We, the Children of the Enlightenement…

…are lost in it. Roger Scruton explains:

…Ferdinand Tönnies … formulated a distinction between two kinds of society — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — the first based in affection, kinship and historic attachment, the second in division of labour, self-interest and free association by contract and exchange. Traditional societies, he argued, are of the first kind, and construe obligations and loyalties in terms of a non-negotiable destiny. Modern societies are of the second kind, and therefore regard all institutions and practices as provisional, to be revised in the light of our changing requirements. The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is part of what happened at the Enlightenment, and one explanation for the vast cultural changes, as people learned to view their obligations in contractual terms, and so envisage a way to escape them.

Max Weber wrote, in the same connection, of a transition from traditional to “legal-rational” forms of authority, the first sanctioned by immemorial usage, the second by impartial law. To these two distinctions can be added yet another, du to Ser Henry Maine, who described the transition from traditional to modern societies as a shift from status to contract — i.e., a shift from inherited social position, to a position conferred by, and earned through, consent.

These sociological ideas are attempts to understand changes whose effect has been so profound that we have not yet come to terms with them. Still less had people come to terms with them in the late eighteenth century, when the French Revolution sent shock waves through the elites of Europe. The social contract seemed to lead of its own accord to a tyranny far darker than any monarchical excess: the contract between each of us became an enslavement of all. Enlightenment and the fear of Enlightenment were henceforth inseparable. Burke’s attack on the [French] Revolution illustrates this new state of mind. His argument is a sustained defence of “prejudice” — by which he meant the inherited store of human wisdom, whose value lasts only so long as we don not question it — against the “reason” of Enlightenment thinking. But people have prejudices only when they see no need to defend them. Only an enlightened person could think as Burke did, and the paradox of his position is now a familiar sub-text of modern culture — the sub-text of conservatism….

It was Marx who developed the most popular explanation of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment saw itself as the triumph of reason over superstition. But the real triumph, Marx argued, lay not in the sphere of ideas but in the sphere of economics. The aristocratic order had been destroyed, and with it the feudal relations which bound the producers to the land and the consumers to the court. In place of the old order came the “bourgeois” economy, based on the wage contract, the division of labour and private capital. The contractual view of society, the emphasis on individual freedom, the belief in impartial law, the attack on superstition in the name of reason — all these cultural phenomena are part of the “ideology” of the new bourgeois order, contributions to the self-image whereby the capitalist class ratifies its usurpation.

The Marxist theory is a form of economic determinism, distinguished by the belief that fundamental changes in economic relations are invariably revolutionary, involving a violent overthrow of the old order, and a collapse of the political “superstructure” which had been built on it. The theory is almost certainly false: nevertheless, there is something about the Marxian picture which elicits, in enlightened people, the will to believe. By explaining culture as a by-product of material forces, Marx endorses the Enlightenment view, that material forces are the only forces there are. The old culture, with its gods and traditions and authorities, is made to seem like a web of illusions — “the opiate of the people”, which quietens their distress….

…Thanks to Marx, debunking theories of culture have become a part of culture. And these theories have the structure pioneered by Marx: they identify power as the reality, and culture as the mask; they also foretell some future “liberation” from the lies that have been spun by our oppressors.

Debunking theories of culture are popular for two reasons: because they are linked to a political agenda, and because they provide us with an overview. If we are to understand the Enlightenment, then we need such an overview. But ought it to be couched in these external terms? After all, the Enlightenment is part of us; people who have not responded to its appeal are only half awake to their condition. It is not enough to explain the Enlightenment; we must also understand it….

[A]s I noted in discussing Burke, Enlightenment goes hand in hand with the fear of it. From the very beginning hope and doubt have been intertwined. What if men needed those old authorities, needed the habit of obedience and the sense of the sacred? What if, without them, they should jettison all loyalties, and give themselves to a life of godless pleasure?… [T]he very aim for a universal culture, without time or place, brought a new kind of loneliness. Communities depend upon the force of which Burke called prejudice; they are essential local, bound to a place, a history, a language and a common culture. The Enlightened individualist, by forgoing such things, lives increasingly as a stranger among strangers, consumed by a helpless longing for an attachment which his own cold thinking has destroyed.

These conflicts within Enlightenment culture are part of its legacy to us. We too are individualists, believers in the sovereign right of human freedom, living as strangers in a society of strangers. And we too are beset by those ancient and ineradicable yearnings for something else — for a homecoming to our true community…. But … there is no going back, … we must live with our enlightened condition and endure the inner tension to which it condemns us. And it is in terms of this tension, I believe, the we should understand both the splendours and the miseries of modern culture. (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, pp. 24-9)

Religion, community, and common culture have been displaced by the regulatory-welfare state, anthropogenic global warming, feminism, “choice,” and myriad other totems, beliefs, “movements,” and “leaders,” both religious and secular.  Are our minds less troubled, do we sleep better, are we happier in our relationships, is our destiny more secure? Something tells me that the answer to each of those questions is “no.”

