"Thomas Sowell is probably America's most distinguished black social scientist. An economist by training and profession—currently professor of economics at U.C.L.A.—he is better known to a wider public for his cogent and unorthodox writings on such controversial issues as education, I.Q. tests, affirmative action and ethnicity. In his new book, Professor Sowell tries to embrace these and other social-policy concerns within a unified theoretical perspective that derives primarily from free-market economics."
So began the New York Times Book Review article on Thomas Sowell's latest book, Knowledge and Decisions.
Tom Sowell is everything the subject of an interview should be. He's bright—Harvard bachelor's degree, Columbia master's, University of Chicago doctorate: about as blue-blooded as you can get for an economist. He's prolific—among his books: Race and Economics, Classical Economics Reconsidered, Say's Law, Black Education; his professional papers include a highly respected treatment of Marxist theory. And whenever he speaks, people listen—often in shock. Sowell has attacked affirmative action, busing, statistical analyses of "equality," minimum wage laws, labor unions, welfare, you name it…because he is convinced these gratuities hurt rather than help minorities. As the failures of America's experiment with federal largesse as a solution to poverty become increasingly embarrassing for the Washington wizards, and overwhelmingly tragic for the poor, this country could do no better than to exploit the insight, courageously advanced, of social theorist Thomas Sowell, interviewed here by REASON contributor Thomas Hazlett and senior editor Manuel Klausner.
REASON: Let's jump right into your area of expertise—ethnic economics. Recently the Urban League published a report claiming that "black America ended the decade of the 1970s in a less favorable position than it began the 1970s." That's a very dramatic statement. Is it true?
SOWELL: I have looked very closely at the numbers. It depends on whether you are talking about families or individuals. If the families are worse off, are they worse off only in the sense that higher standards of living have caused the family to disaggregate itself? That is, as income goes up in a poor family, do people begin to live in their own separate places and therefore you have two poor families, where you had one before, each of which was lower income than the previous family—even though in point of fact on a per capita basis the income has gone up? So you see, you have a lot of tricky problems like that to deal with.
But if it's so, I would think that would be a reason for the Urban League and most of the civil rights organizations to drastically reconsider their own policy positions. Because it's been after a whole decade of policy that they have been advocating, notably affirmative action, that this has all happened. I have argued elsewhere that far more progress took place under the equal opportunity phase of the civil rights movement than has taken place under the affirmative action phase.
REASON: You have claimed that it is actually white intellectuals rather than the mass of black Americans who favor these things, like busing, affirmative action, race quotas, and antidiscrimination laws in employment. But why shouldn't blacks as a group favor these things, just as special interest groups tend to favor whatever is in their personal interest?
SOWELL: One of the reasons is that blacks as a group are not really the same as, say, a trade association or labor union. They are not organized that way. And I think blacks think of themselves as being part of the society, and when things are wrong in principle for the society, then blacks as members of the society lose. I think there is more narrow self-interest also, insofar as affirmative action in particular has undermined part of the respect that blacks would otherwise have gotten for advancement.
REASON: If you could change three things, add or repeal a total of three laws in Washington, with the goal of raising the standard of living of blacks, what would you do?
SOWELL: Oh, I guess repeal the minimum wage law. And then…I'm trying to figure out how to get rid of all the occupational licensing laws in one fell swoop.
REASON: What about applying the antitrust laws to break up licensure laws?
SOWELL: That wouldn't be a repeal, but…I suppose the best thing to do would be to get rid of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
REASON: Now that's two departments.
SOWELL: Yes. Well, my theory of how to get rid of poverty is to hold a meeting of all the leading experts on poverty somewhere in the middle of the Pacific and not let them go home for 10 years. When they came back, they would discover there was no more poverty.
REASON: Why do so many people who appear to have the best interests of black people at heart pursue such counterproductive policies?
SOWELL: That is really the $64,000 question. Partly, I think, because it takes a certain sophistication to understand how these things that look like they're good don't work out that well. People tend to think always of transaction terms rather than how many transactions will take place. They want to set up a situation where people will be paid more for a given job, and they don't think in terms of how many jobs will there be, as a result of this very law. So now you may end up with a great number of people with a hypothetical right to a higher rate of pay in a job that they can't get. But it looks good at the given moment—you're going to help the poor increase their income—and that I think is one of the key reasons you get these kinds of laws.
