The Vision Of The Annointed

Self-congratulation As A Basis For Social Policy


By Thomas Sowell

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One of America’s pre-eminent economists offers a provocative critique of the failures of liberalism

In The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell presents a devastating critique of the mind-set behind the failed social policies of the past thirty years. Sowell sees what has happened during that time not as a series of isolated mistakes but as a logical consequence of a tainted vision whose defects have led to crises in education, crime, and family dynamics, and to other social pathologies. In this book, he describes how elites—the anointed—have replaced facts and rational thinking with rhetorical assertions, thereby altering the course of our social policy.


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At most only a tiny set of policies have been studied with even moderate care.

—George J. Stigler, Nobel Laureate in Economics



In the flaring 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, poet


The views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world—a certain vision of reality.

Visions differ of course from person to person, from society to society, and from one era to another. Visions also compete with one another, whether for the allegiance of an individual or of a whole society. But in some eras one vision so predominates over all others that it can be considered the prevailing vision of that time and place. This is the current situation among the intelligentsia of the United States and much of the Western world, however much their vision may differ from the visions of most other people. Individual variations in applying this underlying vision do not change the fundamental fact that there is a particular framework of assumptions within which most contemporary social and political discourse takes place in the media, in academia, and in politics.

The rise of the mass media, mass politics, and massive government means that the beliefs which drive a relatively small group of articulate people have great leverage in determining the course taken by a whole society.

The analysis that follows is not only an examination of the vision of this elite intelligentsia and their numerous followers in the political arena and in the courtrooms, but is also an empirical comparison between the promised benefits of policies based on that vision and the grim and often bitter consequences of those political and judicial decisions. In short, the purpose is not simply to see what kind of world exists inside the minds of a self-anointed elite, but to see how that world affects the world of reality in terms as concrete as crime, family disintegration, and other crucial social phenomena of our times.

The immediacy of the issues involved only makes it more imperative to understand the past from which they came and the future toward which they lead. Many of the intellectual and political patterns analyzed here became dominant during the 1960s and many of the assumptions underlying today’s continuations of those trends were either expressed or implied during that decade. However, the historical roots of the currently prevailing vision go back much further, in some cases for centuries. Both the past and the present must be explored, in order to understand the vision of the anointed and its dangerous legacy for the future.

Thomas Sowell
Hoover Institution



Lay not that flattering unction to your soul.


Dangers to a society may be mortal without being immediate. One such danger is the prevailing social vision of our time—and the dogmatism with which the ideas, assumptions, and attitudes behind that vision are held.

It is not that these views are especially evil or especially erroneous. Human beings have been making mistakes and committing sins as long as there have been human beings. The great catastrophes of history have usually involved much more than that. Typically, there has been an additional and crucial ingredient—some method by which feedback from reality has been prevented, so that a dangerous course of action could be blindly continued to a fatal conclusion. Much of the continent of Europe was devastated in World War II because the totalitarian regime of the Nazis did not permit those who foresaw the self-destructive consequences of Hitler’s policies to alter, or even to influence, those policies. In earlier eras as well, many individuals foresaw the self-destruction of their own civilizations, from the days of the Roman Empire to the eras of the Spanish, Ottoman, and other empires.1 Yet that alone was not enough to change the course that was leading to ruin. Today, despite free speech and the mass media, the prevailing social vision is dangerously close to sealing itself off from any discordant feedback from reality.

Even when issues of public policy are discussed in the outward form of an argument, often the conclusions reached are predetermined by the assumptions and definitions inherent in a particular vision of social processes. Different visions, of course, have different assumptions, so it is not uncommon for people who follow different visions to find themselves in opposition to one another across a vast spectrum of unrelated issues, in such disparate fields as law, foreign policy, the environment, racial policy, military defense, education, and many others.2 To a remarkable extent, however, empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted. Facts may be marshalled for a position already taken, but that is very different from systematically testing opposing theories by evidence. Momentous questions are dealt with essentially as conflicts of visions.

The focus here will be on one particular vision—the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite of our time. What is important about that vision are not only its particular assumptions and their corollaries, but also the fact that it is a prevailing vision—which means that its assumptions are so much taken for granted by so many people, including so-called “thinking people,” that neither those assumptions nor their corollaries are generally confronted with demands for empirical evidence. Indeed, empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision.

Discordant evidence may be dismissed as isolated anomalies, or as something tendentiously selected by opponents, or it may be explained away ad hoc by a theory having no empirical support whatever—except that this ad hoc theory is able to sustain itself and gain acceptance because it is consistent with the overall vision. Examples of such tactics will be numerous in the chapters that follow. What must first be considered are the reasons behind such tactics, why it is so necessary to believe in a particular vision that evidence of its incorrectness is ignored, suppressed, or discredited—ultimately, why one’s quest is not for reality but for a vision. What does the vision offer that reality does not offer?