The tale was told long ago:

[1] Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise? [2] And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat: [3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. [4] And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death. [5] For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.

[6] And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat. [7] And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons. [8] And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise. [9] And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou? [10] And he said: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.

[11] And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? [12] And Adam said: The woman, whom thou gavest me to be my companion, gave me of the tree, and I did eat. [13] And the Lord God said to the woman: Why hast thou done this? And she answered: The serpent deceived me, and I did eat. [14] And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. [15] I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.

[16] To the woman also he said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee. [17] And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. [18] Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth. [19] In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return. [20] And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.

[21] And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins, and clothed them. [22] And he said: Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil: now, therefore, lest perhaps he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. [23] And the Lord God sent him out of the paradise of pleasure, to till the earth from which he was taken. [24] And he cast out Adam; and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Book of Genesis, Chapter 3)

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, hav long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. (p. 303)

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of American courts, is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

Related posts:
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Understanding Hayek

Is the Anger Gone?

That’s the question Matt Bai asks in yesterday’s NYT (“After Tuscon, Is the Anger Gone?”). His answer, if there is one in his assumption- and error-laden piece, is irrelevant. Bai’s article deserves a good “fisking,” which I may yet deliver. For now, I will content myself with the following observations.

“After Tuscon…” offers a strong (if unwitting) argument for reducing the footprint of the central government, which is a leading source of the division and anger evoked by the tragedy in Tuscon. Of course, those who favor a strong central government would then be angrier than they already are — and they are angry, as evidenced by the rhetoric of Krugman, Olbermann, and their ilk.

True federalism — where the central government has a hands-off policy on economic and social matters (but not civil rights) — would allow those who favor heavy-handed government to live in States that offer such government. The problem is that the people who would be (and are) attracted to such States aren’t content to endure heavy-handed government by themselves; they wish to bestow its “blessings” with everyone else. And they have succeeded in very great measure.

Most commentators, it seems to me, proceed from the assumption that those who oppose heavy-handed government have no rational basis for their “anger.” They do, but those who are wedded to heavy-handed government — most politicians and pundits, and the sheep-like majority of Americans — cannot see it. And, being unable to see it, they view anti-government rhetoric as a manifestation of psychological disturbance, when it should be viewed as a manifestation of righteous resentment at being over-taxed and over-regulated.

No amount of “dialogue” or “shared experience” can bridge the gap between statists and anti-statists. Thomas Sowell explains this well in A Conflict of Visions — a sometimes maddeningly balanced analysis of the contrasting world views that shape the divide between statists and anti-statists.

Related posts:
Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon
A Dissonant Vision
Freedom of Will and Political Action
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
(Jared) Lee Harvey Loughner?

“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review

Thomas Sowell‘s Intellectuals and Society is a rewarding and annoying book.

The book is rewarding because it adds to the thick catalog of left-wing sins that Sowell has compiled and explicated in his long career as a public intellectual. When Sowell criticizes the anti-gun, soft-on-crime, peace-at-any-price, tax-spend-and-regulate crowd, he does it by rubbing their noses in the facts and figures about the messes that have been created by the policies they have promoted.

Having said that, I must also note the ways in which Intellectuals and Society annoys me, namely, that it is verbose and coy about the particular brand of intellectualism that it attacks.


Regarding verbosity, here is a randomly chosen example, from page 114:

Abstract people are above all equal, though flesh-and-blood people are remote from any such condition or ideal. Inequalities of income, power, prestige, health, and other things have long preoccupied intellectuals, both as things to explain and things to correct. The time and effort devoted to these inequalities might suggest that equality is so common or so automatic that its absence requires an explanation. Many intellectuals have approached equality in much the same spirit as Rousseau approached freedom: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” To much of the modern intelligentsia, man is regarded as having been born equal but as having become mysteriously everywhere unequal.

Which means:

The notion of equality propounded by left-wing intellectuals bears no relation to the reality of the human condition. But the false ideal of equality enables leftists to advance the notion that disparities of income, power, prestige, and health (among other things) are injustices that call out for correction.

There are other ways of saying the same thing — all of them equally concise and therefore easier for the reader to grasp. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other passages in Intellectuals cry out for the same kind of ruthless editing. With that done, the book would be more compelling, because the facts and figures that make Sowell’s case against leftist intellectuals would stand out more sharply.


