David R. Henderson  

Tom Sowell's Latest Book

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My Hoover colleague, Thomas Sowell, has come out with yet another book. Titled Intellectuals and Society, it has been sitting on my pile for about two weeks. (His publisher sends me gratis copies because I review books in Regulation and elsewhere.)

What motivated me to crack the book this weekend is a strange review I read in The New Republic. Now, I'm not a fan of The New Republic, especially their views on foreign policy, but I have been a fan of its book review section. The reviews are often thoughtful, nuanced, beautiful essays. The review of Sowell's book wasn't. Here's the opening sentence from the review by Alan Wolfe:

Let's get my judgment of Thomas Sowell's new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages.

"Wow!," I thought, "Even when I've disagreed with Sowell, I've never seen him fail to get interesting ideas out in 300 pages: typically he has one every page or two." So I had to start reading the book.

Let's get my judgment of Thomas Sowell's new book out of the way first. I like it. I was motivated to contact one of my editors and line up a deal to write a review. So I'll be brief here. Here are three gems from one page:

Why the transfer of decisions from those with personal experience and a stake in the outcome to those with neither can be expected to lead to better decisions is a question seldom asked, much less answered. Given the greater cost of correcting surrogate decisions, compared to correcting individual decisions, and the greater cost of persisting in mistaken decisions by those making decisions for themselves, compared to the lower costs of those making mistaken decisions for others, the economic success of market economies is hardly surprising and neither are the counterproductive and often disastrous results of various forms of social engineering.
If knowledge is defined expansively, including such mundane knowledge whose presence or absence is consequential and often crucial, then individuals with Ph.D.s are as grossly ignorant of most consequential things as other individuals are, since no one can be truly knowledgeable, at a level required for consequential decision-making for a whole society, except with a narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns.
For example, it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.

HTs to Tyler Cowen and Bruce Bartlett.



COMMENTS (29 to date)
theodore rud writes:

It's the really nasty reviews that should make you want to read a book.

John V writes:

Hayek lives....yet again.

Mercer writes:

I thought the review was poor because it did not say anything directly about the book.

If Sowell is against social engineering he should be strongly critical about the attempt to establish a utopia in Iraq. Has he ever said anything critical about the neocon vision there? When I searched the book on amazon all I got about Iraq was praise of the surge. If he constantly criticizes liberal government programs in the US but says nothing about even more ambitious plans on the other side of the world it is hard to take him seriously.

Greg Ransom writes:

Truth is, Sowell is quite often better than Hayek.

AMW writes:

That last excerpt is pure gold. It sounds like a two-sentence summary of Unchecked & Unbalanced.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

As someone above noted, this isn't a book review at all, it's merely a rant; Why I hate Tom Sowell. I'd say Wolfe took money under false pretenses.

Sanjiv writes:

"Has he ever said anything critical about the neocon vision there?"

Exactly. Sowell is like Krugman. Both are smart but have lost credibility because of shameless pandering to their NYT and NR readers.

david writes:

Wow, I thought Mercer might have been exaggerating about Sowell and Iraq, but googling shows that he really isn't.

Looks like the best way to find out what Sowell really thinks about the concentration of power and knowledge is to ask him around his favored foreign policy.

SydB writes:

Those three quotes you provide are trite. If someone comes into a room and tells me "E = MC**2" I'd say "Yeah, I know." If he continued to do it, I'd call him a boor.

Sowell is a boor. He's written 41 books and, given the bloated horribly written and poorly edited first quote that you provide, his books are also boorish.

I suspect one could summarize ALL of Sowell's books in about ten power points slides and the FACTs that he brings to the world in his books would fill maybe three.

Tom Lee writes:

I have to agree with SydB. While I agreed with the content of the Sowell quotes in David's post, I kept trying to find some way of editing the second one for readability.

Les writes:

There is a flawless consistency in the comments about Thomas Sowell.

Those who praise his work support their position with reasons and facts.

Those who belittle his work employ epithets, unsupported by reasons or facts.

My conclusions:
1) Thomas Sowell is attractive to people who appreciate reasons and facts.
2) Thomas Sowell is repellent to people who despise reasons and facts.
3) That tells us lots about Thomas Sowell, and lots about his detractors.

Mercer writes:

I agree with Sowell about affirmative action.

