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Thomas Sowell

Widely-syndicated political and social columnist and commentator, Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution of Stanford University, author of Barbarians Inside the Gates (1999, Hoover Institution) and others

Books by Thomas Sowell
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Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy (2001)
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Knowledge and Decisions
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The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999)
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The Vision of the Anointed (1995)
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What is politically defined as economic 'planning' is the forcible superseding of other people's plans by government officials.

The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer's money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family -- which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions -- began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to 'help.'

Implicit in the activist conception of government is the assumption that you can take the good things in a complex system for granted, and just improve the things that are not so good. What is lacking in this conception is any sense that a society, an institution, or even a single human being, is an intricate system of fragile inter-relationships, whose complexities are little understood and easily destabilized.

What is history but the story of how politicians have squandered the blood and treasure of the human race?

No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: 'But what would you replace it with?' When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?

Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days.

Freedom...refer[s] to a social relationship among people -- namely, the absence of force as a prospective instrument of decision making. Freedom is reduced whenever a decision is made under threat of force, whether or not force actually materializes or is evident in retrospect.

People have been lying for centuries. What makes their statistical lies so dangerous today is that so many people in the media are ready to accept and broadcast statistics turned out by activist groups with an axe to grind -- when those groups share the liberal-left orientation of the media. ... Whole organizations and movements are in the business of trying to alarm the public -- radical feminists, environmental extremists, race hustlers, "consumer advocates" and many more. Wild statistics help them get free publicity in the media and help stampede politicians to "do something," usually by spending the taxpayers' money to deal with a manufactured "crisis." ... The one thing that all these distortions and falsifications of statistics have in common is their thrust in the direction of creating artificial "problems" and "crises" to be dealt with by imposing government "solutions."

Jun. 28, 2001 - from "Lying Statistics", published by Creators Syndicate Inc.
A totalitarian state thrives on propaganda, and there is no more effective way to limit thought than to control the language itself. By changing definitions of words through continual association, any serious discussion involving the concepts that the words represents becomes hopelessly muddled. The words 'democracy,' 'hate' and 'racism' immediately come to mind.

In its pursuit of justice for a segment of society in disregard of the consequences for society as a whole, what is called "social justice" might more accurately be called anti-social justice, since what consistently gets ignored or dismissed are precisely the costs to society.

1999 - from The Quest for Cosmic Justice
We need to understand the distinction between establishing prospective rules for the behavior of flesh-and-blood human beings toward one another and trying ad hoc to retrospectively adjust the cosmos to our tastes.

1999 - from The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Private property is the indispensable protection from the arbitrary will of others, even when this arbitrary will results from a majoritarian election. Private property gives to each of us not only the assurance that others will employ themselves and their resources in ways that create prosperity for all, but also that each of us has a space that others cannot violate. For evidence that private property rather than democracy is the key to prosperity and freedom, I point to India and Hong Kong. In India the electoral franchise is wide and elections have long been regular, but property rights are weak. For most of the post-World War II era, in contrast, Hong Kong had no democracy, but property rights there have been among the strongest the world has ever seen. Indians are poor and shackled by a massively corrupt state; the people of Hong Kong are wealthy and free. Private property, not democracy, is the great guarantor of prosperity and liberty. And because it decentralizes power, it safeguards us from madmen with utopian hallucinations.

1999 - from The Quest for Cosmic Justice
Democracy might be the most appropriate means of choosing government officials, but that does not imply that democracy equals freedom. Freedom requires more than the right to vote; it requires that each person be as unrestrained as possible from the arbitrary will of others -- regardless of whether the others are conquering tyrants, hereditary oligarchs, black-robed judges, or a majority of neighbors or countrymen.

1999 - from The Quest for Cosmic Justice
The big question to ask about proposals for new laws and policies is not whether they sound reasonable, but what damage they can do when they are used unreasonably.

We do not live in the past, but the past in us.

1998 - from Conquests and Cultures: An International History
Where the desire for equality turns from a quixotic hope to a dangerous gamble is in politics. To create even the semblance of equality requires a concentration of power in the hands of political leaders. And, as the history of the 20th century has shown repeatedly and tragically, in countries around the world, once concentrated power is put into the hands of political leaders, they can use it for whatever purpose they have in mind -- regardless of what others had in mind when they granted them that power. Becoming the pawns of politicians is a high price to pay for letting demagogues stir up our envy and beguile us with promises to equalize.

Mar. 2, 2001 - from "The dangers of 'equality'", published by Creators Syndicate Inc.
Scientists who study the brain say that some abilities develop greatly at the expense of other abilities. Socially as well, some talents are developed by neglecting others. Concert pianists seldom have a college education, because the demands of the two things are just too great. Therefore, for both biological and social reasons, the only way for everyone to be equal would be for them to be equal at a lower level of ability than what some people are capable of in some things and other people are in other things.

Mar. 2, 2001 - from "The dangers of 'equality'", published by Creators Syndicate Inc.
Individuals differ radically from one another in all sorts of skills, interests and talents. What all this means is that the capabilities of the human race vastly exceed the capabilities of even the brightest and the best individuals. When the brightest and the best take over making decisions for other people, usually through the power of government, those decisions are likely to be based on less knowledge, experience and understanding than when ordinary people make their own individual decisions for themselves. The anointed may know more than the average person, but far less than all the ordinary people put together.

Mar. 2, 2001 - from "The dangers of 'equality'", published by Creators Syndicate Inc.
... the [contemporary liberal] standard for smartness is not achievement but glib rhetoric, smug airs and presumptuous proposals.

