Book Review, The Vision of the Anointed, Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell, 260pp plus index and notes, Basic Books, 1995
This book can be considered a follow-up to Sowell's earlier book, A Conflict of Visions. In the first book Sowell describes what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions but strives to take a neutral stance. In this one he makes no pretense of neutrality but describes the problems arising from the unconstrained vision and how some of its adherents successfully ignore those problems. Along with Sowells later book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2001), these books form, not an official trilogy, but at least a triad of books defining these differences and taking to task those who would blindly accept the unconstrained vision. I’ll not review the third book, any readers I have are probably already tired of three straight book reviews. However I also recommend that book.
And indeed (as Sowell describes) much of the problem is blind acceptance of ideas spawned by the unconstrained vision. Contrary evidence is likely to be ignored, dismissed as “isolated anomalies,” or those presenting it called “simplistic” or worse. The big problem is not that the unconstrained are wrong; people have been wrong, often spectacularly wrong, throughout history. The problem is that they are disconnected from empirical checks on their ideas. That allows the damage to continue unchecked.
Who are “the anointed?” According to Sowell they are the self-appointed intellectual elite, firm believers in the unconstrained vision. They regard themselves as of superior morality and wisdom. They think of themselves as the rescuers of the race. As a consequence of this attitude they tend to regard their opponents as benighted, immoral, greedy, or stupid. Because of this self-image they are unable to consider that they could be wrong and someone from among the “benighted” right. In fact it would destroy their self-image to admit to being wrong so they go to great lengths to discredit any evidence contrary to their beliefs.
Examples of the anointed would include Ralph Nader, William Godwin, Antoine-Nicolas Condorcte, and Earl Warren.
Because of their self-image of being the rescuers of benighted humanity, the anointed tend to regard ordinary perceptions as wrong. There is no superiority in accepting what regular people believe, so they find ways to reject it. One way they do that is by adopting as “mascots” those most people reject, such as criminals. They find all sorts of ways to blame society for the anti-social acts of the few, ignoring the possibility that a thief might steal because he wants an easier way to obtain what he seeks.
At the same time they regard as criminals those most of us think of as productive such as business people. If “society” is at fault for the problems of their mascots, then these representatives of society must take the blame.
And of course like all rescuers, they need a reason for their rescue missions. A typical event would proceed through four steps:
Stage 1, the “crisis.” Assertions of great danger to which the masses are oblivious. This is presented as a crisis even though it has not been getting worse and in fact the situation may be improving. For example, the “war on poverty” was proposed by Kennedy and Johnson, even though poverty had been on the decline for decades at the time.
Stage 2, a “solution” is presented as necessary and includes promises of how it will solve the problem. Opponents point out the likely bad effects but their objections are called absurd, simplistic, or simply dismissed. Exactly that happened when the war on poverty was proposed with a promise that it would reduce dependence on government handouts.
Stage 3, the results. Policies are instituted leading to the bad effects the opponents forecast but not the promised improvement. Again the war on poverty is one example; dependence on government programs increased rather than decreasing.
Stage 4, the response. The bad effects and lack of success are ignored, or blamed on complexities, or the claim is made that it would have been worse without the policy. Of course no documentation is provided for why it would have been worse. As is typical, in the war on poverty, the target was moved after the fact with proponents claiming that it was a success because, counting government handouts, it reduced poverty even though it failed to meet its original goal of reducing those handouts. Later even that new target was not met as poverty increased even counting government largess.
This book presents many more examples of how the anointed ignore evidence, misuse statistics and refuse to pay attention to results. They do little real thinking but a lot of talking. However the biggest problem is divorce from reality and empirical evidence. There is a big difference between the effect of a mistake corrected when it is found to be a mistake, and a mistake perpetuated indefinitely in spite of evidence that it is a mistake.
This book has much more than I can include in a review of any reasonable length. I strongly recommend it to everyone.
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