I just noticed that Thomas Sowell has a new book out called “Intellectuals and Society.” In a column in the Jewish World Review explaining the book, he argues that
Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas — the intellectuals — have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. …
But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals — not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.
Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by particular wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used. [People who created tangible things that flew or did not fly (in the example he gives of the Wright Brothers) rather than the intangible products of “intellectuals”]
He continues in a second article:
If there is any lesson in the history of ideas, it is that good intentions tell you nothing about the actual consequences. But intellectuals who generate ideas do not have to pay the consequences.
Academic intellectuals are shielded by the principles of academic freedom and journalists in democratic societies are shielded by the principle of freedom of the press. Seldom do those who produce or peddle dangerous, or even fatal, ideas have to pay a price, even in a loss of credibility.
He gives Rachel Carson as his first example, arguing that her crusade against DDT led to the resurgence of malaria. For his second example, he argues that Woodrow Wilson advocated changes for the sake of change in the aftermath of WWI, leading to the disastrous totalitarian regimes of WWII.
Intellectuals and their followers have often been overly impressed by the fact that intellectuals tend, on average, to have more knowledge than other individuals in their society. What they have overlooked is that intellectuals have far less knowledge than the total knowledge possessed by the millions of other people whom they disdain and whose decisions they seek to override.
What do you all think of his argument? It seems to me like Sowell is at once giving intellectuals more power than they actually had (Wilson did not create self-determination in a vacuum, absent the desires of those elasticities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Ottoman Empire was not carved up just because he said so) and then criticizing them for the outcomes. He also seems to think that Wilson is generally praised for his efforts; that isn’t the case in the history I study.
Some of his arguments remind me of those who criticized American and Western European communists in the 1950s and later. The ideas they played with were much too dangerous.
Do you have a sense of how influential Sowell is these days? I have the impression that a few years ago, he was a major presence. Is he still?