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”.


  1. Herd mentality is a dangerous truth in today’s (and yesterday’s) world. Unfortunately, people in power, or the “Intelligencia” understand this, and have the incentive to convince others rather than prove oneself. I find it disheartening to see people today fall into the same trap as others throughout history. We see it in European history with the push for mercantilism as the standard of trade throughout the 17th century to about the 1800′s. Despite the major negative effects of mercantilism (excessive government control, high prices per trade, and a few wars), the system was pushed as the only acceptable form of international trading. Not only do we see mercantilism being pushed down and out multiple times, it comes back, near, every time. The incentive to create a better system, an efficient system, was never there for the mercantilist traders (experts on trade). With the government control and the incentives in the wrong location, this broken, inefficient mindset lived on for almost 200 years. The power of herd thinking or herd mentality can be, as history proves (obviously, beyond just mercantilism), to be a dangerous force to be met.

  2. I find whenever the Keynesian or positivist intellectuals screw up, they pull that old, egregious and ambiguous trump card out called “market failure”.

  3. Most intellectuals don’t have to pay the price because they are shielded by the elites, as long as they do their bidding. It’s a form of prostitution. The discipline of markets has been sabotaged by the elites so that these intellectuals can just go right on giving absurd, bad advice with impunity, misleading, deceiving, and destroying all who listen to it.

    The “herd mentality” is exactly what is wanted in most universities. The professors know very well which side their bread is buttered on. They are not about to buck the system and put themselves out of work. Mises was blacklisted from serious university work because he would not compromise on socialism. The vast majority of university professors DO compromise all the time.

    What we are up against is monopolies of information which are, thankfully, beginning to break down because of the Internet Renaissance. The price for being wrong is now going up and the consequences will be more and more painful for them as markets of information spontaneously arise to do their work for the masses.

    • It is the job, the position, of the intellegentsia to make arguments in support of those in power. Thus if the military is in power there will be arguments about why that is the way things ought to be. To argue for deficit spending as a good thing is what is required of the intellegentsia at this point, because those in power believe it and want rationalizations about why it is the correct way to proceed.

      This is how the intellegentsia maintain their place near the seats of power. If they made arguements otherwise, they would be thrown out.

  4. Keynesian ideas persisted until they collapsed calamitously in the 70s. They are back because politicians and the groups whose votes they buy WANT them to be back. They were never anything but pseudo-intellectual cover for government spending.

  5. What mystifies me are people like Caplan and Cowen who think they know Austrian econ and claim to have been followers of it at one time, who advertise with every post on Austrian econ that they are ignorant.

  6. “When one person in the audience asked Rosen about Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action, Rosen replied that he had not read the volume because it was “too difficult.”

    I have read that Friedman dismissed Hayek’s “Pure Theory of Capital” for being incomprehensible. It appears that Austrian theory is too difficult for many in mainstream econ.

    Of course, Mises said Friedman was not an economist but merely a statistician. I think Mises was correct.

    Mainstream economists are so obsessed with statistics and positive science that they don’t mind at all committing many logical fallacies. Logic means nothing to them.

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