The Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge program again interviews Thomas Sowell on one of his books, this time it’s the second edition of Intellectuals and Society.
If you don’t have time for the whole interview, I have a couple of excerpts transcribed, the first paragraph being today’s Quote of the Day:
Thomas Sowell: Intellectuals have a great tendency to see poverty as a great moral problem to which they have the solution. Now, the human race began in poverty, so there’s no mysterious explanation as to why some people are poor. The question is why have some people gotten prosperous, and in particular why some have gotten prosperous to a greater degree than others. But everybody started poor, so poverty is not a mystery to be solved by intellectuals. More than that, one of the things I wish I’d put more emphasis on in the book is that intellectuals have no interest in what creates wealth, and what inhibits the creation of wealth. They are very concerned about the distribution of it, but they act as if wealth just exists – somehow. It’s like manna from heaven, it’s only a question of how we split it up.
(My emphasis.) That paragraph stands alone, but there’s much more that goes along with it:
Peter Robinson: And why should that be? Why shouldn’t they find that question at least intellectually fascinating?
TS: Because it would destroy the whole vision that they have.
PR: Because it would lead to the answer of free markets…
TS: Well, it would say there are enormous numbers of reasons why people acquire the ability to create wealth, and they vary all over the world. And so, if you find for example that, centuries past, Germans living in Eastern Europe had much higher standards of living than the indigenous peoples of Eastern Europe, intellectuals would say that somehow the Germans had oppressed the people of Eastern Europe. Or the ones that were into genetic determinism would say that the Germans were born biologically superior to the people of Eastern Europe. But anyone with a knowledge of history would know that there are all kinds of reasons why Western Europe as a whole has far greater wealth-producing capacity than Eastern Europe. But of course, that would then cut out the role of intellectuals. They would then have to do what David Hume did, which was he urged his fellow 18th-century Scots to learn the English language because that would open up a whole world to them that they would not have otherwise.
PR: Which leads to another quotation that I found very striking here, in Intellectuals and Society. Part of this you’ve touched on. You write, although intellectuals pay a lot of attention to inequalities among racial and ethnic groups, quote:
“seldom…has this attention been directed…toward how the less economically successful…might improve themselves by availing themselves of the culture of others around them.”
That is a VERY arresting formulation. Poor people can improve themselves by availing themselves of the culture of others around them. What do you mean by that?
TS: I mean that the same things which allow some other people to prosper can allow them to prosper if they take advantage of those same things. The Scots were a classic example. They were one of the poorest and most ignorant people on the fringes of European civilization in centuries past. But once they, for whatever reason, began to educate themselves and especially to learn the English language – which became a passion, people all over Scotland, including Hume himself, were taking lessons in the English language.
PR: Hume’s first language was Gaelic?
TS: I don’t know if it was Gaelic.
PR: It was whatever they spoke in those days.
TS: Yeah. And from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century, the leading intellectuals in Britain were Scots! I mean, you had Adam Smith in economics, Hume in philosophy, Black in chemistry, you go through the whole list. (Not to mention James Watt.) And so they could do that. But that was an EXTREMELY rare thing for an intellectual to say. Most intellectuals in most countries around the world see the issue as how those who are more prosperous should be brought down, rather than how… and moreover that the people who are lagging should cling to their culture. I don’t know how you’re going to keep on doing what you’ve always done and get results that are different from what you’ve always gotten.
Easy! The culture cannot be wrong, so you do it again, only HARDER! “Assimilation” is availing oneself of the culture around you, and it is what immigrants to this country did for literally decades. But now, around the world immigrants are moving into foreign societies and retaining their cultures. And the intellectuals are telling them to. Sharia law in England, violent sexual assaults on women in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and here at home the culture of inner-city blacks has resulted in a population with a homicide rate more than six times that of the surrounding cultures, but what are they told to do by their so-called “leaders”? Not assimilate!
But we’re not done yet.
At the end of the interview, Robinson asks Sowell about the upcoming elections:
Peter Robinson: Do you have a candidate? As we record this, the Republican primaries are still grinding on.Thomas Sowell: There is none of the candidates of either party that would cause me to dance in the streets.PR: Alright, is there ANYTHING as you look at the current prospect for this country and the Western world that WOULD cause you to dance in the streets?
TS: If I thought that the voters had some sense of realism, and that they were concerned with the larger questions rather than whose ex-wife said what and so on, or what Governor Romney did or did not do when he was head of Bain Capital – if they had some sense of the loss of freedom which is infinitely more important than any of the specific issues by themselves, that is Obamacare really is a HUGE step towards the loss of freedom. And it happens in small ways, but constantly. We can’t have the lightbulb that we want in our own home. We can’t flush the toilet with the kind of toilet we want. We can’t take a shower with the kind of showerhead we want. We can’t put our garbage out except broken down by the way that some little Gauleiters have decided we ought to do it. It’s just the accretion of these things, many of which are too small to be significant in themselves, but in the aggregate you can see the tendency of this. The people who think they know better and they ought to be telling us what to do. Those people are the danger, and if you don’t see that, I’m not sure what the future’s going to be like.
We’ve spent a century deliberately constructing a population that has no sense of realism, and it’s not just here, it’s worldwide. The only thing I’m sure of is that future won’t be pleasant.
Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that.