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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reading List: Intellectuals and Society

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-01948-9.
What does it mean to be an intellectual in today's society? Well, certainly one expects intellectuals to engage in work which is mentally demanding, which many do, particularly within their own narrow specialities. But many other people perform work which is just as cognitively demanding: chess grandmasters, musical prodigies, physicists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, yet we rarely consider them “intellectuals” (unless they become “public intellectuals”, discussed below), and indeed “real” intellectuals often disdain their concern with the grubby details of reality.

In this book, the author identifies intellectuals as the class of people whose output consists exclusively of ideas, and whose work is evaluated solely upon the esteem in which it is held by other intellectuals. A chess player who loses consistently, a composer whose works summon vegetables from the audience, an engineer whose aircraft designs fall out of the sky are distinguished from intellectuals in that they produce objective results which succeed or fail on their own merits, and it is this reality check which determines the reputation of their creators.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, are evaluated and, in many cases, hired, funded, and promoted solely upon the basis of peer review, whether formal as in selection for publication, grant applications, or awarding of tenure, or informal: the estimation of colleagues and their citing of an individual's work. To anybody with the slightest sense of incentives, this seems a prescription for groupthink, and it is no surprise that the results confirm that supposition. If intellectuals were simply high-performance independent thinkers, you'd expect their opinions to vary all over the landscape (as is often the case among members of other mentally demanding professions). But in the case of intellectuals, as defined here, there is an overwhelming acceptance of the nostrums of the political left which appears to be unshakable regardless of how many times and how definitively they have been falsified and discredited by real world experience. But why should it be otherwise? Intellectuals themselves are not evaluated by the real world outcomes of their ideas, so it's only natural they're inclined to ignore the demonstrated pernicious consequences of the policies they advocate and bask instead in the admiration of their like-thinking peers. You don't find chemists still working with the phlogiston theory or astronomers fine-tuning geocentric models of the solar system, yet intellectuals elaborating Marxist theories are everywhere in the humanities and social sciences.

With the emergence of mass media in the 20th century, the “public intellectual” came into increasing prominence. These are people with distinguished credentials in a specialised field who proceed to pronounce upon a broad variety of topics in which their professional expertise provides them no competence or authority whatsoever. The accomplishments of Bertrand Russell in mathematics and philosophy, of Noam Chomsky in linguistics, or of Paul Erlich in entomology are beyond dispute. But when they walk onto the public stage and begin to expound upon disarmament, colonialism, and human population and resources, almost nobody in the media or political communities stops to ask just why their opinion should be weighed more highly than that of anybody else without specific expertise in the topic under discussion. And further, few go back and verify their past predictions against what actually happened. As long as the message is congenial to the audience, it seems like public intellectuals can get a career-long pass from checking their predictions against outcomes, even when the discrepancies are so great they would have caused a physical scientist to be laughed out of the field or an investor to have gone bankrupt. As biographer Roy Harrod wrote of eminent economist and public intellectual John Maynard Keynes:

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.
As was, of course, the attention paid by his audience.

Intellectuals, even when pronouncing within their area of specialisation, encounter the same “knowledge problem” Hayek identified in conjunction with central planning of economies. While the expert, or the central planning bureau, may know more about the problem domain than 99% of individual participants in the area, in many cases that expertise constitutes less than 1% of the total information distributed among all participants and expressed in their individual preferences and choices. A free market economy can be thought of as a massively parallel cloud computer for setting prices and allocating scarce resources. Its information is in the totality of the system, not in any particular place or transaction, and any attempt to extract that information by aggregating data and working on bulk measurements is doomed to failure both because of the inherent loss of information in making the aggregations and also because any such measure will be out of date long before it is computed and delivered to the would-be planner. Intellectuals have the same conceit: because they believe they know far more about a topic than the average person involved with it (and in this they may be right), they conclude that they know much more about the topic than everybody put together, and that if people would only heed their sage counsel much better policies would be put in place. In this, as with central planning, they are almost always wrong, and the sorry history of expert-guided policy should be adequate testament to its folly.

But it never is, of course. The modern administrative state and the intelligentsia are joined at the hip. Both seek to concentrate power, sucking it out from individuals acting at their own discretion in their own perceived interest, and centralising it in order to implement the enlightened policies of the “experts”. That this always ends badly doesn't deter them, because it's power they're ultimately interested in, not good outcomes. In a section titled “The Propagation of the Vision”, Sowell presents a bill of particulars as damning as that against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, and argues that modern-day intellectuals, burrowed within the institutions of academia, government, and media, are a corrosive force etching away the underpinnings of a free society. He concludes:

Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive, without at least the will to resist.
In the past century, it has mostly been authoritarian tyrannies which have “cleaned out the universities” and sent their effete intellectual classes off to seek gainful employment in the productive sector, for example doing some of those “jobs Americans won't do”. Will free societies, whose citizens fund the intellectual class through their taxes, muster the backbone to do the same before intellectuals deliver them to poverty and tyranny? Until that day, you might want to install my “Monkeying with the Mainstream Media”, whose Red Meat edition translates “expert” to “idiot”, “analyst” to “moron”, and “specialist” to “nitwit” in Web pages you read.

An extended video interview with the author about the issues discussed in this book is available, along with a complete transcript.

Posted at July 22, 2010 22:11