Economics is the most reductionist of the social sciences,
But the general caution is not to take parsimony too far, that humanity fully clothed in its psychology, sociality, and culture cuts too resplendent a figure to be dealt with
One scholar, however, who has repeatedly demonstrated the clarifying potential of thinking economically about issues as far from the field’s normal purview as affirmative action and ethnic conflict is Thomas Sowell. Sowell pulls this off because he has no embarrassment in recognizing that even where self-interest is tallied in terms of authority and prestige instead of dollars and cents, it is still a central spring of human action and hence of enormous explanatory force. He also brings to bear a breadth of historical knowledge that allows him to keep his arguments from seeming unduly schematic or artificially abstracted from reality’s rough and tumble. One comes away from reading Sowell with a sense of having encountered the kind of analytic incisiveness and depth that was practiced by the best thinkers of the Enlightenment, men like Adam Smith, or the triune authors of the
It goes without saying that a mental appetite like Sowell’s moves toward the treatment of capacious subjects, the big ideas of his latest work,
Although some of it covers ground already traversed in Sowell’s earlier
And here arises another pathology, the tendency of intellectuals to pontificate on all and sundry instead of sticking to the lasts of their ostensible specialties. On this topic, Sowell quotes a colleague of John Maynard Keynes:
He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from a few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases. (12)
Sowell defines what he means by an intellectual rather precisely. Intellectuals are people who deal primarily with ideas. They are thus to be distinguished from persons of intellect engaged with practical problems, a category that includes scientists, engineers, technicians, physicians, business executives, and the like. Such individuals have their ideas regularly tested by reality, often through very short feedback loops that register the most manifest consequences. Intellectuals, by contrast, are likelier to inhabit self-contained worlds of words, where cleverness trumps wisdom and independent minds find safety by running in herds.
The larger portion of
He doesn’t solely find the failings of intellectuals in the conclusions they tend to reach, but in their rhetorical stratagems as well. Fortified by an elite climate of opinion their own verbal artifice has contrived, intellectuals feel free to dismiss their critics as simple-minded, bigoted, or nostalgic for a foolishly idealized past—devices to avoid real argument and inconvenient facts. Far from being defenders of reasoned discourse, presumably their stock and trade, intellectuals do much to debase it.
Obviously, some intellectuals manage to escape these pitfalls. Sowell himself, for example, is one, as are a goodly number of other dissenters from what he calls “the vision of the anointed.” Even Lord Keynes, though a malefactor in many respects, has several animadversions against intellectual folly cited approvingly. Given the dysfunction of the intellectual realm and the perverse incentives and lack of anchoring that mark it, whence does this considerable intellectual counterculture—which Thomas Sowell adorns—derive? Under what conditions do intellectuals come to criticize the excesses of the intellectual vocation, or better yet, perform the larger task of inquiry productively? It’s a pity that there’s no real consideration of this question in
Would the answers, were they to come, simply be negative? Sowell contends that intellectuals have risen in influence as they’ve risen in number, a reflection of the growth in education, communications, literacy, and intellectual freedom. To what extent, if any, can or should these defining dimensions of modern life be curtailed? Or is the challenge a matter of tying intellectuals in some way more organically to the rest of the culture, whether in the marketplace or the sphere of worldly experience from which the intellectual career has become detached? It would be good to know the author’s thoughts.
Sowell contrasts the “vision of the anointed” with the “tragic vision,” one that finds the roots of human misfortune not in ill-designed institutions to be set aright by untrammeled reason, but in the inherent fallibilities of human nature only mitigated through painful, largely disaggregated, trial and error. Perhaps he hints that the true intellectual vocation, as much else, begins in a lack of presumption—with a Yin to temper the Yang or, to call upon Greek sagacity, with an urge to do no harm. It’s intriguing in this respect how Sowell describes “the right,” not as a particular set of doctrines, but as all those outlooks and interests opposed to “the left,” whose embrace of collectivism and egalitarianism is solidly doctrinaire. Sowell’s own camp, first and foremost, is known by what it’s against.
Sowell is a fiercely polemical writer, yet one whose clear, straightforward prose illumines everything it touches. He’s as honest and valuable an intellectual as America will ever produce. If the force of an example is needed to improve the breed, he’s it.