Thursday, January 14, 2010
The Divine Right of Intellectuals
Too many intellectuals believe they have a duty to make decisions for the rest of us
In his 1988 book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Paul Johnson wrote that one of the lessons of the 20th century was “beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.”
Not long after Johnson released his book, economist Thomas Sowell appeared on the C-SPAN program Booknotes. The host, Brian Lamb, asked Sowell what his next book would focus on, and he said he was considering writing about intellectuals. When Lamb asked how his book would be different from Johnson’s, Sowell threatened, “Mine would not be as generous as his.”
With his new work, Intellectuals and Society, Sowell has finally made good on his 20-year-old promise to write about intellectuals. He has also made good on his threat. Sowell takes aim at the class of people who influence our public debate, institutions, and policy. Few of Sowell’s targets are left standing at the end, and those who are stagger back to their corner, bloody and bruised.
What makes Intellectuals and Society even more withering than Johnson’s historical-biographical work is that Sowell approaches his subject as an economist, analyzing the incentives and constraints intellectuals face. Sowell defines intellectuals as an occupation, as people whose “work begins and ends with ideas.” This includes academics, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, policy wonks, and, to a certain extent, journalists. This distinguishes them from occupations in which the work begins with ideas and ends with the application of ideas. Physicians or engineers usually start with ideas about how to approach their work, but eventually they have to put them into practice by treating patients or constructing bridges.
As a result, intellectuals are free from one of the most rigorous constraints facing other occupations: external standards. An engineer will ultimately be judged on whether the structures he designs hold up, a businessman on whether he makes money, and so on. By contrast, the ultimate test of an intellectual’s ideas is whether other intellectuals “find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious. There is no external test.” If the intellectuals are like-minded, as they often are, then the validity of an idea depends on what those intellectuals already believe. This means that an intellectual’s ideas are tested only by internal criteria and “become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality.”
An intellectual’s reputation, then, depends not on whether his ideas are verifiable but on the plaudits of his fellow intellectuals. That the Corvair was as safe as any other car on the road has not cut into Ralph Nader’s speaking fees, nor has the failure of hundreds of millions of people to starve to death diminished Paul Ehrlich’s access to grant money. They only have to maintain the esteem of the intelligentsia to keep the gravy train running.
Intellectuals, of course, have expertise — highly specialized knowledge of a particular subject. The problem, according to Sowell, is that they think their superior knowledge in one area means they have superior knowledge in most other areas. Yet knowledge is so vast and dispersed that it is doubtful that any one person has even 1 percent of the knowledge available. Even the brightest intellectuals cannot possibly know all the needs, wants, and preferences of millions of people. Unfortunately, they have considerable incentive to behave as if they do.
Sowell notes another important distinction between intellectuals and other professions. “There is a spontaneous demand from the larger society for the end products of engineering, medical and scientific professions,” he writes, “while whatever demand there is for the end products of linguists or historians comes largely from educational institutions or is created by intellectuals themselves.” Members of other professions can achieve fame and fortune by finding ways to meet the demand for their end products. But for intellectuals to prosper they must create demand for their ideas by stepping outside their areas of expertise to offer “solutions” to “social problems” or “by raising alarms over some dire dangers which they claim to have discovered.” Chances are slim that Noam Chomsky would ever have achieved the acclaim that he did if he had stayed in the field of linguistics instead of venturing into U.S. foreign policy, nor the entomologist Ehrlich if he had limited himself to studying butterflies rather than making gloomy predictions of human overpopulation.
Reinforcing these incentives is what Sowell dubs the “Vision of the Anointed.” Intellectuals’ belief in their own superior knowledge and virtue leads to a belief that they are an anointed elite who are qualified to make decisions for the rest of us in order to lead humanity to a better life. Under this vision problems such as poverty, injustice, and war are not due to inherent human weaknesses, but are the products of society’s institutions. Solving those problems requires changing those institutions, which requires changing the ideas behind the institutions. And who is better suited for that task than those whose work begins and ends with ideas?
