Interviewing Thomas Sowell On Intellectualism
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!
All right, and right off the bat let me ask you about a quote that showed up at number 11 on the best The 40 Best Political Quotes Of 2009,
Intellectualism has become the readiness, willingness and ability to call dangerous things safe and safe things dangerous.
Now this is a common perception among a lot of people. Do you think there is any truth to it?
Oh, my God, yes. Just the material in Chapter Seven on Intellectuals and War — I mean the whole behavior of intellectuals in the 20’s and 30’s just set the stage for World War II. It almost set the stage for losing World War II. The notion that military deterrence is an arms race — well, if you can’t deter war, you’re going to have to fight a war or else surrender. Even if it is an arms race, the whole point is that if some country is threatening you, and you build up enough military deterrence, then they may not carry out the threat or if they do, you’re able to counter it.
But, to arm yourself when others are arming is an arms race — it does what intellectuals do so often. They preempt an issue rather than confront it.
What do you mean by that? They preempt an issue rather than confronting it?
They don’t make an argument based on facts, logic, history or statistics that military deterrence increases the danger of war. They simply preempt that: they assume, as if it’s an axiom, that building up your military defenses makes war more likely.
Since we’re talking about life and death, not just the life and death of individuals as serious as that is, but the life and death of a whole society — you know you have to be serious. You don’t just assert things as axioms and because all bright, good fellows believe it — that makes it true.
Do you think intellectuals come up with these ideas because they don’t have any accountability for them? They can put them out there and they’re never going to pay any price for being wrong?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, one of the biggest advantages of an economic market place is that people pay a price for being wrong. When the government steps in to protect them, you take that away and it’s simply a subsidy for irresponsibility.
Let me ask you about this, as well, as far as the intellectuals coming up with bad ideas. Do you think part of it comes from the fact that if they say the same thing everybody else is saying, then they’re not considered an intellectual in the first place? That they have to put something out there that’s novel, even if it’s a bad idea, to get attention?
A novel bad idea will probably do more for many people’s career than a good idea that everybody else already agrees on. Just this notion in academia of publish or perish — well, there is a certain merit to that. But like everything else, you can carry it to point of absurdity, which is where we are in a lot of fields.
If you’ve mastered the writings of William Shakespeare and convey that to the next generation, who have obviously not mastered it, you’re performing a valuable service. But, that’s not going to advance your academic career. You’ve got to come out with some new theory of Shakespeare. You’ve got to go through and show how there is gender bias or the secret gay message somewhere coded in Shakespeare or something. You’ve just got to come up with something.
Now in some fields, there is just so much out there to be discovered that it’s not a great handicap. But when you get down to English literature, it’s a different ballgame, and you’ve got to find something off the wall.
Now oftentimes intellectuals are extremely intelligent people. So, how do they end up not seeing that they’re coming up with so many bad ideas that work out so poorly?
Well, one of the advantages of high intelligence is the ability to rationalize. We can all make mistakes and again, if you don’t pay for those mistakes, there’s not really a strong reason to make a correction. In fact, to admit a mistake among intellectuals and moreso among politicians, will do you more damage than persisting in it.
Now, I want to read something you wrote in a column that many people who consider themselves to be intellectuals would certainly take issue with. Here’s the quote, “But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place.” Now if someone said to you, “Gosh, Thomas Sowell, I don’t think that’s true” what would you say?
I would say read the history of intellectuals in western democracies making it difficult for these democracies to arm themselves while the dictatorships were clearly arming themselves as fast as they possibly could. Of all the crack brained ideas to preserve peace that intellectuals had, almost all of them not only did not preserve peace, they made war more likely because they made war look more winnable to people on the other side. I mean to think that there was an international renunciation of war — well, isn’t that a lovely thought? But, just who is that going to deter?
Do you think we see a lot of that still today with the attitudes toward international law?
Oh, absolutely. I mean we’re doing nothing that is likely to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. If terrorists with nuclear weapons don’t focus your mind, nothing will. Yet, not only are we doing nothing, we’re doing elaborate, clever nothing. We’re going to the United Nations, we’re holding conferences. There are resolutions being passed. You know — a lot of busy work — none of which has the slightest chance of deterring Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Last question: a lot of people accuse conservatives of being anti-intellectual. Would you say, given the track record of intellectuals over the last century, that maybe there is a reason to be concerned about intellectuals?
Well, like so many things, this depends upon cleverness with words. Intellectuals, as I define them, are people whose end product or ideas may or may not exhibit intellectual standards. As the book points out, their cleverness can be used to evade those standards. So, when you’re against intellectuals as an occupational class, that’s one thing. But, it has nothing to do with being against intellectual standards or intellectual achievements. That confusion is one of the things that many intellectuals play on for all its worth.
I really appreciate the time.
Thanks very much.
Once again, Thomas Sowell’s new book is called, Intellectuals and Society