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.