Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Intellectuals and Society

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 29, 2015

The kind of society to which this leads is one in which a newborn baby enters the world with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day. It is hard to imagine anything more conducive to internal strife and a weakening of the bonds that hold a society together.

Thomas Sowell details the verbal virtuosity by which the left tries to avoid empirical evidence.

RecommendationRead now
AuthorThomas Sowell
Length402 pages
Book Rating8
Intellectuals and Society: The cover for Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society.; Eloi class; anointed, political elite; Sowellian; verbal virtuosity

When Sowell talks about intellectuals, he is specifically talking about people whose job is ideas. The specific kind of intellectuals he’s talking about in this book are those intellectuals whose ideas will not be tested in the real world. The way he defines intellectuals, attempting to mimic the general use of the term, is those idea-makers whose only feedback comes from other intellectuals, that is, other people whose ideas will not be tested in the real world.

The standards by which engineers and financiers are judged are external standards, beyond the realm of ideas and beyond the control of their peers. An engineer whose bridges or buildings collapse is ruined, as is a financier who goes broke… The same is true of scientists and athletic coaches.

For intellectuals, however, “There is no external test.” That is the critical difference between intellectuals and scientists, businessmen, architects, those people whose job is the creation of some product. The decisions of intellectuals are irrational in the sense that rational literally means weighing one thing against another. That is, rational ideas consider the trade-offs inherent in every solution. But the intelligentsia generally declare that their solutions have no trade-offs, or if they do, they are waved away as inconsequential.

For example, whenever gas prices soar there is a general consensus among intellectuals that this is because of outrageous salaries by oil company executives. But at the time this was published, in 2009, gas prices running over $2.50, and zoomed up to $4.00 in two years under the policies of the intelligentsia. Even assuming a magical world where oil company executives could be convinced to abandon their families, and every single oil company executive were to work for zero pay, gas prices would have been reduced to, at best, ten cents less.1

But there is no consensus among intellectuals for reducing the taxes on gasoline, even though they amount to far more than the salaries of executives—that is, that the “greed” of government is more than the “greed” of executives.

And pretty much no intellectual suggests opening up new oil reserves or encouraging new forms of extraction—in fact, they oppose such measures—even though this has brought gas prices to under $2.00. The last time I went out to get gas it was at $1.659.

Even seeing the evidence of what actions really can bring the price of gas down, the complaint of intellectuals is still about oil company executives making too much money, and also, how can we stop these new oil extraction methods?

The intelligentsia’s reaction to the fall of communism is a similar example.

The fact that the Reagan approach, which many among the intelligentsia saw as likely to lead to war, led instead to the end of the Cold War, while the Chamberlain approach that was supposed to lead to peace led instead to the biggest war in history, has made no dent on the vision of the anointed.

His thesis is that this is a very pernicious feedback loop which results in outrageous, clearly dangerous ideas passed off as (because there is a consensus among the intelligentsia) fact.

This pattern of behavior is dangerous to peaceful society. Czechoslovakian tanks were used to invade France, and French firearms were used to fight the Allies.

Intellectuals also like to talk about classes of people rather than individuals. For example, it is an article of faith that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in America. But the IRS keeps data on people as well as classes, and if you look at people, the amazing thing is just how upwardly mobile the lowest “classes” are.

  • Individuals in the bottom 20% saw their incomes rise 91% between 1996 and 2005.
  • Individuals in the top 5% and even the top 1% saw their incomes drop—the top 1% saw their incomes drop 50% in that time period.
  • 29% of individuals in the bottom 20% in 1975 had risen to the top 20% by 1991.
  • Over three-quarters of individuals in the bottom 20% in 1975 had risen to the top 40% by 1991.
  • And in fact, 95% of individuals in the bottom 20% in 1975 of incomes had risen to at least the middle 60% by 1991.

Intellectuals often decry a free market as a chaotic mess that cannot help people, but in fact, the free market is people making their own choices, and getting rid of it means not letting people make their own choices.

Despite the often expressed dichotomy between chaos and planning, what is called “planning” is the forcible suppression of millions of people’s plans by a government-imposed plan.

In fact, what we call “conservative”—free markets, individual autonomy—is quite radical in the historical context. Government control and its inevitable ills have been the vision of elite politicians throughout time.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economic crises. The 1929 stock market crash was ending—unemployment trending down, for example—until the government got involved.

While unemployment went up in the wake of the stock market crash, it never went as high as 10 percent for any month during the 12 months following that crash in October 1929. But the unemployment rate in the wake of subsequent government interventions in the economy never fell below 20 percent for any month over a period of 35 consecutive months.