What a vision may offer, and what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane. Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin. For those who have this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same cold rules of logic and evidence. The benighted are to be made “aware,” to have their “consciousness raised,” and the wistful hope is held out that they will “grow.” Should the benighted prove recalcitrant, however, then their “mean-spiritedness” must be fought and the “real reasons” behind their arguments and actions exposed. While verbal fashions change, this basic picture of the differential rectitude of the anointed and the benighted has not changed fundamentally in at least two hundred years.3

These are not mere debating tactics. People are never more sincere than when they assume their own moral superiority. Nor are such attitudes inherent in polemics, as such. Some very strong polemicists have argued that their opponents were well-meaning and even intelligent—but dangerously mistaken on the issue at hand. Some “may do the worst of things, without being the worst of men,” Edmund Burke said in the eighteenth century.4 Similarly, when Malthus attacked a popular vision of his time, exemplified in the writings of William Godwin and Condorcet, he said:

I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candor.5

Yet Godwin’s response was quite different. He called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said, “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”6

More was involved here than mere differences in personal styles of polemics. This asymmetry in arguments reflected an asymmetry in visions that has persisted for centuries. When Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom attacked the welfare state and socialism in 1944, he characterized his adversaries as “single-minded idealists” and “authors whose sincerity and disinterestedness are above suspicion,” but his own book was treated as something immoral, which some American publishers refused to publish, despite its already demonstrated impact in England.7 Similarly, a 1993 book, highly critical of liberal social policies, nevertheless credited the proponents of those policies as being people who “want to help” out of “decent and generous motives,”8 even though it concludes that the net result has been to “keep the poor in their poverty.”9 By contrast, a 1992 bestseller by a proponent of such liberal social policies declared, “conservatives don’t really care whether black Americans are happy or unhappy.”10 Nor is this demonizing of opponents of the vision confined to America or to racial issues. The distinguished French writer Jean-François Revel, who has opposed many aspects of the prevailing vision, reports being treated, even in a social setting, as someone with only “residual traces of homo sapiens.”11

A contemporary writer has summarized the differences between those with the vision of the anointed—the left—and others this way:

Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope. Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil.12

The contemporary anointed and those who follow them make much of their “compassion” for the less fortunate, their “concern” for the environment, and their being “anti-war,” for example—as if these were characteristics which distinguish them from people with opposite views on public policy. The very idea that such an opponent of the prevailing vision as Milton Friedman, for example, has just as much compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged, that he is just as much appalled by pollution, or as horrified by the sufferings and slaughter imposed by war on millions of innocent men, women, and children—such an idea would be a very discordant note in the vision of the anointed. If such an idea were fully accepted, this would mean that opposing arguments on social policy were arguments about methods, probabilities, and empirical evidence—with compassion, caring, and the like being common features on both sides, thus cancelling out and disappearing from the debate. That clearly is not the vision of the anointed. One reason for the preservation and insulation of a vision is that it has become inextricably intertwined with the egos of those who believe it. Despite Hamlet’s warning against self-flattery, the vision of the anointed is not simply a vision of the world and its functioning in a causal sense, but is also a vision of themselves and of their moral role in that world. It is a vision of differential rectitude. It is not a vision of the tragedy of the human condition: Problems exist because others are not as wise or as virtuous as the anointed.

The great ideological crusades of twentieth-century intellectuals have ranged across the most disparate fields—from the eugenics movement of the early decades of the century to the environmentalism of the later decades, not to mention the welfare state, socialism, communism, Keynesian economics, and medical, nuclear, and automotive safety. What all these highly disparate crusades have in common is their moral exaltation of the anointed above others, who are to have their very different views nullified and superseded by the views of the anointed, imposed via the power of government. Despite the great variety of issues in a series of crusading movements among the intelligentsia during the twentieth century, several key elements have been common to most of them:

1. Assertions of a great danger to the whole society, a danger to which the masses of people are oblivious.

2. An urgent need for action to avert impending catastrophe.

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

4. A disdainful dismissal of arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by unworthy purposes.

Specific arguments on particular issues will be dealt with in the chapters that follow, but these specific arguments need not detain us at this point. What is remarkable is how few arguments are really engaged in, and how many substitutes for arguments there are. These substitutes for arguments are, almost by definition, more available to adherents of the prevailing vision, whose assumptions are so widely accepted as to permit conclusions based on those assumptions to pass muster without further scrutiny.

