Blurred Vision


What is the point of the ideological crusades of the left? To make the world better? Not primarily, according to Thomas Sowell. The main purpose is to make members of the left feel good, and to do so by placing them in a position of apparent intellectual and moral superiority to the rest of humanity. Leftists, in this book's terminology, are "the anointed," and their overriding goal is to distinguish themselves from "the benighted," which includes everybody else.

The "vision" of the anointed is a world view in which social problems exist because of the negligence or malevolence of the benighted—and thus can be solved by imposing the views of the enlightened few on the rest of society via government action. To believe otherwise—to view social conditions as largely outside of anyone's control and subject to innumerable trade-offs and constraints—is repugnant to left-leaning political and intellectual elites, Sowell argues, because it robs them of the opportunity to display their superior concern and insight.

Sowell's exploration of this world view ranges broadly across social and economic topics, uncovering hidden assumptions, statistical fallacies, and verbal sleights of hand in the arguments of the left. The Vision of the Anointed moves from the War on Poverty, the Warren Supreme Court, and other elements of 1960s liberalism to the political correctness of recent years that insists upon gender-neutral language and denounces Mercator-projection maps as culturally biased. Sowell targets a variety of people and organizations: Ralph Nader, John Kenneth Galbraith, legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, journalist Tom Wicker, former California Chief Justice Rose Bird, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Worldwatch Institute, and the Children's Defense Fund, among others.

The Vision of the Anointed impressively marshals facts and figures to puncture "progressive" ideas and proposals on a wide range of subjects. This is in keeping with Sowell's stated purpose to present an empirical comparison of the promised and actual consequences of policies advocated by self-anointed elites. Unfortunately, the book's argument is weakened by its relentlessly polemical tone. Sowell makes little effort to conceal the disdain he feels for his intellectual opponents, and although this makes for entertaining reading, it also demonstrates that the anointed are not alone in showering derision upon those with whom they disagree.

A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an economist by training, Sowell has earned a formidable reputation in several niches of intellectual life: as a staunch opponent of affirmative action and other preferential policies; as a critical observer of contemporary American law and education; and as a theoretical expositor of social and political decision-making processes, ideologies, and institutions. In The Vision of the Anointed, he oscillates between the concrete and the abstract, between analyzing specific programs and policies favored by the left and formulating general principles regarding how such initiatives are conceived and implemented, and why they often fail when measured against their stated objectives. What emerges is a picture of the anointed as not merely self-righteous but often impervious to opposing arguments and evidence.

Sowell traces a four-stage pattern: First, a social or economic situation is declared a "crisis" based on scant evidence. Second, policies are proposed to end the "crisis," and criticism of such proposals is dismissed as simplistic or dishonest. Third, the policies are enacted. Fourth, evasive arguments are used to obscure mounting evidence that the policies have not worked or indeed have been disastrously counterproductive. To demonstrate that such a pattern is characteristic of the anointed's initiatives, Sowell draws heavily upon examples from the 1960s: the antipoverty programs proposed by the Kennedy administration and initiated by the Johnson administration; the introduction of sex education into public school curricula; and the emphasis in criminal justice on "root causes" and rehabilitation.

The War on Poverty, for example, was launched at a time when the poverty rate had been in steady decline for a decade and a half—hardly the crisis proclaimed by proponents of antipoverty programs. Once the programs were implemented, the number of people in poverty declined, but then began to rise again. Moreover, the initiative's stated goal was to reduce government dependency "to help our less fortunate citizens help themselves," in the words of President Kennedy—yet the result was a dramatic increase in dependency. Faced with such uncomfortable facts, War on Poverty proponents changed the subject, emphasizing the noble intentions of the effort or arguing that, in its absence, the situation would have been even worse.

Similarly, sex education was advocated in the late 1960s on the grounds that it was urgently needed to combat teen pregnancy and venereal disease, both of which had been in sharp decline for years. Subsequently, as sex education programs became widespread, rates of pregnancy and venereal disease among teenagers skyrocketed—perhaps not caused by sex education, but certainly not prevented by it—yet advocates continued to regard the efficacy of such programs as axiomatic. In Sowell's discussion of criminal justice, the pattern emerges yet again: Crime rates were in long-term decline prior to the 1960s, then soared as punishment was de-emphasized in favor of a therapeutic approach; this troubling outcome, however, sparked little rethinking among defenders of the new approach.

A similar disregard for evidence is apparent in another phenomenon decried by Sowell: that of "Teflon prophets" and "mistaken messiahs"—thinkers on the left who maintain their reputations even as their predictions turn out wrong. Among them is environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, whose projections of resource scarcity and widespread starvation have been wildly off the mark. Another is John Kenneth Galbraith, whose The New Industrial State and other writings depicted large American corporations as invulnerable to market forces—just before numerous major airlines, newspapers, and retailers went bankrupt and the Big Three automakers came under unprecedented competition from Japan.

