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Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and Society - Thomas Sowell This is a strange book. It's an intellectual speaking out against his profession. Sowell defines intellectuals as a people for whom ideas are the beginning and ending of their work. Tenured professors are the most ready example, but intellectuals can also be found outside academia. For example authors, commentators and public speakers who are paid to continue producing ideas. The key is that intellectuals need only continue to attract an audience for their ideas in order to remain relevant.This reliance on ideas insulates intellectuals in a way that is uncommon in almost any other profession, they are relieved of accountability. Intellectuals can be, and often are, completely wrong and, as long as they can maintain their audience, they are insulated from the negative consequences of their ideas. Intellectuals and Society is about the sources and rationalization of the ideas of intellectuals, the way their ideas are propagated, why they are so often wrong, and the effects of the ideas on the world.Sowell is a conservative and, not unexpectedly, his targets are liberals like Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Edmund Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, John Dewey and others. It may seem like an arbitrary or biased selection, but the reason for the focus on liberals comes down to a fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism. Despite the popular assumption that conservatives only want the status quo, both conservatives and liberals want change. The difference lies in the types of change each wants. Liberals favor change that centralizes and idealizes decision making and power while conservatives seek the type of change that distributes power and that values tradition over ideology.Liberals often assume that an individual or small group, knows better than the masses. First-hand experiences succumbs to prevailing notions. A concentration of knowledge is seen as being superior to distributed knowledge. Reason trumps experience. One-day-at-a-time rationalization wins over long-term and big picture thinking. Mundane knowledge is shunned for the specialized knowledge of elites. Sowell calls this the vision of the anointed.Historically, Sowell argues, that type of reform has a bad track record. There are undeniable successes, civil rights, for example, but the failures of mistaken intellectuals, as seen in the section on intellectuals and war, were often catastrophic. Sowell is thorough, insightful and, while nobody will accuse him of having a great sense of humor, he is convincing.