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A Tract of Sound and Theory

ISSUE:  Spring 1981
Knowledge and Decisions. By Thomas Sowell. Basic Books. $18. 50.

This is a long, and slow, book. It is written from a compelling sense of urgency, even anxiety, about public affairs. It is obviously intended by its author, a widely heard economist, to be a major statement, one contending for posterity. It deserves, therefore, to be studied in its own right and not merely, as might be tempting, as part of a growing literary movement we generally label conservatism. There are two sections, roughly equal in length, one on “social institutions” and another on “trends and issues.” The reader without copious time may securely choose to read only one: the conclusions of policy in the second part can be accurately enough inferred by an experienced reader (and none other is likely to take up the book) from the first; and the more theoretical positions of that can be well enough surmised from the second. The first section, less marred by fierce polemics, would be my advice.

A seriously wrought book is all too likely to be shortchanged by any attempt to summarize its argument; that must necessarily be tried.

Knowledge is rare, we are told at the beginning, and so therefore its supply, its adequacy and accuracy, and the social processes by which it is transformed into decisions are of unsurpassable importance. That knowledge most trustworthy in societies is incremental and compact of the many and frequently competing values of individuals, who must live most directly with the consequences of decisions. To the contrary, in the modern West “decision-making has tended to gravitate away from those most immediately affected and toward institutions increasingly remote and insulated from feedback.” All social processes are constraining to some degree; those closer to market than to governmental institutions, to evolved cultures—with all their imperfections and even crudities—rather than to rationally articulated patterns, are the more humane and free. “The most basic question is not what is best but who shall decide what is best.” The modern and fearsome trend is toward third-party (i.e., chiefly governmental) decision-making. This involves reliance on experts, whose knowledge (outside the systematic fields of science) is characterized by unverifiability and a dependence for its acceptance on governmental power. Market decisions and those expressive of popular cultures may seem sluggish, aimless, callous, sometimes plain wrong; but they are the peoples’, and are steeped in their desires and values. In an engaging closing sentence, Professor Sowell writes that freedom is “above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their “betters”.”

The above is a quite simplified statement of a complex treatise, but I hope one that has not obscured its appeal. When Sowell applies himself to particular issues, he can be very persuasive as well. I found him so, for instance, in his discussions of the inanities of the federal regulation of transportation and communications. There is, furthermore, much truth, even if over stated, in the following summation:

Ironically, “results”-oriented legal policies have achieved largely intermediate institutional results, rather than their social goals. Appellate courts have successfully imposed their will on other institutions—school boards, trial courts, universities, employers—without achieving the social end results expected. For all the countless criminals freed on evidentiary technicalities, there is no evidence that the police practices the courts attacked have been eliminated or even reduced. For all the costly and controversial procedures imposed by “affirmative action” quotas, there is little or no evidence that such policies have advanced blacks beyond what was achieved under the previous “equal opportunity” policy. For all the bitterness surrounding the busing controversy, there is no overall evidence of any social, educational, or psychological gains from these policies, and even purely statistical “integration” has been offset to a great extent by “white flight” to the suburbs. In short, legal sacrifices of principles to get “results” have often been a one-way trade-off with no social gain, in terms of the avowed goals.

Sowell is probably right at a number of other points (such as his dismay over universities that grub for the federal dollar), and liberals would do well to read him, just as they should also, for the cleansing of their hearts, read and re-read Burke. There has indeed been not much added to the essential principles of conservatism since Burke. Conservatives would probably agree with that and think it only right. But the need to put old wine into new bottles is universal, and Sowell and his friends deserve our thanks. I hope he will try again, because this book is deeply and sadly flawed.

We need not quarrel much with his economics, partly because our post-World War II economies do stagger and arguably might benefit from more reliance by their business interests on free market forces, but mainly because the main concern of this book is not in economics but in law and politics. Sowell’s theoretical analysis could—and should—have led him to a useful skepticism of all power-holders and their conduct of our political and economic affairs. That skepticism might have extended to his own observations and opinions. None such disturbs his certainty. The main business of the non-theoretical portions of the book is to charge appellate courts, regulatory agencies, federal bureaucrats generally (never corporate ones), and “intellectuals” with monstrous abuse of the common good; if any mitigating factors are admitted, I missed them.

It might be of interest to note some of the specific violators of the common good Sowell sees. They include urban renewal, and probably “fair housing” programs as well; the Warren Court’s protection of the rights of the poor as against police, prosecutors, and courts (he disparages this as promoting “intracriminal equity,” at the victims’ expense); Brown v. Board of Education (I think); cultural non-conformity; all those present-day black leaders who are mentioned by name or organization; price controls; labor unions; minimum wages; rent controls; all environmentalists; anti-trust laws in general and Robinson-Patman in particular; government and public interest lawyers; affirmative action; busing; opponents of the death penalty; sociologists; “Third Worldism”; public television; Malthus; the Binet school of intelligence measurers; and the “moralistic approach” to foreign policy, including its opposition to “cooperation with non-democratic nations.” It is a heady list, heavy for one man to carry.

