Thomas Sowell, in his Intellectuals and Society, offers a critical review of the disastrous role intellectuals have played in shaping public policy. Drawing from his background in economics, he defines intellectuals as belonging “to an occupational category, people whose occupation deals primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like.” This is strikingly similar to F. A. Hayek’s definition of the same class of people as “secondhand dealers in ideas” in his “Intellectuals and Socialism.”
Sowell, like Hayek, examines the economic function of intellectuals: to produce and distribute ideas to the masses and to shape public opinion in favor of the interests of those whose ideas they spread. The way I like to put it, intellectuals have an interest in coming up with problems that only they have the expertise to solve. Both describe how intellectuals are possessed by feelings of superior insight and “verbal virtuosity” and seek to control the decision-making processes of the masses and their official leaders.
Sowell uses journalists as an example. “In their role as editorial writers and columnists, [they] are both consumers of the ideas of intellectuals and producers of their own, and so may be considered intellectuals in such roles, since originality is not essential to the definition of intellectuals, so long as their end product is ideas. But journalists in their role as reporters are supposed to be reporting facts and, so far as the facts are filtered and slanted in accordance with the prevailing notions among intellectuals, these reporters are part of the penumbra surrounding intellectuals.
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