The prevailing vision of our era is long overdue for a critical re-examination—or, for many, a first examination. This vision so permeates the media and academia, and has made such major inroads into the religious community, that many grow to adulthood unaware that there is any other way of looking at things, or that evidence might be relevant to checking out the sweeping assumptions of so-called “thinking people.” Many of these “thinking people” could more accurately be characterized as articulate people, as people whose verbal nimbleness can elude both evidence and logic. This can be a fatal talent, when it supplies the crucial insulation from reality behind many historic catastrophes.

Despite the power of the prevailing vision, some have escaped its gravitational pull. Indeed, most of the leading contemporary opponents of the prevailing vision were themselves formerly within its orbit. Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Edward Ban-field, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz—the list goes on and on—once shared many of the assumptions of those with whom they came ultimately to differ so fundamentally. Even in the realm of practical politics, the most prominent and most successful opponent of the prevailing vision, Ronald Reagan, was once so much a part of it that he belonged to the liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action.

In short, few have spent their entire lives outside the vision of the anointed, and virtually no one has been unaffected by it. Understanding that vision, its current impact and its future dangers, is the purpose of this book.



They went to work with unsurpassable efficiency. Full employment, a maximum of resulting output, and general well-being ought to have been the consequence. It is true that instead we find misery, shame and, at the end of it all, a stream of blood. But that was a chance coincidence.

—Joseph A. Schumpeter1

What is intellectually interesting about visions are their assumptions and their reasoning, but what is socially crucial is the extent to which they are resistant to evidence. All social theories being imperfect, the harm done by their imperfections depends not only on how far they differ from reality, but also on how readily they adjust to evidence, to come back into line with the facts. One theory may be more plausible, or even more sound, than another, but if it is also more dogmatic, then that can make it far more dangerous than a theory that is not initially as close to the truth but which is more capable of adjusting to feedback from the real world. The prevailing vision of our time—the vision of the anointed—has shown an extraordinary ability to defy evidence.

Characteristic patterns have developed among the anointed for dealing with the repeated failures of policies based on their vision. Other patterns have developed for seizing upon statistics in such a way as to buttress the assumptions of the vision, even when the same set of statistics contains numbers that contradict the vision. Finally, there is the phenomenon of honored prophets among the anointed, who continue to be honored as their predictions fail by vast margins, time and again. The first of these phenomena will be explored in this chapter, the others in the chapters that follow.


A very distinct pattern has emerged repeatedly when policies favored by the anointed turn out to fail. This pattern typically has four stages:

STAGE 1. THE “CRISIS”: Some situation exists, whose negative aspects the anointed propose to eliminate. Such a situation is routinely characterized as a “crisis,” even though all human situations have negative aspects, and even though evidence is seldom asked or given to show how the situation at hand is either uniquely bad or threatening to get worse. Sometimes the situation described as a “crisis” has in fact already been getting better for years.

STAGE 2. THE “SOLUTION”: Policies to end the “crisis” are advocated by the anointed, who say that these policies will lead to beneficial result A. Critics say that these policies will lead to detrimental result Z. The anointed dismiss these latter claims as absurd and “simplistic,” if not dishonest.

STAGE 3. THE RESULTS: The policies are instituted and lead to detrimental result Z.

STAGE 4. THE RESPONSE: Those who attribute detrimental result Z to the policies instituted are dismissed as “simplistic” for ignoring the “complexities” involved, as “many factors” went into determining the outcome. The burden of proof is put on the critics to demonstrate to a certainty that these policies alone were the only possible cause of the worsening that occurred. No burden of proof whatever is put on those who had so confidently predicted improvement. Indeed, it is often asserted that things would have been even worse, were it not for the wonderful programs that mitigated the inevitable damage from other factors.

Examples of this pattern are all too abundant. Three will be considered here. The first and most general involves the set of social welfare policies called the “war on poverty” during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, but continuing under other labels since then. Next is the policy of introducing “sex education” into the public schools, as a means of reducing teenage pregnancy and venereal diseases. The third example will be policies designed to reduce crime by adopting a less punitive approach, being more concerned with preventive social policies beforehand and rehabilitation afterward, as well as showing more concern for the legal rights of defendants in criminal cases.

The “War on Poverty”

Governmental policies designed to alleviate the privations of the poor go back much further than President Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and of course reach far beyond the boundaries of the United States. What was different about this particular set of social programs, first proposed to Congress during the Kennedy administration and later enacted into law during the Johnson administration, was that its stated purpose was a reduction of dependency, not simply the provision of more material goods to the poor. This was the recurring theme of the “war on poverty,” from the time President Kennedy introduced this legislation in 1962 until President Johnson saw it passed and signed it into law in 1964.