This brings me to the “intellectuals” who are the subject of the book. Sowell’s definition of intellectuals is so broad that it includes him and others of his ilk:

Here “intellectuals” refers to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas — writers, academics, and the like. Most of us do not think of brain surgeons or engineers as intellectuals, despite the demanding mental training that each goes through, and 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 carry out the ideas of the policy wonk. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 2-3)

Sowell’s definition encompasses thinkers who devoted much (or all) of their careers to combating the kinds of statist policies advanced by the left-wingers who are the real targets of Intellectuals and Soceity. Sowell even mentions two anti-statist intellectuals — Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman — in the first chapter of his book, in a context which suggests that they are among his targets. But Sowell later invokes Hayek, Friedman, and other “conservative” intellectuals as he confronts left-wing ideas and their consequences.

There can be no doubt that Sowell’s fire is directed at left-wing academicians and pundits — and their enablers in political-bureaucratic-media complex — for the many good reasons documented in the book. A truth-in-packaging law for book titles — a left-wing idea if ever there was one — would require the renaming of Intellectuals and Society to Left-Wing Intellectuals and the Dire Consequences of their Ideas.

My aim is not to quibble with Sowell’s title, but to lament his lack of clarity about which set of intellectuals he is attacking, and why that set of intellectuals deserves reproach, whereas Hayek, Friedman, and company do not. Surely the author of Intellectuals and Society — who is, by his own definition, an intellectual — does not mean to denigrate his decades of research and writing in the service of liberty. (This is not to say that conservatives and self-styled libertarians are above reproach; they are not, as I show elsewhere in this blog. But left-wing “intellectuals” deserve a special place in hell for their contributions to the destruction of the social fabric and demise of liberty, which Sowell so thoroughly documents.)


Now for the meat of Intellectuals and Society. And beneath an over-abundance of dressing, there is plenty of meat. Sowell draws on his own work and that of many distinguished philosophers and scholars as he puts the lie to left-wing ideas and policies. Thus we find the likes of Gary Becker, William F. Buckley Jr., Edmund Burke, Richard Epstein, Friedman, Hayek, Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, Jean-Francois Revel, Adam Smith, and James Q. Wilson pitted against left-wing stars of the past and present, including Louis D. Brandeis, Noam Chomsky, the Clintons, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Walter Duranty, Ronald Dworkin, Paul Ehrlich, William Godwin, Edward Kennedy, Paul Krugman, Harold Laski, Roscoe Pound, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, and H.G. Wells.

Because of the timing of the book’s publication, Barack Obama makes only a cameo appearance as a senator who opposed the surge in Iraq:

[Obama] said in January 2007 that the impending surge was a “mistake that I and others will actively oppose in the days to come.” He called the projected surge a “reckless escalation,” and introduced legislation to begin removal of American troops from Iraq no later than May 1, 2007…. Another 20,000 troops [Obama said] “will not in any imaginable way be able to accomplish any new progress.” (p. 268)

Intellectuals and Society does not directly address the “highlights” of Obama’s presidency to date: “stimulus” spending, Obamacare, and new financial regulations. But they are merely new manifestations of old policies that — among others — the book amply discredits.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The hunt for left-wing error begins in earnest with “Knowledge and Notions,” Chapter 2 of Intellectuals and Society. There, Sowell highlights some leading tendencies of left-wingers. There are the experts in particular fields who act as if their expertise gives them license to expound on any and all subjects. Appositely, Sowell quotes Roy Harrod on John Maynard Keynes:

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases. (p. 12)

Sowell then turns to the matter of centralized, expert knowledge vs. decentralized knowledge, and how the former can never substitute for the latter when it comes to making personal and business decisions — left-wing dogma to the contrary. Here, Sowell echoes Hayek’s Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge.”

The final pages of Chapter 2 are devoted to a critique of rationalism. This is the habit of mind, usually found on the left, by which intellectuals superimpose their views of what “ought to be” on decades and centuries of human striving, and pronounce the results of that striving “irrational.” (A recent case in point is Judge Vaughn Walker’s fatuous decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger.)

