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Allen Barra on the Curious Case of Thomas Sowell

Posted on Mar 26, 2010
book cover

By Allen Barra

(Page 2)

“Many intellectuals today ... find it a weighty consideration that they do not understand how corporate executives can be worth such high salaries as they receive—as if there is any inherent reason why third parties should be expected to understand, or why their understanding or acquiescence should be necessary ...” and “Many among the intelligentsia have denounced ‘greed’ among corporate executives whose incomes are a fraction of the incomes of professional athletes or entertainers who are seldom, if ever, accused of greed.” It isn’t just intellectuals who don’t understand executive compensation, and I think Sowell is well aware that the issue is not so much salaries as bonuses—particularly in regard to executives whose companies lose huge amounts of money.

Finally, if Sowell really thinks that professional athletes and entertainers aren’t widely condemned for the money they make, then he and I don’t appear on the same radio talk shows. (I’m usually on the air with Vinnie from Queens, who doesn’t understand why Alex Rodriguez should be paid his fair share of the money Vinnie helps put in his pocket.) Surely Sowell must understand that there is a world of difference between an executive given a golden parachute and an athlete or entertainer who is paid according to his or her free market value.

These are small potatoes, I admit, compared with Sowell’s sweeping reworkings of 20th century American history. For instance, “The fictitious Herbert Hoover” who was “a cold, heartless man who let millions of Americans suffer needlessly during the Great Depression of the 1930s because of his supposedly doctrinaire belief that the government should leave the economy alone.” The real Herbert Hoover was “quite aware—and proud—of the fact that he was the first President of the United States to make getting the country out of a depression a federal responsibility.” The fictitious image of Hoover was created by the “intelligentsia of the times ... and the intelligentsia of later times perpetuated that image.” 


book cover


Intellectuals and Society


By Thomas Sowell


Basic Books, 416 pages


Buy the book

I’m sure there are many members of the intelligentsia who didn’t—and don’t—like Herbert Hoover, but the picture Sowell paints is patently false. A great many historians—including William E. Leuchtenburg, whose 1963 book “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” was a required text when I went to college—have been quite sympathetic to Hoover and his plight. As Leuchtenburg put it, “National Democratic party leaders criticized Hoover not because he had done too little but because he had done too much. The main criticism they leveled at Hoover was that he was a profligate spender.” 

Apparently Sowell’s book deadline didn’t allow him to include Kevin Baker’s cover story in the July 2009 Harper’s, in which he argued convincingly that Barack Obama is not so much the new FDR as the new Hoover. Sowell, like Archie Bunker, laments that we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again; he doesn’t seem to understand that in Barack Obama we have one.

FDR comes off even worse than Hoover, especially in comparison with the only president that Sowell approves of, RR. “The irony in this [the intelligentsia’s worship of Roosevelt] was that FDR presided over an economy with seven consecutive years of double-digit unemployment while Reagan’s policy of letting the market recover on its own, far from leading to another Great Depression, led instead to one of the country’s longest periods of sustained economic growth, low unemployment, and low inflation, lasting twenty years.” 

So much is glossed over here so swiftly that one hardly knows where to reply.  There is no discussion of alternative views; the possibility of alternatives isn’t even acknowledged. In his new book, “The End of Wall Street,” Roger Lowenstein makes the case that a major mistake of our financial system “was to see that the relative financial stability of the postwar era was largely the result of the regulation put in place during the New Deal and after.” As a free market ideologue, Sowell doesn’t begin to consider that the deregulation encouraged by President Ronald Reagan could have precipitated the market crash of 2009. Though the stock market crash of 1929 “has been conceived of as the ‘problem’ and government intervention as the ‘solution,’ in reality the unemployment rate following the economic problem was less than half of the unemployment rate following the political solution,” Sowell tells us.

Isn’t it possible that the political solution took so long to work because the economic problem was so vast? And if the New Deal failed to get us out of the Depression, the popular neoconservative answer that it wasn’t the New Deal but World War II that ended the economic catastrophe not only fails to answer the question but simply poses a new one. Was America’s World War II bill, after all, paid for by private contributions? The way Sowell and other conservatives posit it, the answer to how we got out of the Depression would seem to be: Massive government spending didn’t work, but more massive government spending—in the form of thousands and thousands of planes, tanks, trucks, and ships—did.

Last year’s economic crisis is not even discussed by Sowell, possibly because it occurred after his manuscript was completed. If so, the decision not to hold publication until he could at least state his case for the cause of the near disaster makes “Intellectuals and Society” not only seem dated but jarringly incomplete, especially, as Sowell writes near the end, “These places to which intellectuals tend to gravitate tend to be places where sheer intellect counts for much and where wisdom is by no means necessary, since there are few consequences to face or prices to be paid for promoting ideas that turn out be disastrous for society at large”(emphasis Sowell’s).

Precisely, but where are the wisdom and intellect in the irresponsible financial behavior that has brought us to our current desperate state? Because he does not fit Thomas Sowell’s idea of an intellectual, is Alan Greenspan off the hook for advocating ideas that turned out to be disastrous?

