Whenever you hear the phrase “ideas have consequences,” be skeptical. It’s basically a shorthand, designed to conceal the fact that the writer is about to invent his own, fanciful set of consequences for a wholly innocuous set of ideas. So it goes with Thomas Sowell’s new book, Intellectuals and Society, heralded as one of the year’s “hottest conservative titles.” Tragically, Sowell saw fit to blog his book’s thesis, thus depriving us of the pleasure of having to read his tome before commenting on it. Ah well.
On trial in Sowell’s book is nothing less than the entire corpus of knowledge earned during the twentieth century, accused of, quite simply, destroying the century. It’s the kind of affair that would make Q smile.
Naturally the villains, though, are the producers of ideas — the “intellectuals,” a caste of effete liberals who’ve never done a damn bit of good in their sorry lives. Now hold, you may say. Technology cleans our water, protects us from disease, and prolongs our lives. These inventions, and their “intellectual” creators, can’t be naturally evil. True. But technology is a product of ideas, not an idea itself. Ideas are evil, as are their creators and their consequences; their intended physical products, however, are not. Only one who thinks towards a concrete, tangible goal can avoid being reckless, or indeed evil, by generating useless ideas.
All these people [twentieth century engineers] produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.
Yes; Thomas Sowell’s “hot conservative title” is an argument against thought for its own sake, be it art, philosophy, or even (one imagines) music, because the consequences of such reckless thinking are unpredictable.
What makes someone write a book like this? We’ve long acknowledged, candidly, that ideas can be dangerous, but the answer has always been (and should always be) temperance and trust. Sowell takes this modern lesson and extracts from it an unresolvable class warfare, between those who keep to themselves, dependent presumably on “common sense,” and those who invent, for better or worse. Is it just anti-elitism run amok? Surely his argument for intellectual complacency deserves NRO’s “conservative” appellation, at least by one definition of the word, but there’s a line between “standing athwart history,” and actively pushing humanity back into the past.