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Mar 7, 2014

Intellectuals and Libertarianism: Thomas Sowell and Robert Nisbet

Smith discusses the role of modern intellectuals in government.

In Knowledge and Decisions (1980), Thomas Sowell claims that “the delegation of decision making to ‘experts’ [has] become the central feature…of the intellectual’s vision of political and social decision-making.” Economists and other social scientists often portray themselves as disinterested advisors—as efficiency experts, in effect—whose advice should be heeded by those in positions of political power.

Why have people been willing to surrender so much power to economists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, and other self-proclaimed experts in the realm of human action? Sowell has some interesting observations on this topic.

It has seldom been because of any demonstrated success. Crime rates have soared as the theories of criminologists were put into practice; educational test scores have plummeted as new educational theories were tried. Indeed, no small part of the intellectual’s achievement has been in keeping empirical verification off the agenda. Moreover, those who are more essentially intellectual in occupation—primarily producers of ideas—have been both more avid and more favored in power terms than those who produce tangible benefits in verifiable form. It is not the agronomists, physicians, or engineers who have risen to power, but the sociologists, psychologists, and legal theorists. It is the latter group who have transformed the political and social landscape in the United States and much of the Western world. Not only is much of their cognitive output inherently unverifiable empirically; they have by various definitions and axiomatic procedures made their output even less susceptible of authentication than it would be otherwise. The jargon alone in these fields makes their substance largely inaccessible to outsiders. Transitionism explains away all disastrous consequences as the short-run price for long-run triumph. They have conquered by faith rather than works. This is hardly surprising in the light of similar achievements by religious intellectuals who preceded them by centuries. Whatever has made human beings eager to hear those who claim to know the future has worked for modern as well as ancient intellectuals.

Social science experts, according to Sowell, are the modern, secular equivalents of a priestly class, but with this difference: Social scientists, riding on the prestige of the physical (or “hard”) sciences, claim to render objective judgments, free from personal bias or values, about what will promote the good of society or, sometimes, humanity as a whole. Intellectuals who associate with governments typically pride themselves on their objectivity, especially when opposing what they characterize as special interest groups. But such intellectuals have merely hidden their personal values under the mantle of science; in truth, they are just another special interest group with a political agenda.

The late Robert Nisbet (a prominent American sociologist who, though usually called a “conservative,” had strong libertarian tendencies) had some rather harsh things to say about his colleagues who disguised their political values as objective science, and who sought to ensconce themselves in positions of power.

In 1982, Nisbet published a terse commentary (in his book Prejudices) on the social sciences and their role in modern American society. Economics, long considered the most successful of the social sciences, was raised to a near-aristocratic level in the late 1930s, owing to the tremendous influence of John Maynard Keynes. It was in the 1950s, however, when economics achieved the prestigious reputation of an exact mathematical science, that the services of professional economists were eagerly sought by politicians.

By the late 1950s social sciences other than economics also enjoyed tremendous prestige, and money rolled in from both governmental and private sources (such as the Ford Foundation) with billions in assets.

Other foundations rallied, and by the middle of the 1950s, it was a rare social scientist of quality who did not have the perquisites of status that physical scientists had known from the beginning of World War II. Research institutes mushroomed in the social sciences; offices became ever more luxurious, their occupants ever more engaged in research, consultation, government advising, travel from conference to conference all over the world—in just about everything but the teaching of undergraduates, a responsibility increasingly turned over to graduate students and technicians.

The prestige of some social sciences began to decline precipitously in the 1960s, reaching a low point in the following decade.

By 1970, what a sociologist, political scientist, social psychologist, or anthropologist said on any subject whatever was, for the American people generally, a matter of no consequence. The credibility they had enjoyed for nearly two decades after World War II was in tatters, their numbers depleted, and their capital assets nearly gone. Now that economics has joined them, the drama is over, the rise and fall of the social sciences complete.

Why had the public prestige of the social sciences suffered a dramatic setback by 1982, the year Nisbet published his comments? Social scientists, Nisbet points out, typically gave three standard—and self-serving—reasons.

First, social scientists complained of insufficient funds. To this Nisbet replies that abundant funds have never been a condition of progress throughout the history of the physical sciences.

Second, we were told that the social sciences, unlike the physical sciences, are still in their infancy, so we must forgive their many mistakes. To this Nisbet retorts that the social sciences are not new at all, but originated (like the physical sciences) in ancient Greece.

Third, social scientists typically excused their blunders by pointing to the complexity of social data. To this Nisbet points out that that physical scientists also confront highly complex phenomena, but they have progressively succeeded in overcoming this obstacle.