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By samosamo, April 1, 2010 at 3:56 pm Link to this comment

Well, sowell putting milton turdbutt friedman on a pedestal just
cost him an equal amount of credibility to me as if he had
expressed the same for john yoo.

While either one may be considered of being ‘intellectual’, that
content of intellectualness for ‘good’ is highly in doubt as
something more self serving for what is really criminal or leads
to a criminality, as in milton the monster’s ‘perfect’
economics(now proven NOT to work for the good of all but the
few who will make up the rules as it goes); or yoo’s vastly
inhumane treatment of others for what in my opinion is for the
sheer unfounded paranoia or trumped up suspicions of people.

And I have been under the belief that intellectual thinking can
just as easily come from acting criminally because it does take a
good bit of intelligence to not just commit a crime but get away
with it and to get away with it by framing someone else.

But I have noticed of what I have read of sowell is that he is in
the same ‘tree’ as milton the monster and john the torturer.

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By Zack, March 30, 2010 at 11:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Anarcissie,

Barra can claim that Sowell is thinking of leftist without much difficulty, I agree
that he does do this… Barra is right to say that Sowell largely disagrees with

But that’s a separate matter when we talk about Sowell’s definition of the term:
“an intellectual is the dealer in ideas. ... An intellectual’s work begins and ends
with ideas” irrespective of their politics.

Barra ignores Sowell’s definition: “not once in 317 pages of text does he indict
any right-wing thinker as an intellectual.” Friedman, Hayek, Malthus, and
others (from ‘the right’) meet the Sowellian definition of “intellectual.”

Barra accepts this definition and rejects it when it’s convenient to claim that
only people from ‘the ‘left’ are indicted. It’s a genius ways of making a point
without using rigorous logic.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, March 30, 2010 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

Zack, March 30 at 1:30 am:
’“by the word intellectual Sowell means “leftist thinker”—not once in 317 pages of text does he indict any right-wing thinker as an intellectual”

Not true. He calls Milton Friedman an “intellectual giant” and “very atypical of the intellectuals of his time.” He applied the same language to Solzhenitsyn and others.’...

Right.  They’re “atypical”, in fact, “very atypical”, so the normal intellectual, for Sowell, is exactly as Barra says, a “leftist thinker”.

Now, why would you post something as silly as you did?  Possibly you’ve been reading too much Sowell.  A steady diet of B-level propaganda is not good for the mind.

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By Zack, March 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“by the word intellectual Sowell means “leftist thinker”—not once in 317 pages
of text does he indict any right-wing thinker as an intellectual”

Not true. He calls Milton Friedman an “intellectual giant” and “very atypical of
the intellectuals of his time.” He applied the same language to Solzhenitsyn
and others.

“Sowell, like Archie Bunker, laments that we could use a man like Herbert
Hoover again”

Really? Read the book (p. 72) for Sowell’s criticisms of Hoover, not the least of
which are Smoot-Hawley, increased tax rates, price intervention… &c. Read the
damn thing and you’ll see what Sowell thinks. If you do, you’ll see that Sowell is
criticizing Obama for playing the blame game on Bush when he is merely
continuing Bush’s policies as FDR continued Hoover while he allowed, by
silence, the intelligentsia to go on blaming Hoover for all of his problems.
That’s the parallel, read the work.

“Last year’s economic crisis is not even discussed by Sowell, possibly because it
occurred after his manuscript was completed”

Your article was printed on the 26th, some 10 days after Sowell’s latest book,
Housing Boom and Bust 2nd Ed., came out, detailing the last couple of months
of 2009. If you expect the man to be superman, then I guess any criticism
could be lain.

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By Closeted Intellectual, March 29, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I second the motion that Thomas Sowell is a living, breathing joke factory. I’ve never read one of his columns without being taken aback at his evidence (sic), assertions, or conclusions.

Maybe the greatest of his intellectual crimes was during the California Electricity Manipulation and Price Hike Marathon of ‘00-‘01. His solution: “Pay your bills, you deadbeats! This is the free market, not a day care center.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

The passing of Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn were dark days, but I’m gonna throw a block party when this guy gets called home to Friedman.

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By Anarcissie, March 29, 2010 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

I find it difficult to understand why Sowell is taken seriously, even by people of his own ideological camp.

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By Ralph Kramden, March 29, 2010 at 12:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Exactly when did the Right repudiate Franco? Or Pinochet for that matter? Or Somoza? Or the Shah?
What Sowell is actually doing is trying to place Milton Friedman as the champion of liberty. Hayek was Friedman’s guru. Those who read and criticize are dangerous to someone who knows what is best for all of us. Keep in mind that Friedman’s version of economics has NEVER been enacted democratically.
Why worry about such a discredited institution as the Hoover Institute? I might as well claim I am a senior fellow at the Torquemada Institute, or the Dick Cheney Institute.