Chapter 4, which is out of place, continues in the same vein as Chapter 2. That is, it expose more systemic errors of the left-wing view of the world. The sequence opens with a reprise of the theme of Sowell’s earlier book, A Conflict of Visions, which is followed by a departure from the studied neutrality of that book:

Th[e] vision of society … in which there are many “problems” to be “solved” by applying the ideas of morally anointed intellectual elites is by no means the only vision, however much that vision may be prevalent among today’s intellectuals. A conflicting vision has co-existed for centuries — a vision in which the inherent flaws of human beings are the fundamental problem and social contrivances are simply imperfect means of trying to cope with that problem…. (p. 77)

[That conflicting] vision is a sort of zero-based vision of the world and of human beings, taking none of the benefits of civilization for granted. It does not assume that we can begin with what we already have and simply tack on improvement, without being concerned at every step with whether these innovations jeopardize the very processes and principles on which our existing level of well-being rests…. Above all, it does not assume that untried theories stand on the same footing as institutions and practices whose very existence demonstrate their ability to survive in the world of reality…. (p. 79)

If you happen to believe in free markets, judicial restraint, traditional values and other features of the [constrained] vision, then you are just someone who believes in free markets, judicial restraint and traditional values. There is no personal exaltation resulting from those beliefs. But to be for “social justice” and “saving the environment,” or to be “anti-war” is more than just a set of beliefs about empirical facts. This [unconstrained] vision puts you on a higher moral plane as someone concerned and compassionate, someone who is for peace in the world, a defender of the downtrodden, and someone who wants to preserve the beauty of nature and save the planet from being polluted by others less caring. In short, one vision makes you somebody special and the other vision does not. These visions are not symmetrical…. (pp. 79-80)

That is to say, adherents of the constrained vision (conservatives) put great stock in what works, and change it only for the sake of improving it, and not for the sake of changing it because it doesn’t comport with their a priori views of how the world “ought to be.” By contrast, adherents of the unconstrained vision (the left) are wedded to the rhetoric of “ought to be” and its close relation, the Nirvana fallacy. They judge existing arrangements against unattainable standards of perfection (invented by themselves), and proclaim themselves to be on the side of all that is good. The adherents of the constrained vision point out, quite rightly, that the left’s proposals are inherently flawed because they fail to take into account the ways in which human nature produces unintended consequences.

Sowell has more to say about the unconstrained vision; briefly, it invents “rights” (to a “living wage,” “decent housing,” and “affordable health care,” and so on) that cause “compassionate” politicians to impose obligations on third parties (i.e., hapless taxpayers). This legalized theft — for that is what it is — is committed with scant regard for the good that taxpayers would do with their own money; for example:

  • Save it in the form of bank deposits, bonds, and stocks so that businesses may be formed, expand, and adopt more productive technology, thus creating jobs and fueling economic growth.
  • Help private charities and members of their immediate families, who are no less worthy of such help than complete strangers (unless, of course, you are an omniscient leftist who thinks otherwise).

But such considerations are beneath the left, whose mission is to “do good,” and damn the consequences.

On that note, I return to Sowell’s dissection of left-wing rhetoric. Here are some other incisive passages from Chapters 4:

That some people [the left] should imagine that they are particularly in favor of progress is not only another example of self-flattery but also of an evasion of the work of trying to show, with evidence and analysis, where and why their particular proposed changes would produce better end results than other people’s proposed changes. Instead, [those other people] have been dismissed … as “apologists for the status quo.” (pp. 101-2)

If the real purpose of social crusades is to make the less fortunate better off, then the actual consequences of such policies as wage control become central and require investigation…. But if the real purpose of social crusades is to proclaim oneself to be on the side of the angels, then such investigations have a low priority…. The revealed preference of many, if not most, of the intelligentsia has been to be on the side of the angels. (pp. 104-5)

…William Godwin’s notion that the young “are a sort of raw material put into our hands” remains, after two centuries, a powerful temptation to classroom indoctrination in schools and colleges…. This indoctrination can start as early as elementary school, where students are encouraged or required to write about controversial issues…. More fundamentally, the indoctrination process habituates them to taking sides on weighty and complex issues after hearing just one side of those issues…. In colleges and universities, whole academic departments are devoted to particular prepackaged conclusions — whether on race, the environment or other subjects…. Few, if any, of these “studies” include conflicting visions and conflicting evidence, as educational rather than ideological criteria might require. (pp. 108-9)

While logic and evidence are ideal criteria for the work of intellectuals, there are many ways in which much of what is said and done by intellectuals has less to do with principles than with attitudes…. During the earlier [“progressive”] era [of the early 1900s], when farmers and workers were the special focus of solicitude, no one paid much attention to how what was done for the benefit of those groups might adversely affect minorities or others. Likewise, in a later era, little attention was paid by “progressive” intellectuals to how affirmative action for minorities or women might adversely affect others. There is no principle that accounts for such collective mood swings. There are simply reasons du jour, much like the adolescent fads that are compulsive badges of identity for a time and afterwards considered passé…. (pp. 110-12)

…Anyone who suggests that individuals — or worse yet, groups — are unequal is written off intellectually and denounced morally as biased and bigoted toward those considered less than equal. Yet the empirical case for equality ranges from feeble to non-existent…. Does anyone seriously believe that whites in general play professional basketball as well as blacks? [For readers new to Sowell: He is black.] How then can one explain the predominance of blacks in this lucrative occupation, which offers fame as well as fortune? For most of the period of black predominance in professional basketball, the owners of the teams have all been white, as have most of the coaches. Then by what mechanism could blacks have contrived to deny access to professional basketball to whites of equal ability in that sport? (p. 114)

Thus armed against the essential fallacies of left-wing intellectualism, the reader is treated to dissections of left-wing error with respect to economics (Chapter 3), the media and academia (Chapter 5), the law (Chapter 6), and war (Chapters 7 and 8).