Then, of course, there are many people with hidden agendas. Sometimes they are even hidden from themselves. They talk in terms of alleviating poverty and so forth, but it very quickly slides into something called income distribution. And I don't think most people in the United States really give a damn about income distribution. They are concerned about making sure that kids don't go to bed hungry, making sure that families don't live in houses that leak, have rats, and things like that. I don't think most Americans give a damn whether plumbers make more than dentists or dentists make more than plumbers. That's an income distribution question. What most people are concerned about is preventing privation in the country. But one of the great coups that has been scored on the left has been to identify those two things and to use all the concern over privation to centralize power in their hands to determine who shall get what, anywhere in the society.
REASON: Now you have had an opportunity yourself on a personal level to talk with people who are in the public eye and are pursuing affirmative action and busing and so on. You're a scientist, you've studied it, you're black, you grew up in Harlem. What is their reaction to you personally?
SOWELL: [Laughs] It's amazing how many people will say, "That's an odd guy." It's ironic that persons like myself and Walter Williams, who grew up in the ghetto, are regarded as being either middle-class or just aberrant, whereas people like Andrew Young, who grew up in the lap of affluence, are said to truly speak for blacks. It's one of the great ironies. If you look at the leading blacks in top positions with the government—Thurgood Marshall, Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, Andrew Young—these are people who came from families who have been going to college for generations, longer than most whites in the United States, and yet very often they are regarded as much more authentic.
REASON: To the extent that the market is color blind, why does there seem to be so much hostility toward it among leading members of minority group organizations?
SOWELL: I guess most of those organizations are in fact composed of that kind of people—middle-class people, middle-class for generations. And that offers them a much faster upward movement than the market would offer them. I'm not sure what Andrew Young would be doing in the market, but clearly as a black leader, so-called, he has a lot more going for him.
REASON: Do you have any explanation for general middle-class hostility to the market?
SOWELL: I'm not sure how generalized it is in the middle class. I know among academics there is enormous hostility, partly because power is not in their hands. One of the problems with the market from the standpoint of those who think that they are the brightest, the best, and ought to be telling the rest of us groundlings what to do, is that the market allows ordinary people to go out there and make their own decisions. And people who think they have the Truth and the Light don't want that; they want no part of that. It's really what they hate most, I think, about a market system.
REASON: An interesting development occurred a couple of years ago when the NAACP's Energy Policy Committee came out essentially for decontrol of energy production. White liberals and the press accused the group of being bought off by big oil. Are there racist overtones to the white liberal view of what blacks should say?
SOWELL: I think there is a certain kind of white liberal who speaks of "our black citizens" in a somewhat possessive way that goes against the spirit of the 13th Amendment. [Laughter] There's always the charge of betrayal in these kinds of alliances. Unfortunately, it's not as surprising as it is disgusting.
REASON: Where did you develop your individualist views?
SOWELL: Oh, I don't know. I suppose if I gave one turning point it would be when I took a job in the government, in the Labor Department, in 1960. When I saw all these ideas I believed in, being put into practice I became horrified. When I heard them criticized in the classroom in Chicago, that was really abstract.
REASON: Am I getting this right—you developed views of individualism at the US Department of Labor?
SOWELL: Yes. [Laughter] Because you realize it when you see the opposite in practice. And I have a feeling that a lot of people who today are called conservative, libertarian, or what have you, are people who started out on the far left as I did. At Harvard I was considered a Marxist, and my first year at Chicago I was on the far left.
REASON: How do you characterize yourself today?
SOWELL: I try not to. I guess I would be a person who dissents from the current liberal orthodoxy, largely from what I would consider to be a radical democratic perspective, namely, that there is no group of people who have either so much greater intelligence or so much greater morality that they ought to be trusted with running the lives of the rest of us.
REASON: To what extent would you consider yourself a libertarian?
SOWELL: I find much to agree with. My only real fear is that we would have this wonderful society which would last 15 minutes, until the Soviet ICBMs landed. I'm not sure it would be quite that short a time horizon, but I wouldn't want to achieve the ideal society that I believe in, just in time to see it blown up before my very eyes.
