Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell has spent his remarkable life doing battle with the American intellectual elite, the vanguard of utopians that wrote - or more accurately, perhaps, dictated - the history of the 20th century. In Intellectuals and Society, his 32nd book, published in his 80th year, this indefatigable scholar skillfully documents the tragic consequences of intellectual arrogance.
They are all here, all the usual suspects, for this fascinating interrogation - the erstwhile pacifists (Bertrand Russell) and the occasional fascists (H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw), the twisted journalists (Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who covered up the Moscow-directed Ukrainian famine that took millions of lives) and the deluded presidents (Woodrow Wilson).
Here, with Dr. Sowell, is an intellectual with an immense respect for regular folk and their ability to make their own decisions. He describes doctrinaire interventionists as "third-party surrogate decision-makers who seek to have their preferences imposed on millions of other people through the power of government." Faithful to these insights, he defines freedom as the "elbow room" that ordinary people need to live their lives as they see fit.
His father died before his birth in North Carolina. Raised by his mother's sister, whom he thought was his mother, he grew up in Harlem, dropping out of school and working as a delivery boy for Western Union. Drafted into the Korean War, he served with the U.S. Marines. Back in the States, he enrolled in a black college (Howard) and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude. He holds a number of post-graduate degrees, including a doctorate in the philosophy of economics from the University of Chicago.
From the beginning, Dr. Sowell has argued that American blacks have been held back by affirmative action and by ghetto-welfare economics. In 1975, a young Clarence Thomas read Dr. Sowell's Race and Economics; years later, he said the book had changed his life. He now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Intellectuals and Society, Dr. Sowell examines the way in which intellectuals invent "fictitious personalities" for people they oppose - and cites Mr. Justice Thomas as an example. Nineteen years after his controversial confirmation to the Supreme Court, he is still invariably described in media reports as an embittered loner, "a virtual recluse in private life." A New Yorker article said he could talk only with his wife and described the couple's life "as one of shared, brooding isolation." Yet, the other justices insist he's the most accessible of them.
Dr. Sowell describes Mr. Justice Thomas's summer trips across America in his 40-foot RV, where he and his wife regularly pull into Wal-Mart parking lots and where the jurist will sit for hours, "chatting up strangers about car waxes as he sips lemonade." In fact, the only people he isn't comfortable with are journalists.
Dr. Sowell identifies Harry Truman as the recipient of another "fictitious personality." Following the heroic presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, he says, the intellectual elite was determined to portray the plain-spoken president from Missouri as "a country bumpkin." Yet, he was a learned man, "a voracious reader whose fare included the heavyweight books of Thucydides and Shakespeare." He could read Cicero in the original Latin.
Dr. Sowell says the intellectual elite destroyed Great Depression president Herbert Hoover, turning him into "a cold, heartless man who let millions of Americans suffer needlessly because of his supposedly doctrinaire belief that the government should leave the economy alone." Yet, for the most part, Roosevelt adopted Hoover's economic program - making Hoover the inventor of the New Deal. Writing in 1935, Walter Lippmann, the famous columnist, observed: "The program initiated by President Hoover was something utterly unprecedented in American history. The Roosevelt measures are a continuous evolution of the Hoover measures."
The "fictitious personality" gambit can be played both ways. With Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (who lost twice in the 1950s to Dwight Eisenhower), the intelligentsia succeeded in turning a rather crude politician into an iconic intellectual. The New York Times once described him as "the best kind of intellectual." Years later, historian Michael Beschloss described him as a man who could go for years without picking up a book.
Anyone interested in Thomas Sowell's secrets for success as a prolific author, by the way, can find on his home page an instructive essay: Some Thoughts on Writing. One tip? Write five or six books at a time.