Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thomas Sowell on Intellectuals and Society

Last time I saw Sowell interviewed, I feared age was getting to him. Here he is with the Hoover Institute's Peter Robinson, showing all the characteristic charm of the relaxed California moralist, looking sharp as ever. Sowell's newest book on the problem of the intellectuals, on their all-too-common desire for power in tandem with their irresponsible detachment from, if not war against, reality, is the topic of discussion.


Anonymous said...

I yawned my way through the initial discussion of consequential knowledge (I didn’t see how it was consequential). But he really got my attention during the discussion of income distribution over time. The Krugman piece cited was discussing income growth of aggregate groups over time. The argument is that the rich are getting richer, but no other group is. And Sowell’s comeback is…an individual’s income will rise over his or her lifespan, and an individual at the bottom will tend to rise faster than someone who starts with a massive income. Well holy shit Dr. Sowell. Does anybody know of a modern economic system where an individual’s income does not increase over their career? By this logic, why would any East German ever be pissed off that their living standard sucked compared a West German? The middle-aged East German is banking more than when he was 20. So life should be peachy. Except it’s not. Because, in part, the East German knows that, on average, the middle-aged West German with comparable skill is doing a whole lot better. Because the East Gernman communist system sucked (no doubt this is a point of rare convergence between Sowell and I). We have ways of quantifying the basic comparisons people make between economic systems. To wave a hand and say it’s not flesh-and-blood is silly to all but Peter Robinson.

I point this out because it was the first empirical snort-worthy piece of BS I remember. All the way through the argument is weak though. What Sowell needed to do, but didn’t do, is separate intellectuals by their political/economic beliefs. What he’s really pissed off at are leftist and liberal intellectuals. But instead of specifying this, we get two conservative intellectuals bitching about intellectuals. It’s absurd. Sowell’s refusal to separate intellectuals based on political beliefs (we wouldn’t really be talking about ‘intellectuals’ then would we?) produces numerous unforced errors. For example, at various points he dumps on professional economists, but appeals to the authority of 1000 economist when dumping on the New Deal. Translation: economists suck, except when I agree with their arguments. Later, he blames intellectuals for their pacifism in the inter-war period, and he blames them for getting the US into a mess in Vietnam, and then destroying the nation’s will to fight in Vietnam until victory. So intellectuals are guilty of pacifism, except when they are guilty of starting a war and running it in a shitty manner. Speaking of running a war in a shitty manner, guess which intellectuals are not fingered? Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, and the other intellectual foreign policy geniuses who helped craft the Bush policies. Why talk about a group with contemporary relevance when you can dump on the ‘whiz kids’ of the early ‘60s? Ideologically blind and irrelevant.

There are intellectuals of every political persuasion. Sometimes these intellectuals produce policy ideas that are disastrous. If you want to make a claim about intellectuals, though, it needs to be able to hold as a tendency across the entire group. What Sowell offers is a laundry list of stuff he doesn’t like about his political enemies. It’s intellectually lazy.

Now that the rant is done, thanks for the link. At the very least, it provoked a reaction from one reader.


truepeers said...

So na, your beef is that Sowell loosely condemns "intellectuals" even though he is one himself and there are at least a few others he likes, like Milton Friedman.

OK, loose lips; but we don't seriously think that Sowell is really condemning all intellectual life do we? So, granted the limitations of the form of a 35 minute interview, or the necessarily provocative generalization of a book title, that encourages a certain short hand, what can we assume Sowell is really saying? Seems to me he is claiming there is a dominant school of "thought" within the intelligentsia that allows us to speak against "the [dominant] intellectuals" (and not only because that dominant school considers itself the real, serious "intellectuals"), even when, more generally, we are intellectuals ourselves. I would go further and say that it is not just a dominant school of political or economic "thought", but at root a dominant religious sensibility that Sowell is targeting.

And consider for a moment the kind of personal experience that turns an intellectual into a critic of "intellectuals". I think it's Shelby Steele who jokes that all the African-American conservatives can have their convention in a telephone booth: Steele, Sowell, and that other guy.
IIRC, Sowell began his academic life as a typical 60s radical before going through some kind of conversion, becoming a student of Milton Friedman and hence forevermore being cast by many a Black and/or leftist academic as a traitor/pariah/sell out. In the struggle to come to terms with that, i expect one is inevitably forced to justify oneself to oneself as an outsider/outcast from the dominant orthodoxy. Hence, my friends and I against the "intellectuals".