Chapter 5 (“Intellectuals and Economics”) is a sustained litany of the left’s obdurate insistence on the truth of economic fallacies. If there were a Nobel Prize for Economic Illiteracy, it would be awarded to left-wing academics (some of them economists) and pundits, as a group.

One of the left’s favorite preoccupations is “income distribution”:

Although such discussions have been phrased in terms of people, the actual empirical evidence cited has been about what has been happening over time in statistical categories — and that turns out to be the direct opposite of what has happened over time to flesh-and-blood human beings…. [I]n terms of people, the incomes of those particular taxpayers who were in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1996 rose 91 percent by 2005, while the incomes of those particular taxpeayers who were in the top 20 percent in 1996 rose by only 10 percent by 2005 — and those in the top 5 percent and top one percent actually declined. (p. 37)

The left’s systematic misunderstanding of economics rises to astounding heights on many other issues:

  • High interest rates — “immoral,” even though they reflect the risk of lending to borrowers who are likely to default.
  • Capitalism — “exploitative,” even though it has brought workers to much higher standards of living than under socialism and communism.
  • Competition — “chaotic,” because shallow thinkers cannot conceive of progress without central planning and control (though they are ready enough to concede man’s superior mental capacity to the chaotic thing known as evolution).
  • Government intervention — “essential and beneficial,” despite generations of evidence to the contrary (which is ignored by wishful thinkers on the left).
  • Business — “economically dominant,” despite the rise and fall of many a business empire, and the fact that business is at the mercy of consumers, not the other way around. (See “capitalism” and “competition.”)
  • Recessions and depressions — “the result of capitalist excesses,” even though — normal business cycles aside, government intervention (so cherished by the left) has caused or exacerbated several recessions (including the present one) and the Great Depression.

(In the foregoing list, I have violated the letter, but not the spirit, of Sowell’s commentary on economic subjects.)


The title of Chapter 5 is “Optional Reality in the Media and Academia.” The subtitle of the entire book could well have been “The Left and Optional Reality,” for in Chapter 5 and elsewhere Sowell exposes leftism and left-wing intellectuals as unconnected with reality. There is a preferred leftist version of the world — which changes from time to time and drags devoted leftists in its wake. From that preferred vision, leftists concoct their view of reality.

As Sowell reminds us in Chapter 5, the left’s concocted view of reality has included:

  • air-brushing the brutality of totalitarian regimes then being held up as leftist ideals (e.g. the USSR, Communist China, Cuba)
  • suppressing data that would show affirmative action to be counterproductive
  • depicting gun ownership as an unmitigated evil
  • trying to pin poverty among blacks on “racism,” when it predominates among the families of single, black mothers who have been lured into a cycle of dependency on welfare
  • portraying homosexuals as “victims,” except when they happen to be priest of the despised Catholic religion
  • giving publicity and credibility to trumped-up charges of rape and arson, when the victims are black or the alleged perpetrators are “privileged” whites
  • exaggerating the incidence of poverty in the United States
  • demonizing the left’s enemies by attributing to them evil deeds that they didn’t commit
  • coining euphemisms to promote pet causes (e.g., bums as homeless persons, swamps as wetlands, trolleys as light rail, liberalism as progressivism)
  • justifying all of the foregoing (and more) on the ground that truth is subjective
  • portraying Americans as barbaric, in the face of true barbarism among cultures currently in favor with leftists
  • exaggerating the importance of isolated events, for the sake of promoting the left’s agenda, while ignoring the great advances that have resulted from the hum-drum, daily work of millions of “average” Americans.

The point of all of this deception and self-deception is simple and straightforward: it is to make the case (first to oneself and then to the public) for the left’s vision of how the world should be run. In the left’s Alice-in-Wonderland world of reality, the vision precedes and shapes the facts, not the other way around.