I have not read everything he has written on foreign policy. What I have have read from him is blind support for neocon foreign policy. His support for the notion that the US government can establish a stable western capitalist democracy in Irag totally contradicts what his says about the limits of government action in changing society inside the US.

Thucydides writes:

Not a single interesting idea in more than three hundred pages? From an author whose books have sold 10s of thousands of copies and have been widely admired by an informed public? Alan Wolfe's blindness is the product of his commitment to left liberalism, at whose core is the Enlightenment project, the faith commitment that we can enter into a collective rational management of human affairs (under the direction no doubt of enlightened people such as himself) so as to ward off tragedy and contingency from human existence.

Sowell's message is that human fallibility and weakness, and the inability for anyone to have sufficient knowledge for such a project, means that such schemes are unworkable. To go beyond Sowell, human values are so various and so much in conflict that the idea of working toward some perfect state of society is not merely unlikely of realization, but conceptually incoherent. There have been many utopias proposed, but nobody has ever wanted to live in any of them.

To admit any of this would utterly undermine Wolfe's whole sense of personal identity and worth. Thus we see this rather spectacular instance of absolute closed mindedness. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Larry Phillips writes:

I have enjoyed and recommended several of Sowell's books. "Intellectuals and Society" is not, however, one I will recommend. I was disappointed.

Russell Hanneken writes:

Mercer wrote, "If Sowell is against social engineering he should be strongly critical about the attempt to establish a utopia in Iraq. Has he ever said anything critical about the neocon vision there?"

Yes, he has:

While the left has done enormous damage to the security of the United States, the political right is not without its problems. Those neoconservatives, especially, who were pushing an activist "national greatness" foreign policy, even before September 11th, have seized upon that event as a reason for the United States to "use American might to promote American ideals" around the world.

That phrase, by Max Boot of the Counsel on Foreign Relations and The Weekly Standard, is breathtaking in its implications. When he places himself and fellow neoconservatives in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, it is truly chilling. . . .

The track record of nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity ought to give anyone pause. The very idea that young Americans are once again to be sent out to be shot at and killed, in order to carry out the bright ideas of editorial office heroes, is sickening.

In a dangerous nuclear world, it is a full-time job for the U.S. government to protect the lives of the American people. That cannot be done by staying home and depending on two oceans to shield us, as the old-line conservatism of Patrick Buchanan seems to suggest. But to destroy regimes that are trying to destroy us is very different from going on nation-building adventures.

That's from a column published in January 2003:

http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell010603.asp

The Gimlet Eye writes:

Well said, Thucydides.

In some ways, Thomas Sowell reminds me of Jacob Bronowski. I just saw a segment of The Ascent of Man, the gist of which is that "information" is always imperfect and subject to interpretation. There is no "perfect knowledge," no "absolute certainty." All information which comes to us has to pass through our senses and be interpreted by our brains.

But the latter two are imperfect, and no two interpretations are exactly alike. There are many ways to perceive and to interpret something, probably as many as there are stars in the sky.

The way that intellectuals currently dominate society and seek to "plan" our economy, our culture, our education, our culture, and our thoughts, without regard to their inherent limitations reflects a monstrous hubris which should serve as a warning to all mankind: there is no absolute knowledge.

Drtaxsacto writes:

"If knowledge is defined expansively, including such mundane knowledge whose presence or absence is consequential and often crucial, then individuals with Ph.D.s are as grossly ignorant of most consequential things as other individuals are, since no one can be truly knowledgeable, at a level required for consequential decision-making for a whole society, except with a narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns." Isn't that a restatement of Eric Hoffer's concept of the "learned ignoramus?"

I like Sowell a lot and will probably read the book. I think he is both innovative and coherent. I quit reading TNR even the book section as they became increasingly shrill on some ideas. So I am not surprised that they would dismiss something from such a great thinker.

Meg writes:

In the above passages Sowell is repeating the classic argument about why planned economies are less efficient than markets adding an anti intellectual slant which I find a little annoying. I agree with his basic premise but since I learned this decades ago in school I do not find it interesting.

Charlie writes:

Wow, that first snippet that you posted seems like a great example of the laborious writing Wolfe was talking about. The first sentence is very bad and the second sentence is worse.

