The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.
~ Thomas Sowell
Intellectual, economist and Hoover Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell has made many magnificent contributions to the marketplace of ideas to which few others in American history can compare. For example, in his 1981 book, “Knowledge and Decisions,” Sowell made this prescient observation: “Historically, freedom is a rare and tragic thing. It has emerged out of the stalemates of would-be oppressors. Freedom has cost the blood of millions in obscure places and historic sites ranging from Gettysburg to the Gulag Archipelago.”
There is so much to learn from Sowell. A leitmotiv I find in many of his works is his cost-benefit economic paradigm applied to culture and society. Sowell delineates a trenchant critique against self-poverty-generating decisions, some of which include joining a gang, having a baby out of wedlock, getting married before becoming intellectually mature and economically secure, being easily deceived by the rhetoric of poverty pimps and civil-rights charlatans and, most importantly, foolishly thinking someone owes you anything because you don’t have something (or everything). Such approaches the essence of the mind of Thomas Sowell.
Sowell is one of my intellectual mentors. I have followed his career for many years. In 1988, I changed my worldview from liberalism to conservatism during my first year at Harvard’s graduate school and law school and began reading Sowell religiously in a newspaper called “The Conservative Chronicle.” In the early 1990s, I remember sending him some of my earliest manuscripts I had written on political philosophy and constitutional law, asking for his assistance on getting published. He sent me a form letter of sources I should review on writing … Ouch!
In many of Sowell’s works, economics, race and politics are juxtaposed with the knowledge, choices and decisions of ordinary citizens under a moral and cost-benefit paradigm – evaluating tradeoffs where limited resources have alternative uses, as opposed to relying on patronizing rhetoric from progressive academics, political hacks and community organizers.
For example, in his two classic books on economics, written in 2004, “Basic Economics” and “Applied Economics,” Sowell outlines the fundamentals of the discipline so that the layman can understand them along – with his insightful way of using economic models to avert cultural and societal pathologies like crime, ignorance and promiscuity. Sowell’s tutelage may sometimes be cruel, but his remedies will liberate all those wise enough to free themselves from the galling chains of socialism.
Sowell’s “transactional” approach to social and economic policy is one of the hallmarks of his oeuvre. For example Sowell writes:
Lofty talk about “non-economic values” too often amounts to very selfish attempts to impose one’s own values, without having to weigh them against other people’s values. Taxing away what other people have earned, in order to finance one’s own fantasy ventures, is often depicted as a humanitarian endeavor, while allowing others the same freedom and dignity as oneself, so they can make their own choices with their own earnings, is considered to be pandering to “greed.” Greed for power is more dangerous than greed for money and has shed far more blood in the process. Political authorities have often had “revolutionary values” that were devastating to the general population.
Placing Sowell’s ideas in a historical context, for the past 120 years since the advent of the progressive movement in the early 1890s, progressives, politicians, academics, scientists, activist judges and so-called intellectuals of the left have made a cottage industry of deifying non-economic values and forcing them via public-policy dictates and activist court opinions down the throats of the American citizens. These onerous policies and addictive government remedies have only aggravated the plight of society, especially America’s most vulnerable citizens (i.e., blacks, Appalachian whites, Hispanics, Indians).
Responsible academics now realize that progressive policies that promoted legalized thievery through “progressive taxation” 100 years ago and the advent of the welfare state of the 1930s with FDR’s “New Deal” and LBJ’s “Great Society” of the 1960s have done such diabolical mischief to my people that sociologists have made the observation that the black family during the horrors of slavery was a stronger more cohesive unit than the contemporary black family, particularly since the 1960s.
Returning to Sowell’s book “Knowledge and Decisions,” he continues: “That something that cost so much in human lives should be surrendered piecemeal in exchange for [trendy] visions or rhetoric seems grotesque. Freedom is not simply the right of intellectuals to circulate their merchandise. It is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’”
To me this means that socialism kills the spirit of freedom, individualism, morality and entrepreneurship that dwells in each of our souls and turns people into groveling slaves with the government as their slave masters.
Sowellian economics follows the august lineage of the classical economic theories of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and George Stigler. His economic theories are market-driven, but with a social-moral component reliant upon individual choices irrespective of the person’s socio-economic status. Herein lies the genius of Sowellian economics: One can be from the bottom of society (like Sowell himself) but rise to the top of society and live very happy, productive lives if one is willing to exercise self-discipline and morality and avoid pathological behavior.
How can Sowellian economics keep our past from destroying our future? Sowell’s economic worldview is an eloquent, comprehensive critique against the flawed macroeconomic paradigm of Keynesian economics and progressive politics, both built around the modern democratic welfare state, political redistribution of wealth and a monopolistic central bank. Sowellian economics compels the people to make the right life choices in every life decision using morality and a cost-benefit analysis model.
Weighing the costs of choice as human agents of God, you can aspire to the heavens and avoid the ignominy of hell in this mortal plane by working assiduously for your daily bread and scrupulously not coveting the daily bread of thy neighbor.