Nowhere is the left’s upside-down world more evident than in the development and application of law, which is the subject of Chapter 6 (“Intellectuals and the Law”). As Sowell observes,

There can be no dependable framework of law where judges are free to impose as law their own individual notions of what is fair, compassionate or in accord with social justice. Whatever the merits or demerits of particular judges’ conceptions of these terms, they cannot be known in advance to others, or uniform from one judge to another, so that they re not law in the full sense of rules known in advance to those subject to those rules….

By the second half of the twentieth century, the view of law as something to be deliberately shaped according to the spirit of the times, as interpreted by intellectual elites, became more common in the leading law schools and among judges. Professor Ronald Dworkin of Oxford University epitomized this approach when he dismissed the systemic evolution of the law as a “silly faith,” — systemic processes being equated with chaos, as they have been among those who promoted central economic planning rather than the systemic interactions of markets. In both cases, the preference has been for an elite to impose its vision, overriding if necessary the views of the masses of their fellow citizens…. (pp. 157-160)

The left’s approach to the law is, in a word, rationalistic. That is, it would uproot tradition — which embodies the wisdom of experience — simply because it is tradition, and replace it with reductionist constructs that have been tested only in the minds of left-wing intellectuals. The left’s insight into human nature, and all that it entails, is profoundly shallow, to coin an apt oxymoron.

Sowell documents many of the ways in which the left has tortured the Constitution, so that it no longer serves its intended, minimalist role of preserving the liberty that had been won by the War of Independence. The story of how the Constitution — the supreme law of the land — became, in the hands of the left, a weapon in their war against liberty is too depressing (and long) to recount in detail. I will say, simply, that Sowell has the story down pat:

  • disregard for the original meaning of the Constitution (and, thus, disregard for the rule of law)
  • judicial interpretation of the Constitution in ways intended to reach outcomes favored by the left, even when those outcomes clearly ran contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution
  • the expansion of the power of the federal government, in the service of those outcomes, to a point where there is nothing beyond its dictatorial reach, and no one is secure in the right to the peaceful enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.

It is not only that government now enjoys unlimited reach, but that it has failed in its duty to curb the reach of the predators among us:

As noted in Chapter 2, a retired New York police commissioner who tried to tell a gathering of judges of the dangerous potential of some of their rulings was literally laughed at by the judges and lawyers present. In short, theory trumped experience….

[A]fter many years of rising crime rates had built up sufficient public outrage to force a change in policy, rates of imprisonment rose — and crime rates began falling for the first time in years. [Leftist intellectuals] lamented the rising prison population in the country and, when they acknowledged the declining crime rate at all, confessed themselves baffled by it, as if it were a strange coincidence that crime was declining as more criminals were taken off the streets….

In light of the fact that a wholly disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a relatively small segment of the population, it is hardly surprising that putting a small fraction of the total population behind bars has led to substantial reductions in the crime rate….

…The very mention of “Victorian” ideas about society in general, or crime control in particular, is virtually guaranteed to evoke a sneer from the intelligentsia. The fact that the Victorian era was one of a decades-long decline in alcoholism, crime and social pathology in general … carries virtually no weight among the intelligentsia, and such facts remain largely unknown among those in the general public who depend on either the media or academia for information.

Thus are the wages of leftist idealism and the left’s rationalistic dismissal of traditional ways and mores.


Sowell rolls out the heavy guns in Chapter 7 (“Intellectuals and War”) and Chapter 8 (“Intellectuals and War: Repeating History”). A good way to summarize the lessons of these chapters is to say that the left’s attitudes toward war resemble the ebbing and flowing of an emotional tide. War is good, in the abstract, when it is a distant memory and the one in the offing presents an opportunity to “do good” — “the war to end all war,” and all that.

Then comes a war and its aftermath, both of which are far messier than intellectuals had expected them to be, given that their minds run to abstraction. A reflexive anti-war posture then sets in, and becomes a sign of membership in the leftist coalition,much as a fraternity pin dangling from a watch chain used to be a sign of membership in this or that exclusive circle. Given the left’s dominance in the various mass media, anti-war propaganda soon dominates and colors the public’s view of war.

Anti-war sentiment — inflamed by the left — might have kept the U.S. out of WWII, with disastrous results, had it not been for the Hitler’s decision to attack the USSR  and Japan’s miscalculated attack on Pear Harbor. The former event was more important to left than the latter, which caused non-intellectual isolationists to awaken from their slumber.

A generation later, anti-war propaganda disguised as journalism helped to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam. What was shaping up as a successful military campaign collapsed under the weight of the media’s overwrought and erroneous depiction of the Tet offensive as a Vietcong victory, the bombing of North Vietnam as “barbaric” (where the Tet offensive was given a “heroic cast), and the deaths of American soldiers as somehow “in vain, ” though many more deaths a generation earlier had not been in vain. (What a difference there was between Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite and his sycophants.)

