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Intellectuals and Societyby Thomas Sowell
Synopses & Reviews
The influence of intellectuals is not only greater than in previous eras but also takes a very different form from that envisioned by those like Machiavelli and others who have wanted to directly influence rulers. It has not been by shaping the opinions or directing the actions of the holders of power that modern intellectuals have most influenced the course of events, but by shaping public opinion in ways that affect the actions of power holders in democratic societies, whether or not those power holders accept the general vision or the particular policies favored by intellectuals. Even government leaders with disdain or contempt for intellectuals have had to bend to the climate of opinion shaped by those intellectuals.
Intellectuals and Society not only examines the track record of intellectuals in the things they have advocated but also analyzes the incentives and constraints under which their views and visions have emerged. One of the most surprising aspects of this study is how often intellectuals have been proved not only wrong, but grossly and disastrously wrong in their prescriptions for the ills of society—and how little their views have changed in response to empirical evidence of the disasters entailed by those views.
Book News Annotation:
Sowell (Hoover Institution, Stanford U.) issues a right-wing jeremiad against the intelligentsia, the membership of which seems to primarily consist of academics, writers, etc. whose views he finds distasteful. If there is a core argument to the work, it is that intellect does not equal wisdom, that the ideas of intellectuals are not subjected to empirical verifiability, and that intellectuals wield an outsized influence on society that often leads to harmful outcomes (less so, he notes gratefully, in the United States than in Europe, although it is telling that he places the high point of US intellectuals' influence as being in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of greater left influence than later decades). However, this core argument appears to be less of a thesis to be proved than a hook upon which to hang a litany of complaints against ideas that he disagrees with in the realms of economics, social visions, the law, and war. With regards to these complaints, Sowell is frequently less than convincing, as he rarely treats the ideas of his opponents with even a semblance of seriousness. On the very first page, for instance, he argues that Marx's idea that labor is the source of all wealth is disproved because, "if this were true, countries with much labor and little technology or entrepreneurship would be more prosperous than countries with the reverse, when in fact it is blatantly obvious that the direct opposite is the case." This is such a laughably ridiculous distortion of Marx's theory of labor value that is hard to imagine that any thoughtful reader could possibly take it, or most of the rest of Sowell's similarly-styled arguments, seriously. Those on the right who merely want their political beliefs reinforced may find the work enjoyable however. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Sowell unravels the world of intellectuals in order to illustrate an important social phenomenon: how the thinkers of a society mold that society, leaving an impact on people in every walk of life, even if these thinkers are basically unknown to the world at large.
How intellectuals as a class affect modern societies by shaping the climate of opinion in which official policies develop—on issues ranging from economics to law to war and peace
About the Author
Thomas Sowell has taught economics at Cornell, UCLA, Amherst, and other academic institutions, and his Basic Economics has been translated into six languages. He is currently a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has published in both academic journals and in such popular media as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, and Fortune, and he writes a syndicated column that appears in newspapers across the country.
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History and Social Science » Economics » General