A recent commenter said that my review of Kirk was harsh, if true. I'm afraid this one is much harsher (and also much longer). I might soften it a bit if I were to rewrite it, but I stand by most of it. I apologize for the length, but I had a lot to get off my chest.
So far as I can tell, Thomas Sowell had three purposes in this book: 1) to show what dangerous ideologues liberals are and what terrible things they do; 2) to show the error in their foundational assumptions, versus those of conservatism; and 3) to demonstrate the connection between these two—that is, to show that their dishonest modus operandi is a logical result of their worldview. Unfortunately, the only one of these purposes that he comes close to succeeding at is the first, and this is the least useful, because the errors he points to are ones that most thinking people could discern without his help. To a blind and ignorant devotee of liberalism, this book might indeed serve as helpful illumination; to anyone else, it seems more likely to hurt the cause of conservatism than that of liberalism. A strong statement, I admit, and I’ll attempt to defend it thoroughly.
First, though, I want to briefly challenge a fundamental premise of the book. The very first lines of the book are “The views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world—a certain vision of reality.” To say that those who are conservative on foreign policy will also be conservative on abortion is, unfortunately, not a very meaningful statement, since the word “conservative,” far from having a clear a priori meaning, has simply been designated as the term for a certain set of viewpoints that otherwise may have little in common. It is hard to see how a hawkish foreign policy stance really has much in common with an anti-abortion stance, save that both have traditionally been held by many conservatives, and thus have been designated as “conservative” positions. Seen this way, Sowell’s statement seems little more than a tautology—“so-called ‘conservatives’ are those who hold so-called ‘conservative views’.” Unfortunately, unlike most tautologies, it doesn’t even seem to have the virtue of being true. Many people, and many Christians, as Jim Wallis is quick to point out, might be “conservative” on abortion but “liberal” on foreign policy, “conservative” on education, but “liberal” on crime. To claim otherwise is simply to insist that the lines in the sand drawn by the current coalitions must be normative.
But, moving on, here’s the first problem with Sowell’s argument. While it is manifestly clear that liberalism is an ideology that systematically distorts evidence, demonizes its opponents, and is unable to be self-critical, and while Sowell documents this thoroughly, this point is only rhetorically effective if it contains a distinctive critique of liberalism as such. If liberalism is simply doing what all ideologies do, including conservatism, then what’s the big deal? Ideologies are dogmatic, blinding and self-justifying—we all knew that…now so what? If conservatism is guilty of the same charge, then Sowell’s first purpose, while valid, becomes singularly uninteresting, and his third point is unsustainable (because, if the two opposite viewpoints manifest the same sorts of blindness and foolishness—if the two trees are bearing similar fruits—then it’s impossible to demonstrate to blame the bad fruit on one bad tree). Here’s a few of the fruits they share:
--Sowell says that liberalism demonizes its opponents; it does not simply question their intelligence, but accuses them of being morally evil. He quotes the following statement: “Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope. Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil.” This seems like an apt summary, until you realize that it is unsustainable on every level. First of all, is it really that much better to write off your opponent as brainless than to write him off as selfish? Either way, you’re stereotyping him so that you can despise and ignore him. Second, it is not true that liberals don’t accuse conservatives of being stupid; indeed, it seems that this charge is at least as frequent as the charge of moral failure. Third, and most significantly, it is manifestly untrue that conservatives do not make moral accusations against their liberal opponents. Indeed, that’s exactly what Sowell is doing in this book, in many places—accusing liberals of all kinds of moral failings, preeminently self-righteousness. Moreover, in the recent election cycle, it was the conservatives, far more than the liberals, who stooped to demonizing the opposition—the range of slurs and sinister speculations thrown at Obama left no stone of invective unturned. For a while, it seemed that conservative Christians believed that Satan himself had taken on human flesh in order to run against McCain.
