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The Thomas Sowell Reader
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These selections from the many writings of Thomas Sowell over a period of a half century cover social, economic, cultural, legal, educational, and political issues. The sources range from Dr. Sowell’s letters, books, newspaper columns, and articles in both scholarly journals and popular magazines. The topics range from late-talking children to “tax cuts for the rich,” baseball, race, war, the role of judges, medical care, and the rhetoric of politicians. These topics are dealt with by sometimes drawing on history, sometimes drawing on economics, and sometimes drawing on a sense of humor.
The Thomas Sowell Reader includes essays on:* Social Issues* Economics* Political Issues* Legal Issues* Race and Ethnicity* Educational Issues* Biographical Sketches* Random Thoughts
“My hope is that this large selection of my writings will reduce the likelihood that readers will misunderstand what I have said on many controversial issues over the years. Whether the reader will agree with all my conclusions is another question entirely. But disagreements can be productive, while misunderstandings seldom are.” — Thomas Sowell
Summarizing the work of a lifetime can be a challenge, even for someone who has stuck to one specialty. I found it even more challenging because of my very long lifetime and the wide-ranging fields in which I have written over the years, ranging from economic writings in academic journals to both humorous and serious newspaper columns on everything from baseball to politics to war to late-talking children—not to mention a few books on history, housing, autobiography, intellectuals and race.
Frankly, it would never have occurred to me to try to collect all these very different things within the covers of one book, had the idea not been suggested to me by John Sherer, publisher of Basic Books. I am glad he did, however. A sampling of all these items may have more things to interest the general reader than a book devoted to one subject, aimed at one audience.
In each of the various sections of the book—whether on culture, economics, politics, law, education or race—I have led off with newspaper columns before moving on to longer writings that permit more in-depth explorations. Each reader can choose from a wide spectrum of subjects to explore, and decide which to sample and which to go into more deeply. Some of the most popular of my newspaper columns have been those titled "Random Thoughts." Various unrelated statements about the passing scene from some of these columns have been collected in the "Random Thoughts" section of this book.
My hope is that this large selection of my writings will reduce the likelihood that readers will misunderstand what I have said on many controversial issues over the years. Whether the reader will agree with all my conclusions is another question entirely. But disagreements can be productive, while misunderstandings seldom are.
One reason for some misunderstandings is that my approach and my goals have been too plain and straightforward for those people who are looking for hidden agendas or other complex motives. From an early age, I have been concerned with trying to understand the social problems that abound in any society. First and foremost, this was an attempt to try to grasp some explanation of the puzzling and disturbing things going on around me. This was all for my own personal clarification, since I had neither political ambitions nor the political talents required for either elective or appointed office. But, once having achieved some sense of understanding of particular issues—a process that sometimes took years—I wanted to share that understanding with others. That is the reason for the things that appear in this book.
The Hoover Institution
The Hoover Institution
Identifying the books from which the material excerpted here has been taken will be done in the "Sources" section at the end of the book, for the benefit of those readers who might want to read the fuller accounts in the original. However, no similar reason applies to the numerous columns of mine reprinted from newspapers and magazines over the years, so these sources are not listed.
Thanks are due to the Yale University Press for permission to reprint my critique of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" from On Classical Economics and the first chapter of Affirmative Action Around the World. The autobiographical material is reprinted with the kind permission of The Free Press to excerpt the first and last chapters of A Personal Odyssey. Other material excerpted here from Basic Economics, Intellectuals and Society, Migrations and Cultures, The Vision of the Anointed, Applied Economics and Conquests and Cultures are all from books that are already the property of Basic Books. The chapter titled "Marx the Man" is from Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, which is out of print and whose copyright is mine.
Thanks are also due to my dedicated and hard-working research assistants, Na Liu and Elizabeth Costa, who have contributed so much to the original writings from which these excerpts are taken, as well as to the production of this book. I am also grateful to the Hoover Institution, which has made all our work possible.
GRASSHOPPER AND ANT
Just as the "Rocky" and "Star Wars" movies had their sequels, so should the old classic fables. Here is the sequel to a well-known fable.
Once upon a time, a grasshopper and an ant lived in a field. All summer long, the grasshopper romped and played, while the ant worked hard under the boiling sun to store up food for the winter.
When winter came, the grasshopper was hungry. One cold and rainy day, he went to ask the ant for some food.
"What are you, crazy?" the ant said. "I've been breaking my back all summer long while you ran around hopping and laughing at me for missing all the fun in life."
"Did I do that?" the grasshopper asked meekly.
"Yes! You said I was one of those old-fashioned clods who had missed the whole point of the modern self-realization philosophy."
"Gee, I'm sorry about that," the grasshopper said. "I didn't realize you were so sensitive. But surely you are not going to hold that against me at a time like this."
"Well, I don't hold a grudge—but I do have a long memory."
