Intellectuals and Society

If “social justice” is the work to ensure our human-made systems operate with greater fairness, then “cosmic justice” is the understanding that the universe results in countless unexpected obstacles to that goal.

At times these forces operate in competition, and to better understand the world, one must appreciate them both. That’s among the themes of Intellectuals & Society, a dense 2010 book written by conservative economist Thomas Sowell. The book is centrally a criticism of “intellectuals,” whom Sowell describes as those “dealers in ideas” who have never implemented any. By and large, he directs his ire on left-leaning academics, authors and commentators.

Sowell’s writing and speaking are frequently distributed on social media via the Hoover Institution and other right-leaning political efforts, so I was curious to dig deeper into his work. Harvard educated and associated with the conservative University of Chicago economics department (an acolyte of Milton Friedman), Sowell is himself is one of the more prominent conservative intellectuals.

The book has a few opinions that might be considered unsavory, and others that twist facts as much as he criticizes his political opponents of doing. For example, he rightly celebrates the good of a free market, but he seems unwilling to admit of any market failures — like, industry consolidation that eventually results in limited choice, or the concentration of inherited wealth that saps productivity.

But Sowell is serious and rigorous, so I follow him for his perspective. Like, John Stuart Mill wrote of those whose politics differ from your own, “know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

In particular, I appreciate two bits of criticism he lobs at the left. For one, years back I heard his challenge that progressives spend a lot of time working to redistribute wealth without pausing much to consider how that wealth is created in the first place. In my reporting, I’ve found that to be largely (if not entirely) true. Second, in this book in particular he introduces a framework between the “tragic vision” of the world, in which the world will always be messy, and the “vision of the anointed,” in which the world can be cleaned up. Sowell, who clearly identifies with the tragic vision, criticizes intellectuals as falling victim to the vision of anointed — forever trotting out some neat and clean idea to organize the world without ever caring much about how it works in practice.

I disagree with Sowell on lots of topics. But he is someone who challenges me in important ways. I respect him, so I would recommend his books, including this long and dense tome. Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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