REASON: Libertarians are not generally pacifists and believe the most efficient defense would be provided on a market basis.…
SOWELL: I have a great deal of trouble with that. See, I don't believe that the market is really magic. The market operates where property rights can be and have been defined. I'm not sure that there can be property rights in survival, where it may be indivisible. That is, you have the free rider problem. If I'm going to sit here in Los Angeles and be protected, I may not be willing to vote for the price of protecting me.
REASON: In Race and Economics you compare the financial status of West Indian blacks living in the United States to that of native American blacks. What is the comparison, and what does it lead you to conclude?
SOWELL: The incomes of West Indian blacks are much higher than those of native blacks here in the United States. In fact, I have done some research since then that puts the difference at about 44 percent. West Indian blacks have incomes that are quite comparable to the national average, and if you look at the second generation they make higher incomes than the national average—higher than Anglo-Saxons—and have a higher percentage of their population in the professions. That suggests to me that the argument that has been made that the great problem is simply one of color does not stand up to the facts. Color has obviously been a factor, but much less than I would have thought before collecting these data.
REASON: So this was not your a priori judgment?
SOWELL: No, I was quite surprised. And in fact I sent the data back to the computer people and asked that they do this over again. No matter how they did it, it always came out the same way. Moreover, since then there has been a more comprehensive study by Barry Chiswick at the University of Illinois, showing that with many groups the immigrants at some point rise and pass the income of the same group that was already resident there. That is, incoming Mexicans, for example, will, after some span of years, make higher incomes than Mexican Americans born in the United States. His conclusion is that people who move are different, not only in tangible terms like education and skills, but in terms of attitudes, their approach to life, and whatnot. And so even if you control all those other things you still find West Indians making more than blacks in New York City. If you look only at people who finish four years of college, only who have had two years of postgraduate work, only who were in the same occupation—you still find the difference.
REASON: Just by virtue of the fact that they have the characteristics that would lead them to move in the first place?
SOWELL: That's right. Moreover, I was quite surprised when I did this study—one of the other things that caused me to send the stuff back to the computer was that I did a study of blacks who migrated to New York City, as against those born there, and I found the same pattern that is more generally found throughout the world. The blacks who moved to New York City made more than the blacks who were born there. Not by much, but it is very surprising to think that would be so. And again, the explanation would be that the person who migrates is simply a different person from the person who is a native.
REASON: Isn't that evidence on the other side, though, that there may indeed be racial discrimination that's keeping these people down?
SOWELL: But you can't look at a person and tell if he has migrated.
REASON: No, but the fact that it takes this extra energy to make it if you're black.
SOWELL: No. You see the argument has been that race is virtually a complete explanation of the low incomes of blacks. And in order to test that I think you need to look at another black group that is really physically indistinguishable. (I have heard native blacks and West Indians claim to be able to tell the two apart, but when I tested this they would get them wrong every time.)
REASON: In Race and Economics you provide a fascinating explanation of the economic history of various ethnic groups. Maybe you could describe the ethnic history of the Japanese-Americans and what that has led you to conclude.
SOWELL: Well, the Japanese-Americans came over here around the turn of the century and faced an enormous set of laws and social practices which (1) prevented them from becoming citizens and (2) kept them out of many occupations, because laws said that you had to be a citizen in order to work in those occupations or to own land in California and all sorts of things like that. And then finally came the catastrophic blow when they were simply all rounded up en masse and put into camps during World War II. And they came out of that in better shape than when they went into it. It's only since that incarceration that they have shot up in income, so that they are in fact, among major ethnic groups in the United States, second only to the Jews in income. The average income of the Japanese-American is 32 percent higher than the national average.
REASON: What is the moral of the story? How do ethnic groups advance into the mainstream?
SOWELL: I guess those groups that have certain skills that are needed or certain adaptability rise. It seems to matter very little whether they came here destitute or they came here, and I'm thinking of the Germans, with a certain amount of money. Jews arrived with an average of $7 apiece on their person. They could just about make it from the dock down to the lower east side, about a two-or three-block walk, actually. And that's it. That's where they settled. And most of them didn't move out of New York City for decades. But they had certain skills and more so than skills, really, certain attitudes toward life.
