Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sowell's Intellectuals and Society

I really loved Sowell's latest book Intellectuals and Society. As I'm a big fan of Friederich Hayek, the application of his seminal insight about how the market effectively decentralizes decision making was really enjoyable. That is, Sowell notes that intellectuals don't know the essential information of parochial time and place that is so essential. It is easy to dismiss this knowledge because it tends to be pedestrian, not elegant or sophisticated. Yet there are so many different essential facts, the sum of this simple knowledge adds up to 100 times whatever is known by intellectuals like Paul Krugman or Ezra Klein, who pontificate on their industrial policies as if such details don't matter. Intellectuals have a tendency to dismiss this because they have often been the smartest person in the room growing up, and naturally assume this greater knowledge is also present when considering health care or energy policy, but it's just one of those insights that isn't obvious because they have always gotten an A+ on their term papers, which never actually were implemented.

The stupidity of government do-gooder regulators was really highlighted for me last weekend. My wife doesn't work, staying home with our 2 year-old Izzie. She would often go to our health club after our boys are at school, around 9 AM, where there is a childcare facility and she can have a leisurely workout. She found they needed help, and she knows people there, so she works there part time, around 4-hour shifts, while Izzie is in childcare. She enjoys the break from the kids, the adult comaraderie, and Izzie has fun playing with other kids in a room just down the hall from my wife. Yet last weekend OSHA, the US agency that 'regulates workplace safety' determined that this could not stand, because the health club's child care center was not licensed for such service (greater than 2 hours). Supposedly, they would need some extra-special licensed childcare, which would then be too expensive to the club. So, because some bureaucrat decided they would save workers from the evils of firm childcare, the health club loses out on my wife's cheap labor, my wife loses out on some quality no-kid/adult time, and Izzie loses out on playing with her snot-nosed buddies. Lose-lose-lose.

The New Republic's Alan Wolfe harshly reviewed the book, but precisely because he is the type of intellectual Sowell is criticizing. Indeed, he criticizes a couple of New Republic founders, so it surely hit home. Surely, Sowell makes generalizations that aren't always true (as if any generalization is always true), and even the really obtuse intellectuals had some neat insights, stylish prose, and witty ripostes. Yet net-net, I think Sowell is spot on. The contractor that can build houses on time and on budget, is so much more useful to society than any intellectuals with their trenchant insights on society. Yet, allowing them to interact in the market without top down direction is rarely considered optimal, as if that is like building a bridge without blueprints. It rarely occurs to them we need the government to get out of the way, as opposed to apply another top-down fix. Further, many of our big benefactors--Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller--are presented as Robber Barons by intellectuals, as if they were parasites and not wealth creators. Haiti and many other countries could use those kind of people.

He's one of those lucky writer who writes books basically full time, with paid assistants, and it shows, as the book reads well with appropriate examples (I wish I had a helper for my book!).


Anonymous said...

Smart intellectual argues that smart intellectuals are useless and counterproductive (not him, of course, he has simply achieved the only insight that intellectuals can achieve). Another smart intellectual agrees.

Janal said...

mebbee konyay west can dooo the feem slong, coz eee az alllreedie
an theyre shud bee a bbit were the brian of robocop getz smazhed , cox i luvved that in the movie were tha brian is smashzed

Eric Falkenstein said...

he's making a generalization, which means, 'most' not 'all', usually not always. To speak only about cases where all A are B, is to be really boring.

Anonymous said...

If Sowell were arguing that black people are "generally" stupid, you may have a point about "most" and "all."

But Sowell is making a stronger sort of "argument," one about the limits of intellectualism, and at the end of the day we discover that intellectuals who disagree with him are overreaching while those who agree with him are modest and humble plainfolk.

I don't see how to distinguish this from dressed-up tribalism. I suppose you could come up with some elaborate theoretical justification for your somewhat counterintuitive beliefs (Sowell writes books because somehow not everyone agrees with his plain and simple common sense, right?), but ya know, I'm just a simple man with simple values and I'm not sure I follow all that fancy book-learnin stuff Mr. PhD.

You know, I was thinking, there will be always be economists who are brave enough to say that most people are motivated by the pursuit of profit, and not by silly ideals like pursuit of truth and justice. Are these economists right? Who knows -- if they are right, then in all likelihood they're just trying to line their own pockets, so why should we trust them?

Oh yeah, that's right -- only "most" people are motivated by profit, not all. These economists just happen to be the only disinterested truth-seekers.

Michael Meyers said...


Good post... having worked many years in R&D [mainly on the "D" side] I saw first hand how becoming an "intellectual", i.e. getting a PhD, ruined many [NOT all!] people for productive work.


Anonymous said...

Great review Eric ... I agree with Sowell's thesis ... as a PhD from a top 10 institution I too often see us PhDs select models that have attrctive properties for our purpose versus the problem at hand.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like some people here are writing about Sowell without having read his books. I haven't read THIS one, but from 30 some odd others I recognize his theme.

I think he has in mind guys like the current POTUS, who just a few days ago betrayed his ignorance of the difference between liability and collision car insurance. After telling everyone that profits eat up overhead, last year. And who can't pronounce 'corpsman' correctly.