January 7, 2010


Donald B. Hawthorne

Thomas Sowell:

...It may seem strange that so many people of great intellect have said and done so many things whose consequences ranged from counterproductive to catastrophic. Yet it is not so surprising when we consider whether anybody has ever had the range of knowledge required to make the sweeping kinds of decisions that so many intellectuals are prone to make, especially when they pay no price for being wrong.

Intellectuals and their followers have often been overly impressed by the fact that intellectuals tend, on average, to have more knowledge than other individuals in their society. What they have overlooked is that intellectuals have far less knowledge than the total knowledge possessed by the millions of other people whom they disdain and whose decisions they seek to override.

We have had to learn the consequences of elite preemption the hard way — and many of us have yet to learn that lesson.

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Intellectuals should be differentiated from intelligent people whom do useful things,like scientists,physicians,inventors,and entrepeneurs.
Intellectuals are generally cloistered in a cozy world of academia,and can be found in such utterly useless "disciplines"as ethics,philosphy,criticism(of art and literature which they themselves can't produce)and political theorizing.
They don't operate in the real world,but unfortunately when they are listened to,they can totally screw up the real world.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 7, 2010 9:41 AM

Excellent points, Joe. So called intellectuals also suffer from a dearth of common sense, a prerequisite of which life in the real world requires. I worked primarily with academicians in medicine in my previous work life. For the most part, their social skills were appallingly lacking. It is a rare bird, indeed, who is a true intellectual, socially adept, and has common sense.

Posted by: MadMom at January 7, 2010 9:52 AM

Joe, if you read the entire two-part article by Sowell, available at townhall.com, you will see that he makes exactly that distinction.

Posted by: BobN at January 7, 2010 10:21 AM

Sowell is most certainly alluding to what FA Hayek described as the "Fatal Conceit" in his book on the "Errors of Socialism".


Like Sowell's piece, the book completely explains why central planners have the audacity to believe they can design comprehensive systems of any type that would be more equitable and efficient than what price signals accomplish automatically.

Since reading it, I have never been surprised when meeting anyone who falls into that trap. Executives, business owners, politicians, academics or whatever (including myself on occasion).

Posted by: Roland at January 7, 2010 10:40 AM

I was so lucky that when I took my degree in Criminal Justice at John Jay College,the professors were virtually all people who had spent many years actually in "hands on" occupations related to the subjects they taught.
I was able to learn a great deal-considering most of the students were in law enforcement or firefighting,it was a good milieu all the way around.

Posted by: joe bernstein at January 7, 2010 11:03 AM

"I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University." - William F. Buckley, Jr.

Most of my law professors were absolutely brilliant people who were completely out of touch with reality. While I respected their expertise, and many of them were well-meaning people, it became abundantly clear that most of them could not possibly have survived in the real world. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming about a world in which academics set public policy, then I realize that I already live in one.

Central planning is fatally flawed economic policy because only billions of individual actors have the nuanced first-hand knowledge of their own real needs and the needs of their own communities. Any top-down approach will leave a large portion of society out in the cold and reach an inefficient result by definition.

Posted by: Dan at January 7, 2010 12:22 PM

Here is a great interview with Sowell on the subject. He also has a new book called "Intellects and Society."


Posted by: Adam at January 7, 2010 3:25 PM
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