BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
INTELLECTUALS AND SOCIETY, by Thomas Sowell
, March 6, 2010
Knowing a lot but understanding little
INTELLECTUALS AND SOCIETY
by Thomas Sowell
(New York: Basic Books)
Hardcover: 416 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.90
Reviewed by Joseph Poprzeczny
Even in societies where elected parliaments ostensibly rule, it is intellectuals who really ultimately influence the way those societies are moulded and fashioned. Unless and until one grasps this basic truth, one is destined to remain deluded.
That's the overriding theme of Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Society, a study guaranteed to offend deeply many of those who view themselves as intellectuals.
Sowell describes intellectuals as individuals who inhabit "an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas - writers, academics and the like".
Alongside them are what he calls "a penumbra of those whose role is the use and dissemination of those ideas".
He says: "These latter individuals would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges' clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on ideas of intellectuals." Together they make up a formidable cohort. Moreover, they believe they are the anointed custodians of the truth with a responsibility to proselytise current intellectual fads.
However, Sowell warns that "intellect is not wisdom".
Indeed, his focus is primarily upon the sort of "unwise intellect" which has so dominated and even undermined modern Western democratic societies since so many of the ideas intellectuals have promoted have proved harmful to the human race.
The sweep of Sowell's study is broad. Not only does he reveal the power that intellectuals wield in shaping opinion and even triggering legislative and other changes, he also shows why so many of their cherished schemes, despite their demonstrable failure, are allowed to continue.
One well-known example, among scores that Sowell highlights, is the American consumer advocate Ralph Nader's controversial book, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which alleged that many American motor manufacturers were reluctant to install adequate safety features in their cars. Nader particularly singled out the Chevrolet Corvair (manufactured by General Motors) as a danger to motorists.
Sowell observes: "Yet, despite the fact that empirical studies showed the Corvair to be at least as safe as other cars of its day, Nader not only continued to have credibility but acquired a reputation for idealism and insight that made him something of a secular saint." (Nader, since 1996, has stood four times as a US presidential contender.)
America, Sowell writes, frequently produces all kinds of crusaders who make "wrong predictions about everything from the price of gasoline to the outcome of Cold War policies", but whose messages have been taken as gospel by large segments in society, including politicians.
Intellectuals are able to avoid or delay having their crusades promptly and obviously discredited. "In short, constraints which apply to people in most other fields do not apply even approximately to intellectuals," he adds.
Sowell warns that public decisions should not be allowed to be made by tiny groups of intellectuals but by those who must suffer the consequences of decisions - that is, by practitioners of the hard sciences such as medicine, where patients die; of engineering, where structures can collapse; of business where bankruptcies occur; and of professional sports, where competitors can be beaten.
Consider the most recent intellectual dogma to reach Australia's shores - that of man-made global warming, popularised by another former US presidential candidate, Al Gore, and enlisting a whole coterie of movie stars, writers, bankers, self-seeking politicians and, finally, scientists, many of whom derived their opinions from what has subsequently been shown to be deeply flawed, or even fraudulent, data.
Untold billions of dollars have been spent on trying to modify the world's future climate, financed by taxes on energy use - and paid for, of course, by the toiling masses.
Intellectuals are often either long dead or far away when the harmful outcomes of their ideas fall on others.
The great strength of Sowell's book is that it reveals how to detect the flawed reasoning of intellectuals.
His key chapters highlight intellectuals' economic illiteracy, their recurring failed social visions, their deleterious impact upon the rule of law, and how they have persistently misunderstood the nature of conflict and warfare.
Says Sowell: "Most intellectuals outside the field of economics show remarkably little interest in learning even the basic fundamentals of economics."
Intellectuals, especially during the 20th century, fell over themselves promoting the now discredited socialist dogma of centralised economic planning. Stalin's agricultural collectivisation-terror and five-year plans, Mao's Great Leap Forward, not to mention Marxist-inspired economic policies in developing countries - all these led to economic collapse, famine, chronic shortages and the unnecessary suffering of hundreds of millions of people.
Little wonder an anonymous Polish wit observed during the Communist era, "We produce more steel than ever, but I can't buy a razor blade!" Another Pole described Marxism as "the ultimate victory of ideology over common sense".
The more humane and successful system of free enterprise and competitive markets, which ensures that goods are cheap and widely available, is invariably derided by intellectuals as chaos.
They generally despise commercial or business life as contemptible and denounce those challenging their unworkable alternatives as cold and heartless.
Nor has their record in assessing international affairs fared any better, for Sowell concludes that 20th-century intellectuals, on balance, made the world a worse and more dangerous place.
During modern Europe's largely peaceful century, dating from the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the outbreak of the Great War (1914-18) that almost destroyed Western civilisation, it was intellectuals who became increasingly strident in demanding military solutions to diplomatic problems.
Writes Sowell: "In Germany, during the mid-1890s - two decades since the Franco-Prussian War - many intellectuals, including university professors, supported the Kaiser's government in its plan to build a big and expensive navy as part of a more aggressive stance in general, even though Germany was a land power with few overseas interests to protect."
Similar belligerence prevailed in America, promoted most especially by Progressive-Era writers like the long-forgotten but highly influential Herbert Croly.
Then, in the 1930s, with the rise of the dictators - Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler - an opposite proclivity prevailed, pacifism and appeasement, which inadvertently hastened the next great global conflict.
Typical was the statement in 1935 of the then British Labour Opposition leader, Clement Attlee, who declared: "Our policy is not of seeking security through rearmament but through disarmament."
Sowell observes: "Neglect of history has allowed us today to forget how narrowly the Western democracies as a whole escaped the ultimate catastrophe of a victory by Hitler and his allies.
"More important, it has allowed us to forget what brought the Western democracies to such a perilous point in the first place - and the potential for the same notions and attitudes, promoted by today's intelligentsia as by the intelligentsia between the two world wars, to bring us to the same perilous tipping point again, with no assurance that either the luck or the fortitude that saved us the first time will do so again."
POSTSCRIPT: "Huge defect" in our thinking
by Edward de Bono
Our thinking is not nearly as good as we believe.
It's all defensive, prove your point and so on as opposed to opening up and designing better ways forward.
For instance, one of the real problems which no one dares mention - but I'm going to mention it - is democracy. Huge problem with democracy. What?
Certain professions - architects, engineers, scientists, business executives - find it very difficult to go to parliament. Why? Because if you are not elected a second time, you cannot go back to where you were. You can't get back to being a top architect.
So what happens? Who gets into Parliament? The talkers.
Lawyers, journalists, teachers, trade unionists - excellent at talking but no habit of constructive thinking. They have never used constructive thinking in their lives.
So Parliament is made up of a lot of people who are very good at attacking and criticising, analysing, no habits or skill at constructive thinking. Now that is governing the country. That is a huge defect.
Extract from Edward de Bono on the BBC World Service's The Interview, August 29, 2009.