“There could hardly be a set of incentives and constraints more conducive to getting people of great intellect to say sweeping, reckless or even foolish things,” Sowell states. He warns that if “no one has even 1 percent of the knowledge currently available . . . the imposition from the top down of the notions favored by the elites, convinced of their own superior knowledge and virtue, is a formula for disaster.”
The most telling portions of Intellectuals and Society are the ones in which Sowell chronicles the disasters that occur when intellectuals succeed in getting politicians, judges, and other policymakers to impose their vision on society. In the section on crime, Sowell examines what happened to the U.S. when intellectuals imposed on the criminal-justice system their vision of crime as being as much the fault of society as of the individual. In the 1960s, the Warren Court made it more difficult to convict and imprison criminals with decisions such as Miranda and Mapp. Other judges and policymakers followed with an effort to alleviate the so-called “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and discrimination. Rehabilitation was emphasized over prolonged imprisonment. The result was a reversal of a decades-long improvement in the crime rate. For example, in 1961 the murder rate was half what it had been in 1933. By 1974, it was double that of 1961.
By the early 1990s, voters had had enough and began electing politicians who emphasized longer prison terms for convicted criminals. As incarceration rates rose, crime rates dropped. Yet this made no dent in the vision of the intellectuals. The New York Times ran numerous variations on the article headlined “Crime Keeps Falling, but Prisons Keep On Filling.” Times columnist Tom Wicker dismissed voters’ desire for tougher penalties as “panicky public fears and punitive public attitudes.” Sowell notes that this is a common tactic among intellectuals, to dismiss the differing views of others and treat them as “mere emotions (‘panicky’), rather than as arguments that had to be analyzed and answered with facts.”
To date, the biggest disaster perpetrated by intellectuals is the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. After World War I, pacifism — the belief that the real enemy isn’t other nations, but war itself — became part of the intellectuals’ vision. Being a pacifist was a badge of honor among intellectuals in the inter-war period. They were so successful in promoting pacifism in the public sphere that politicians in England and France worried about losing the next election if they advocated military action against Germany. As in other fields, intellectuals seldom addressed the arguments against pacifism, instead dismissing them as, in the words of John Dewey, “the stupidity of habit-bound minds.”
What enabled intellectuals to explain away Hitler’s increasing military aggressiveness leading up to World War II, from the Rhineland to Czechoslovakia to Austria to Poland, is what Sowell calls “one-day-at-time rationalism.” This sort of rationalism restricts “analysis to the immediate implications of each issue as it arises, missing wider implications of a decision that may have merit as regards the issue immediately at hand . . . but which can be disastrous in terms of the ignored longer-term repercussions.” Intellectuals focused on each of Hitler’s aggressions separately and considered only the immediate consequences of taking military action against Germany. For example, the French political scientist Joseph Barthélemy asked, “Is it worth setting fire to the world in order to save the Czechoslovak state?” When Hitler demanded annexation of the Polish port of Danzig, a French newspaper asked, “Do We Have to Die for Danzig?” Looking at Hitler’s actions this way obscured the larger and more important question, which, as Sowell states, “was whether one recognized in the unfolding pattern of Hitler’s actions a lethal threat.” Public- opinion polls from the summer of 1939 suggest that shortly before Hitler invaded Poland the French people caught on to what he was doing, but by then it was too late for the Third Republic.
Sowell’s book serves not only as a history of intellectuals but also as a guide to what is currently unfolding in the United States. A constant theme in Intellectuals and Society is the intellectual as a “surrogate decision-maker” who thinks his preferences should override those of the parties directly involved in a decision. For example, Sowell notes that intellectuals often complain that they do not understand why corporate executives are paid such high salaries, “as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their understanding and acquiescence should be necessary, in order for those who are directly involved in hiring and paying corporate executives to proceed on the basis of their own knowledge and experience, in a matter in which they have a stake and intellectuals do not.” However, companies that received TARP money do need the acquiescence of White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg, who recently decreed that the top executives at these companies could not earn more than $500,000 annually. That Feinberg has no experience at running a company, and that it will be the employees and stockholders of those companies, and not Feinberg, who will suffer the consequences of that decision, is consistent with an administration culled from the anointed.
