Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thomas Sowell, what a caricature

Caricature -- noun -- a picture, description, etc., ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things. (

I had a couple of reasons for initiating this blog and naming it what I did. Beyond the obvious motivations of narcissism and self-aggrandizement was and is a genuine belief in people's underlying rationality. As an economist, it's the first assumption that I reach for in an economic or social analysis. Despite a good deal of contradictory evidence from psychology and behavioral economics, rationality still seems the best place to start.

Rationality does not mean that people are always right. However, it does mean that they try to work out problems logically and do their best to achieve their goals subject to the constraints that they face or perceive. Differences in goals, values, constraints, perceptions, and information can all lead to different outcomes. Logic itself takes effort; there's usually only so long that someone can work on a problem before having to take an action or make a decision. It's not surprising that reasonable people come to different conclusions. By writing about and discussing different issues, there is the hope that one's logic or information base might be improved. Similarly, there's often a lot to be gained from reading and carefully considering analyses that are different from your own.

As I wrote, differences in outcomes and opinions can come from differences in underlying values, but they can also come from lots of other things. It seems worthwhile to explore all of these possibilities when evaluating someone's opinion. Put another way, we don't gain much by starting with the assumption that anyone who disagrees with us is a moral or intellectual defective.

Sadly, this does seem to be the starting point of Thomas Sowell (a one-time economist no less) and many conservative columnists. Rather than engage in any logical debate or any hard reasoning, Sowell takes the easy route of ascribing fundamental character flaws to people with different opinions. In this week's column, the compounded tragedy of the Utah mine collapse, opposition to the death penalty, and the absence of a market in the U.S. for human organs are all pinned on "squeamishness," a character flaw that blinds people "who flatter themselves as being more advanced thinkers than the rest of us" from considering trade-offs for the greater good.

In last week's column, the perfidious "left" has as its fundamental goal, failure and poverty. Sowell trots (or more appropriately Trotsky-s) out the old argument that liberals purposefully expand the number of poor and dependent people to expand its voter base. Of course, Sowell is too busy fuming and quoting Marx to consider that the "blue states" in recent elections have tended to be richer than the "red states." In the column before that, he argued that the Minnesota bridge collapse served as a convenient prop for scheming politicians "itching to raise tax do what they are always trying to do." There's no possibility that someone could logically propose taxes as a way for society to begin to pay more for bills it's neglected; the proposals can only be an excuse to expand the role of government. (For a contrast of how the financing infrastructure might be rationally discussed see Gary Becker's and Richard Posner's blog).

In each case, Sowell caricatures the left as weak or immorally scheming. Maybe when he tires of setting up strawmen, he'll write something that is worth reading. Until then, he could at least have the decency to call himself something other than an economist.


David Wharton said...

Did you happen to read this essay in the WSJ recently? I think there's a similarity between Cost's "good faith assumption" and your "assumption of rationality."

I also believe that columnists and bloggers on the left and right share assumptions of bad faith and irrationality in their opponents about equally.

Paul Krugman, for example, frequently makes sweeping statements about the bad faith of conservatives that are just as unfair as Sowell's.

Dave Ribar said...


Thanks for pointing out Cost's essay; I had not seen it. His recommendation to apply a "good faith assumption" is an excellent one. One possible distinction between the comment he cites and Sowell's columns is that the comment applies to a particular person who can be evaluated on his acts. It seems less tenable to apply that to a group.

It's hard to judge Krugman from just a few critical statements. In Sowell's case, he's started with an assumption that the other side is flawed and then argued from there; the assumptions are the central point in his argument.

I do agree though that both sides need to listen to each other and consider the other side's evidence, not just engage in name-calling and chest-thumping.

Thanks again for two really helpful links.

Anonymous said...

Sowell vs. Krugman - the debate of the century

There hasn't been anything like this since 1925, when Jennings and Darrow clashed in Dayton, TN - in the trial that came to be called the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Now, coming soon to a television screen near you - brought to you by the Fox(N) and CSPAN(Z) faux networks - a debate that will provide definitive answers to a divided nation on crucial economic questions of the century such as "What is the correct role of Government in American Economics".

A clash of Titans - panel leader Krugman (for the Left) and panel leader Sowell (for the Right).
------------end of excerpt---------

Bryan said...

This blog entry is probably too old for anyone to care, however...
let me respond to your point that Sowell relies on straw man arguments. I'll define straw man as substituting another proposition to refute instead of the original one. By that definition, Sowell does not use that tactic. His proposition regarding the liberal advocacy for the poor is that when they succeed, they are typically neither celebrated nor noticed. Only so long as they are useful do they fall under the radar. His body of work provides a great deal of empirical evidence for this. You offer the blue/red state wealth as a rebuttal. That's great. You are debating his proposition. Neither you nor he are battling straw men.

nick said...

sowell lies in his book on housing bust, so the rest should be examined with fine tooth ....

nick said...

frequently makes sweeping statements about the bad faith of conservatives that are just as unfair as Sowell's.


I know Conservatives and their bad faith personally!

Anonymous said...

The one sidedness of this argument worries me, as again, I'll cite Paul Krugman, who titled his book the "conscience of liberal", wherein he implies that those on the right do, by default, make immoral assumptions (despite the shear rationality of some of their arguments.) I might also cite Joe Stigltz's popular article entitled "capitalist fools" which, for one, is an odd title for a modern economist to be giving to any one of his essays, but also makes the same assumption that it was some sort of failure of capitalism and capitalism only which led to the disasters in the recent recession.

As long as we are being rational, lets in fact consider the "leftist" position on minimum wages. You would be hard pressed to find a reputable economist in the country who believes that the minimum wage is a good idea (Even Krugman is on record against it). Yet, it continues to rise and rise, without even considering the alternatives like an earned income tax credit. The only difference between funding these two programs is that in the case of the EITC, the money has to come off of the governments books. In the other case of the minimum wage, the onus is put on employers, along with a host of detrimental costs to hiring incentives. Furthermore, it seems "moralism" has become the modern approach to selling the idea of the minimum wage, and this moralism serves to further distort the rationality of any such debate about alternatives. Again, I cite this archival footage of the 2008 Democratic primary as evidence:

From a current GW student

Unknown said...

Good thoughtful posts. I'm impressed. I guess it stands to reason for this relatively esoteric article.

To the blogger from 2007 who commented "this is probably too late".. I read it in 12/2014.

In 2014 - I would submit Krugman has been proved right - obviously! (care to differ?).. When will "the majority of Americans" wake up?