Just then another ant came along.
"Hi, Lefty," the first ant said.
"Lefty, do you know what this grasshopper wants me to do? He wants me to give him some of the food I worked for all summer, under the blazing sun."
"I would have thought you would already have volunteered to share with him, without being asked," Lefty said.
"When we have disparate shares in the bounty of nature, the least we can do is try to correct the inequity."
"Nature's bounty, my foot," George said. "I had to tote this stuff uphill and cross a stream on a log—all the while looking out for ant-eaters. Why couldn't this lazy bum gather his own food and store it?"
"Now, now, George," Lefty soothed. "Nobody uses the word 'bum' anymore. We say 'the homeless'."
"I say 'bum'. Anyone who is too lazy to put a roof over his head, who prefers to stand out in this cold rain to doing a little work—"
The grasshopper broke in: "I didn't know it was going to rain like this. The weather forecast said 'fair and warmer'."
"Fair and warmer?" George sniffed. "That's what the forecasters told Noah!"
Lefty looked pained. "I'm surprised at your callousness, George—your selfishness, your greed."
"Have you gone crazy, Lefty?"
"No. On the contrary, I have become educated."
"Sometimes that's worse, these days."
"Last summer, I followed a trail of cookie crumbs left by some students. It led to a classroom at Ivy University."
"You've been to college? No wonder you come back here with all these big words and dumb ideas."
"I disdain to answer that," Lefty said. "Anyway, it was Professor Murky's course on Social Justice. He explained how the world's benefits are unequally distributed."
"The world's benefits?" George repeated. "The world didn't carry this food uphill. The world didn't cross the water on a log. The world isn't going to be eaten by any ant-eater."
"That's the narrow way of looking at it," Lefty said.
"If you're so generous, why don't you feed this grasshopper?"
"I will," Lefty replied. Then, turning to the grasshopper, he said: "Follow me. I will take you to the government's shelter, where there will be food and a dry place to sleep."
George gasped. "You're working for the government now?"
"I'm in public service," Lefty said loftily. "I want to 'make a difference' in this world."
"You really have been to college," George said. "But if you're such a friend of the grasshopper, why don't you teach him how to work during the summer and save something for the winter?"
"We have no right to change his lifestyle and try to make him like us. That would be cultural imperialism."
George was too stunned to answer.
Lefty not only won the argument, he continued to expand his program of shelters for grasshoppers. As word spread, grasshoppers came from miles around. Eventually, some of the younger ants decided to adopt the grasshopper lifestyle.
As the older generation of ants passed from the scene, more and more ants joined the grasshoppers, romping and playing in the fields. Finally, all the ants and all the grasshoppers spent all their time enjoying the carefree lifestyle and lived happily ever after—all summer long. Then the winter came.
EVER WONDER WHY?
When you have seen scenes of poverty and squalor in many Third World countries, either in person or in pictures, have you ever wondered why we in America have been spared such a fate?
When you have learned of the bitter oppressions that so many people have suffered under, in despotic countries around the world, have you ever wondered why Americans have been spared?
Have scenes of government-sponsored carnage and lethal mob violence in countries like Rwanda or in the Balkans ever made you wonder why such horrifying scenes are not found on the streets of America?
Nothing is easier than to take for granted what we are used to, and to imagine that it is more or less natural, so that it requires no explanation. Instead, many Americans demand explanations of why things are not even better and express indignation that they are not.
Some people think the issue is whether the glass is half empty or half full. More fundamentally, the question is whether the glass started out empty or started out full.
Those who are constantly looking for the "root causes" of poverty, of crime, and of other national and international problems, act as if prosperity and law-abiding behavior are so natural that it is their absence which has to be explained. But a casual glance around the world today, or back through history, would dispel any notion that good things just happen naturally, much less inevitably.
The United States of America is the exception, not the rule. Once we realize that America is an exception, we might even have a sense of gratitude for having been born here, even if gratitude has become un-cool in many quarters. At the very least, we might develop some concern for seeing that whatever has made this country better off is not lost or discarded—or eroded away, bit by bit, until it is gone.
Those among us who are constantly rhapsodizing about "change" in vague and general terms seem to have no fear that a blank check for change can be a huge risk in a world where so many other countries that are different are also far worse off.
Chirping about "change" may produce a giddy sense of excitement or of personal exaltation but, as usual, the devil is in the details. Even despotic countries that have embraced sweeping changes have often found that these were changes for the worse.
The czars in Russia, the shah of Iran, the Batista regime in Cuba, were all despotic. But they look like sweethearts compared to the regimes that followed. For example, the czars never executed as many people in half a century as Stalin did in one day.
Even the best countries must make changes and the United States has made many economic, social, and political changes for the better. But that is wholly different from making "change" a mantra.
To be for or against "change" in general is childish. Everything depends on the specifics. To be for generic "change" is to say that what we have is so bad that any change is likely to be for the better.
