Intellectuals and Society

Revised and Expanded Edition


By Thomas Sowell

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The influence of intellectuals is not only greater than in previous eras but also takes a very different form from that envisioned by those like Machiavelli and others who have wanted to directly influence rulers. It has not been by shaping the opinions or directing the actions of the holders of power that modern intellectuals have most influenced the course of events, but by shaping public opinion in ways that affect the actions of power holders in democratic societies, whether or not those power holders accept the general vision or the particular policies favored by intellectuals. Even government leaders with disdain or contempt for intellectuals have had to bend to the climate of opinion shaped by those intellectuals.

Intellectuals and Society not only examines the track record of intellectuals in the things they have advocated but also analyzes the incentives and constraints under which their views and visions have emerged. One of the most surprising aspects of this study is how often intellectuals have been proved not only wrong, but grossly and disastrously wrong in their prescriptions for the ills of society — and how little their views have changed in response to empirical evidence of the disasters entailed by those views.


This extensively revised and greatly enlarged edition of Intellectuals and Society contains not only four new chapters on intellectuals and race but also additions, revisions and reorganizations of other chapters. The new material includes a critique of John Rawls' conception of justice and a re-examination of what has been called the "trickle-down theory" behind "tax cuts for the rich." Yet the basic themes and structure of this book remain, and are strengthened by the new material and its implications. This will become especially apparent in the much revised final section, summarizing the main themes of the book.
There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society than the era in which we live. When those who generate ideas, the intellectuals proper, are surrounded by a wide penumbra of those who disseminate those ideas—whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges, and other members of the intelligentsia—their influence on the course of social evolution can be considerable, or even crucial. That influence has of course depended on the surrounding circumstances, including how free intellectuals have been to propagate their own ideas, rather than being instruments of state propaganda, as in totalitarian countries.
There would of course be little point in studying the ideas expressed by prominent writers like Ilya Ehrenburg during the era of the Soviet Union, for these were simply the ideas permitted or advocated by the Soviet dictatorship. In short, the study of the influence of intellectuals is here a study of their influence where they have been freest to exert that influence, namely in modern democratic nations.
For very different reasons, this study of patterns among intellectuals will pay less attention to such an intellectual giant as Milton Friedman as to any number of intellectuals of lesser eminence, simply because Professor Friedman was in many ways very atypical of the intellectuals of his time, both in his scholarly work that won him a Nobel Prize and in his work as a popular commentator on issues of the day. A "balanced" general intellectual history of our times would have to give Professor Friedman a far larger amount of attention than a study which focuses on general patterns, to which he was an outstanding exception. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was another landmark figure in the intellectual, moral and political history of his age who was likewise too atypical of contemporary intellectuals to be included in a study of the general patterns of the profession.
Because this is a study of patterns, it is not confined to contemporary intellectuals but includes patterns that have, in many cases, existed among the intelligentsia for at least two centuries. Because it is a study of general patterns, it does not attempt to account for "every sparrow's fall." Nor is it simply a series of critiques of particular intellectuals or particular issues, though one cannot critique a pattern of thinking without examining concrete examples of that thinking.
In this context, the purpose of discussing the Iraq wars or the war in Vietnam, for example, is not to determine the wisdom or unwisdom of Americans becoming involved in those wars, but to understand the role of intellectuals in relation to those wars. Similarly, the purpose of discussing The Bell Curve is not to determine the merits or demerits of The Bell Curve itself—something I have written about elsewherea—but to show the implications of the intellectuals' contentions regarding that book, neither of whose authors has been sufficiently typical of the patterns found among intellectuals to make The Bell Curve itself the main focus.
Many books have been written about intellectuals. Some take in-depth looks at particular prominent figures, Paul Johnson's Intellectuals being an especially incisive example. Other books on intellectuals seek general patterns, Ideology and the Ideologists by Lewis S. Feuer being a very thoughtful and insightful example of this approach. Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals is about those intellectuals who directly address the public, while the focus in Intellectuals and Society is on intellectuals who influence—sometimes shape—public attitudes and beliefs, whether or not they are widely read by the population at large. As J.A. Schumpeter said, "there are many Keynesians and Marxians who have never read a line of Keynes or Marx."1 They have gotten their ideas second- or third-hand from the intelligentsia. Many school teachers may not have read anything by John Dewey, and yet their whole approach to education may reflect a vision and an agenda formulated a century ago by Dewey, and permeating schools of education today.
Among the many things said by those who have studied intellectuals, a comment by Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University in his book The Reckless Mind is especially striking:
Distinguished professors, gifted poets, and influential journalists summoned their talents to convince all who would listen that modern tyrants were liberators and that their unconscionable crimes were noble, when seen in the proper perspective. Whoever takes it upon himself to write an honest intellectual history of twentieth-century Europe will need a strong stomach.
But he will need something more. He will need to overcome his disgust long enough to ponder the roots of this strange and puzzling phenomenon.2
While Intellectuals and Society is not an intellectual history of twentieth-century Europe—that would be a much larger project for someone much younger—it does attempt to unravel some of the puzzling phenomena in the world of the intellectuals, as that world impacts society at large. Rather than simply generalizing from the writings or behavior of particular intellectuals, this book will analyze both the vision and the incentives and constraints behind the general patterns found among members of the intelligentsia, past and present, as well as what they have said and its impact on the societies in which they said it.
Although we already know much about the biographies or ideologies of particular prominent intellectuals, systematic analyses of the nature and role of intellectuals as a group in society are much less common. This book seeks to develop such an analysis and to explore its implications for the direction in which the intelligentsia are taking our society and Western civilization in general.
Although this book is about intellectuals, it is not written for intellectuals. Its purpose is to achieve an understanding of an important social phenomenon and to share that understanding with those who wish to share it, in whatever walk of life they might be. Those among the intelligentsia who are looking for points to score or things at which to take umbrage will be left to their own devices.b This book is written for those readers who are willing to join with me in a search for some understanding of a distinct segment of the population whose activities can have, and have had, momentous implications for nations and civilizations.
While some studies of intellectual history, and especially studies of ideological differences, seek to explain conflicting social visions by differing "value premises" among those on opposing sides of various issues, Intellectuals and Society seeks instead to explain ideological differences by differing underlying assumptions about the facts of life, the nature of human beings and the nature and distribution of knowledge.
Ideological differences based on differing value premises are ultimately differing tastes, on which there is said to be no disputing. But differences based on beliefs about facts, causation, human nature, and the character and distribution of knowledge, are ultimately questions about different perceptions of the real world, leading to hypotheses which can be tested empirically.
Beliefs about facts and causation can change—sometimes suddenly—in the wake of new empirical evidence or a new analysis. The long history of large and sweeping changes in individuals' ideological positions—sometimes rather abruptly, like "road to Damascus" conversions—seems far more consistent with discovering that the facts about the world are very different from what had been initially assumed, sometimes as a result of some dramatic event such as the French Revolution or the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and sometimes as a result of a more gradual or more personal unfolding of events inconsistent with expectations based on an existing ideological vision. Such changes apply far beyond intellectuals, and have been captured in such phrases as "radicals in their twenties and conservatives in their forties." But intellectuals have left us concrete records of their changes in ideological orientations and those records are worth exploring.
A remarkable and moving record of such personal changes was a book written long ago, titled The God That Failed. It chronicled various intellectuals' breaks with communism, which captured the essence of a process that has applied far more widely, over many centuries, to many visions of the world, both secular and religious, which have been abandoned in the light of experience, and often more rapidly than one is likely to abandon what one fundamentally values. Those who saw Marxism as the way to improve the lot of the poor, for example, may come to see other paths to that goal as more promising, without having changed the goal at all or the value premises behind that goal. For our purposes—trying to understand general patterns of beliefs and tactics among intellectuals—the validity of their assumptions and the consequences of their conclusions are things we can test, in a way that we cannot test opaque value premises. We can also observe the consequences of the prevailing views among intellectuals on the larger society around them, often with dismay.
Thomas Sowell
Hoover Institution
Stanford University


Chapter 1
Intellect and Intellectuals
Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.
Alfred North Whitehead1
Intellect is not wisdom. There can be "unwise intellect," as Thomas Carlyle characterized the thinking of Harriet Taylor,2 the friend and later wife of John Stuart Mill. Sheer brainpower—intellect, the capacity to grasp and manipulate complex concepts and ideas—can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions, in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious theories constructed by the intellect.
Brilliance—even genius—is no guarantee that consequential factors have not been left out or misconceived. Karl Marx's Capital was a classic example of an intellectually masterful elaboration of a fundamental misconception—in this case, the notion that "labor," the physical handling of the materials and instruments of production, is the real source of wealth. Obviously, if this were true, countries with much labor and little technology or entrepreneurship would be more prosperous than countries with the reverse, when in fact it is blatantly obvious that the direct opposite is the case. Similarly with John Rawls' elaborate and ingenious A Theory of Justice, in which justice becomes categorically more important than any other social consideration. But, obviously, if any two things have any value at all, one cannot be categorically more valuable than the other. A diamond may be worth far more than a penny, but enough pennies will be worth more than any diamond.


