Has the level of economic thinking in political debate gone up at all?the Wall Street Journal's Kyle Peterson asks the man who ought to be rewarded with a Nobel Prize in economics.
“No—in fact, I’m tempted to think it’s gone down,” [Thomas Sowell] says, without much hesitation. “At one time you had a lot of people who hadn’t had any economics saying foolish things. Now you have well-known economists saying foolish things.”
… take “disparate impact,” the idea that different outcomes among different groups—say, that there are more male CEOs than female—is ipso facto evidence of discrimination. The Obama administration has used disparate impact to charge racism in housing, employment and other matters. In the absence of discrimination, the theory goes, people naturally would be dispersed more or less at random. Nonsense, Mr. Sowell says. “In various books I’ve given lists of all the great disparities all over the world, and I recently saw a column by Walter Williams in which he added that men are bitten by sharks several times as often as women.”
Differences in outcome is a matter that Mr. Sowell takes up in his new book, “Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective,” out Sept. 8. Its theme, he says, is that “in a sense, there was never any rational reason to believe that there would be this evenness that they presuppose.” Some continents have more navigable rivers and deep water harbors than others. Some cultures value education highly, and some don’t. Underwhelming as the conclusion might sound to those with the urge to reorder society, many disparities arise simply because people are different, and because they make different choices.
Another problem is that the “disparate impact” assumption misidentifies where group differences originate. He sets up an example: “If you have people in various groups in the country, and their kids are all raised differently, they all behave differently in school, they do differently in school. And now they’re grown up and they go to an employer, and you’re surprised to find that they’re not distributed randomly by income.” It’s “just madness,” he says, to assume “that because you collected the statistics there, that’s where the unfairness originated.”
Mr. Sowell, looking back, can count the lucky breaks that contributed to his own success. As a baby he was adopted into a household with four adults who talked to him constantly. When he was 9 years old, the family left the South, moving from North Carolina to Harlem in New York. A mentor there took him to a public library for the first time and told him how to transfer out of a bad school into a good one. Not everyone has that kind of luck.
“It is unjust—my God it’s unjust,” Mr. Sowell says. “And yet that doesn’t mean that you can locate somebody who has victimized somebody else.” In human affairs, happenstance reigns.
Why do we never seem to learn these economic lessons? “I think there’s a market for foolish things,” Mr. Sowell says—and vested interests, too. Once an organization such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is created to find discrimination, no one should be startled when it finds discrimination. “There’s never going to be a time when the EEOC will file a report saying, ‘All right folks, there’s really not enough discrimination around to be spending all this money,’ ” he says. “You’re going to have ever-more-elaborate definitions of discrimination. So now, if you don’t want to hire an ax murderer who has somehow gotten paroled, then that’s discrimination.”
It’s a funny line—and an instance of what sets Mr. Sowell apart: candor and independence of mind. No one can suggest that he doesn’t say what he thinks. In 1987, while testifying in favor of Judge Robert Bork’s ill-fated nomination to the Supreme Court, he told Joe Biden, a senator at the time, that he wouldn’t have a problem with literacy tests for voting or with $1.50 poll taxes, so long as they were evenly and fairly applied. When I ask whether he remembers this exchange, Mr. Sowell quips, “No, Joe Biden is forgettable.”
… Mr. Sowell is unsparing toward those who purport to speak for American blacks. I ask him about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. “People want to believe what they want to believe, and the facts are not going to stop them,” he says, adding that black leaders—from President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder down to Al Sharpton—“do all they can to feed that sense of grievance, victimhood and resentment, because that’s where the votes are.”
What about Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black writer whose new book, a raw letter to his son about race relations in the U.S., is stirring public intellectuals? I read Mr. Sowell a line from Mr. Coates’s 15,000-word cover story for the Atlantic calling for reparations for slavery: “In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
“Ah . . . yes,” Mr. Sowell sighs, as if recognizing a familiar tune. “What amazes me is not that there are assertions like this, but that there is no interest in checking those assertions against any evidence,” he says. “One of the things I try to do in the book is to distinguish between what might be the legacy of slavery, and what’s the legacy of the welfare state. If you look at the first 100 years after slavery, black communities were a lot safer. People were a lot more decent. But then you look 30 years after the 1960s revolution, and you see this palpable retrogression—of which I think the key one is the growth of the single-parent family.”
… Does anyone believe that racism and the legacy of slavery are stronger today than in the 1970s—or for that matter in 1945, when Mr. Sowell enrolled at Stuyvesant? “It’s not a question of the disproportion between blacks and whites, or Asians, but the disproportion between blacks of today and blacks of the previous generation,” he says. “And that’s what’s scary.”