Well holy shit Dr. Sowell.

-but Sowell is not trying to impress anyone with his common sense observation; he is merely pointing out that the dominant political economic ideology, i.e. the left-liberal plaint that society is always becoming more economically polarized, is based on a form of statistical analysis whose alleged "reality" is a mere artefact of shabby method.

Speaking of running a war in a shitty manner, guess which intellectuals are not fingered? Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, and the other intellectual foreign policy geniuses who helped craft the Bush policies.

-Sowell writes a lot of columns; I bet if you search through them you will find some criticism of Bush's "intellectuals" (not a tag I'm sure I'd put on Rice); for all I know he might even argue that even such intellectuals are problematic to the conduct of a realistic war policy.

There may be intellectuals of every persuasion. But in the United States, indeed in the Western world more generally, a large majority of (academic) intellectuals are of a Gnostic religious stripe. This is the justifiable basis for Sowell's gripes about "the intellectuals", though I'm not sure that's how he sees it. Anyway, if you really want to grapple with this assertion, perhaps you risk becoming an intellectual outsider too - should you discover it is a well-founded assertion - and is that perhaps why you are so heated about Sowell? Sober consideration of the critique of Gnosticism formulated by Eric Voegelin, the granddaddy of 20thC American intellectual conservatism, would likely force you to ask whether Voegelin is really right that the modern intellectual world is a dangerous disaster characterized by a widespread Gnostic refusal to accept the structure of human existence. (See the New Science of Politics).

Anonymous said...

My beef with Sowell is that is use of the term ‘intellectual’ is incoherent. He defines quite clearly what he means by ‘intellectual’ at abut 1:30 (“people whose end products are ideas”). Except this initial definition is largely ignored. Throughout the rest of the conversation ‘intellectual’ is a stand-in for ‘intellectuals to the left of me.’ Sowell then gets to deal with this amorphous blob of ‘intellectuals’ as if it is a coherent entity. A brief reflection on the evidence he presents, however, reveals that treating the group as such is a useless exercise. The divisions between centrist and liberal and leftist intellectuals make it so we can’t really say much about the tendencies of this group as a whole. Hence we can blame them for both war and peace, which Sowell does. If you’re going to write a book about intellectuals and put yourself out there as an expert on this group then the core concept should make sense. Sowell’s use of the word is so loose it is meaningless.

If Sowell wants to have a discussion about dominant schools of thought and persuasions within the intelligentsia, then he should do just that. I’m not going to do him any favours and assume that argument for him. Defining dominant trends would force him to explicitly state the ideological underpinnings of his argument. By leaving the entire subject undefined the reader/listener gets to interpret things however he wants. This is acceptable if you’ve already bought into a specific world-view, but if you haven’t been drinking the cool-aid the entire move is just lazy.

You seem to be reading Sowell’s work in the context of Voegelin. Sowell should be able to stand on his own. If he wants to build on Voegelin, let him do so. Sowell was asked straight-out by Robinson what he meant by intellectual and I heard mention of neither Voegelin nor Gnosticism. If I was a member of the privileged few that possessed elite knowledge of Voegelin, then perhaps I would understand that ‘intellectual’ is a code-word that refers to modern intellectual Gnostics. But I'm not.

On the empirical claim, Sowell didn’t attack Krugman’s statistical method. He presented evidence that suggests a counter-reading of economic polarization. To some extent it is common sense: people do earn more over their career span. People get richer. Except this is one of those common sense observations that is both banal and intellectually unsatisfying. We should be able to make some judgements about how certain economic structures are performing. I’m not certain Krugman has the best measure, but intuitively I want to know if the real income of the ‘average guy’ is better than it would be under an alternative system. So we can look at the real income of the median income earner over time in different systems. Sowell doesn’t appear to want to grapple with these issues. So we get this appeal to a ‘common sense’ measure that sounds smart but illuminates nothing.

As an after thought, I think I’ve met you briefly at a seminar. Years ago. On the work of Gans. So you run a blog that takes on intellectual subjects and you have sacrificed at least one weekend to pursuing engagement with intellectuals in the academy. Even if you have a day job that pays the bills, the blog and seminars are not stuff that non-intellectuals do. I’d encourage you not to get carried away in this practice of sneering at the term ‘intellectual.’ I know this has become popular with some conservative leaning intellectuals. It’s a mirror image of the way some leftist intellectuals sneered at those with ‘bourgeois’ pursuits and claimed to be the Vanguard of the Proletariat, connected with the people. Intellectuals shouldn’t do populism. It just doesn’t suit them. You can do battle with your ideological opponents without this false notion that you’re somehow outside of the pointy-headed brigade. I’ve seen your head. It is pointy.


maccusgermanis said...

