Arnold Kling  

Common Genius

Is This a Swindle?... Comments on the Possible Swind...

Bill Greene writes,

While a major theme of this book is that a historical progress has bubbled up from the bottom -- from the actions of the common men and women of history--a secondary theme is that most of history’s evils have come from the top--the intelligentsia, the organized groups, the soft-science experts who arise in mature societies and lead their nation’s decline.

Greene's over-arching intellectual theory is that intellectuals with over-arching theories are a the chief threat to civilization. In William Easterly's terms, ordinary people are Searchers, who try to improve things by trial and error. Intellectuals are Planners, whose grandiose attempts at top-down organization are doomed to failure, sometimes with a totalitarian mode of implementation in the process.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ryan writes:

What book is this? It sounds pretty interesting.

Peter Twieg writes:

Might be accurate, but I'd be concerned that any attempt to actually defend this theory against empirical refutation would involve a hefty dose of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy - the Founding Fathers were common people because their ideas were often good, etc.

That said, yes, it does seems to be another recasting of the maxim "top-down = bad, bottom-up = good", only with the added stipulation that bottom-up problems tend to get solved first and once that's done the top-down ones get more play, and disaster ensues. But I think that's a rather bleak assessment, unless you believe that all problems can be feasibly solved in a bottom-up manner (I don't) or that some problems aren't worth addressing at all if they require top-down solutions (very debatable in my eyes.)

Bruce G Charlton writes:

The point about cultural intellectuals being almost-always wrong and almost-always wanting the wrong things is a very important one - and I don't think we yet have a real understanding of it.

It was apparent to George Orwell, who put it down to power worship, mostly - but I don't think that is quite right.

I think it is to do with two intellectual strategies: establishing the moral high ground and the refusal to accept standard explanations.

Moral superiority is established by denying mass morality and intellectual superiority is established by denying mass understanding.

So, yes, being a cultural intellectual is intrinsically a matter of denying common sense; and with constructing arguments as to why this denial is both deeper and more virtuous than common sense.

When common sense is, more or less, correct - then cultural intellectuals are almost entirely wrong. When common sesne is wrong then cultural intellectuals have a chance of being correct. But this is not under the control of the cultural intellectuals, who will deny common sense whether it is right or wrong.

Cultural intellectuals inhabit a self-constructed elite who feel themselves to be both better and cleverer people than those not in the elite - better than those who are cleverer people and cleverer than those who are better people.

You could say that all this is sophomoric - and you would be right.

Tom Sowell pointed out, in his Knowledge and Decisions, that the standards for being able to say you know something, are higher in low status professions than in many high status professions.

His examples being that, for a farm boy to say he knows how to milk a cow, he has to take an empty pail out to the barn and return with it filled with milk. Contrast that to a criminologist who merely has to write a paper to show that he knows about crime.

Bob writes:

Probably some major hindsight bias going on here - the intellectuals' good ideas being quickly picked up across society while their bad ideas have to be painfully smothered. In hindsight the true "source" of the ideas may get lost.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Check out Alan Krueger's What Makes a Terrorist (that was a link) in the latest The American. Very similar theory about Islamoterrorism.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Check out Alan Krueger's What Makes a Terrorist (that was a link) in the latest The American. Very similar theory about Islamoterrorism.

Troy Camplin writes:

This theory would fit the way nature at all levels fundamentally works. However, we have to be careful, because I am also detecting some postmodernist anti-Grand Narrative bias in the work -- what is the difference between an intellectual's over-arching theories and the Catholic church's over-arching theories? I don't think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Systems that are organized from the bottom-up have emergent properties. The job of the intellectual has been (and should be) that of attempting to make sense of the emergent patterns. It is when intellectuals turn into activists -- they see the patterns and don't like what they see, for various reasons -- that we run into trouble. So long as the micro creates the macro, which in turn feeds back to affect the micro, then we are fine. But it is when someone attempts to create the macro and force the micro into that model that we have problems.

Ryan, the book is called Common Genius: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense

you can read more about it by going to

Ryan, the book is called Common Genius: Guts, Grit, and Common Sense, written by Bill Greene

you can read more about it by going to

bill greene writes:

It is fascinating to see the interest provoked by a simple comment on intellectuals vs. ordinary mortals, but the concept cannot be appreciated or fully understood from visceral reactions alone. My book attempts to develop an entirely new theory of history--that Rise and Fall thing--not by a subjective or theoretical analysis, but by the case method--looking at the times and places in history where progress for the masses arose--in those few,small enclaves where freedom and prosperity developed. They were rare instances, but they shared a common denominator--there were no intellectuals, few aristocrats,and little mental oppression from stifling philosophies. In such an environment the creative energy of ordinary people working by trial and error, using common sense, avoiding regulation and centrist controls, were allowed to flourish, creating progress. Soft-science Intellectuals seeking to control from the top always came later--arising in societies already flourishing from the energy of those who came first. Plato is a prime early example. He came at the end of a 400 year Rise in Greek culture and he contributed to its Fall. This book has been an adventure--to see the outline in history of a common traceable thread--and to form a comprehensive theory explaining the Rise and Decline of great nations. Bill Greene, author of "Common Genius"

Troy Camplin writes:

One could make the argument that Plato arose precisely at the time of Athens' decline, and in response to that decline. Perhaps that is precisely when philosophy arises. The people of Athens kept voting to continue a disasterous war against the Spartans, ultimately resulting in their fall. During this chaotic time, Socrates was teaching -- though there is little doubt about the disasterous consequences of Socrates' teaching if you consider the fact that several of Socrates' students were members of the 13 Tyrants, a fact which eventually led to the death of Socrates at the hands of the new democracy that arose after they were deposed. Plato attempts to resurrect the character of Socrates in his early works before developing more and more in his own direction, but even so Plato is definitely writing after the heyday of Athens, and seems to be responding to the chaos. Along those lines, I would say Aristotle is a better example of a good intellectual insofar as he is more descriptive than proscriptive. I think you will see that those intellectuals whose ideas have resulted in disaster have been more proscriptive than descriptive, while those whose ideas have not resulted in disaster have been more descriptive than proscriptive. Thank of Adam Smith vs. Karl Marx.

In any case, I am definitely going to get ahold of your book.

bill greene writes:

Troy Camplin's remarks are right-on, although I believe major religious beliefs should be considered separate from secular writings. But, he gets the fact that activist intellectuals are the harmful ones--they start with abstractions and develop conclusions therefrom--instead of starting at the bottom with real world issues and moving up to solutions. And Camplin's descriptive-proscriptive distinction is vital. In my chapter on the definition of "intellectuals" I concede that the descriptive scholars are the least harmful--perhaps even helpful--if they "report" correctly on their subject. The great Constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin refers to himself as a "commentator" and that is what the good descriptive writers were--Adam Smith's writings clearly cite existing and past practices as the basis for his "conclusions." Thus he gives attribution to the common men and women who had already demonstrated that free entrepreneurial activity makes for more progress than mercantilist managed economies. My point is not to denigrate the intellectual reporter/scholars but to praise the common people who made it happen. And by looking at publication dates I establish that the Great Writers works always reflected past practices--the Great Writers were always playing catch-up with ordinary souls! Bill Greene,

Troy Camplin writes:

Of course the great writers were always playing catch up -- the system giving rise to emergent patterns has to exist before one can see the patterns. But certainly it's a good thing to draw attention to the elements that gave rise to the complex systems in the first place -- that's how we come to learn what works.

I am going to get your book, and I look forward to reading it. I will likely discuss it on my own blog.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top