Feb. 8, 2001 - from "Wise versus smart II", Creators Syndicate Inc.
How are you going to tell a young black man to work hard, or study hard in order to get ahead, when both the media and many so-called 'leaders' are constantly telling him that everything is rigged against him? Why knock yourself out on the job, or miss the Saturday night party in order to study, if Whitey is just waiting in ambush to pull the rug out from under you anyway?

May 1997 - quoted in "Reading, writing and racism", by Okey Chigbo, published in The Next City Magazine, Spring 1997
Crusaders like to talk about 'solutions' but life is actually one trade-off after another. The only real question is: What are you prepared to give up in order to get what you want?

When you think of all the [discriminatory] 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.

Dec. 01, 1980 - from an interview published in Reason Magazine
Try getting people to focus on precisely what they mean by overpopulation, urban sprawl or social justice and you are only likely to see the blur become blurrier. Even terms that were once sharply focused, like racism, discrimination or a level playing field are getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

May 31, 1999 - from "Lies, damned lies and blurs", published in Forbes Magazine
There are many reasons, besides genes and discrimination, why groups differ in their economic performances and rewards. Groups differ by large amounts demographically, culturally, and geographically -- and all these differences have profound effects on incomes and occupations.

from Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?
[Leftist junk science] Modern science, like ancient philosophy, concludes that appearances can differ greatly from reality, but that is wholly different from saying that there is no reality beyond our subjective perceptions.

May 17, 1999 - from "Social dogmas and pseudoscience", published in Forbes Magazine
Many Americans who supported the initial thrust of civil rights, as represented by the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, later felt betrayed as the original concept of equal individual opportunity evolved toward the concept of equal group results.

from Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?
The real culprits are those who created a system that makes it dangerous to work and safe to loaf.

The junk science that has become one of the hallmarks of the crusades of the political left, both in and out of the courtroom, has a long pedigree. The left has for centuries tried to use the mystique of science to promote ideas that not only have no scientific basis, but are often the very antithesis of science. In the 19th century, Marx and Engels referred to their social dogmas as 'scientific socialism.' A century earlier, Condorcet analogized social issues to engineering problems. But there was no more relationship between these notions and science or engineering than there is between today's cultural relativism and Einstein's theory of relativity.

May 17, 1999 - from "Social dogmas and pseudoscience", published in Forbes Magazine
... three distinguished American scientists, one a Nobel laureate, offered to help design California's new science curriculum last fall - and their offer was rejected. What this little episode shows is that creating a curriculum in our public schools is not about getting children educated. It is about doing things that teachers like and can handle. The last thing they want is a science curriculum designed by somebody with a Nobel Prize. ... The National Education Association may make a lot of noise about not wanting 'unqualified' people in the classrooms. But this is Newspeak. What they mean by 'unqualified' are people who have not jumped through the hoops of the education schools and education departments. Nobel Prize winners are unqualified by this definition.

Mar. 23, 1998 - from "Scientists need not apply", published in Forbes Magazine
What is ominous is the ease with which some people go from saying that they don't like something to saying that the government should forbid it. When you go down that road, don't expect freedom to survive very long.

While rationalism at the individual level is a plea for more personal autonomy from cultural norms, at the social level it is often a claim - or arrogation - of power to stifle the autonomy of others.

Our public schools have not failed. They have succeeded incredibly in carrying out their own agenda, wholly at cross-purposes with the goals of those who pay the bills and those who send their children to them to be educated.

Mar. 23, 1998 - from "Scientists need not apply", published in Forbes Magazine
One of the problems with the market from the standpoint of those who think 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.

Dec. 01, 1980 - from an interview published in Reason Magazine
Price fixing does not represent simply windfall gains and losses to particular groups according to whether the price happens to be set higher or lower than it would be otherwise. It represents a net lose to the economy as a whole to the extent that many transactions do not take place at all, because the mutually acceptable possibilities have been reduced.

Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.

Any politician who starts shouting election-year demagoguery about he rich and the poor should be asked, "What abut he other 90 percent of the people?"

Einstein said that the position of the observer is an integral part of the data, but he did not say that it was the only part of the data, as sweeping leftist dismissals of 'bourgeois' economics or of the ideas of 'dead white males' might suggest. Moreover, the position of the observer was not a merely subjective matter, as you might think from listening to the deconstructionists.

May 17, 1999 - from "Social dogmas and pseudoscience", published in Forbes Magazine
Back in the days when I was a Marxist, my primary concern was that ordinary people deserved better and that elites were walking all over them. That is still my primary concern, but the passing decades have taught me that political elites and cultural elites are doing far more damage than the market elites could ever get away with doing.

1999 - from Barbarians Inside the Gates, a collection of his columns
Live people are being sacrificed because of what dead people did.

Jul. 01, 1990 - from the New York Times, regarding affirmative action and reverse discrimination
Those who fear we would lose the great 'expertise' that members of Congress develop after years of dealing with certain issues fail to see that much of that expertise is in the arts of packaging, logrolling, creative accounting and other forms of deception.

1999 - from Barbarians Inside the Gates, a collection of his columns
Where science and the social visions of the left differ most is in testing their beliefs against empirical evidence. For science, such tests are essential. For the left, evasions of such tests are essential.

May 17, 1999 - from "Social dogmas and pseudoscience", published in Forbes Magazine
The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.

Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what has worked with what sounded good. In area after area - crime, education, housing, race relations - the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.