The Chinese are even a better example of that. The Chinese worked at occupations here in the United States totally different from what they had worked at in China. They were not all laundry men and restaurant owners in China, or restaurant workers. The Chinese in most other countries are tradesmen, bankers, what have you. In the United States they were kept out of all those occupations. And they still advanced. So it really isn't the particular occupation they went into. They became railroad workers, and when they succeeded at that, they were thrown out. They became miners; they were thrown out of that. And so on.
When you think of all the laws that were thrown in the past at the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Jews, it gives you a very heartening sense of the futility of laws. If laws were really effective, neither the Chinese nor the Jews would be prosperous in most countries of the world. Most of those laws aren't effective. Conversely, most laws designed to improve the positions of ethnic groups have not been effective either.
REASON: The laws that were aimed specifically at the Jews, for instance, ended up in putting them into occupations where they later came to use those skills much to their economic advantage.
SOWELL: Yes. People did not want the Jews to be landholders or to go into other occupations that were central to feudalism—to be in the guilds, for example. And so the Jews were forced into those occupations which later turned out to be central occupations in the rise of capitalism.
REASON: Many of them became economists.
SOWELL: Yes, yes.
REASON: You claim that women are not systematically discriminated against in the job market. That is an iconoclastic view and will probably not win you the Ms. Congeniality award at the next NOW convention. Why do you make this claim?
SOWELL: Because I've looked at the data. The data show me, at least, that most of the great differences we see in income between men and women are really differences between married women and all other persons. That is, married women do much less well in most occupations than do single women. Single women do pretty much the same as single men. And that's been true for a very long time—long before anyone ever heard of affirmative action. If you take, for example, women who received their Ph.D.s in the 1930s, by the 1950s they had become full professors to a slightly greater extent than males who received their Ph.D.s at the same time—provided you compare single women only. If you throw in married women, it drags the whole average way down, because the married women aren't doing nearly as well. Clearly, if someone drops out of the labor force to raise children and comes back in their 30s or 40s, they aren't going to do as well in terms of income. But, and this is where some of the noneconomic literature is particularly useful, surveys show that women do a disproportionate amount of the domestic work in the family. So what they are essentially doing is supporting the man's career. So the income gap is a completely artificial problem created by intellectuals. You have two people cooperating to earn a given income, but because one person's name appears on the check, we then ascribe all the income to him. In reality, it is also true that women spend more than half of the average husband's check. And so, clearly, two people are earning the check, two people are spending the check. But because of the statistical artifact that the money appears under one name, intellectuals take those kinds of purely verbal things so utterly literally and become so terribly excited about it, particularly when it ties in with their general vision of society, of the "evil oppressors" and so forth. Anything that ties in with the "evil oppressors" as a source of trouble—they love it.
REASON: The idea that government is pursuing now with affirmative action and busing and other such programs is that past injustices have occurred and the government has responsibility to certain groups of people to correct those injustices. The question is, does the government have the ability to make things more equal?
SOWELL: Well, are we talking about correcting the injustices or about doing something else?
REASON: The idea that affirmative action or busing programs, for example, can adjust for past injustices.
SOWELL: I think that's one of the great tragic mistakes of our time. History is absolutely irrevocable, no matter who is in office. The people who most need compensation for sins committed against them are long since dead, and nothing that we can do one way or another is going to change a thing. And if you could do something that would make things better now, you ought to do it even if history had been just one beautiful fairy tale. By the same token, if what you're doing is not making things better, then you ought not to do it, no matter how terrible history has been. Look at busing, for example. Surely there's one group which can never be blamed for any of the wrongs of history: young black children in the school system. Now if you're going to do things that the black children and their parents don't want—that's what the polls indicate about busing—then it's not at all clear to me on what basis you can justify making blacks worse off in the name of correcting history. There is also a notion that runs through some of these decisions that really comes very close to direct racism. Judge Egly's busing order here in Los Angeles, for example, speaks of the white children as a scarce resource, for them to be spread around. In an earlier era, Kipling spoke of the white man's burden. Now Judge Egly is making it the white child's burden—to go forth and civilize the heathen.