Such a pose may make some people feel superior to others who find much that is worth preserving in our values, traditions and institutions. The status quo is never sacrosanct but its very existence proves that it is viable, as seductive theoretical alternatives may not turn out to be.
Most Americans take our values, traditions and institutions so much for granted that they find it hard to realize how much all these things are under constant attack in our schools, our colleges, and in much of the press, the movies and literature.
There is a culture war going on within the United States—and in fact, within Western civilization as a whole—which may ultimately have as much to do with our survival, or failure to survive, as the war on terrorism.
There are all sorts of financial, ideological, and psychic rewards for undermining American society and its values. Unless some of us realize the existence of this culture war, and the high stakes in it, we can lose what cost those Americans before us so much to win and preserve.
A "DUTY TO DIE"?
One of the many fashionable notions that have caught on among some of the intelligentsia is that old people have "a duty to die," rather than become a burden to others.
This is more than just an idea discussed around a seminar table. Already the government-run medical system in Britain is restricting what medications or treatments it will authorize for the elderly. Moreover, it seems almost certain that similar attempts to contain runaway costs will lead to similar policies when American medical care is taken over by the government.
Make no mistake about it, letting old people die is a lot cheaper than spending the kind of money required to keep them alive and well. If a government-run medical system is going to save any serious amount of money, it is almost certain to do so by sacrificing the elderly.
There was a time—fortunately, now long past—when some desperately poor societies had to abandon old people to their fate, because there was just not enough margin for everyone to survive. Sometimes the elderly themselves would simply go off from their family and community to face their fate alone.
But is that where we are today?
Talk about "a duty to die" made me think back to my early childhood in the South, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One day, I was told that an older lady—a relative of ours—was going to come and stay with us for a while, and I was told how to be polite and considerate towards her.
She was called "Aunt Nance Ann," but I don't know what her official name was or what her actual biological relationship to us was. Aunt Nance Ann had no home of her own. But she moved around from relative to relative, not spending enough time in any one home to be a real burden.
At that time, we didn't have things like electricity or central heating or hot running water. But we had a roof over our heads and food on the table—and Aunt Nance Ann was welcome to both.
Poor as we were, I never heard anybody say, or even intimate, that Aunt Nance Ann had "a duty to die."
I only began to hear that kind of talk decades later, from highly educated people in an affluent age, when even most families living below the official poverty level owned a car or truck and had air-conditioning.
It is today, in an age when homes have flat-panelled TVs, and most families eat in restaurants regularly or have pizzas and other meals delivered to their homes, that the elites—rather than the masses—have begun talking about "a duty to die."
Back in the days of Aunt Nance Ann, nobody in our family had ever gone to college. Indeed, none had gone beyond elementary school. Apparently you need a lot of expensive education, sometimes including courses on ethics, before you can start talking about "a duty to die."
Many years later, while going through a divorce, I told a friend that I was considering contesting child custody. She immediately urged me not to do it. Why? Because raising a child would interfere with my career.
But my son didn't have a career. He was just a child who needed someone who understood him. I ended up with custody of my son and, although he was not a demanding child, raising him could not help impeding my career a little. But do you just abandon a child when it is inconvenient to raise him?
The lady who gave me this advice had a degree from the Harvard Law School. She had more years of education than my whole family had, back in the days of Aunt Nance Ann.
Much of what is taught in our schools and colleges today seeks to break down traditional values, and replace them with more fancy and fashionable notions, of which "a duty to die" is just one.
These efforts at changing values used to be called "values clarification," though the name has had to be changed repeatedly over the years, as more and more parents caught on to what was going on and objected. The values that supposedly needed "clarification" had been clear enough to last for generations and nobody asked the schools and colleges for this "clarification."
Nor are we better people because of it.
THE MONEY OF FOOLS
Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that words are wise men's counters, but they are the money of fools.
That is as painfully true today as it was four centuries ago. Using words as vehicles to try to convey your meaning is very different from taking words so literally that the words use you and confuse you.
Take the simple phrase "rent control." If you take these words literally—as if they were money in the bank—you get a complete distortion of reality.
New York is the city with the oldest and strongest rent control laws in the nation. San Francisco is second. But if you look at cities with the highest average rents, New York is first and San Francisco is second. Obviously, "rent control" laws do not control rent.
If you check out the facts, instead of relying on words, you will discover that "gun control" laws do not control guns, the government's "stimulus" spending does not stimulate the economy and that many "compassionate" policies inflict cruel results, such as the destruction of the black family.
Do you know how many millions of people died in the war "to make the world safe for democracy"—a war that led to autocratic dynasties being replaced by totalitarian dictatorships that slaughtered far more of their own people than the dynasties had?
Warm, fuzzy words and phrases have an enormous advantage in politics. None has had such a long run of political success as "social justice."
