with some certainty that what's happened to Western thought in the 20th century is likely NOT a coincidence. From our point of view – and you are welcome to call us paranoid, dear reader – the same "money power" that dominated the media so effectively in the 20th century thoroughly corrupted higher education and the publishing industry as well.

If you were, by some miracle, a free-market thinker in the 20th century (other than, say, Mark Twain, Ayn Rand or H.L. Mencken) you had a snowball's chance in hell of getting published by a major American or British publisher. Newspaper, magazines and universities, the feeders of major publishers, encouraged socialist thought. And the publishers themselves in the 20th century became relentlessly socialist in terms of what they wished to present to the general public.

One now begins to look back on the 20th century as a kind of information dark age. Where was one to turn to find a free-market frame of reference? None was readily available. It is almost hard to describe – given today's plethora of information – how well-hidden free-market concepts were. Reading lists – popular or academic – all had the same basic names and offered up a leveling frame-of-reference. Today, all that is blessedly changed. The Austrian canon of free-market thought – the fundamental bedrock of human aspiration – is available in a thousand colors across the Internet. And there are plenty of free-market reading lists floating around. Lew Rockwell and the von Mises Institute regularly suggest books, both fiction and non-fiction, that can be seen as offering up free-market thought. Thank goodness it is not hidden anymore.

After Thoughts

Thomas Sowell asks the right questions. But we disagree with some of his conclusions. Intellectuals throughout the 20th century (and still today) ended up being socialist and statist because the power elite created a seamless cradle-to-grave environment of leveling thought. Yes, what Sowell is writing about (even though he does not recognize it as such) is a power elite promotion. The promotion was that true literary genius is socialist, or perhaps populist. Now that free-market thinking has found its voice and rediscovered its intellectual tradition, it may prove harder to stifle again.

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