The Fatal Flaws of Liberal Intellectuals

Many of our readers may have heard of Dr. Thomas Sowell. If you have not, it is time for you to get acquainted with him. He was reared in Harlem, NYC by his aunt, his father having died some years before. In his youth, he freely and openly admits to his flirtation with Marxist economics because it seemed attractive to him in the way it presented itself as a solution of all of the ills that dominate the lives of Black folks. It didn’t take him very long to see through the hypocrisy and fallacies of the Communist Party, however, and he made a 180 degree turn around. Today, his voice for conservatism is one of the most sought after voices on the right. He received his education from various prestigious schools including a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. For many years, he taught in colleges and universities mainly in the east. In fact, he lost a job at a Black college for espousing the causes of conservatives, capitalism, limited government, states rights. He is adamantly opposed to minimum wage laws, and has the research that they, in fact, tend to lead to unemployment and worsen the plight of entry level workers in all fields. He was born in 1930 and is now in his 80s. He is a Fellow in the Hoover Institute at StanfordUniversity in California. Incidentally, he is a fine photographer and has had several shows of his work. To read more about this remarkable man, go to Wikipedia and read his vita.

In Dr. Sowell’s most recent columns and books (He has published about 30 books on economics and social philosophy.), he has been tackling the issue of intellectualism. He defines an intellectual as someone who thinks about a variety of topics and then communicates his thoughts through the spoken and written word. He readily admits that we need intellectuals, but we also need to be wary of them because of three fatal flaws. (1) Intellectuals tend to be people who have not worked with their hands for a living and are unable to really appreciate what the vast majority of people in the world do to get along and make a place for themselves and their families. (2) Intellectuals, especially those who have received some notoriety, tend to think that because they are very learned in one area of life, they must also be wise in other areas of life even though they may not have researched very deeply out of their own disciplines. And (3) intellectuals, for the most part, aren’t held accountable for their errors that sometimes promulgate disaster on the rest of us.

bluecollarThe first flaw is that intellectuals generally lack experience in life where physical labor is needed. I was reared by a man who was an intellectual. He was a minister in an Evangelical denomination who also had an earned doctor’s degree in theology. But he had been reared on a small farm (7 acres) in western Pennsylvania by a father who worked in one of the many steel mills that once dotted that part of our country at that time. My father learned to do the labor that is necessary for farm children to do. He milked cows, helped with planting and harvest, learned to repair farm implements, and other “chores” that kids on a farm have to do. In those days ministers were often paid starvation wages. One summer Dad and another fellow in our small church painted the interior rooms and hallways of the women’s dorm in a small teacher’s college in our town. He always believed that manual labor was a blessing for people. He often pointed out to me and my brothers that Paul the Apostle was a tent maker. “He knew how to work with his hands as a man should,” Dad would say. Not all intellectuals have that blessing, and that’s too bad.

The second flaw is that people who have distinguished themselves in one area of life and have received high praise for their work, often become so enraptured by their own greatness that they soon go out of their fields of expertise to opine on all manner of subjects. The most notable example of this is Noam Chomsky who has done decades of research in linguistics and has written definitive books on that subject, but who now has become a left-wing political, economic, and social critic. He is given the benefit of the doubt because of his findings in linguists that surely anyone that smart should be listened to when it comes to matters of economic policy. Even though I certainly don’t think of entertainers as intellectuals, this is the flaw that so many of them possess, both on the left and on the right. Because they have the attention of the public, their opinions about society and government should carry some weight. Nonsense! If you hear or read political or societal comments from Barbara Streisand or Alec Baldwin or for that matter, Tom Selleck or Bruce Willis run the other way. They aren’t qualified to comment publically on these matters. Do not pass GO! Do not collect $200.

The third flaw that is endemic with intellectuals is that, for the most part, they are not held accountable for their errors. If I am teaching an English composition class and my students are repeatedly unable to pass the state mandated writing exam, it won’t be too long before I’ll find myself out of a job. If I’m a stock boy at Winn Dixie and I put the wrong cans on the wrong shelf and drop too many glass jars of honey on the floor and they break, I won’t be around much longer. If I’m an architect and a 15 story apartment building I design collapses and kills people, my reputation is ruined for life. I might just as well go to Winn Dixie and see if they want to hire someone to stock their shelves and replace the klutz who kept breaking jars of honey. But an intellectual who posits a certain course for our economy and it proves to be a catastrophe will probably keep his job at some prestigious university or even be able to find work as a presidential advisor.

It was, after all, a group of intellectuals under the leadership of Robert McNamara who were known as the “Whiz Kids” that were responsible for the way the war in Vietnam was conducted with its “no-win” policy under the presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. None of them died on a battlefield nor suffered any significant pauses in their careers.

No doubt about it, we need intellectuals to help us understand much of the world around us, but we–and they–should be aware of the flaws that their egos can produce. Or, to put it another way, in the words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

About the author

Harry Livermore

Harry Livermore spent a lifetime teaching English in high schools and junior colleges in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. He now writes for and is editor of the Valdosta Magazine. Harry and his wife Janice live in Valdosta, GA. They are members of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Valdosta. Harry has two sons, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren who live in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas.

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