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By camnai, March 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm Link to this comment

A bit off the topic, but…I live in a big city (not in the U.S.) so I don’t own a gun; if
I lived on a farm I’d probably have two or three. I would like to ask what the
difference is between a ‘proud gun owner’, as Mr Barra proclaims himself to be,
and someone who just owns a gun. Is he a proud car or toothbrush owner, too?
Does he take pride in his marksmanship? In having the money to buy a gun?In
being more dangerous when he’s holding one than someone who isn’t? In being
lucky enough to have been born in a land won by people with more and better
guns than the people who’d had it before?

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By Night-Gaunt, March 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment

Thomas Sowell the anti-intellectual’s intellectual. Quite a position he has. He isn’t alone for we see them and hear them on TV and radio all of the time. A regular din of sound that could immure one to what is actually being said and the implications of if they are allowed to be implemented. Usually the mindless listeners fasten their minds onto the catch phrases and lines of thought and repeat verbatim, regular ditto references. I can recognize when they are used because I listen to enough of it to know what they are saying and wanting to do. Fore warned is fore armed and luck favors the prepared.

Neurologists have found that a certain level of emotion can enhance the intellectual function of the brain. Anger however shuts down the higher centers and lets the R-complex (reptile) take the lead which gives us violence and hatred that feeds on itself and from others. Nature is balance and regular time taken to do inventory of own’s self is a good thing. Introspection could be done more often.

Dr. Sowell is in an intellectual rut because he is an ideologue. He has his audience and it keeps him working and with money. You know the old saying? “You control ideas but ideology controls you.”

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By marcus medler, March 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm Link to this comment

I fear Sowell has become an old record. Many a
one book thinker, for job security, keep writing
the same idea over and over.  Thor Heyerdahl of
Kon Tiki fame was once asked why he persisted
in his wrong idea about pacific island settlement
(from south america). He stated that; “You must
understand, I have my audience”.

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By gerard, March 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm Link to this comment

As a wielder of words, it’s books like this that set my teeth on edge.  “Intelligence versus emotion,”
“Intellectualism versus emotionalism,” “Thinking versus feeling.”  Bad versus good.  Simple dichotomies which sound educated but are really empty abstractions that tend to mean all things to all people, change color, and dry up like raindrops in the sun.

Juxtaposed as “opposites”, they ask us to “take your choice,” either one or the other, whereas the reality is that they really cannot be separated except by the code called language, which attempts to separate things that are related and pull them out of the mush of experience in order to try to “understand” what they are, use them for often dubious purposes, and walk away from them whenever they puncture our egos.

Using words like this gives one the feeling that h/she is “in control,” or “knows the answers.”
The tendency is, when bombarded with abstractions like these, to either go to sleep, or to begin to believe them and those who wield them, instead of to consolidate one’s own experiences IN THE CONTEXT OF both mind and body—and spirit, whatever that is.

Yeah, and I suspect that even that is impossible.

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By Gordy, March 26, 2010 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

Ready for President Palin?

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By Mr. Wonderful, March 26, 2010 at 10:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice review, but you give Sowell too much credit—or, rather, you misconstrue what he does.  He’s not a “philosopher” and he’s barely an intellectual.

He’s a propagandist.  His goal is never to conduct a fair-minded (if subjective) inquiry into what is true.  It’s to promote the interests of his employers.  His book (which I have not read) sounds like just another salvo in the right’s campaign to discredit intelligence, knowledge, experts, and, of course “the elite.”

The aim is to pander to Republican anti-intellectualism (which found its fullest embodiment in George W. Bush) and inoculate the masses against the very legitimacy of facts.  Republicans need people to be ignorant.  Sowell does his bit, writing a big book about how smart people are really stupid and thus, by extension, stupid people are really smart.

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By DasBoot, March 26, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

Thank you for this wonderful review.

I would like to add another, more historic definition: Intellectuals are thinkers who consider themselves the vanguard of progress. In the early twentieth century, most thought socialism to be “the future that works.” In the 1950s and 1960s, it was liberalism. In the last three decades, we saw neo-conservatism (or neoliberalism, as it is called in Europe) picking up that torch.

Who were the people with the “great ideas” that would transform the world lately? Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Mark Stein, free market economists like Jeffrey Sachs, etc. Just think about all those thinkers who advocate war but never served in the military themselves. Don’t they fit Sowell’s definition?

On a more superficial level: Intellectuals are people who wear bow ties, and not as an ironic statement. It used to be the liberals. Now the only people with bow ties, it seems, are conservatives. Just an observation.

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By Gordy, March 26, 2010 at 7:35 am Link to this comment

Great definition from Camus at the end. 

It is truly frightening that there are people who can
write out an entire book of their political and
philosophical thoughts without ever noticing its
glaring errors, self-deceits and inconsistencies. 
One might like to entertain the notion that many
ideologue nutters would achieve a greater level of
perspective were they tasked with the full and lucid
articulation of their worldview on paper - but
apparently, no, it ain’t necessarily so.  They seem
to cling to their dogmas as though for their very
survival, as if criticism is merely a wind to brace
oneself against.

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