Ryan Vann writes:

From a strictly literary perspective, I can see where Alan is coming from; Sowell's writing style can be plodding and clunky at times.

gappy writes:

I have read four of Sowell's book: Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions, the Vision of the Anointed, and Marxism. The first three have similar themes and theses, and I bet that this one has too. I believe Sowell's level of scholarship and originality have declined. Circa 1990, he has also become more of a conservative and less of a classical liberal. I find his recent columns nearly unreadable. For all these reasons, I find him less interesting. Yes, these cocktail-party-level hayekian insights are nice, but won't take you very far. At this point, lauding Sowell has become a tool to signal that you belong to a certain tribe.

David writes:

I am a great admirer of Sowell's, but I think you have to distinguish his genuinely scholarly works (the "Cultures" trilogy, Knowledge and Decisions, On Classical Economics, and his intro to econ series [Basic Economics et al]) from his more...polemical work.

It would appear that this latest work may fall more into the latter category than the former.

BTW, I'd make the same observation about Krugman: he was actually pretty interesting back when he was writing as an economist. Now he's just a shill for the left fringe of the left wing of the Democratic party.

Tom Grey writes:

I like Sowell's conclusions (they agree with me!), but the writing style is a reasonable target for criticism.

Thanks to Russell for Sowell's note against nation-building:
But to destroy regimes that are trying to destroy us is very different from going on nation-building adventures.

Today, I don't think the USA can, reasonably, destroy any government, without accepting the responsibility for nation building.

But I'd claim imposing a democracy and some human-rights limits on gov't power, as the main part of a nation-building exercise (like post WW II Japan, but not S. Korea), is not the same as the social engineering Sowell opposes. It's an even bigger difference than that between erotic and pornographic, but there is a subjectivity about what that difference is.

Nation-building is also seen as a form of re-colonization.

Building a new nation in Sudan is too expensive for the US, or the UN, to push regime change in order to stop genocide in Darfur.

The USA needs to learn how to do better nation-building. Iraq was a B effort.

Tom Grey writes:

it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires

Social engineering which concentrates power (to some center, away from an individual) will more likely fail, while social engineering which distributes power to the individual will be successful.

Education or health care reforms that allow students, parents, or patients more power will be more successful than those which concentrate decision power away from those affected by the decisions.

And far too many intellectuals hate the decisions that common folk make; just as they hate capitalism.

Chris Koresko writes:

I've come to think that part of the reason planned economies fail is that the people running them believe they need to be comprehensible. So the planners force the economy to be simple enough to comprehend. But an economy that simple cannot be efficient.

To run an economy efficiently requires a large dose of blind faith, or at least a willingness to accept empirical evidence which often contradicts one's own theories.

JasonH writes:

What gappy said. BTW, Sowell and Hayek fans ought to see James Scott's book Seeing Like a State. It's like Hayek, but for grown ups.

econjeff writes:

I read Knowledge and Decisions as an undergraduate at the recommendation of my (sainted) mentor Paul Heyne. It had a big effect on me at the time; as one commenter suggests, it is Hayek's 1945 AER article modernized, clarified and expanded.

The point made in that book is the same point as in the three snippets from the new book in the review above (which are, as noted by at least one commentator, all one point, not three). So perhaps one might fault Sowell for repeating himself. A book a year for several decades is a lot, especially if you are also writing a column.

Karl writes:
Let's get my judgment of Thomas Sowell's new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages.

I suspect the operative word here is "interesting". Buried in the word is a usually unstated "to whom?"

To some, Sowell's ideas are "not interesting" because they are already well known and well understood, thus nothing new. To others, they are "not interesting" because they are unwelcome.

wallamaarif writes:

That first quote is not just a validation of Wolfe's point about Sowell's plodding style, it's a demonstration of why Sowell is only taken seriously by those who already agree with him.

Sowell's main problem is that he thinks liberals all believe in a planned economy. Actual liberals, on the other hand, don't believe in planned economies, we believe in markets, just not as strongly as those on the right. The assumption on which Sowell builds his case is wrong, so the whole argument is a straw man.

There is literally no one with any real authority on the American left who makes the argument that Sowell "refutes." Clearly, Sowell is either unfamiliar with the actual arguments raised by actual liberals, or he has chosen to assume the worst, based on thin evidence (I'd like to see what he's got).

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