Sowell believes that there is a spreading thicket of trends which are strangling freedom, and he does take pains to draw interconnections among all the above. And I suppose that most of us, if pressed, could set down a similarly long list of trends and outcomes which disturb us. The effect of Mr. Sowell’s attack on his array is to muddle by harsh polemicizing what presents itself as, and in part is, an analytical essay. At its best, the book resembles the hard analysis—hard in intelligence and in effects—of Karl Popper; in many other dreary pages, it adds little but modern illustrations to Defoe’s Giving Alms No Charity.

Given Sowell’s prominence among the “Chicago School” economists, it is interesting to note some omissions, at least in this one book, among his dislikes. His concerns here are with the regulatory and interfering state and not expressly with the welfare state. None of the transfer payment programs is much discussed. The issue is, nevertheless, largely drawn in terms of the efficacy of governmental intervention in behalf of the poor and minorities. Sowell denies it. His argument is disadvantaged, however, because in contrast to actual policies and programs of intervention he can point only to speculative propositions. When modern societies have felt the urge to help their poor, they have shielded them from the “market,” not plunged them into it. All evolved social judgment is against doing that. No one can assert that what we have done to end American poverty has worked well enough. The effort has been a stumbling one, too often detoured toward various other goals, such as “saving the cities” or solicitude for the centrality of the so-called “private sector.” But to return the poor of Bedford-Stuyvesant, central Appalachia, or the rural South and Southwest to the sole care of the market takes more intellectual fortitude, if no other kind, than most of us have.

Sowell shows considerable respect for Marx as a thinker. For contemporary “intellectuals,” he has none at all. Theirs has been a decisive role, even larger in Europe than here, in 20th-century politics, both in the establishment of totalitarian orders and in the distortions of constitutional democracies. They are defined as a “social class of persons whose economic output consists of generalized ideas, and whose economic rewards come from the transmission of those generalized ideas.” It is an “occupational description,” of people who “live off ideas.” Liberal intellectuals are exclusively discussed, because—and these are the only two reasons advanced—they are more numerous and influential and, secondly, conservatives are a “heterogeneous” group and conservatism has “little or no determinate” content.” (Liberalism has, he declares; that is supported only by a page reference to a book by James Burnham.) “The characteristics of the intellectual vision are strikingly similar to the characteristics of totalitarian ideology—especially the localization of evil and of wisdom, and psychic identification with the interests of great masses, whose actual preferences are ignored in favor of the overriding preferences of intellectuals. It is consistent with this that intellectuals have supported and indeed spearheaded the movement toward a centralization of political power in democratic nations and have apologized for foreign despotisms and totalitarianisms which featured like-minded people.”

Probably I border, at least occasionally, on Sowell’s definition of an “intellectual”; so too would most of those whom the VQR might ask to review his book. Disinterestedness is hard to come by. Caveat emptor. All determinist theories are hard to refute, given the multiplicity of social causes: one can, if so minded, make out a case for the primacy of one or several, somewhat as in a close election almost any discrete group which went for the winner can claim the credit. Certainly intellectuals—even in Sowell’s limiting meaning—have been associated with political movements and power since Joseph advised the Pharaoh (to the benefit of both, and all). But he did not control the climate, create the Pharaonic government, form the Egyptian state, or define the Jewish religion; nor could he peer down the years to the times of persecution. Most of us would look to more objective forces than intellectuals as the motive drives pummeling history into the shapes it takes; like, e.g., our enormous concentrations of corporate power (which Sowell insists are subordinate to the market) and huge military establishments riding on—or inducing—interventionist foreign policies (which he applauds and justifies with careless inaccuracies in his closing pages).

“Perhaps,” writes Sowell, “the most far-reaching social change” in the West has been that over the past century multitudes have passed from being “residual claimant decision makers” (such as profit takers) to being “fixed claimant employees.” With that passage, the knowledge of consequences alive within the population has dimmed, the processes of democracy have been cluttered by special interests, and freedom—defined as the absence of coercive force—has been enfeebled. I think Sowell’s policy conclusions would lock us all still more tightly into the desires of the big corporations, but he does not. He has written a bad-tempered book, and that is a great pity, both because his displays of loathing weaken the book itself and because they foul the stream of discourse which all serious writing ought to be part of. I hope Sowell will come at us again in philosophical debate, without trying to be the scourge of the Western world at the same time. We need, after all, to hear more from a man who sees that “the real problem is to locate decision-making discretion in the respective social processes most able to resolve the particular considerations arising in different areas of human life. The same diversity of values which makes this desirable also makes it difficult to achieve. Those in the higher, more powerful, and more remote institutions face the constant temptations to prescribe results rather than define the boundaries of other institutions’ discretions. . . . But, almost by definition, those with the broadest powers are the most remote from the specific knowledge needed for either deciding or for knowing the actual consequences of their decisions.” It would be good, for example, to hear Sowell apply this good sense to the making of foreign policies and the deciding to make war.

* “At its most extreme, [rationalism] exalts the most trivial or tendentious “study” by “experts” into policy, forcibly overriding the preferences and convictions of millions of people.” The accompanying footnote refers to the case, page 102; but see also pages 378—79.


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