Intellectuals Step 'Off The Cliff,' Drag Rest Of Us Down


Smart people should make smart decisions. So why do the best and the brightest always seem to create more problems than they solve? This is not just an academic question, precisely because academics dominate the Obama administration and its approach to such key issues as health care and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Renowned economist Thomas Sowell argues that intellectuals have strong incentives to step out of their area of expertise and "off a cliff." Ultimately, everyday people pay the price when intellectuals and abstract concepts trump real-world specifics. Sowell explores these topics and more in a wide-ranging IBD interview regarding his latest book, "Intellectuals and Society."

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.

IBD: You say that most intellectuals believe in the "Vision of the Anointed." What does that mean?

Sowell: It's the theory that there is an elite group of people who are very knowledgeable and their knowledge should be used to guide the decisions of society. So they are not simply an elite in the sense that sinecurists might be an elite, but they are elite with an anointed role in the world. To put it uncharitably, as someone once said, "Born booted and spurred to ride mankind." Examples of that would not be hard to find in Washington, D.C.

IBD: Why shouldn't intellectuals make decisions for the rest of us?

Sowell: Because they don't know as much as the rest of us. It's one of those non sequiturs. They have more average knowledge than the average person in the limited sense in which knowledge is usually spoken of by intellectuals. But the knowledge that has consequences in the world includes vast amounts of knowledge that I call mundane knowledge and probably no one on earth has 1% of that knowledge. Yet that knowledge is consequential, and it includes knowledge that is in no way intellectually challenging but is nevertheless crucial.

Much more HERE

Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here

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