The Failure of the Intelligentsia

I know not whether any condition could be preferred to that of the man who involves himself in his own thoughts, and never suffers experience to shew him the vanity of speculation; for no sooner are notions reduced to practice, than tranquillity and confidence forsake the breast.—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 207

In my earlier post on Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, I looked at how the modern intelligentsia came into being. But that does not tell us why its activities are a problem. Sowell criticizes the rule of an ideological elite for two reasons: lack of verifiability and lack of accountability. An example of the former is the anti-market economic policy of Franklin Roosevelt, promoted by the theorists of his famous “Brain Trust.” Statistics fielded by Sowell show that their regulatory measures actually deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. Such profound errors in judgment have occurred not once but many times. The reason is that such people rely on “purely internal criteria.” They “become sealed off from feedback from the external world… and remain circular in their methods of validation.” A typical case is the banning of DDT in underdeveloped countries based on the untested scientific premises of environmentalist Rachel Carson, resulting in millions of otherwise preventable malaria deaths.

A lack of accountability can be seen in intellectuals’ unrealistic assessments of anti-Western political threats. Sowell discusses the widespread collaboration with Communist dictatorships and the ineffectual pacifist response to Hitler’s expansionism. In these cases too the result was greater human suffering and political regression. Counter-intuitive views are endemic to leftist thinking. In a recent textbook on El Salvador I find this bizarre, but typical, assertion: “One beneficial aspect of El Salvador’s long civil war was reduction in pesticide use by some coastal farms as cotton production declined. A downside of peace is that more land has been cleared for cultivation.” While politically fashionable issues like environmentalism may change (and often do), the social expectations remain predictably detached from the lives of ordinary people. It is  understandable that Sowell should be unimpressed with the achievements of the intelligentsia. Given the tremendous toll in prosperity, moral and intellectual integrity, and even lives, he asks: “Are whole societies to be put at risk for such vanities and conceits among a small segment of society?”

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