Almost every premise with busing is wrong from step one. That is, one, that it makes a big difference whether kids are segregated or integrated racially in terms of psychology or in terms of education. The evidence that I've seen points overwhelmingly the other way, namely, it doesn't seem to make a hell of a lot of difference one way or the other. Take groups that were never segregated from each other. You see schools in the east where Jews and Italians were at the same school for 20 years, and for each of those 20 years the Jewish children had a substantial advantage over the Italian children, comparable to the advantages of whites over blacks in the south, in segregated schools. You can find black schools that were all segregated where some of them were so much ahead of the others and ahead of the national average that the difference exceeded that between blacks and whites in Mississippi. And so there are many, many variables at work, and whether or not the kids are sitting in the same room really has very little to do with it. One of the problems of the whole busing thing, too, is in the very use of the word segregation. Every other institution of society today is considered desegregated when there are no longer any racial barriers, regardless of how many people of whatever race choose to come in. A hotel or a hospital is desegregated when it is open to all. Only in the case of schools do we have an entirely different definition of segregation. The school is not desegregated until certain numbers appear, regardless of whether it is open to all. And it's one of the reasons why desegregation has been accomplished in every other institution except in the schools.
REASON: Now beyond this practical consequence with programs like busing there is this other idea, more or less a theoretical point—whether or not the government can in fact make things more equal. With affirmative action or busing programs, don't they have to be careful that they're not going to make things less equal in the long run?
SOWELL: Yes. One of the things I found in my study of the academic world under affirmative action is that you create a demand for those blacks who are sufficiently well qualified and there is no danger of your having to fire them. That is the guy who has his Ph.D. from Harvard, who has written the 12 books and the 60 articles. There is a great demand for him, but of course that's the rare black. The more common black is the black who is just coming out of graduate school, because that's a recent thing. And the question is, what are your chances of reappointing him? If you can't reappoint him, then you don't hire him in the first place. And so a direct result of affirmative action is that universities take on an enormous risk—so does any other large organization—when they hire either minorities or women, because subsequent pay and promotion patterns of those people may or may not correspond to that of the rest of the work force, and if not, each member of these groups can take them into court. So employers have an incentive to avoid hiring such people as well as an incentive to appease the government. A great part of their effort goes into showing so-called good faith, which can be done in all sorts of ways which do not involve actually hiring anybody.
REASON: So it seems that political action as a strategy for economic advancement is not profitable.
SOWELL: Oh, yes. In fact, you could almost make a very strong case for the opposite conclusion, that if you made a list of those groups that have risen from poverty to affluence and particularly those who've done it most rapidly or against the greatest opposition, they are groups that have either avoided politics or are not terribly successful at politics. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, are classic examples. The Irish, on the other hand, are clearly the most successful of all American ethnic groups in the realm of politics, and they were the slowest rising of all the European immigrant groups. Even after they had achieved political control, the bulk of the Irish were still unskilled laborers, domestic servants, and so on. The group that has been most involved with politics has been, of course, the American Indian. And they are among the very few groups that have lower incomes than blacks, higher unemployment rates, and a generally lower standard of living. Another group that has lower income than blacks, with regional differences left out, is Puerto Ricans, and they are the only group that's arrived in this country almost entirely since the creation of the welfare state. And the enormous difficulties they're having I think are in no small part due to the welfare state.
REASON: How would they be different from, say, Cubans? Cubans, I would assume, have a much higher standard of living, but they've arrived during the same period.
SOWELL: That's true. The Cubans have one amazing advantage in that many if not most of them were of middle- or upper-class status and had tremendous amounts of skills when they came here, so they could move into Miami and begin taking up their own businesses. Perhaps they didn't even know about the welfare system, because many of them took all sorts of menial jobs in Miami that blacks would not take. And so they would begin as cooks and bottle washers and shoeshine boys and so forth. And in a few years they were owning the place.
REASON: So ignorance is bliss.
SOWELL: Ignorance is bliss, certainly.
REASON: What a lead-in to your new book, Knowledge and Decisions! You acknowledge a debt there to F.A. Hayek's essay "The Uses of Knowledge in Society." What are you trying to achieve with your new book?
SOWELL: I guess to have (1) some feeling of the relative advantages of different kinds of institutions for making different kinds of decisions in society and (2) to look at the trends over time in the location of decisions—that is, from what kinds of institutions and processes are the decisions moving toward what kinds of decisions and processes. What I find is that over time decisions are moving away from those people who have the most knowledge and toward those people who have less knowledge but who simply have the power to impose their will.
