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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dr. Thomas Sowell

Dr. Sowell is a brilliant conservative scholar and thinker. I look forward to each new column from him as I would words of wisdom from a wise uncle.

He has also written many well-researched, scholarly books. Most are for the more advanced student, but don't be discouraged!  He is an excellent teacher who explains advanced concepts in an understandable way.  His books are well worth the effort.  If you're still scared of big books, take his wisdom in smaller bites by reading his columns.


Among the many excellent books Dr. Sowell has written, Vision of the Anointed and The Quest For Cosmic Justice explain how liberal intellectual pointy-heads have gotten us to the social and fiscal mess we now find ourselves in. Read these books and you will never again be sucked in by politicians promising "solutions."

In the flaming parks, in the taverns, in the hushed academies, your murmur will applaud the wisdom of a thousand quacks.  For theirs is the kingdom.
-- Kenneth Fearing, as quoted by Dr. Sowell at the beginning of Vision of the Anointed

He explains how the "Anointed" foist their dubious schemes upon the "Benighted," completely uninterested in empirical data that shows just how full of it they are.

The anointed believe in grand solutions, magic bullets and in the ability to change human nature.  Get enough smart people in the room, the best and brightest, and we can solve anything!  They appeal to the benighted with vague, emotional terms like justice and fairness.

I like to think of them as Plato's philosopher kings:  If all of us schleps would just get out of their way and let them run everything and tell everybody what to do, it would all be solved.

No Solutions, Only Trade-offs

We ordinary folk are the benighted.  We have a tragic vision of life and mankind.  Life will never be perfect and mankind is fatally flawed.  The religious among us even dare to blame it on original sin.  We like our institutions that guard society, we just don't want them getting too big and powerful.  We know there is no such thing as a magic bullet or a cost-free solution.  There are only trade-offs. 

The benighted believe in the collective wisdom of society and free markets; the anointed vest all hope in the brilliance of the "best and brightest," or a wise elite.

Here is the pattern of the anointed (Al Gore and global warming come to mind, and Sowell wrote this back in 1996!):

1.  Assert that their is a great danger to all of society

2.  Assert an urgent need to action to avert the impending catastrophe

3.  Posit the need for government to curtail dangerous behavior of the many, in response to the prescient conclusions of the few.

4.  Disdainfully dismiss arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by unworthy purposes.

The Anointed hijacked our government and made things worse

He shows: How government dependence has has increased since the war on poverty began; How venereal disease, rape and unwanted pregnancies have exploded since sex education has been foisted upon our schoolchildren; That crime has also exploded since sociologists and liberal judges hijacked the criminal justice system in an attempt to "understand" criminals instead of just jailing or executing them.

More controversially, he punctures the myth of "the legacy of slavery" that is used to explain away all dysfunction that is all too common to our inner cities.  He does this by tracking employment, marriage and out of wedlock births from the civil war up to the 1990s.  Guess what?  The trendlines for African Americans trended upwards after the civil war.  When did they start going down?  You guessed it.  The 1960s!

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Dr. Sowell shows how one can aggregate or disaggregate sample data to make their point.  A good example is pay inequality.  Men make more than women.  Sounds bad, doesn't it?  Well, women take time off to have babies, but put that aside and look at education.  Are men more educated? No.  Aha!  But wait.   All college degrees are not deemed equal in the marketplace.  Men tend to get the degrees that make money, while women tend more towards liberal arts and social sciences, which do not make as much money. 

The Elite arrogantly take a cosmic viewpoint, attempting to take all backgrounds and motives into consideration (Go easy on that murdering thief, he had a disadvantaged childhood).  The problem, as Dr. Sowell explains, is that no man is God and no man has a cosmic view of life and mankind.  We must deal with life as we find it.    

5 Propositions of the Anointed

1.  Social problems exist not because of inherent limitations of the human condition, but because other people lack the wisdom of virtue of the anointed

2.  Evolved traditions or systemic processes growing out of the experiences of the masses mean nothing.  The applied rationality of the anointed is how to solve problems.

3.  Social causation is intentional, not systemic.  Sloth cannot cause poverty, it must be racism!  The poor of any race can't get ahead because the rich are keeping them down.

4.  Social and biological dangers can be averted only by imposing the vision of the anointed on the benighted by force of government

5.  Opposition to the vision is not due to a different reading of complex and inconclusive evidence.  Opposition exists only because opponents are lacking, either inellectually or morally.

"They treat their propositions not as hypotheses to be tested, but as self-evident axioms"

Life is a thinking man's game.  Here are some thoughts from Dr. Sowell:

All statements are true if you are free to redefine your terms

For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.  But for every fact, there is not necessarily an equal and opposite fact.

Every policy is a success by sufficiently low standards and a failure by sufficiently high standards

The law of diminishing returns means that even the most beneficial principle will become harmful if carried far enough

The same set of statistics can produce opposite conclusions at different levels of aggregation

Improbable events are commonplace in a country with more than a quarter billion people



I for one am a big fan of Thomas Sowell. I rank him as one of my five favorite political thinkers.

Hyphenated American said...

I've first found him when I bought his book "Marxism" for $5 from some book sale. This book absolutely captured me - even though I was hardly a novice in socialism - I've been born and educated in the USSR, and I read "Road to Serfdom". Anyone who wants to study marxism should read this book.

The second one is of course "Knowledge and Decisions" by Sowell. anotehr magnificent book.

Anonymous said...

He's a brilliant man indeed.