Intellectuals and Society, by Thomas Sowell



Six weeks before he died in late April 1946, Keynes was visited by Hayek, who told me the conversation went something like this:

HAYEK: What if you are wrong?

KEYNES: Don’t worry. If I’m wrong I’ll persuade everyone that you are right.

What arrogance! But this historical vignette sums up Thomas Sowell’s brilliant book Intellectuals and Society perfectly.

Like Hayek in the similarly titled The Intellectuals and Socialism (1949), Sowell is concerned with the role of those whose output is simply ideas, the intellectuals, and how they shape opinion in society.

This is not to claim that the work of engineers and doctors and even, say, some lawyers and accountants is not intellectual. But at the end of the day there is a working automobile, a well patient, a court case won or a set of accounts filed. There is verifiability and accountability.

The output of the intellectual classes is not so concrete but may well become so as the idea of the policy wonk is taken up by a politician and implemented by a bureaucrat. After all, as Sowell notes, “Adam Smith never ran a business and Karl Marx never administered a Gulag”.

But, even when the decades pass and the predictions of say a Paul Erlich or a Ralph Nader are shown to be manifestly false, intellectuals do seem immune from bearing the costs of being wrong in a way that no others in society are so protected. Indeed as Sowell notes, false prophets seem likely to end up “with just as much honour as if they had been truly prophetic”. It is as if by taking up issues such as climate change, famine or safety on behalf of your fellow man you don the mantle of a “secular saint” and while you might be wrong, dreadfully wrong, you are still on the side of the angels. You are wrong, we believe you meant well and therefore you deserve our thanks.

Like Hayek, six decades ago, Sowell notes two other phenomena: the propensity of intellectuals in one field to speculate with great conviction on matters outside their expertise; and our tendency to give weight to the views of those experts who likewise stray. On the former, Sowell quotes Keynes’s biographer Harrod who wrote that his subject “held forth on a great range of topics”; on some he was “thoroughly expert” while on others he had glanced at a few pages of a book – the problem was “the air of authority was the same in both cases”. What a nightmare! How to filter?

On the latter he highlights the century or more of hysteria on the impending exhaustion of natural resources by relevant experts who “did not know enough economics to understand how prices allocate resources over time” and “among other alternative users at a given time”.

Two bits of data made me sit up and blink, both attributed to Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals. Apparently among the 100 intellectuals most quoted in the media only 18 “are also among the 100 intellectuals mentioned most often in the scholarly literature”. Division of labour or what? The relevant footnote takes one to a fascinating direct comparison: Lester Thurow beats Gary Becker 2:1 in the media while Becker totally spanks Thurow 8:1 in scholarly journals. I’m glad I’m on Becker’s team!

Intellectuals do a lot to shape public opinion. They decide what and when we hear, from whom we hear it and with what spin. They are massively important and anybody involved in social change must study them. From Hayek through Posner to Sowell we thank our scholars for focusing on them. However on the day I read Sowell I was more than amused to read a newspaper headline that reported over half of Brits have serious doubts about man-made global warming. It restores one’s faith in mankind. Two plus decades of tsunami upon tsunami of experts, scholars and intellectuals nearly all singing one tune and over half a country is not convinced!

Hayek’s little essay was clearly instrumental in creating the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s as it inspired the founders of the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies in the US, and the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK. Their respective founders (Leonard Read, Baldy Harper and Antony Fisher) read Hayek, eschewed politics and focused on the intellectuals and the scholarly case for free markets and private property under the rule of law.

It took 30 years but Hayek’s fingerprints are all over that decade – though ten years were not sufficient to irrevocably roll back collectivism. I sense that future intellectual historians may well laud the achievements of Sowell as his book is crammed full of insights that will inspire a new generation of freedom oriented venture philanthropists and intellectual entrepreneurs.

3 thoughts on “Intellectuals and Society, by Thomas Sowell”

  1. Posted 15/01/2010 at 12:56 | Permalink

    I think your Global Warming example does not chime with your implicit preference for the academic versus popular approach. I suspect that academic research overwhelmingly supports AGW; in fact, this is one of the most popularly cited facts about it, how even the Petroleum organisations now recognise it. But the popular narrative – the talking heads, the columnists, the bloggers – are far more evenly divided.

    Consider: you type Global Warming into Google and the first five proposed completions are “hoax, facts, emails, myth, effects”. Similar with Climate Change, which chucks out “sceptics”. There is no tsunami on one side – except amongst the real experts.

  2. Posted 21/01/2010 at 15:18 | Permalink


    Don’t be so hard on Keynes. That was a funny line. I understand that Hayek and Keynes were friends as well as rivals. I think this is a genuinely charming vignette.

  3. Posted 22/01/2010 at 09:55 | Permalink

    Great posting, Dr Blundell. Highly recommended is this series of five interviews with Thomas Sowell, courtesy of Uncommon Knowledge (scroll down the list).

    One missing aspect from this ongoing debate, however, is an appreciation of the classical notion of prudence, an Aristotelian process where people deliberate, decide, and act. A focus on the pejoratives of ‘intellect’ places an unwarranted burden on common sense, if you will. Having a reasoned, defendable rationale for our choices needs rehabilitation, too.

    As Ludwig von Mises wrote, ‘Man thinks not only for the sake of thinking, but also in order to act.’

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