Intellectuals and Society

Very, very, very fascinating. Here’s the description of Thomas Sowell’s latest book Intellectuals and Society, from the front flap:

This is a study of how intellectuals as a class affect modern societies by shaping the climate of opinion in which official policies develop.

The thesis of Intellectuals and Society is that the influence of intellectuals is not only greater than in previous eras but also takes a very different form from that envisioned by those like Machiavelli and others who have wanted to directly influence rulers.

It has not been by shaping the opinions or directing the actions of the holders of power that modern intellectuals have most influenced the course of events, but by shaping public opinion in ways that affect the actions of power holders in democratic societies, whether or not those power holders accept the general vision or the particular policies favored by the intellectuals. Even government leaders with disdain or contempt for intellectuals have had to bend to the climate of opinion shaped by those intellectuals.

Intellectuals and Society not only examines the track record of intellectuals in the things they have advocated but also analyzes the incentives and constraints under which their views and visions have emerged.

One of the most surprising aspects of this study is how often intellectuals have been proved not only wrong, but grossly and disastrously wrong in their prescriptions for the ills of society — and how little their views have changed in response to empirical evidence of the disasters entailed by those views.

So intellectuals in modern times have been shaping society not by shaping rulers directly, but by shaping the climate in which their policies develop. This has largely been to society’s detriment because most of these intellectuals’ viewpoints have had a poor track record when put into practice — and yet these intellectuals refuse to change even on the basis of empirical evidence. This is both ironic and anti-intellectual.

The first paragraph of the preface goes on to flesh out a bit more why intellectuals have been able to exert such a large influence in this way:

There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When those who generate ideas, the intellectuals proper, are surrounded by a wide penumbra of those who disseminate those ideas — whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges, and other members of the intelligentsia — their influence on the course of social evolution can be considerable, or even crucial.

Sowell is one of my favorite authors, and I’m really looking forward to reading this book. What Sowell might not cover, but which just might be the story of the next 50 years, is the power the internet has to change this dynamic.

On the one hand, the internet can be another mechanism to disseminate bad ideas of misguided intellectuals. But on the other hand, the internet means that you don’t need to have a Ph.D. or a professorship to be an intellectual any more. You are an intellectual if you generate ideas. The web gives everyone the power to make known their ideas now, and to amplify their efforts on a large scale.

Granted, a lot of people do this poorly and simply end up generating and/or disseminating bad ideas. But if people with quality ideas step up and keep stepping up, we are no longer in a top-down world where the ideas of the intelligentsia will have the power they once did. Good, compelling, and true ideas from all sectors can make a greater difference as they are amplified by the power of the internet, thus counteracting the influence of the misguided intellectuals.

  • staffaction

    can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

    I was just reading Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit last night and found this relevant quotation:
    “One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realizes that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilization offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate any remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection…”