REASON: In your discussion of central planning you refer to the problem of obtaining knowledge on the part of the central planners. Were you influenced by the words of Ludwig von Mises in his attacks on socialism?
SOWELL: Not really, because I read those many years ago and I don't recall most of them. The article that I cite from Hayek in the American Economic Review in 1945 really sort of gave me a set of questions to ask, in a sense. It was not just the elucidation of a principle that was important. It was the fact that, with this thought in the back of my mind, I saw many, many things that fit into this pattern. I was just amazed at all the very different kinds of situations in which you have this basic problem: How do you get the knowledge from the person who knows to the person that makes the decision? And particularly, how do you get it to him in a form that gets him to make the right decision? That is, you may get the knowledge to him, but he may have various reasons not to want to pay attention to it. So the question becomes, How do you force him to take that into account?
REASON: What has been the reaction to your new book? I saw a review in the New York Times Book Review by Marc Plattner. First of all, he doesn't seem to understand what you're talking about. He understands that you're an advocate of the free market—he can attack that; he knows that's wrong. But is it frustrating to have this reviewed in the liberal press and have people miss the mark on it?
SOWELL: Well, I must say in all fairness it is not simply in the liberal press but in all presses. Fortune magazine also seems to think this is a book about the free market, and I do discuss it in the book but not nearly as much as I discuss other things. It's really a book about decision-making in general. There are certain words which are like red flags to the bull, so when they see that I'm saying that there are in fact some things that the market does well, that is one of the things they seize upon. Marc Plattner, I think, made an honest effort to call it as he saw it. I just wish he'd seen it more as I wrote it!
REASON: He does pay you the tribute right off the bat of saying, "Thomas Sowell is probably America's most distinguished black social scientist." Isn't that a bit of a burden to carry?
SOWELL: Yes. The only redeeming feature is thinking of how many other black social scientists will be angered by seeing that in print. [Laughs] But the remark really had nothing to do with the book, because it's not a book about race or ethnicity or any of those things.
REASON: Outside of the New York Times, what has the response been?
SOWELL: Uniformly good, except for one denunciation by Lester Thurow in the New Republic, which I think might also be as uniformly good.
REASON: Is there much interest outside of economics in your work?
SOWELL: I'm not sure. I've had some things reprinted in readings for sociologists, for psychologists. I have done some work on IQ and ethnicity; in fact, I have probably collected more ethnic IQs than anybody—about 70,000 going back over a period of 50 years.
REASON: Let's talk about that—what about Professor Jensen and racial differences in IQ?
SOWELL: That's a very large subject. I end up quarreling with both Jensen and his critics. Jensen starts with the premise that there is a unique black IQ which has a unique genetic explanation. The critics start from the premise that there is a unique black IQ which has a unique environmental explanation. Neither of them has raised the more basic question: Is there in fact a unique black IQ? And that was why I did the historical study. The answer I found was that no, there is not. One of the great tragedies of the social sciences is that we are forever answering questions without knowing what the questions mean. For example, if you go back around 1910, 1920, you will find a great number of groups who had IQs the same as or lower than the IQs of blacks. What you find is that as most of those groups rose socially and economically, their IQs rose. So that you had, for example, Polish IQs that were the same level as blacks around World War I; now Polish IQs are above the national average. Jews, very surprisingly, scored quite low in mental tasks during World War I, and in fact the man who invented the college boards—SAT—said that we have now disproved the popular notion that Jews are intelligent. His proof was somewhat premature, we found out, and Jews have won about a quarter of all the Nobel Prizes won by Americans.
REASON: If blacks and other ethnic groups have sort of leap-frogged in this game of IQ, doesn't that destroy Jensen's conclusion?
SOWELL: Blacks have not risen relative to the national average, because blacks have not risen that much economically during this period of time.
REASON: But if these so-called racial IQs are in flux over time depending upon economic success, it's pretty hard to explain it in terms of evolutionary trends.
SOWELL: I think so. I am enormously disappointed that Jensen has not, so far as I know, publicly replied to this. There is an even more devastating study that Jensen again, to the best of my knowledge, never replied to, which was almost a laboratory study of black orphans raised by white families, and their average IQ was 106. So I think the evidence against Jensen is quite strong. What he has succeeded in doing, though, is to turn what is regarded as an axiomatic proposition about IQ into an open question and especially to demolish a lot of the more naive kind of environmental theory—the notion that you can take such things as physical surroundings and that will tell you a great deal, when in fact it doesn't tell you a great deal.
