Is there anything new to say about intellectuals? Thomas Sowell, the conservative economist and writer who hangs his hat at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, gives it a shot. Sowell is a rare being, an intellectual who makes his life half in the university and half outside it. He has taught on several campuses, writes a syndicated column, and produces a book almost every year. As a black conservative, he occupies a visible perch, and has not been shy in advancing tough critiques of busing and affirmative action. Sowell gets noticed. With a nod to his provocative ideas, Bates College established an endowed chair in economics after him. Now Sowell turns to intellectuals.

He intimates in its preface that his new book, Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books), should be considered the third of a conservative trilogy that blasts intellectuals. Paul Johnson inIntellectuals (1988) cataloged the personal misconduct and dishonesty of the species. From Johnson we learned, for instance, that Ibsen sometimes got drunk and wrote suggestive letters to young women. Johnson concluded that a dozen people picked "at random" on the street should be preferred to immoral intellectuals, which may include himself, inasmuch as his long-term mistress later denounced in public the long-married author for hypocrisy. Richard Posner inPublic Intellectuals (2003) snared the species in a scientific net to show that it behaved poorly outside its narrow terrain. For example, law professors who protested the Bush military tribunals were not specialists in criminal or international law and could not understand the pertinent issues. For Posner, intellectuals should stick to things they know, advice he flouted in his own book.

In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell cleans up what is left and—in his eyes—on the left, intellectuals who influence policy. They are not necessarily "public intellectuals," but "writers, academics, and the like" who have enormous impact on society. The question of who these intellectuals are does not much interest Sowell. He specifies that his targets are less engineers and financiers than sociologists and English professors. Their influence on millions of people, he writes, "can hardly be disputed." He mentions the impact of Lenin, Hitler, and Mao, but does not explain how English professors influenced those figures.

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