To have yawned through the discussion of consequential knowledge, was to entirelly miss the point. To counter a percieved bias of Sowell's, na, offers even more evidence of the disastrous consequences of defering to a self supposed itellectual class. The discussion of consequential knowledge was the main attack of this interview upon itellectualism as an orthoxy, rather than an attribute of divergent and robust thought.

truepeers said...

Well, I may have a big, bald head but I'd say it's decidedly more round than pointy. And yet when I divide the world into two groups, I don't usually mean to favour the Puritans though Parliamentary - not judicial or governmental - supremacy is an article of my political belief. So maybe I can't see how roundy-pointy I truly am...

na, the problem with your position is that if you want to hoist Sowell on his own petard you have to do a bit of dance to avoid only using him to confirm his own argument. Why not see him as just another intellectual whose ideas cannot come close to fully grasping or differentiating reality? and hence when we begin to take those ideas a little too seriously as a political program, we become dangerous idolaters, as he himself suggests.

Anyway, I am perfectly happy to join you in criticizing dogmatic free marketeers, as just another specimen of dangerous intellectual (if all humanity can be seen as a danger to itself, then intellectuals surely cannot be absented from this same charge). But it must be noted that this free market dogmatism is nonetheless preferable to the dogmatism it conventionally takes to be its opposition: those who argue that the limits of the free market in providing for certain moral imperatives, like equality, justify it being corrected by some superior intellectual vision, i.e. by some small group of controllers. Free market dogmatism is at least a kind of dogmatic openness. The problem, as Eric Gans shows us, is that all human reality relies on forms of partial closure, on the sharing of discrete signs, so that there can be no such thing as a free market that is not politically bounded in some ways. To have a free market, we must first have the political conviction to defend such an idea and to set its limits.

Hence the denial of politics is, as you say na, a serious weakness (even if it is preferable to the Gnostic belief in some special elect knowledge that will, if ever allowed to control this world, somehow save us from ourselves). If there is one reason I have never had much interest in studying Milton Friedman seriously it is because I think he has little sense of the primacy of politics (and by extension, religion); i think we cannot seriously study economics as distinct from political economy. I think Sowell may well be target of a similar critique but I am hesitant to talk about a book i have not read, nor the care with which he may or may not formulate his arguments, based on the unavoidable limits of a 35 minute interview.

truepeers said...

In any case, if I were to attack Sowell for being too narrow in his economist's ideological preference for free markets, showing insufficient interest in how the political defense of free markets must be generated, thinking it is simply sufficient to criticize the left-liberal market-control wishers as "intellectuals", well then I can only say Sowell is making his point in showing the limits of an intellectual world that is divided up into disciplines that tend to understand their disciplines as discrete forms of technocratic expertise/knowledge.

If I, as a non-professional intellectual, have a preference for thinkers like Voegelin or Gans it's because they really are academic rebels who show little interest in conventional disciplinary boundaries and attempt a wholistic anthropology that by its very nature is not suited to the projects of any would-be technocratic controller. That's not to say they are dogmatic free marketeers for they both recognize the primacy of religio-political thought, to which economics is secondary. So they leave us with a vision of a need for vigorous political debate, one that entails an exchange of all members of any society that would maximize its freedom.

In this light, I much prefer the free market dogmatism of a Sowell - one that would deny intellectuals, like economists, have any use as would-be market leaders. I think he's right to suggest that professional economists have little sense of how markets work because if you are not daily trading in them you just can't have sophisticated intuitions about how they work - than the dogmatism of the Gnostic left. But yes, as the end of the day Sowell's vision is not complete, which is not to say it is useless. We must take much more seriously the political markets that must inevitably put some kind of limits around the economic market. But it is surely best if this political market is not controlled by intellectuals. Rather, for me an intellectual should aspire to test ideas operating within a political market with a wide membership; it should not be the intellectual's desire to lead that market. His role in it should be that of sober second thought that can in turn make its way back to the larger political market where non-intellectuals must play their part. Leadership properly belongs to those caught up in events because they are not caught up in an ivory tower.

truepeers said...

Re-reading my comments earlier today, i see these suffered from being written in a rush, without editing for clarity. Sorry, and if there is anything i can clarify...