Intellectuals and Society

Article excerpt

Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell Basic Books * 2010 * 416 pages $29.95

If you trace back to the origins of almost any damaging public-policy idea in America, you find it rooted in the imagination of some intellectual. Just to pick one field, consider housing. Why do we have huge tracts of depressing, unsafe, unclean public housing in some of our largest cities? That did not simply happen - the idea for such projects came from "Progressive" intellectuals who were certain their thoughts on how cities should be planned would make life immeasurably better.

Eventually, politicians sensed there would be votes coming their way if they put supposedly expert and compassionate ideas like public housing into effect. The result was that many people were displaced into worse housing than they'd previously had and those "lucky" enough to get into the new government housing projects soon found them abominable. But what about the intellectual progenitors of public housing? They suffered in no way. No professorships were lost; no reputations were damaged. If any intellectuals who had advocated "urban renewal" had any pangs of conscience over it, they issued no mea culpas.

In Intellectuals and Society Thomas Sowell essays a devastating assessment of the role that intellectuals play in modern life. Their impact, he argues, is overwhelmingly detrimental and stems from their ability to use their primary skill ("verbal virtuosity," he terms it) to get those in power to reorganize the world in accordance with their theories about how society should function. Those theories usually entail government coercion euphemistically called "planning" or "regulation."

When it's good, this book is magnificent. Here is one of many excellent, quotable passages: "Intellectuals are often extraordinary within their own specialties - but so are chess grandmasters, musical prodigies and many others. The difference is that these other exceptional people seldom imagine that their talents . . . entitle them to judge, pontificate to, and direct a whole society." That sums up the problem with intellectuals very nicely.

Intellectuals are usually so absorbed in their visions for a better world that they have no patience for the gradual change that comes through market processes and voluntary action. Why wait for "social justice" outcomes such as the elimination of poverty or the end of discrimination if the government can simply mandate higher wages or outlaw "unfair" hiring practices? Sowell acknowledges that some intellectuals understand that State coercion, no matter how splendid the intentions behind it, is counterproductive. …