A book with the title Intellectuals and Society can be expected to range widely, and Thomas Sowell's latest does not disappoint, covering ground from economics to criminology and foreign policy.
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: "Many of the intelligentsia express not only surprise but outrage at the number of shots fired by the police in some confrontation with a criminal, even if many of these intellectuals have never fired a gun in their lives, much less faced life-and-death dangers requiring split-second decisions." A footnote discloses that Mr. Sowell "once taught pistol shooting in the Marine Corps" and has "not been at all surprised by the number of shots fired by the police."
Often intellectuals are less interested in actually helping the poor or prisoners than in increasing their own moral authority, Mr. Sowell says. "For example, one of the horrific experiences of many men in prison is being gang-raped by other male prisoners. Yet any attempt to reduce the incidence of such lasting traumatic experiences by building more prisons, so that each prisoner could be housed alone in a single cell, is bitterly opposed…When the actual well-being of prisoners conflicts with the symbolic issue of preventing more prisons from being built, prisoners become just another sacrifice on the altar to a vision." As for the inevitable comparisons of prison costs versus college costs, "the relevant comparison would be between the costs of keeping someone in prison versus the costs of letting a career criminal loose in society," Mr. Sowell writes.
And he writes well. 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.
Or who knew that it took the retailer Sears 15 years and $20 million in litigation expenses finally to fight off a sex discrimination case that had been brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1973 "based solely on statistics, without being able to produce even one woman, either currently or previously employed in any of Sears' hundreds of stores across the country, to claim that she had personally been discriminated against"?
Not a few 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 once fall into the trap he faults other intellectuals for, of speaking with authority outside his area of expertise. He erroneously claims Edmund Burke favored freedom for the American colonies. In fact, while Burke was more sympathetic to the complaints of the colonists than many other members of Parliament, it is overstating it to characterize him as a supporter of the Revolution. As I write in my biography of Samuel Adams, Burke spoke out in Parliament in favor of targeting the Revolutionary ringleaders. "The persons guilty were Mr. Hancock and Mr. Samuel Adams," Burke said on March 25, 1774 during the debate on the Boston Port Bill. "Punish Hancock, Adams, and others you know, but not all." A supporter of the Revolution would not have been calling for the punishment of its leaders.
Take Burke's own word for it: In his 1777 "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," he wrote, "I am charged with being an American. If warm affection towards those over whom I claim any share of authority be a crime, I am guilty of this charge. But I do assure you (and those who know me publicly and privately will bear witness to me,) that if ever one man lived more zealous than another for the supremacy of parliament, and the rights of this imperial crown, it was myself."
More broadly, Mr. Sowell sometimes 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. Mr. Sowell attacks the American Education Association, a teachers' union, but makes no mention of the role that the other teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, and its visionary leader, Albert Shanker, played in defeating the Soviet Union.
And 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.
Even Mr. Sowell's complaint that intellectuals are unaccountable isn't entirely accurate. Many of them don't produce only "ideas" – they churn out college graduates and books. The books either sell or they don't in a competitive, profit-driven market. And the success of the college graduates in the competitive job market is closely followed by the likes of U.S. News & World Report and tuition-paying parents, so a school like Antioch College can close.
Mr. Sowell's own intellectual vision seems at times slightly gloomy; or at least less sunny than that of some economic libertarians who are enthralled by the possibilities of growth and technological dynamism in capitalism.
"The most fundamental fact of economics, without which there would be no economics, is that what everybody wants always adds up to more than there is," Mr. Sowell writes. He calls it an "inherent scarcity." Elsewhere, he speaks of "the tragedy of the human condition" and describes believers in free markets as believers in "features of the tragic vision."
Still, 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.