John F. Kennedy stated the purpose of the “war on poverty” to be “to help our less fortunate citizens to help themselves.”2 He said: “We must find ways of returning far more of our dependent people to independence.”3 The whole point of currently increased federal spending on this effort was “to strengthen and broaden the rehabilitative and preventive services” offered to “persons who are dependent or who would otherwise become dependent,” so that long-run savings in government spending were expected from a subsequent decline in dependency. As President Kennedy put it:

Public welfare, in short, must be more than a salvage operation, picking up the debris from the wreckage of human lives. Its emphasis must be directed increasingly toward prevention and rehabilitation—on reducing not only the long-range cost in budgetary terms but the long-range cost in human terms as well.4

The same theme of increased short-run spending for long-run savings, as a result of reduced dependency, was a theme repeated in a New York Times editorial:

President Kennedy’s welfare message to Congress yesterday stems from a recognition that no lasting solution to the problem can be bought with a relief check. Financial help to the needy must be supplemented by a vastly expanded range of professional and community services. Their aim: to keep men, women and children from having to rely on public assistance by making them useful, creative citizens. The President does not pretend it will be cheap to provide the needed build-up in staff, facilities and rehabilitation allowances. The initial cost will actually be greater than the mere continuation of handouts. The dividends will come in the restoration of individual dignity and in the long-run reduction of the need for government help.5

The Congressional Quarterly of the same date (February 2, 1962) likewise reported: “The President stressed that the welfare program should be directed toward the prevention of dependence and the rehabilitation of current relief recipients.”6

The same theme carried over into the Johnson administration, where the anti-poverty program was sold as a way to “break the cycle of poverty” and to make “taxpayers out of taxeaters.”7 “Give a hand, not a handout” was the slogan of the “war on poverty.” In keeping with that theme, President Johnson said in August 1964, when the legislation was finally passed: “The days of the dole in our country are numbered.”8 This initial thrust of the “war on poverty” programs must be clearly recognized at the outset, for one of many responses to the failures of government programs has been to redefine their goals after the fact, to make the programs look “successful.”

A subsidiary theme of the “war on poverty” was that social programs were a way of heading off urban violence. Lyndon Johnson spoke of “conditions that breed despair and violence.” He said:

All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs.9

The same theme was echoed in the celebrated 1968 Kerner Commission report on ghetto riots, which proclaimed that pervasive discrimination and segregation were “the source of the deepest bitterness and lie at the center of the problem of racial disorder.”10 The riots of 1967 were attributed to “the failure of all levels of government—Federal and state as well as local—to come to grips with the problems of our cities.” In keeping with this theme that bad social conditions and official neglect lead to despair, which in turn leads to violence, civil rights leaders and other minority spokesmen began regularly predicting “a long hot summer” of violence if their demands for more government programs were not met.11 Such predictions became a staple of political discourse and have remained so over the years. Government agencies seeking to expand their budgets and extend their powers likewise encouraged the belief that social programs reduced the incidence of riots and other violence, while a reduction of such programs would escalate civil disorder.12

A diametrically opposite set of beliefs and predictions came from critics of the “war on poverty” proposals. Senator Barry Goldwater predicted that these programs would “encourage poverty” by encouraging “more and more people to move into the ranks of those being taken care of by the government.”13 Nor did he expect expanded social programs to lead to a more harmonious society, for he saw their underlying philosophy as an “attempt to divide Americans” along class lines, to “pigeon-hole people and make hyphenated Americans.”14 As these programs got under way, the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Detroit blamed the “war on poverty” for “fostering class struggle” through its support of community activists, radical intellectuals, and others with a vested interest in disaffection and turmoil.15 The assumption that initial increases in government spending on social programs would lead to reduced spending in later years, as dependency declined, was likewise disputed by opponents like columnist Henry Hazlitt, who said, “we can expect the price tag to increase geometrically as the years go on.”16


  • "This is as compelling an explanation as any for the seemingly disproportionate amount of condescension and politically correct invective that emanates from the liberal side of the political spectrum toward the conservative opposition."—Scott McConnell, Wall Street Journal
  • "As always, Sowell's analysis is well informed and displays a great deal of that increasingly uncommon quality, common sense... In the largest sense, The Vision of the Anointed is a book about the perils of ideology—those dazzling intellectual-moral constructions that seduce the unwary into ignoring the way the world works for the sake of dreams about the way it must."—Roger Kimball, The American Spectator
  • "Mr. Sowell's eye is sharp, and everyone who has been up against progressive orthodoxy will find his or her own candidate for Most Annoying Liberal Kiss-Off Award."—Suzanne Garment, Washington Times
  • "Avid conservatives, for whom Sowell is a true-blue intellectual force, will certainly seize upon his analysis for succor."—Booklist

On Sale
Jun 28, 1996
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Sowell

About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of dozens of books including Charter Schools and Their Enemies, winner of the 2021 Hayek Book Prize. He is the recipient of numerous other awards, including the National Humanities Medal, presented by the President of the United States in 2003.

Learn more about this author