“So much for self pity,” says Nisbet, who then suggests more compelling reasons for the diminishing prestige of the social sciences.

There is first the ostentatious scientism that came over the several disciplines in the 1950s. It was apparently assumed that if their practitioners walked like scientists and quacked like scientists, the world would believe they were scientists. More and more writing in the social sciences came to look as though it had been done by a mediocre chemist or geologist.

The second reason for the current disrepair of the social sciences is the megalomania that came over them in conjunction with their scientific posturing. As early as the 1950s, only a few years after the social studies had begun dressing up like sciences, there was the cry for such monstrosities as a national academy of social science, a national endowment for social science, and a national social science foundation. Further cries went up for such positions as ‘Social Science Advisor to the President’ in Washington. The land overflowed with the complacency of the social scientists. All that was needed for the instantaneous eradication of poverty, crime, racism, bad housing, and war was a political government duly advised by resident social scientists. Hubris; pride virtually demanding the fall.

The third reason is what Nisbet calls “the rank politicization of the social sciences.” The word “social” originally signified voluntary institutions, such as the family, village, parish, town, and so forth. The social sphere of voluntary interaction was contrasted with the political sphere of coercive government, so when early social theorists spoke of “social problems” they were not necessarily calling for political action.

This is no longer the case; modern social scientists have blurred the distinction between the social sphere and the political sphere, making them virtually indistinguishable. Thus when a modern social scientist identifies something as a “social problem,” it is a safe bet that he is looking for a political solution, one that should be implemented by the coercive mechanism of government. In this way the social scientist disguises his personal values and aspirations behind a veil of objectivity.

This masquerading of political agendas as value-free science brings us to Nisbet’s fourth explanation for the dismal public reputation of the social sciences. Since World War II, social scientists (with the notable exception of many economists) have been nearly unanimous in their advocacy of political liberalism. (By “liberalism,” Nisbet means the “new liberalism” of twentieth-century America, the ideology of the “provider state,” not the older tradition of classical liberalism, which advocated minimal government and individual freedom.) As Nisbet explains:

It would be hard to find in all history a more flagrant scene of hypocrisy than that which was presented by social scientists, pretending to be scientists, assuring the world that objectivity was quite as possible in the study of human beings as of atoms, but all the while making certain that their assorted hypotheses, principles, and conclusions emerged in a fashion that would make them presentable at any liberal caucus. The litany of liberalism was the litany of social science, with the possible exception of a small but growing sector in economics. …Any social scientist’s conclusion that did not end with an appeal to the national government to take immediate action, properly funded, was purely accidental….Those who attended meetings of the various associations during the 1960s and 1970s could have been forgiven for not being sure whether it was a professional meeting or a monster rally in behalf of all the liberal and radical icons.

The public prestige of the social sciences has probably increased since Nisbet wrote these remarks in 1982, but little else has changed. Indeed, if anything the social sciences have become even more politicized. Today it is scarcely possible to open a serious magazine or newspaper, or watch a television news program, without encountering some political, social, or psychological expert who offers his or her opinion—“scientific,” of course—on the latest trendy social crisis. Moreover, the results of a “scientific” study or survey will often be cited and accepted as gospel, as if the imprimatur of a prestigious university, think tank, or governmental agency automatically guarantees its accuracy.

Especially relevant for libertarians is Nisbet’s observation that the boundary line between the “social” and the “political” has virtually disappeared in modern discourse. This had long been a crucial distinction for individualist thinkers, such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, who clearly differentiated the voluntary realm of society from the coercive realm of government. Given this distinction, to engage in social science, or to discuss social problems, did not necessarily carry political implications. Jefferson, for example, believed that city life tends to weaken moral values, but he did not call upon government to solve this social problem. A social problem was just that—an undesirable consequence of voluntary interaction. And a social problem called for a social solution, i.e., a voluntary, cooperative effort by concerned parties to bring about a better state of affairs.

Today, of course, the situation is much different. For many people, especially politicians, merely to identify something as a “social problem” is implicitly to suggest that government should impose a coercive “solution.”

Faith in the efficacy of coercive methods—a belief dear to those whom the sociologist Robert Merton dubbed “bureaucratic intellectuals”—was characterized by Herbert Spencer (one of the founders of modern sociology) as “the great political superstition.” This is the magical belief that a group of individuals calling itself a “government” can bring about results that would be impossible for those ordinary mortals who act, whether individually or in concert with others, by voluntary means. With little or no demand for their services in the voluntary marketplace, bureaucratic intellectuals serve as court counsellors who can implement their personal values, not by persuasion, but through the coercive mechanisms of legislation, judicial decisions, and administrative decrees.

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