Sowell writes that it “was part of a long-standing assumption among many intellectuals . . . that it is the role of third parties to bring meaning into the lives of the masses.” Many people were shocked when in early 2008 Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. . . . That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Sowell probably just shook his head in knowing disgust.
Sowell also emphasizes the fact that intellectuals take their beliefs as axiomatic truths rather than hypotheses to be tested. In the current health-care debate it is axiomatic among many intellectuals that a public plan will improve the health-insurance market. As one liberal blogger put it, “If the public plan works, then private insurance will work better as well. In this telling, the simple existence of the public plan forces a more honest insurance market.” But treating that claim as a hypothesis shows that the evidence points in the opposite direction. Medicare, the “public plan” for seniors, drove private insurance for the elderly out of the market.
The intellectuals of today are continuing a long tradition, according to Sowell, going back at least to Rousseau, who dismissed the masses as “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.” He was succeeded by John Stuart Mill, who said that intellectuals are “the best and wisest” and “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling.” If Mill were not long dead, it would be easy to conclude that he ghost-wrote George Clooney’s Academy Awards acceptance speech for Syriana.
In a way, Clooney represents one of the few weaknesses of Intellectuals and Society. Sowell excoriates intellectuals for believing that their superior knowledge in one area can be generalized to other areas, but he states that “chess grandmasters, musical prodigies and others who are . . . remarkable within their respective specialties . . . seldom make that mistake.” Yet actors and singers seem to be making it almost every day now. The likes of Clooney, Sheryl Crow, Rosie O’Donnell, and many others never seem to tire of giving us the benefit of their ignorance. Sowell should extend his analysis further into what motivates people to pronounce on matters over which they have no expertise. After all, most celebrities already have oodles of fame and fortune and don’t need to make reckless and foolish public statements in order to get a share of the limelight.
It would also be helpful if Sowell trained his sights on some of the recent variants of conservatism. For example, one author has stated that Compassionate Conservatism makes “solving the problems of the urban underclass a top priority,” as if conservatives are qualified to guide the poor. Or consider National Greatness Conservatism, which is about more than just organizing “citizens’ resentments”; it is about “informing their hopes.” This looks eerily like intellectuals trying to bring “meaning” into the lives of the masses.
Despite the book’s gloomy tone, Sowell does offer a hopeful note. Since the 1980s, conservatives and libertarians have pushed back to the point that intellectuals’ “overwhelming dominance has been reduced somewhat.” Yet he warns that the intellectuals’ vision is still dominant: “Not since the days of the divine right of kings has there been such a presumption of a right to direct others and constrain their decisions, largely through expanded powers of government.” But now that Sowell has given us a penetrating analysis of that vision, perhaps it will be easier to fight it.