The idea cannot be refuted because it has no specific meaning. Fighting it would be like trying to punch the fog. No wonder "social justice" has been such a political success for more than a century—and counting.
While the term has no defined meaning, it has emotionally powerful connotations. There is a strong sense that it is simply not right—that it is unjust—that some people are so much better off than others.
Justification, even as the term is used in printing and carpentry, means aligning one thing with another. But what is the standard to which we think incomes or other benefits should be aligned?
Is the person who has spent years in school goofing off, acting up or fighting—squandering the tens of thousands of dollars that the taxpayers have spent on his education—supposed to end up with his income aligned with that of the person who spent those same years studying to acquire knowledge and skills that would later be valuable to himself and to society at large?
Some advocates of "social justice" would argue that what is fundamentally unjust is that one person is born into circumstances that make that person's chances in life radically different from the chances that others have—through no fault of one and through no merit of the others.
Maybe the person who wasted educational opportunities and developed self-destructive behavior would have turned out differently if born into a different home or a different community.
That would of course be more just. But now we are no longer talking about "social" justice, unless we believe that it is all society's fault that different families and communities have different values and priorities—and that society can "solve" that "problem."
Nor can poverty or poor education explain such differences. There are individuals who were raised by parents who were both poor and poorly educated, but who pushed their children to get the education that the parents themselves never had. Many individuals and groups would not be where they are today without that.
All kinds of chance encounters—with particular people, information or circumstances—have marked turning points in many individual's lives, whether toward fulfillment or ruin.
None of these things is equal or can be made equal. If this is an injustice, it is not a "social" injustice because it is beyond the power of society.
You can talk or act as if society is both omniscient and omnipotent. But, to do so would be to let words become what Thomas Hobbes called them, "the money of fools."
BOOMERS AND BOOMERANGS
Time was when grandparents often moved in with their children and grandchildren, especially when the grandparent was a widow or widower, or just had trouble making ends meet financially. Today, it is the children and grandchildren who move in with the grandparents.
A recent Census Bureau report shows that there are three times as many households where the children and grandchildren are living in the grandparents' home as there are where the grandparents are living with their children and grandchildren. Moreover, this trend is growing.
Back in 1970, there were a little more than 2 million children under 18 who were living in their grandparents' households. By 1997, that had reached nearly 4 million. Six percent of all children under 18 live in their grandparents' households.
There was a time when any adult who had gone out into the world would be embarrassed to come back and live with his parents, much less bring his or her family too. Today, this is such a common occurrence among the baby boomers that there is a word for grown children who leave home and then come back—"boomerangs."
Perhaps the worst situation of all is when both parents have skipped out and dumped their children on grandma and grandpa. This happens about one-third of the time when grandchildren are living in their grandparents' home.
These grandparents are not rich people living on investments and annuities. Most of the grandparents are working, even if their children aren't. Moreover, they suffer more depression and other health problems than grandparents without such burdens.
Bad as this is, what is worse is to contemplate what is going to happen when the last of the responsible generation—those who feel a responsibility to look out for both their aging parents and their adult children—pass from the scene, leaving behind only the "me" generation.
This is only one of many social time bombs ticking away, while we enjoy a prospering economy. We may hope that the "me" generation will grow up when they run out of other people to dump their responsibilities on. But don't bet the rent money on it.
People don't usually grow up when there are other people who make excuses for their immaturity. In a "non-judgmental" world, who is to tell irresponsible parents to grow up?
Even when the parents are present and have their children in their own homes, they seem increasingly to be letting these children pretty much raise themselves. When a woman was complaining recently about some bratty and even dangerous behavior she sees in children, I asked, "Where are their parents?" She replied: "There are no parents today." I had to admit that she had a point.
One of the biggest excuses for lax parenting is that both parents "have to" work, in order to "make ends meet." Yet, within living memory, it was common in working-class families—black and white—for the husband to work and the wife to stay home to raise the children. Why didn't both parents have to work then, in order to make ends meet?
Were people so much richer then? On the contrary, they were much poorer. Today's families living in poverty have things that average Americans could not afford then.
People today eat in restaurants more times in a month than they used to in a year—or, in some cases, a decade. As a young man, I was uneasy when I began eating in restaurants, because I had so seldom eaten in one while growing up. As for having a car, the thought never crossed my mind.
If people in those days had lived the way we live today, of course it would have taken both parents to make ends meet. They would probably have had to put the children to work too.
People make choices and have their own priorities—and adults take responsibilities for their choices and priorities. It is a cop-out to say that they are "forced" to have two-income families just "to make ends meet."
- "It's a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books."—Steve Forbes
- "America's best writer on economics, particularly when that discipline intersects with politics."—World
- "Thomas Sowell is, in my opinion, the most interesting philosopher at work in America."—Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2011
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Basic Books