The Problem with Intellectuals, and Thomas Sowell

[Updated with additional discussion and context for Sowell interview on 06/11/2020]

A growing distaste for intellectuals as intellectuals is one of the things that subtly pushed me away from academia even as I moved further into its depths as a doctoral student. Moving into the private sector has given me a new perspective on that distaste and allowed me to better understand it.

The underlying cause of my unease, from what I can tell, is the pervasive belief–whether conscious or unconscious–that so many intellectuals and academics have that they know better. They believe, from some combination of a sense of altruism and awareness of their own intellect, that they have solutions for the problems of wider society, even when they have no substantial knowledge (to say nothing of expertise) in the areas in which they would problem-solve.

Most academics and intellectuals are not explicitly aware of this belief, but some are. One professor I had while at Cal State Northridge, who is an expert in his field and a very talented lecturer, expressed this very belief when we were discussing some extra-curricular reading I’d done (because this book would not likely be assigned in a Critical Theory course in an English Dept.) on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

I essentially said I thought Nozick’s fundamental claim was right–that the minimal State is the most most moral State and the free market is the best mechanism we have for creating wealth and minimizing poverty. He disagreed, saying that while the free market might be good as some things, he believed some people were intelligent and knowledgeable enough to create structures in which wealth could be more fairly distributed.

It was more than that, though: his implication was that certain people, people smart and enlightened like him, should be the ones to organize this re-distributive society. He was not so bold as to say explicitly “I know best” in so many words, but his meaning was clear enough.

I was a little taken aback in the moment at how blunt this claim was–and it so clearly ran counter to history. It often took a little time, but in literally every case when a carefully engineered economy was attempted, mass murder and starvation was the eventual result (think Soviet Union, Maoist China, etc.) At the time, I still considered myself a Marxist, albeit leaning more toward a quasi-Anarchist left-libertarian tradition, so I didn’t fully appreciate the danger of this claim. But make no mistake: it is a dangerous belief.

This academic sense of superiority seems innocuous enough from the outside. After all, many academics are content to continue their research undisturbed, fighting the good fight, such as it is, between the covers of academic journals, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear how pernicious it is: it robs people of their autonomy, their ability to decide for themselves what’s best. Even worse, perhaps, is it does this under the guise of altruism. “I’ll tell you how best to live your life because I care deeply about you,” this attitude says.

Thomas Sowell does an excellent job of taking apart these underlying beliefs in Intellectuals and SocietyCheck out this interview where he talks about the book:

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