REASON: You have done work in the history of theoretical economics and on Marxism in particular. What is the present condition of Marxist economic theory? Is it still breathing?
SOWELL: Intellectually, no; but politically, it is going very strong. This is not uncommon. Certainly, it has bankrupted itself morally. I think the building of the Berlin Wall can be considered a sufficient declaration of bankruptcy by Marxism. And yet it has a great appeal to successive generations of young people, many of whom may take years, or even decades, to work their way out of it. With the increasing number of avowed Marxists in the academic world, there are going to be more and more younger people who take that route.
REASON: Marx claimed himself to be an economist, and despite the internal inconsistency of Marx's arguments, which has been conceded by the people who still call themselves Marxian today, those people continue to thrive in today's academic world wearing the hat of Marx and still wearing the hat of a professional economist. Isn't this an anomaly?
SOWELL: No, I don't think so. And the emotional and moral appeal of Marxism is so strong that I don't think it's very likely that many of its empirical consequences are going to make very much difference to most people. Insofar as the Soviet Union, for example, does not work out the way they want it to, then it will just be blamed on the particular people who happen to be in charge. And if it doesn't work out in a number of other places, then it will be blamed on those local circumstances. It will never be blamed on the fact that there's something inherently undoable about what they are trying to do.
REASON: So it thrives on emotion rather than reason?
SOWELL: Yes, but more than emotion. I would say it thrives on a certain vision, a vision in which the poor are poor because the rich are rich. They're poor because what they have—or should have—has been taken away from them. And that has a great moral appeal. I think also that the Marxist vision is really a very strong echo of the whole religious vision of society. The last shall be first. The mighty shall be laid low. And so on. It taps many of the things that are there either in the human breast or else that are planted quite early in religious teachings. It's apocalyptic and so on.
REASON: Don't you think that liberty can be a compelling alternative vision to Marxism?
SOWELL: Like most things, liberty is valuable in inverse proportion to what you already have, so people who have been raised free value it very cheaply. Now, once they have lost it, they may then value it very highly. But in many cases it's much too late then.
Let me say, incidentally, that I see Marxism as one of those chance mutations that occurs in the body politic. Then it is preserved because it happens to work—it's an enormously efficient system for the achievement and consolidation of power. One of the reasons is that the moral vision neutralizes opponents, neutralizes critics, and neutralizes doubts among the followers. There are very few doctrines which can do that so effectively. So people who are basically humane and decent will stand mute as Stalin murders millions of human beings, who would not stand mute for a policeman roughing up a suspect on the street corner. Because the policeman does not have any ideology to protect him and interpret his roughing up the person on the corner as part of the glorious history of mankind.
REASON: Was Marx a brilliant man?
SOWELL: He was. And I think he believed in a vision that is quite different from the result that has actually taken place. But like so many things, once he created this vision, it acquired a life of its own. It's there now for anybody who wants to use it as a power-getting and power-consolidating mechanism. Not only can you control people within your own country, but you have people among your followers who will stand for far more violence and terrorism than they would ever stand for otherwise. And you have people in democratic countries who will apologize for you because they are caught by this vision and think that the ultimate result is going to be something wonderful.
REASON: So how do you feel about the short-term and the long-term prospects for liberty?
SOWELL: Oh, I'm pessimistic. Because I don't see any easy way that one reverses—I don't see any way that one reverses—totalitarianism from within. I don't know of any example where it has ever happened. And if democratic nations can always become totalitarian, but totalitarian nations will not become democratic, then in the long run, ultimately, the whole world will be totalitarian. But I think there are a number of things that can be done. That's one of the reasons why I would be for a more active foreign policy, let's say than some libertarians—to stop it before it reaches that point. And I think you stop it by cooperating with such governments as actually exist in the world, that can and will oppose it, just as we will stop crime with such policemen as happen to be on the force. It would be wonderful to have better policemen, but we are either going to stop it with the policemen that are on the force, or we are going to let it take over.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Interview with Thomas Sowell".