Compare this to the 1987 market crash, and you might be forgiven for thinking what 1987 crash? Because while the 1987 crash was “similar in size” to the 1929 crash, it was not similar in duration.

The Reagan administration did nothing, despite outrage in the media at the government’s failure to act.… Reagan’s policy of letting the market recover on its own, far from leading to another Great Depression, led instead to one of the country’s longest periods of sustained economic growth, low unemployment and low inflation, lasting twenty years.

The intelligentsia also likes to take words and re-use them to redefine reality.

One of the many signs of verbal virtuosity among intellectuals is the repackaging of words to mean things that are not only different from, but sometimes the direct opposite of, their original meanings.

For example, back on the topic of choices by individuals (the free market), the intelligentsia likes to turn this around into businesses forcing individuals to make choices.

Thus business enterprises which expand the public’s options, either quantitatively (through lower prices) or qualitatively (through better products) are often spoken of as “controlling” the market, whenever this results in a high percentage of consumers choosing to purchase their particular products rather than the competing products of other enterprises.

If, at a given time, three quarters of the consumers prefer to buy the Acme brand of widgets to any other brand, then Acme Inc. will be said to “control” three-quarters of the market, even though consumers control 100 percent of the market since they can switch to another brand of widget tomorrow if someone else comes up with a better widget or stop buying widgets altogether if a new product comes along that makes widgets obsolete.

On the other hand, sometimes the intelligentsia stumbles onto perfect terminology. I doubt that a more apt term has ever been created by the intelligentsia for their own policies than the “moral disarmament” between World Wars I and II. The teachers union in France upended France’s teaching of history and patriotism, teaching children that France’s defending soldiers in WWI were mere victims of war, that if they had not taken part in the defense of their country there would have been no war, and that fighting in war was unequivocally wrong whether offensively or defensively.

Years later, during the Second World War, one of the alerts issued to French soldiers said, “Remember the Marne and Verdun!” But that was said to a generation that had been taught to see the Marne and Verdun not as historic sites of patriotic heroism by French soldiers but as places where soldiers on all sides had been victims alike.

France’s behavior in the Second World War was in extraordinary contrast with its behavior in the First World War. France fought off the German invaders for four long years during the First World War, despite suffering horrendous casualties… Yet, during the Second World War, France surrendered after just six weeks of fighting in 1940. In the bitter moment of defeat, the head of the teachers’ union was told: “You are partially responsible for the defeat.”

Hitler went to war against the advice of his generals, who looked at “the number and quality of military equipment available to France and its British allies versus those available to the German invaders” and concluded “that France had the greater prospects of victory.”

Decades later, scholarly studies in both France and Germany reached the same conclusion as that of French and German military leaders in 1940, that the objective military factors favored a French victory—and certainly nothing like the swift and total collapse that occurred.

Hitler recognized the effects of “moral disarmament” and overrode his generals’ advice.

Published in 2009 just as Barack Obama was entering the White House, the chapter titled “Intellectuals and War: Repeating History” was sadly prophetic. Being a citizen of the world who prioritizes summits and agreements over actual peace, who has no national patriotism nor national honor, means, in reality, war and bloodshed.

If President Obama had shared our national honor, he would not have abandoned Iraq; he would have used the same model as for Germany, Japan, Korea, and other nations we did not abandon. And if he had not abandoned Iraq, AQI would never have morphed into ISIS, and would never have used Iraq as a staging ground for attacks throughout the Middle East and the world.

In my list of books all politicians should read, I had Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed. I think I might replace that with this newer work, which goes into more detail about the kind of verbal evasions intellectuals use to avoid empirical verification of their ideas.

So much of our general political terminology has succumbed to the vision of the anointed. For example, our common conception of “left” and “right” is really just “left” and people who the left decides are evil. The fascists of World War II, with their wage and price controls, welfare states, and use of government schools, resembled communism far more than they resembled the American right. But communism—left—middle—right—fascist isn’t a graph of ideology but rather a graph of good vs. evil. The left views themselves as better than the mass in the middle. They view the right as more evil than the middle, and they view fascists—not fascism—as more evil yet, despite agreeing with them on most policy questions.

Ultimately this book is about the damage that intellectuals—defined pretty close to common usage—cause to a society. By empowering a political class that can ignore empirical evidence in favor of their own vision, we follow in the footsteps of failed societies of the past.

  1. In the real world, of course, as opposed to the fantasy realm, such drastic wage controls on executives are likely to result in higher, not lower, gas prices, as gas delivery becomes more unreliable and suppliers more scarce.

Intellectuals and Society

Thomas Sowell

Recommendation: Read now

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