Were it not for the determined leadership of Ronald Reagan, the left’s anti-war and anti-preparedness rhetoric — combined with a generous dose of fear-mongering — would have derailed the defense buildup in the 1980s, to which the collapse of the Soviet Union should be attributed. The left, of course, refuses to go along with the truth, preferring instead to credit the feckless Mikhail Gorbachev.

Only the 9/11 attacks helped to reverse the Clinton defense build-down of the 1990s. It has often been said, and said truly, that Clinton balanced the budget on the back of defense. But the 9/11 attacks might not have occurred had it not been for the “wall” of separation between foreign intelligence and domestic law-enforcement that was erected and maintained under Clinton’s Justice Department.

Only the determined leadership of George W. Bush (say whatever else you want to about him) brought about a reversal of fortune in the Iraq war, over the vocal and obstructive voices of the left — among which one must number the present occupant of the White House.

Then there is the constant campaign of leaks — originated through leftist media outlets — that compromise defense plans, intelligence operations, and anti-terrorist activities. That campaign meshes well with the left’s resolute determination to treat terrorists as criminal suspects, even when they are able to evade civilian justice because the evidence against them is too sensitive to be divulged in civilian courts.

Members of the armed forces are useful to the media mainly as a weapon with which to beat the anti-war, anti-defense drum. Aside from the occasional token remembrance of their sacrifices, they are mainly portrayed by the media as “victims” (because of war wounds), suicidal (though less so than the population at large), and violent (though less so than civilians of the same demographic group).

The beat goes on, relentlessly. In the meantime, America’s enemies and potential enemies take heart.

Americans now face a far more serious budget-balancing exercise, as the nation’s tax-payers face the looming mountain of debt arising from the accrual of “commitments,” past and present known as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and their expansion through CHIP, the Medicare prescription drug program, and Obamacare. Instead of confronting the real problem, politicians will duck it — for a while — by cutting other programs and raising taxes. Defense will carry a disproportionate share of the burden.

Will the U.S. be prepared for the next Pearl Harbor, the one that is far more devastating than the 9/11 attacks? In light of history and the way in which politics is played, the answer is “no.” And the next time, the U.S. will not have months and years in which to mobilize for a counter-attack. The next time, the enemy — whoever it is — will strike directly at America’s energy, telecommunications, and transportation networks with devastating blows that cripple the economy and spread fear and chaos throughout the land. (Here, I should remind the left that a sudden defeat would deprive its members of the opportunity to do what they do well when their leaders signal approval of a war: writing propaganda pieces for the home front, making propaganda films (often thinly disguised as entertainment), and commandeering the economy to  plan wartime production, set price controls, and establishing ration quotas.)

Shouldn’t the nation be preparing assiduously against such a contingency, and spending what it takes to prevent it, to work around it, and to recover from it quickly? You would think so, but — thanks largely to the left-wing agenda of bread and circuses — the necessary steps will not be taken. And the left will be out in front of the opposition to preparedness, shouting that the nation cannot afford more defense spending when it faces critical social “obligations.”

On that note, I close this portion of the review with an apt quotation that I am fond of deploying:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor, Strategy for the West, p. 75)


The title of this final portion of a long review sums up the thesis of Intellectuals and Society. Sowell’s eponymous concluding Chapter 9 is not consistently on target, but it has its moments; for example:

The general public contributes to the income of intellectuals in a variety of ways involuntarily as taxpayers who support schools, colleges, and various other institutions and programs subsidizing intellectual and artistic endeavors. Other occupations requiring great mental ability — engineers, for example — have a vast spontaneous market for their end products…. But that is seldom true of people whose end products are ideas. There is neither a large nor a prominent role for them to play in society, unless they create it for themselves. (pp. 286-7)

*     *     *

While the British public did not follow the specific prescriptions of Bertrand Russell to disband British military forces on the eve of the Second World War, that is very different from saying that the steady drumbeat of anti-military preparedness rhetoric among the intelligentsia in general did not imped the buildup of a military deterrence or defense to offset Hitler’s rearming of Germany (p. 288)

In international issues of war and peace, the intelligentsia often say that war should be “a last resort.”… War should of course be “a last resort” — but last in terms of preference, rather than last in the sense of hoping against hope while dangers and provocations accumulate unanswered, while wishful thinking or illusory agreements substitute for serious military preparedness — or, if necessary, military action. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1941, “if you hold your fire until you see the whites of his eyes, you will never know what hit you.” The repeated irresolution of France during the 1930s, and on into the period known as the “phony war” that ended in its sudden collapse in 1940, gave the world a painful example of how caution can be carried to the point where it becomes dangerous (pp. 289-90)

*     *     *

The period from the 1960s to the 1980s was perhaps the high tide of the influence of the intelligentsia in the United State. Though the ideas of the intelligentsia still remain the prevailing ideas, their overwhelming dominance ideologically has been reduced somewhat by counter-attacks from various quarters….

