My Hoover colleague, Thomas Sowell, has come out with yet another book. Titled Intellectuals and Society, it has been sitting on my pile for about two weeks. (His publisher sends me gratis copies because I review books in Regulation and elsewhere.)
What motivated me to crack the book this weekend is a strange review I read in The New Republic. Now, I'm not a fan of The New Republic, especially their views on foreign policy, but I have been a fan of its book review section. The reviews are often thoughtful, nuanced, beautiful essays. The review of Sowell's book wasn't. Here's the opening sentence from the review by Alan Wolfe:
Let's get my judgment of Thomas Sowell's new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages.
"Wow!," I thought, "Even when I've disagreed with Sowell, I've never seen him fail to get interesting ideas out in 300 pages: typically he has one every page or two." So I had to start reading the book.
Let's get my judgment of Thomas Sowell's new book out of the way first. I like it. I was motivated to contact one of my editors and line up a deal to write a review. So I'll be brief here. Here are three gems from one page:
Why the transfer of decisions from those with personal experience and a stake in the outcome to those with neither can be expected to lead to better decisions is a question seldom asked, much less answered. Given the greater cost of correcting surrogate decisions, compared to correcting individual decisions, and the greater cost of persisting in mistaken decisions by those making decisions for themselves, compared to the lower costs of those making mistaken decisions for others, the economic success of market economies is hardly surprising and neither are the counterproductive and often disastrous results of various forms of social engineering.
If knowledge is defined expansively, including such mundane knowledge whose presence or absence is consequential and often crucial, then individuals with Ph.D.s are as grossly ignorant of most consequential things as other individuals are, since no one can be truly knowledgeable, at a level required for consequential decision-making for a whole society, except with a narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns.
For example, it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.