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Home | Blog | Thomas Sowell on Why the Intelligencia Pay No Price for Being Wrong

Thomas Sowell on Why the Intelligencia Pay No Price for Being Wrong


Thomas Sowell recently sat down with Peter Robinson to discuss his latest book, Intellectuals and Race. Here’s a short excerpt:

Robinson: …[N]ow you’re saying that multiculturalists [who argue for] bringing kids into [academic] institutions for which they’re ill-qualified — you take bright, hard-working, otherwise perfectly well-qualified students and put them in the wrong institution and you set them back in life.
Sowell: Yes.
R: And they’re culpable as well. They had ought to know better.
S: Yes.
R: Intellectuals and Race, quote: “The Intelligencia pay no price for being wrong.”
S: I think that’s the secret of their influence.
R: How’s that?
S: Well, if you come up with a lot of wrong ideas and pay a price for it, you’re forced to think about it and to change your ways or else get eliminated. But there is no such test. The only test for most intellectuals is whether other intellectuals go along with them. And if they all have a wrong idea, then it becomes invincible.
R: Tom, you’re coming pretty close to saying that intellectuals aren’t very smart.
S: [Laughs.] They are very smart in very limited areas. And they don’t realize [it]. That’s the problem.

Although Sowell’s book isn’t explicitly about epistemology, it does deal with critiques Austrians have long made to understand why false ideas persist. For instance, Keynesian ideas persist among intellectuals in large part because so many intellectuals accept them uncritically. Indeed, to point out the failures of massive Keynesian stimulus since 2008 is the intellectual equivalent today of pointing out the emperor is not wearing any clothes. In both cases, too many careers and incomes depend on ignoring what is actually quite obvious. Mises pointed this out in Human Action (Scholar’s Edition, p. 868) as well when he noted that “[t]ax-supported universities are under the sway of the party in power. The authorities try to appoint only professors who are ready to advance ideas of which they themselves approve.”

The result is a herd mentality that affects the tenor and quality of much discourse in higher education today, whether it is about race, economics, the environment, marriage and the family, or “good citizenship.” The irony is that the Keynesian notion of animal spirits is actually strongest within the marketplace of ideas where, at present, state-supported research institutions exert the most influence.

For more, see Mises’ Epistemological Problems in Economics and Hayek’s Counter-Revolution of Science. For a personal account of these issues, also see Bill Anderson’s short article, “Austrian Economics and the ‘Market Test’: A Comment of Laband and Tollison”.

Christopher Westley a professor of economics in the Lutgert College Business at Florida Gulf Coast University and an associated scholar at the Mises Institute.

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