Daniel W. Drezner

Intellectual says really stupid thing to prove point about intellectuals: film at 11

Thomas Sowell has a new book out called Intellectuals and Society (here’s a precis from his National Review essay on the topic from January). It sounds like a remix of Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, mixed with Hayek’s "The Intellectuals and Socialism."  Those are pretty good source materials. And as someone who occasionally writes about ...

Thomas Sowell has a new book out called Intellectuals and Society (here’s a precis from his National Review essay on the topic from January). It sounds like a remix of Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, mixed with Hayek’s "The Intellectuals and Socialism."  Those are pretty good source materials. And as someone who occasionally writes about this topic, I’m always intrigued by new arguments on this topic.

Sowell recently gave an interview to Investor’s Business Daily that’s worth excerpting, however:

IBD: How do you define intellectuals?

Sowell: I define intellectuals as persons whose occupations begin and end with ideas. I distinguish between intellectuals and other people who may have ideas but whose ideas end up producing some good or service, something that whether it’s working or not working can be determined by third parties.

With intellectuals, one of the crucial factors is their work is largely judged by peer consensus, so it doesn’t matter if their ideas work in the real world.

IBD: What incentives and constraints do intellectuals face?

Sowell: One of the incentives is that, to the extent that intellectuals stay in their specialty, they have little to gain in terms of either prestige or influence on events. Say, an authority in ancient Mayan civilization just writes about ancient Mayan civilization, then only other specialists in ancient Mayan civilization will know what he is talking about or even be aware of him.

So intellectuals have every incentive to go beyond their area of expertise and competence. But stepping beyond your area of competence is like stepping off a cliff — you may be a genius within that area, but an idiot outside it.

As far as the constraints, since their main constraint is peer consensus — that’s a very weak constraint on the profession as a whole. Because what the peers believe as a group becomes the test of any new idea that comes along as to whether it’s plausible or not.

I’m pretty sure that Sowell’s answers contradict each other. If the primary means through which intellectuals assess their value is through peer assessment, then why is peer assessment such a weak constraint on intellectual activity?

Methinks Sowell is underestimating both the power of academic culture and the ways in which the marketplace of ideas has become more competitive. But this is certainly good fodder for debate.

What really caught my eye, however, was this section:

IBD: You say that intellectuals during Hitler’s rise subordinated the mundane specifics of the nature of the German government to abstract principles about abstract nations, by which you meant the idea espoused at the time that "nations should be equal" and thus Germany had a right to rearm. Does that description apply to the Obama administration’s approach to Iran?

Sowell: I hadn’t thought of it, but it certainly does. In fact, there are other people who have said, "Some countries have nuclear weapons, why shouldn’t other countries have nuclear weapons?" And they say it with an utter disregard for the nature of the countries and what those countries have been demonstrably doing for years and show every intention of doing in the future.

IBD: Do you think also that the Obama administration has abstract notions that you can negotiate with Iran the same way you can negotiate with, say, Australia?

Sowell: Oh, yes. And the question is not whether you should negotiate. We negotiate with all kinds of countries. The question is whether we think negotiations will be at all effective in carrying out what we want to do.

Give Sowell credit — it’s clear that he really hasn’t thought about the question. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Obama administraion’s Iran policy would be hard-pressed to characterize it as tolerant of Iran’s right to arm itself with nuclear weapons. As Robert Kagan recently pointed out in FP:

Republicans may complain, along with many Democrats, that the administration has been too slow to support the Iranian opposition and took too long to pivot to sanctions. Yet some also realize that Obama’s prolonged effort at engagement accomplished what George W. Bush never could: convincing most of the world, and most Democrats, that Iran is uninterested in any deal that threatens its nuclear weapons program. As a result, France, Britain, and even Germany appear more determined than at any time in the past decade to impose meaningful sanctions. A majority of Republicans, along with most Democrats, will support the administration as it toughens its approach to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now calls the "military dictatorship" in Tehran.

In other words, the Obama administration’s actual policy towards Iran bears no resemblance whatsoever to Sowell’s characterization of it.

One should not be completely surprised by this; Sowell is an economist by training and should not be expected to know much about American foreign policy, as it’s beyond his area of expertise. I do find it a little rich, however, that Sowell has written a book complaining about what happens when intellectuals leave their knowledge reservation to opine about events of the day — and then proceeds to commit that precise sin during his book promotion.

There are two possibilities here. Either Sowell has no capacity for irony, or he’s cleverly trying to add data points to support his argument.

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