Nevertheless, any announcement of the demise of the [leftist intellectualism] would be very premature, if not sheer wishful thinking, in view of [its] continuing dominance … in the educational system, television and in motion pictures that deal with social or political issues. In short, the intellectuals’ vision of the world — as it is and as it should be — remains the dominant vision. Not since the days of the divine rights of kings has there been such a presumption of a right to direct others and constrain their decisions, largely through expanded powers of government. Everything from economic central planning to environmentalism epitomizes the belief that third parties know best and should be empowered to over-ride the decisions of others. This includes preventing children from growing up with the values taught them by their parent if more “advanced” values are preferred by those who teach in the schools and colleges. (pp. 291-92)

*     *     *

Unlike engineers, physicians, or scientists, the intelligentsia face no serious constraint or sanction based on empirical verification. NOne bould be sued for malpractice, for example, for having contributed to the hysteria over the insecticide DDT, which led to its banning in many countries around the world, costing the lives of literally millions of people through a resurgence of malaria. (pp. 296-7)

*     *     *

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, hav long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. (p. 303)

*     *     *

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit  denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society of human beings has ever met or is ever likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (p. 305)

I remind you that Sowell (and I) are, in the main, talking about the left — especially its elites. These are the so-called intellectuals and technocrats who dominate the media, academia, left-wing think tanks, and the upper layers of government bureaucracies. The smugness, sameness, and other-worldliness of their views is depressingly predictable.

The left advances its agenda in many ways, for example, by demonizing its opponents as “mean” and even “fascistic” (look in the mirror, bub), appealing to envy (stuck on “soak the rich,” with the connivance of some of the guilt-ridden “rich”), sanctifying an ever-growing list of “victimized” groups (various protected “minorities”), and taking a slice at a time (e.g., Social Security set the stage for Medicare which set it for Obamacare).

The left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Leftists like to say that there is a difference between opposition and disloyalty. But, in the case of the left, opposition arises from a fundamental kind of disloyalty. For, at bottom, the left pursues its agenda because  it hates the idea of what America used to stand for: liberty with responsibility, strength against foreign and domestic enemies.

Most leftists are simply shallow-minded trend-followers, who believe in the power of government to do things that are “good,” “fair,” or “compassionate,” with no regard for the costs and consequences of those things. Shallow leftists know not what they do. But they do it. And their shallowness does not excuse them for having been accessories to the diminution of  America. A rabid dog may not know that it is rabid, but its bite is no less lethal for that.

The leaders of the left — the office-holders, pundits, and intelligentsia — usually pay lip-service to “goodness,” “fairness,” and “compassion.” But their lip-service fails to conceal their brutal betrayal of liberty. Their subtle and not-so-subtle treason is despicable almost beyond words. But not quite…

Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”

Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent decision in Perry v. Schwarnenegger, which manufactures a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, smacks of Rationalism. Judge Walker distorts and sweeps aside millennia of history when he writes:

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

Judge Walker thereby secures his place in the Rationalist tradition. A Rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

stands … for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligations to any authority save the authority of ‘reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious; he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration…. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself….

…And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

At the heart of Rationalism is the view that “a problem” can be analyzed and “solved” as if it were separate and apart from the fabric of life.  On this point, I turn to John Kekes:

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. (“The Idea of Conservatism“)

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

Same-sex marriage will have consequences that most libertarians and “liberals” are unwilling to consider. Although it is true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — pursuant to Judge Walker’s decision — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate.

Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

In Morse’s words:

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm. (“Marriage and the Limits of Contract“)

The state’s signals are drowning out the signals that used to be transmitted primarily by voluntary social institutions: family, friendship, community, church, and club. Accordingly, I do not find it a coincidence that loud, loutish, crude, inconsiderate, rude, and foul behaviors have become increasingly prominent features of “social” life in America. Such behaviors have risen in parallel with the retreat of most authority figures in the face of organized violence by “protestors” and looters; with the rise of political correctness; with the perpetuation of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society; with the erosion of swift and sure justice in favor of “rehabilitation” and “respect for life” (but not for potential victims of crime); and with the legal enshrinement of infanticide and buggery as acceptable (and even desirable) practices.

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

And so it will go —  barring a sharp, conclusive reversal of Judge Walker and the movement he champions.

Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Social Norms and Liberty
The Fallacy of Particularism
History Lessons
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection