Thomas Sowell on Intellectuals

Thomas Sowell is one of the most famous members of the Chicago School of economics. This school, though not super famous on its own, is immensely influential in both academic and policy circles. The layman might accurately conceptualize of the Chicago School as a respectable, mathematically rigorous and very idealistic alternative to Ayn Rand – small government, faith in markets, a deep suspicion of social engineering and love for all things supply side. The Chicago School and its representatives, like Sowell, can justly be described as the engineers of neo-liberalism and the dominant strain of right-wing economic policy from Reagan to Bush II.

In this video, Sowell criticizes intellectuals. I found his points interesting and thus thought it would be fun to go through them in a blog post.

Point 1: Intellectuals are people who create ideas, not stuff. Sowell describes this as a sort of escape from the market.

I suspect “escaping the market” does not seem like a great sin to many of you so allow me to explain exactly what Sowell means. The market, in Sowell’s mathematically precise and very idealistic conception, is the ultimate machine for making sure money talks and bullshit walks. This is good, the argument goes, because a person who invents a poor quality, expensive consumer item – say a dishwasher – will be punished by the market and his ideas will be shuttled off to the waste bin of history where they belong. On the other hand, the maker of a cheap and efficient dishwasher will be rewarded by the ultimate democratic process – consumers voting with their wallets. This is all generally true though far too idealistic to apply without a million caveats to field conditions.

So, if we accept the market as a “money talks, bullshit walks” machine, which it generally though not always is, we need to look at the second part of Sowell’s proposal and decide if intellectuals have somehow escaped the market. Sowell supports this argument by pointing out that intellectuals can and do propose ineffective and, worse, moral ideas that go out into the world and cause disasters. This is obviously true. He then argues that intellectuals escape the consequences of these horrible and/or moral ideas in ways a dishwasher manufacturer never could.

I’m not sure this is true in two ways. The first is that intellectuals often do end up going to jail or getting shot for their horrible and/or moral ideals, especially if they have the power to implement these ideas. Adolf Hitler, for example, ended up in a ditch on fire because he believed in a racially pure, egalitarian paradise of thoughtless automatons. Pol Pot died in prison, Marx was exiled and shunned a million times, Che Guevarra got a bullet for his troubles, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and ethnic cleanser par excellence Aung Sang Suu Kyi has, for the second time in her life, fallen into a military prison. I could go on.  

This is perhaps not entirely fair to Sowell, though, and I suspect he would argue that I’m failing to appreciate the fact that sillier intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Mattress Girl are able to peddle their utopian nonsense without every having to answer for their failings. This is true to an extent, but I think Sowell is failing to understand the market operates not just on washing machines but on fantasies as well.

Unless Sowell is going to argue the market is somehow not allowed to sell fantasy nonsense like Chomsky’s “against the power” ideas or Mattress Girl’s angsting about how being listened to means she can never be listened to, he has to admit that Chomsky and Mattress Girl are both competing in the marketplace of ideas/fantasies and that, regardless of how sloppy their ideas are, they do find customers.  

I don’ think we can accept the idea that intellectuals somehow escape the market, but I do think we can provisionally accept the idea that they produce ideas rather than physical goods. Even if I am not thrilled with that later position, we need to accept Sowell’s argument for the rest of the video to make sense.

Point 2: Sowell says that progressive intellectuals were the inventors of racism and sanctifiers of eugenics. He further says that it’s modern intellectuals who are pushing identitarian strife with their intersectional oppression theories.

Sowell is totally correct on both counts. Racism as we know it was invented by biologists (producers of ideas in Sowell’s definition) and social activists. The biologists were working in the interest of “scientific morality” and the social activists were trying to “reduce suffering.” Like almost all the worst things in human history, racism was a moral idea intended to bend humanity towards a “true paradise.”

Modern racial identitarianism is likewise mostly a creation and plaything of intellectuals who have fake-sounding jobs and write papers purporting to “advance a comparative, transnational account of how gender, race, ethnicity, class and nation align in practice to overcome insularity and particularism inherent to many extant intersectional theories,” whatever the hell that means. These are the same people who, at the 2019 Tokyo Conference of the World Education Research Association, spent entire presentations apologizing for their genders and ethnicities, proposing racial justice programs to remake entire education systems while admitting that they would do nothing to help the students’ material conditions and morally justifying their preferences to keep minority students out of the mainstream in order to preserve their ethnic purity. It’s almost impossible to say too many bad things about the Western academic-industrial-justice complex.[1]

That said, while the left is certainly guilty of starting this cycle of ethnic identitarianism, it was too incompetent to make ethnic identitarianism into a coherent strategy for getting elected. The most effective ethnic identitarians around now are working hard to ruin the Republican Party and empower the decidedly anti-capitalist little guys in declining cities and desperate situations all across the Midwest and Bible Belt.

Point 3: Sowell argues that modern intellectuals have taken the place of priests and dogmatists.

Sowell is absolutely correct. Feminism, “science” in the vein of Richard Dawkins and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, critical theory and economic circles like Sowell’s own Chicago School are effectively priests and religious organizations. They are filled with mysterious, otherworldly people who use arcane rituals and magical computer programs to divine the true essence and will of nature/justice/the universe/the market/whatever. And I do mean this literally. From the standpoint of the layman, global warming models, the mathematical structure of economic forecasts and the contents of a critical theory book are so impenetrable and obscure they are effectively magic.[2] Furthermore, like the priests and prophets of old, our new priests, Sowell included, use these secret and sacred tomes to accuse heretics or, as we call them now “science deniers.”  

This is not necessarily bad, incidentally. Most people seem to need religions and dogmas to escape the Nietzschean “death of god” and the Arendtian crisis of superfluity. I’ve never met anyone who was able to follow through on their atheism and live as a nihilist. At the very least, dogma and religion are superior to letting our millions of surplus, expendable citizens feel the full weight of their uselessness or, worse, smothering them to death with our “compassion.

Point 4: Sowell argues that intellectuals hit poor people with a double whammy. They are already suffering with poverty and the intellectuals pile on by encouraging them to see themselves as victims.   

Sowell makes good points here. “Compassionate” do-gooders are very prone to “forgiving” the downtrodden and telling them that “it’s okay to not be okay” etc. Justice is often construed as a quest to find and construct sacred victimhoods, and being a victim does legitimately make you more prone to racism, xenophobia, terrorism, violence, human rights violations and bloody self-destruction. Sowell is, in other words, correct to say the do-gooders glorify and sanctify a fundamentally corrupt and dishonorable state of being when they enable and praise victims.

He also is correct to criticize compassionate multi-culturalism for its tendency to tell people in ineffective and uncompetitive cultures to “embrace your heritage.” As someone whose life improved immensely by “betraying my heritage,” and as the child of two people who did the same, I can feel Sowell’s frustration with multi-cultural “compassion” very deeply.

That said, Sowell is once again playing loose and free with his own definition. Economists are, by the “producers of ideas, not things” definition, most certainly intellectuals, as are notably anti-victim mentality philosophers like Niccolo Machiavelli, Han Fei-tzu, Marcus Aurelius, and Mencius. Sowell is clearly using the term “intellectual” dishonestly by this point in his interview to mean “neo-Christian/Marxist intellectuals I don’t like.”    

Point 5: Do intellectuals ignore the creation of wealth in their zeal for distribution of wealth? As he says, “poverty is natural, the real question is how anyone got rich.”

Sowell is correct if we confine our analysis to the intellectuals who focus exclusively on moral matters.[3] Chomsky, for example, treats wealth like the natural condition of existence and injustice as the only reason a person might be poor. The same could be said for any group that wants “economic justice.” This is obviously wrong and poverty is, unquestionably, the default condition of humanity just like Sowell argues.

That said, Sowell makes a massive mistake when he assumes people primarily want to be rich for the sake of having material things. According to a great deal of research wealth is desirable to most people primarily because it marks their status in a hierarchy. If everyone drives a 20 year old, rusty Toyota, the owner of a 15 year old rusty Toyota is a rock star because, unlike wealth, status is zero sum and, as a consequence, more desirable.

Sowell also displays a shocking misunderstanding of the incentives poor people have. Considering that economists are supposed to be scientists of incentives, this borders on unforgivable. Let me explain.

If we assume that Milton was right and it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven (and the research backs this up), the poor can be described as serving in heaven in the context of the libertarian utopias Sowell and the Chicago School economists imagine. This means that at every single moment of every single day, the poor are incentivized to light the world on fire, destroy the rich and roll the dice for position in the next hierarchy, even if that hierarchy emerges in a poorer, more dangerous and less accomplished context.

Sowell describes this as being envious and then makes a moral argument against being envious. However, his moral argument against envy in the poor or melts away in the face of incentives just as surely and inevitably as the Marxist moral argument against capitalist selfishness melts away in the face of incentives.

This fundamental misunderstanding of wealth (which is nice but fundamentally less important) and status (which is immensely important) explains why Dr. Sowell’s beautiful mathematics so consistently describe small government paradises that never have and never will exist. In other words, Sowell is falling victim to justicey idealism nonsense and is just as far up the ivory tower as the intersectional oppression theorists I bump into at conferences.

Point 6: Sowell argues that capitalism creates uncountable sources of wealth and, as such, destroys the intellectual’s ability to create “grand narratives.”

This is an argument taken from Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and it’s very powerful. What Sowell refers to, and what Hayek made explicit, is the danger of allowing an idealist to turn the entirety of a society towards an “ultimate” goal. Stalin and Hitler – prominently on Hayek’s mind as he was writing in 1944 – were able to create such monstrously malformed societies because the leadership turned the entire weight of a country towards a single, ideological and/or moral goal. For Stalin, this was egalitarian revolution and for Hitler it was racial utopianism. In both cases, it allowed for near total moral clarity and the reduction of alternative ideas from “opposition” to “heresy.” This could never happen, Hayek argues, if the dictator did not first disassemble the free market.

The reason for this is that the market acts like a moral relativism machine. A pencil is worth $1 for the simple reason that millions or billions of people have voted with their wallets in a capitalist system. That Honda Civics continue to be produced but Lada 210s do not is, in a capitalist market, a reflection of the desires of the entire global population of car buyers. Like Sowell argues, the sources of these success stories include Japanese businessmen, people in Silicon Valley who work laying down on bean bags and little old ladies with killer recipes for maple syrup. Getting all these producers – not to mention the even more numerous consumers – to act in concert for a moral goal is utterly impossible. For this reason, the moral idealist or dictator must eliminate the relativistic and ultra-democratic market before he or she focuses everything on racial purity or equality or whatever the next passing moral fad ends up being. Sowell’s point here is very strong.

Point 7: If the market destroys grand narratives, does variability destroy intellectualism or merely dogmatism? Is the market’s inherent relativism poison to ” ideas” as a whole or merely overarching moral nonsense like libertarianism or social justice?

This is another area where I think Sowell is being dishonest. Even Milton Friedman admitted that market policies were competing in a marketplace of ideas against alternatives like socialism and nanny-state capitalism. Even the postulation, borrowed from Hayek and restated by Sowell, that we ought to value the moral relativist qualities of the market, is an idea. A person can and should be allowed, in the context of “freedom” ideologies like Sowell’s, to prefer moral absolutism. If we like capitalism because it allows everyone to vote with their wallets, we need to accept the fact that some of them, and sometimes a majority of them, will vote for socialism.

Point 8: Do intellectuals ignore strategies to help the economically “oppressed” improve themselves? Do they wish to prevent the oppressed from taking part in non-oppressed cultural traditions and thus ridding themselves of oppression?

Anecdotally, this seems true to me. There is much focus on “reduced suffering” and “proud heritages” on the part of smug, comfortable people towards folks whose cultural heritages and attempts to escape suffering will certainly doom them to eternal underclass membership. At the World Education Research Association 2019 Tokyo Conference, for example, I listened to presentations about how to keep black Brazilians from “selling out” to the mainstream culture – complete with the explicit admission that doing so will NOT help the young people achieve material goals – and a group of Australian researchers who were frustrated that aboriginal juvenile delinquents were less interested in tribal canoe building than learning how to manage bank accounts or get drivers’ licenses.

However, Sowell is wrong to ascribe this mostly or entirely to left wing intellectuals. Libertarian solutions to poverty are striking for their ineffectiveness. Sowell, a veteran himself, also ought to know from personal experience that government programs – especially the ones that are not “compassionate” – are the most effective means of lifting people out of their “proud” heritages and generational poverty. The military, public-works schemes and the movement of people are, historically, extremely effective anti-poverty measures and they all require government interference. If only Sowell was as tough on right wing idealism as he is on left-wing idealism.

Point 9: Are intellectuals against testing their hypotheses? Is the ego-stake of being for social justice or saving the environment too powerful to risk on testing?

Perhaps the most interesting point that Sowell mentions is this idea of “ego stakes.” By this he means that the intellectual, when producing an idea, invests a great deal of ego into the success of the idea. The idea becomes part of the intellectual’s self-esteem and damage to the idea becomes a personal insult. I’m sure this is true, and I have seen this in action, but I don’t understand how Sowell thinks such problems are not equally applicable to Chicago School economists.

If you’re interested in more Thomas Sowell material, here’s a link to his YouTube Page.


[1] The equivalent groups in East Asia are so far superior it boggles the imagination. Where Western academic justice people apologize for existing and “prepare us for societies that cannot exist,” East Asian academic research generally focuses on things like “how to improve student participation” and “how to improve the readiness of graduates to participate in the workplace.”

[2] I’ve spent the last 3 years reading both modern and ancient sacred tomes. Once you translate them into recognizably human languages, you’ll find many are gibberish. In this as well, the modern and ancient priests share much.

[3] This is a fancy way of saying “bullshitty intellectuals.”

6 comments

  1. Ben,
    On Sowell’s “escape from the market” idea, it seems to me that one way intellectuals may gain higher status for their services (which like goods, I consider something marketable), is through obfuscation. In the following short post Eric Schwitzgebel presents what he considers three illegitimate ways that intellectuals are able to advance their status by means of vagueness. I think he nailed it! The focus is on philosophy, though I think it applies to intellectual proposals in general. I suspect Sowell would agree. https://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/10/obfuscatory-philosophy-as-intellectual.html?m=0

    1. Schwitzgebel is almost exactly describing 99.9% of anything we’d call critical theory or Frankfurt School. And he nailed the incentives as well.

  2. it is indeed an interesting interview. tx for passing it along to us

    1. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Awesome review! I love Thomas Sowell’s work and he makes such great points!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. ^-^

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