The capacity to grasp and manipulate complex ideas is enough to define intellect but not enough to encompass intelligence, which involves combining intellect with judgment and care in selecting relevant explanatory factors and in establishing empirical tests of any theory that emerges.
Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect.
Wisdom is the rarest quality of all—the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding. Wisdom is the fulfillment of the ancient admonition, "With all your getting, get understanding." Wisdom requires self-discipline and an understanding of the realities of the world, including the limitations of one's own experience and of reason itself. The opposite of high intellect is dullness or slowness, but the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is far more dangerous.
George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool. The record of twentieth century intellectuals was especially appalling in this regard. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the twentieth century was without his intellectual supporters, not simply in his own country, but also in foreign democracies, where people were free to say whatever they wished. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler all had their admirers, defenders, and apologists among the intelligentsia in Western democratic nations, despite the fact that these dictators each ended up killing people of their own country on a scale unprecedented even by despotic regimes that preceded them.

Defining Intellectuals

We must be clear about what we mean by intellectuals. Here "intellectuals" refers to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like.c Most of us do not think of brain surgeons or engineers as intellectuals, despite the demanding mental training that each goes through and despite the intellectual challenges of their occupations. Similarly, virtually no one regards even the most brilliant and successful financial wizard as an intellectual.
At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such—not the personal application of ideas, as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures or mechanisms. A policy wonk whose work might be analogized as "social engineering" will seldom personally administer the schemes that he or she creates or advocates. That is left to bureaucrats, politicians, social workers, the police or whoever else might be directly in charge of carrying out the ideas of the policy wonk. Such labels as "applied social science" may be put on the policy wonk's work but that work is essentially the application of general ideas only to produce more specific ideas about social policies, to be turned into action by others.
The policy wonk's work is not personally carrying out those specific ideas, as a physician applies medical science to particular flesh-and-blood human beings or as an engineer stands in hip boots on a construction site where a building or a bridge is being built. The output—the end product—of an intellectual consists of ideas.
Jonas Salk's end product was a vaccine, as Bill Gates' end product was a computer operating system. Despite the brainpower, insights, and talents involved in these and other achievements, such individuals are not intellectuals. An intellectual's work begins and ends with ideas, however influential those ideas may be on concrete things—in the hands of others. Adam Smith never ran a business and Karl Marx never administered a Gulag. They were intellectuals. Ideas, as such, are not only the key to the intellectual's function, but are also the criteria of intellectual achievements and the source of the often dangerous seductions of the occupation.
The quintessential intellectuals of the academic world, for example, are those in fields which are more pervaded by ideas, as such. A university's business school, engineering school, medical school, or athletics department is not what usually comes to mind when we think of academic intellectuals. Moreover, the prevailing ideologies and attitudes among academic intellectuals are usually least prevalent in these particular parts of an academic campus. That is, sociology departments have generally been found to be more one-sidedly to the left politically compared to medical schools, psychology departments more to the left than engineering schools, English departments to the left of economics departments, and so on.3
The term "pseudo-intellectual" has sometimes been applied to the less intelligent or less knowledgeable members of this profession. But just as a bad cop is still a cop—no matter how much we may regret it—so a shallow, confused, or dishonest intellectual is just as much a member of that occupation as is a paragon of the profession. Once we are clear as to whom we are talking about when we speak of intellectuals—that it is an occupational description rather than a qualitative label or an honorific title—then we can look at the characteristics of such occupations and the incentives and constraints faced by the people in those occupations, in order to see how those characteristics relate to how such people behave. The larger question, of course, is how their behavior affects the society in which they live.
The impact of an intellectual, or of intellectuals in general, does not depend on their being so-called "public intellectuals" who directly address the population at large, as distinct from those intellectuals whose ideas are largely confined to others in their respective specialties or to other intellectuals in general. Books with some of the biggest impacts on the twentieth century were written by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in the nineteenth century—and seldom read, much less understood, by the general public. But the conclusions—as distinguished from the intricacies of the analyses—of these writers inspired vast numbers of intellectuals around the world and, through them, the general public. The high repute of these writings added weight and provided confidence to many followers who had not personally mastered these writings or perhaps had not even tried to.
Even intellectuals whose very names have been little known to the general public have had worldwide impacts. Friedrich Hayek, whose writings—notably The Road to Serfdom—began an intellectual counter-revolution against the prevailing ideas of his time, a counter-revolution later joined by Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley and others, reaching a political climax with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, was little known or read even in most intellectual circles. But Hayek inspired many public intellectuals and political activists around the world, who in turn made his ideas the subject of wider discourse and an influence on the making of government policies. Hayek was a classic example of the kind of intellectual described by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as a thinker who, "a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought."4

The Intelligentsia

Around a more or less solid core of producers of ideas there is a penumbra of those whose role is the use and dissemination of those ideas. These latter individuals would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges' clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals. Journalists in their roles as editorial writers or columnists are both consumers of the ideas of intellectuals and producers of ideas of their own, and so may be considered intellectuals in such roles, since originality is not essential to the definition of an intellectual, so long as the end product is ideas. But journalists in their roles as reporters are supposed to be reporting facts and, in so far as these facts are filtered and slanted in accordance with the prevailing notions among intellectuals, these reporters are part of the penumbra surrounding intellectuals. They are part of the intelligentsia, which includes but is not limited to the intellectuals. Finally, there are those whose occupations are not much impacted by the ideas of the intellectuals, but who are nevertheless interested as individuals in remaining au courant with those ideas, if only for discussion on social occasions, and who would feel flattered to be considered part of the intelligentsia.


Because of the enormous impact that intellectuals can have, both when they are well known and when they are unknown, it is critical to try to understand the patterns of their behavior and the incentives and constraints affecting those patterns.
Ideas are of course not the exclusive property of intellectuals. Nor is the complexity, difficulty or qualitative level of ideas the crucial factor in determining whether those who produce these ideas are or are not considered to be intellectuals. Engineers and financiers deal with ideas at least as complex as those of sociologists or professors of English. Yet it is these latter who are more likely to come to mind when intellectuals are discussed. Moreover, it is the latter who most exhibit the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns associated with intellectuals.


The standards by which engineers and financiers are judged are external standards, beyond the realm of ideas and beyond the control of their peers. An engineer whose bridges or buildings collapse is ruined, as is a financier who goes broke. However plausible or admirable their ideas might have seemed initially to their fellow engineers or fellow financiers, the proof of the pudding is ultimately in the eating. Their failure may well be registered in their declining esteem in their respective professions, but that is an effect, not a cause. Conversely, ideas which might have seemed unpromising to their fellow engineers or fellow financiers can come to be accepted among those peers if the empirical success of those ideas becomes manifest and enduring. The same is true of scientists and athletic coaches. But the ultimate test of a deconstructionist's ideas is whether other deconstructionists find those ideas interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious. There is no external test.
In short, among people in mentally demanding occupations, the fault line between those most likely to be considered intellectuals and those who are not tends to run between those whose ideas are ultimately subject to internal criteria and those whose ideas are ultimately subject to external criteria. The very terms of admiration or dismissal among intellectuals reflect the non-empirical criteria involved. Ideas that are "complex," "exciting," "innovative," "nuanced," or "progressive" are admired, while other ideas are dismissed as "simplistic," "outmoded" or "reactionary." But no one judged Vince Lombardi's ideas about how to play football by their plausibility a priori or by whether they were more complex or less complex than the ideas of other football coaches, or by whether they represented new or old conceptions of how the game should be played. Vince Lombardi was judged by what happened when his ideas were put to the test on the football field.
Similarly, in the very different field of physics, Einstein's theory of relativity did not win acceptance on the basis of its plausibility, elegance, complexity or novelty. Not only were other physicists initially skeptical, Einstein himself urged that his theories not be accepted until they could be verified empirically. The crucial test came when scientists around the world observed an eclipse of the sun and discovered that light behaved as Einstein's theory said it would behave, however implausible that might have seemed beforehand.
The great problem—and the great social danger—with purely internal criteria is that they can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality and remain circular in their methods of validation. What new idea will seem plausible depends on what one already believes. When the only external validation for the individual is what other individuals believe, everything depends on who those other individuals are. If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general—and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.
Ideas sealed off from the outside world in terms of their origin or their validation may nevertheless have great impact on that external world in which millions of human beings live their lives. The ideas of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao had enormous—and often lethal—impact on those millions of people, however little validity those ideas had in themselves or in the eyes of others beyond the circles of like-minded followers and subordinate power-wielders.
The impact of ideas on the real world can hardly be disputed. The converse, however, is not nearly as clear, despite fashionable notions that major changes in ideas are generated by great events.5 As the late Nobel Prizewinning economist George J. Stigler pointed out, "A war may ravage a continent or destroy a generation without posing new theoretical questions."6 Wars have all too often done both these things in the course of many centuries, so this hardly presents a new phenomenon for which some new explanation is required.
While one might regard Keynesian economics, for example, as a system of ideas particularly relevant to the events of the era in which it was published—namely, the Great Depression of the 1930s—what is remarkable is how seldom that can be said of other landmark intellectual systems. Were falling objects more common, or more fraught with social impact, when Newton's laws of gravity were developed? Were new species appearing, or old ones disappearing, more often or more consequentially when Darwin's Origin of Species was written? What produced Einstein's theory of relativity, other than Einstein's own thinking?


Intellectuals, in the restricted sense which largely conforms to general usage, are ultimately unaccountable to the external world. The prevalence and presumed desirability of this are confirmed by such things as academic tenure and expansive concepts of "academic freedom" and academic "self-governance." In the media, expansive notions of freedom of speech and of the press play similar roles. In short, unaccountability to the external world is not simply a happenstance but a principle. John Stuart Mill argued that intellectuals should be free even from social standards—while setting social standards for others.7


  • "Thomas Sowell is, in my opinion, the most interesting philosopher at work in America."—Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times
  • "It's a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books."—Steve Forbes
  • “Certainly passionate about the subject, Sowell is perceptive and at times brilliant….another well-written work….[A]n entertaining read.”—Choice
  • Intellectuals and Society unravels in clear, non-intellectual terms some of the puzzling phenomena in the world of the intellectuals—analyzing the nature and role of intellectuals in society and exploring the ominous implications of that role for the direction in which the Leftist intelligentsia are taking our society and Western civilization in general.”—Conservative Book Club
  • “Sowell looks at war with a steady gaze, never supposing that peaceful economic competition will entirely replace it. He makes good sport of deflating the unthinking rhetorical antics of many pacifist intellectuals…He [Sowell] very well knows the most important thing about his life’s work: in the end he is an economist who points beyond the often-dismal science to an economy of the spirit.”—Society (Springer)
  • “One comes away from reading Sowell with a sense of having encountered the kind of analytic incisiveness and depth that was practiced by the best thinkers of the Enlightenment, men like Adam Smith, or the triune authors of the Federalist Papers, who both read the human heart and knew the human story…Sowell is a fiercely polemical writer, yet one whose clear, straightforward prose illumines everything it touches. He’s as honest and valuable an intellectual as America will ever produce. If the force of an example is needed to improve the breed, he’s it.”—Academic Questions (Springer)
  • “Sowell is at his best, which is very good indeed, when he deals with the free market.   He points out a fallacy in the complaints of many critics of the market who stress the unequal distribution of wealth and income in contemporary America…Sowell’s skillful use of evidence emerges again when he confronts another popular charge against the free market…an excellent book as a whole.”—The Independent Review
  • “The illustrations of his [Sowell’s] argument are quite compelling…the chapter on intellectuals and the economy is, naturally, among the most illuminating…”
     —The American Spectator
  • “Intellectuals and Society is something of a summa of Sowell’s concerns over the last 40 years… The power of Sowell’s book owes to its concreteness.  He has an enviable gift for showing that many of our social problems arise from the differences between ‘the theories of intellectuals and the realities of the world.’… this learned and thoughtful book demonstrates what its author has in mind when he calls for a humane reintegration of intellect, wisdom, and respect for the stubborn realities that constitute our world.”—City Journal
  • "It (Intellectuals and Society) is chock full of interesting ideas – like much of Sowell’s work."—Regulation, CATO Institute
  • “Sowell takes aim at the class of people who influence our public debate, institutions, and policy. Few of Sowell’s targets are left standing at the end, and those who are stagger back to their corner, bloody and bruised.”—National Review Online
  • “Mr. Sowell builds a devastating case against the leftist antiwar political and intellectual establishment”
     —Washington Times
  • "America's best writer on economics, particularly when that discipline intersects with politics."—World

On Sale
Mar 6, 2012
Page Count
680 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Sowell

About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. For more than half a century, his writings have appeared in both popular and scholarly publications, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books have been translated into a dozen foreign languages. After a career as an economist in the government, academia and the corporate world, he has since 1980 been a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, devoting his efforts to research and writing, on subjects ranging from the history and influence of intellectuals to education and social policies in countries around the world. His website is

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