Sowell methodically dissects misleading uses of numbers that buttress the left's world view. One such practice is to allege discrimination based on statistical disparities among groups without adequately controlling for nondiscriminatory factors. Much-publicized Federal Reserve studies, for example, recently purported to show widespread racism in mortgage lending based on higher rejection rates for minority loan applicants than whites in the same income brackets, but the studies did not take into account differences between the groups in net wealth and collateral. Another statistical fallacy is to not recognize that a given series of numbers may represent a changing assortment of people. Alarmed discussions of income inequality refer to the "top 1 percent" and "bottom 20 percent" of income earners without noting that individuals move into and out of such categories all the time.

In addition to disentangling tendentious statistics, Sowell seeks to penetrate the rhetoric of the left. He denounces phrases that blur the issue of personal responsibility: Saying that people lack "access" to jobs, for example, or that there is an "epidemic" of drug abuse, implies that such things simply happen to people, regardless of their own behavior. Sowell justifiably complains about the prevalence of buzzwords, such as crisis and greed, aimed at preempting issues rather than debating them. (He undermines this point, however, by using his own preferred buzzword—anointed—on virtually every page of this book, long after the term's sarcastic power has dissipated.)

The Vision of the Anointed touches upon many themes familiar to readers of Sowell's previous books, articles, and columns. Indeed, much of the material here will be overly familiar to longtime readers of Sowell's work, particularly his wide-ranging treatises Knowledge and Decisions and A Conflict of Visions.

As in Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell emphasizes that human knowledge consists largely of the unarticulated experiences of numerous people, not the formal learning of an articulate elite; hence, market processes that convey the ideas and preferences of the many are superior to grandiose social-policy schemes that rely on the talents and wisdom of the few. A related theme is the importance of incremental, rather than categorical, decision making: The crucial question, often ignored in policy debates, is not whether something is good but how much of it is desirable and affordable. The Vision of the Anointed also recapitulates Sowell's argument, stated at length in A Conflict of Visions, that underlying many policy disputes are differing assumptions, largely unspoken, about humanity's moral and intellectual capabilities and the range of social possibilities.

Amplifying these themes, Sowell contrasts the anointed's world view with the opposing "tragic vision," which emphasizes the inherent limitations of humanity and society. Where the anointed see categorical solutions to social problems, the tragic vision recognizes that unavoidable trade-offs will leave many desirable objectives unmet. While the anointed regard freedom as the ability to achieve goals, the tragic vision more modestly defines freedom as the absence of coercion. The anointed, unlike their opponents, strive for "cosmic justice"—a vision of perfect fairness, in which disadvantages and inequalities are eliminated by the actions of a benevolent government.

A common habit of the anointed, Sowell writes, is to treat various elements of society as "mascots" or "targets." Groups that are distrusted or disliked by the general public—such as criminals, vagrants, and disease carriers—are adopted by the left as pet causes; by extending their concern to the "less fortunate," the anointed differentiate themselves from the benighted public. Meanwhile, other groups are targeted by the anointed, precisely because they are held in generally high esteem; successful business people and professionals are among such targets, and hence the anointed favor expansive liability laws that make companies and doctors highly vulnerable to lawsuits.

When Sowell shifts his focus away from consummated policies and toward ongoing controversies, the unintended effect is to highlight the left's current lack of power and relevance. The recent crusade against Mercator-projection maps is a case in point. Such maps, which make countries near the equator look smaller than those near the poles, have been denounced by the National Council of Churches and other groups as an example of Eurocentric bias against the Third World. Sowell points out, correctly, that the Mercator projection has long proven useful for navigation and other purposes and that alternative types of maps distort the globe in different ways. The deeper point, however, is that the anointed are spending their time on such arcana precisely because they are no longer busy restructuring society.

Indeed, The Vision of the Anointed strikes an unduly pessimistic note. Sowell describes the anointed's world view as the "prevailing" vision of our time: widely accepted among political and intellectual elites, and influential enough to have colored even the views of its opponents. With each passing decade, he claims, the anointed's vision will become even more pervasive and insular, as precedents accumulate for their proposals and policies. But at a moment when the left is on the ropes politically and intellectually, Sowell's depiction of its self-deluded thinkers and policy makers inflicting broad harm upon society seems oddly anachronistic.

In that sense, The Vision of the Anointed, with its emphasis on controversies from the 1960s, overlooks the changing nature of the left. Increasingly, the focus of "progressive" energies is not on elaborate policy analysis but rather on obscure, intellectualized, free-floating hostility toward existing institutions. Instead of planning a new War on Poverty, the left seems eager to retreat into various realms of esoterica, including deconstructionism, multiculturalism, and the "politics of meaning." The Vision of the Anointed's portrayal of a rationalistic elite infatuated with social engineering is a more compelling vision of the anointed's past than of their present or future.

Kenneth Silber (ksilberny@aol.com) writes about politics and economics for Insight and other publications.