White House issues more imaginary job statistics: "President Barack Obama’s emergency spending measures last year saved up to two million U.S. jobs, the White House said on Wednesday, but it warned that the outlook for the economy remained uncertain. … The White House, using two different approaches to figure out the impact of the stimulus package, estimates that U.S. employment had been raised by between 1-1/2 and 2 million jobs by the end of 2009 as a result of the stimulus measures. Romer said she thinks the stimulus measures will have saved up to 3.5 million jobs by year’s end.” [About as likely as the old Soviet production statistics]
Politicizing the law: "Eric Holder’s Justice Department has exiled Christopher Coates to South Carolina. Coates, you may recall, is a career attorney at Justice, the chief of the Civil Rights Division’s (CRD) Voting Section. More to the point, Coates recommended that the CRD file a lawsuit for voter intimidation against the New Black Panther party and several of its members, who were in paramilitary uniforms (one of them waving a nightstick) threatening elderly white voters at a polling station in Philadelphia during last year’s elections. Political appointees at the Justice Department overrode Coates’s recommendation. They ordered him to dismiss the lawsuit against all but one of the defendants, even though they were in default because they did not defend themselves. … The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has opened an investigation of the unexplained dismissal. It has subpoenaed Coates, but Justice has ordered Coates not to appear before the panel.” [See also here]
He’s the president, not America’s “daddy”: "Despite her cutesy gal-talk and chatty pop-culture references, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is worth reading, if only because she often inadvertently encapsulates the worst ideas in contemporary politics. ‘Americans are scared’ after the failed Christmas bombing, MoDo proclaimed in her column Sunday. But by responding coolly, Barack Obama let a good crisis go to waste. He missed his ‘moment to be president,’ Dowd says, ‘to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders.’ Could there be a more infantile conception of the chief executive’s role?”
Class war: "Exempting themselves from traffic laws in the name of a threat that no longer exists is bad enough, but what government workers do to the rest of us on a daily basis makes ticket dodging look like child’s play. Often under veils of illegal secrecy, public-sector unions and their political allies are systematically looting the public treasury with gold-plated pensions, jeopardizing the finances of state and local governments around the country, removing themselves from legal accountability, and doing it all in the name of humble working men and women just looking for their fair share. Government employees have turned themselves into a coddled class that lives better than its private-sector counterpart, and with more impunity. The public’s servants have become our masters.”
Report: Freedom declines around world for fourth consecutive year: "Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that monitors democracy and political rights world wide, says global freedom declined last year for the fourth consecutive year. Although the group says there were some improvements, last year’s slump represents the longest continuous decline in the nearly 40-year history of the report. Freedom House says that whether it was the brutal repression of demonstrators in Iran, the sweeping detention of activists in China or the murder of journalists and human rights advocates in Russia, 2009 was a year that was marked by intensified repression of human rights defenders and civic activists.”
Japanese savers about to be ripped off by the Japanese government: "I have felt rather lonely after suggesting in my New Year Predictions that Japan is dangerously close to blowing up on its sovereign debts, with consequences that will be felt across the world. My intended point — overly condensed — was that 2010 will prove to be the year that Japan flips from deflation to something very different: the beginnings of debt monetization by a terrified central bank that will ultimately spin out of control, perhaps crossing into hyperinflation by the middle of the decade. So it is nice to have some company: first from PIMCO’s Paul McCulley, who said that the Bank of Japan should buy “unlimited amounts” of long-term government debt (JGBs) to lift the country out of a “deflationary liquidity trap” and raise the souffle again." [Similar to Obama's money-printing]
The recession is over, the depression just beginning: "In his upcoming State of the Union address, Obama is expected to repeat his post-China trip message that fiscal austerity (meaning sharp social spending cuts) is necessary to cut the public debt. In other words, bankrolling Wall Street, health insurers, the drug cartel, other corporate favorites, and war profiteers will continue while working Americans won’t be helped during the greatest economic crisis in their lifetimes, a protracted one that will last years. Looking ahead in 2010, the state of the nation for most people is dire and worsening, and 2011 looks no better.”
Note to TSA, DHS et al: “Disclaimer: No, I don’t advocate ducking ’security’ ropes, sticking Gatorade jugs full of honey in your luggage, rubbing your luggage with a Milkbone right before leaving for the airport, writing Bob Denver inspired notes about your pteromerhanophobia, or getting drunk and hogging the Great White Porcelain God’s airborne confessional. BUT! Any or all of those things are weird annoyances at worst and require mild on-the-spot correctives at most. It’s the reactions to them that are the real problem. There’s no nice way to put this: Those reactions objectively aid and abet al Qaeda.”
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)
Posted by JR at 1:23 AM