--Sowell says that liberalism distorts evidence and only shows off statistics that it likes. Doesn’t every ideology do this? How do I know that Sowell isn’t doing that to me? Sowell preaches “scientific objectivity,” which is of course a myth—every selection of evidence out of the general mass of possible statistics is a biased selection and a biased interpretation. More importantly, however guilty Sowell himself may or may not be, the conservative ideology is clearly thoroughly immersed in this kind of spin. The “evidence” that conservatives alleged in support of the claim that we were threatened by terrorists was highly selective (and often fabricated), as was the “evidence” of the threat in Iraq, and of our progress in Iraq. More recently, as the financial crisis has blown up, conservatives have scrambled to produce evidence first that everything in the economy was in fact fine, and then, when that wouldn’t hold up, that everything that was wrong with the economy was caused by liberal policies, not corporate greed. Books as big as Sowell’s could be written debunking any of these recent conservative deceptions.
--Sowell says that liberalism modifies vocabulary to suit its purposes. Who doesn’t? I ask! Anyone in the midst of a debate seeks to define the terms their way, to characterize their position in lofty-sounding terms and their opponent’s in foolish-sounding terms. Free-marketers do this all the time when trying to gloss over the greed and injustice that flourish in capitalism, and the Bush administration and its allies have accomplished dizzying feats of word-spinning in its “War on Terror.”
--Sowell says that liberalism tries to build up hysteria over impending crises that must be acted upon immediately to save us all from doom. Again, I have merely to point out that the Bush administration bested all previous benchmarks and accomplished a fear-mongering feat for the ages with the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.
--Sowell complains that liberals dismiss their opponents’ approach as “simplistic” and warn that the situation is much more “complex”—conservatives do this all the time…indeed, as far as I could tell, that was a major tactic of Sowell’s throughout this book!
--Sowell complains that liberals “tend to see evils more localized in particular ‘oppressors’ of one sort or another, as expressed in ‘white racism,’ ‘male domination,’ or ‘capitalist exploitation’ for example.” If this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. You can’t listen to conservative talk radio for more than five minutes without noticing how “the government” is automatically and always evil, while other institutions, especially corporations, are usually quite innocent.
--and of course, one could make this same point over and over with most of his categorical charges against liberalism.
Now of course it is possible that conservatism has changed radically since Sowell wrote 15 years ago, and has begun to ape the follies of liberalism much more thoroughly; indeed, I expect it has. But in any case, it is clear that there is nothing distinctively flawed about liberalism’s tactics, no fault that cannot easily surface in any other ideology.
The second problem, which goes much deeper, appears when Sowell comes to explaining the differences between the two worldviews, and attempting to justify his against that of the “anointed.” The problem is that both worldviews are quite self-evidently heretical and unsuitable for Christians. If the purpose of Sowell’s book was to convince Christians that they had to opt out of the left-right spectrum entirely, he couldn’t have done a much better job. First of all, we should note the general worldview of Sowell’s vision, which he states quite clearly. It is a “tragic vision,” a vision of “inescapable fate inherent in the nature of things, rather than unhappiness due simply to villainy or callousness.” Ours is to be a vision of hope and freedom, not of tragedy and fatalism. While certain features of Sowell’s vision are an apt portrait of the world post-fall, they certainly have limited value post-redemption. Man is still fallen, yes, but in the gospel he is liberated and given new dignity and new potential; death and sin no longer have the last word. Christ has come and shown that the impossible is possible, that hope triumphs over the inevitable. Let’s assess Sowell’s comparisons:
Human capability: “severely and inherently limited for all” (Tragic Vision); “vast for the anointed” (Anointed Vision). The Gospel counters, “severely and inherently limited for all who are under sin and death, but vast for those who are anointed by the Spirit.”
Social possibilities: “trade-offs that leave many ‘unmet needs’” (TV); “solutions to problems” (AV). The Gospel counters, “An unstoppable solution that meets every need in Christ and his Church.”
Social causation: “systemic” (TV); “deliberate” (AV). The Gospel says, “deliberate for all those who do not sacrifice their freedom in Christ to a system” (but this needs to be developed more, depending on context, and the point will be, I think, that the answer is some measure of both).
Freedom: “exemption from the power of others” (TV); “ability to achieve goals” (AV). The Gospel counters, “Unequivocally both. Liberation from the power of sin and empowerment to live for Christ.”
Justice: “process rules with just characteristics” (TV); “just (equalized) chances or results.” The Gospel counters, “Again, both, but with strong suspicion about the ability of any purely human process to be just.”
Knowledge: “consists largely of the unarticulated experiences of the many” (TV); “consists largely of the articulated intelligence of the more educated few” (AV). The Gospel counters, “consists of the revelation of God to his people.”
Specialization: “highly desirable” (TV); “highly questionable” (AV). The Gospel answers (inasmuch as this question is relevant), “Depends on context. Sometimes helpful, sometimes blinding.”
Motivations: “incentives” (TV); “dispositions” (AV). The Gospel answers, “The disposition of the heart to do God’s will, in which the only incentive is his pleasure and glory.”
Process costs: “crucial” (TV); “incidental” (AV). The Gospel says, “Depends on context, but incidental when it comes to the accomplishment of the Gospel’s central mission, for which no cost is too high, even the blood of the Son of God, and of myriads of martyrs.”
Decision-making mechanism preferred: “systemic processes that convey the experiences and revealed preferences of the many” (TV); “deliberate plans that utilize the special talents and more advanced views of the few” (AV). The Gospel counters: “deliberate plans, authorized by God, executed with the aid of the gifts of the many, under the leadership of those called to lead.”
Kinds of decisions preferred: “incremental” (TV); “categorical” (AV). The Gospel answers, “Depends on context, but categorical when it comes to the accomplishment of the Gospel’s central mission.”
You might say that I am confusing categories here—Sowell is applying these concepts economically and politically, and the Gospel principles are applied to totally different sorts of issues. But the Gospel principles unquestionably do apply economically and politically, and moreover, the point is that the Gospel supplies us with a fundamental vision of how God’s world works and how we are to work in it, a vision that will guide us in whatever problems we approach.
What becomes clear from this comparison is not merely that the tragic vision is far from the Gospel vision, or that the Gospel vision somehow splits the difference. Rather, shockingly enough, it appears as though the Vision of the Anointed ends up coming a good deal closer to the Gospel vision than does the tragic vision; unfortunately, though, because it leaves God out of the picture, it misses the whole point and falls short of any chance of success.
Let me conclude by offering a few quotes showing just how far Sowell’s tragic vision is from anything recognizably Christian.
“ ‘We cannot change the Nature of things and of men,’ Edmund Burke said, ‘but must act upon them the best we can.’ ”
“Holmes spoke disdainfully of ‘the vain attempt to love one’s neighbor as one’s self,’ of ‘our legislation to make other people better,’ and of attempts to ‘legislate bliss.’ ”
“Those with the tragic vision have emphasized process characteristics, often treating the dispositions, intentions, or goals of those operating within these processes as incidental and irrelevant.”
The tragic vision, it seems, wants to write off as impossible or unrealistic things that the Gospel considers not merely possible, but mandatory. The problem with the vision of the anointed is not so much what they want to accomplish, but that they think that they, not the Gospel, are to accomplish these things. But in saying that the Gospel is to accomplish these things, we should not mean that they are to accomplished on some spiritual, not earthly plane; nor that we need to “let go and let God” accomplish them (to say this might square nicely with parts of the tragic vision). No, God has commissioned his Church to make his Kingdom a way of life here on earth, and has promised that it can and will succeed, that men will be changed from a fleshly nature to a spiritual nature, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves and apply the law of the Gospel to improve mankind.
Does Sowell’s book, we must ask, really have anything to offer to a Christian or a Christian political vision?