Book Reviews

25 março, 2006

24) Sobre a validade permanente da economia política dos clássicos e um grande americano...


Classy Economist
Thomas Sowell is a lifetime student of the market force.

The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, March 25, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Thomas Sowell's excuse for limiting interviews to an hour is that it helps him "avoid stress." But one suspects the real reason is that he has better uses for his time than to humor nettlesome journalists. In any case, it's hard to question the time-management preferences of a man who's published nearly 30 books, while also producing academic articles, long-form magazine essays and a seldom-dull newspaper column for more than two decades. Not bad for an orphan from Jim Crow North Carolina who never finished high school and didn't earn a college degree until he was 28.

Mr. Sowell's unorthodox views on racial matters have made him our foremost "black conservative," but the modifier sells him way short. He is one of the country's leading social commentators--without qualification. And his scholarship is not only voluminous but wide-ranging, covering everything from education and law to political philosophy, migration and the history of ideas. His primary discipline, however, is economics, specifically the history of economic thought, the subject in which he earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1968 under Milton Friedman and George Stigler. It is the subject he taught at Cornell, UCLA, Amherst, Brandeis and elsewhere during an academic career in the 1960s and '70s. And it is the subject of his most recent book, "On Classical Economics," which Yale has just published.

Mr. Sowell, who will turn 76 this year but looks 20 years younger, sat for an interview on a cool, drizzly morning at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, his perch since 1980, and where he is--appropriately--the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow. He describes his latest tome as "partly an old book and partly a new book." It combines four somewhat revised essays on microeconomics, macroeconomics, methodology and social philosophy from his 1974 publication, "Classical Economics Reconsidered," with four new essays, on Mill, Marx, Sismondi and economic history.

Asked why classical economics--and economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Mill and Marx--continues to deserve attention, Mr. Sowell replies that "if classical economics is relevant, than Mill and Marx are relevant. Why is classical economics relevant? I guess it's relevant because there are people who study it, and if they're going to talk about it they ought to know what they're talking about, which is a requirement sometimes overlooked."

Free-market economics, a legacy of the classical school, is thought of as an old conservative doctrine. But Mr. Sowell explains that it was in fact one of the most revolutionary concepts to emerge in the history of ideas. Moreover, "the thinking of the classical economist was not only a radical break from landmark intellectual figures like Plato and Machiavelli but also from mainstream thinking to this day." The notion of a self-equilibrating system--the market economy--meant a reduced role for intellectuals and politicians, he says. "And even today many still haven't accepted that their superior wisdom might be superfluous, if not damaging."

Mr. Sowell may be an unabashed free-market adherent, but he's proud to say that Professor Sowell left his personal views out of the classroom. In his 2000 memoir, "A Personal Odyssey," he relates an episode in which some students approached him after taking his graduate seminar on Marxian theory. They expressed appreciation for the course but added, "We still don't know what your opinion is on Marxism." He took it as an unintended compliment.

"My job was to teach them economics, not teach them what I happen to believe," says Mr. Sowell, who adds that efforts by some today to counterbalance the prevailing liberalism in academia with more right-wing instructors is not only an exercise in futility but a disservice to students. "Even if you succeed in propagandizing the students while they're students, it doesn't tell you much [about how they'll turn out]. I suspect that over half [of the conservatives at the Hoover Institution] were on the left in their 20s. More important, though, let's assume for the sake of argument that, whatever you're propagandizing them with on the left or right, every conclusion you teach them is correct. It's only a matter of time before all those conclusions are obsolete because entirely different issues are going to arise over the lifetimes of these students. And so, if you haven't taught them how to weigh one argument against another, you haven't taught them anything."

This lifelong passion for economics has been much on display in recent years--"On Classical Economics" was preceded by "Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy" (2000) and "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One" (2003), both of which were written for the general public. And it's worth noting the extent to which Mr. Sowell's background in the dismal science also informs his better-known works on ethnicity, race and culture. Other black conservative scholars have their strengths, to be sure. Shelby Steele writes like a dream and favors an existential approach to racial matters. John McWhorter's prose is as hip as it is provocative.

But Mr. Sowell's forte has always been rigorous analysis and adherence to facts, however stubborn and wherever they lead. And the facts led him on a writing tear in the '70s and '80s. Some titles, like "Race and Economics" (1975), "Markets and Minorities" (1981) and "The Economics and Politics of Race" (1983), betray his technical background. But Mr. Sowell's other influential books of this period--"Black Education: Myths and Tragedies" (1972), "Ethnic America" (1981), "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" (1984)--are no less distinguished by the dispassionate empiricism he brings to such emotionally charged topics. In these tomes and elsewhere, Mr. Sowell's research questions the basic assumptions behind popular public policies aimed at minorities.

And in the process, he's made mincemeat of the sloppy methodology and flaccid arguments put forward by mainstream civil right leaders and their liberal sympathizers. He has shown, empirically, that affirmative action does not benefit poor blacks. He has shown, empirically, that political clout is not a prerequisite for ethnic economic advancement. And most importantly, he has exposed the harmful fallacy of using racial and gender discrimination as an all-purpose explanation for statistical group disparities.

Asked why many of these failed ideas, and the black leaders who promote them, don't seem to lose credibility, Mr. Sowell responds that the phenomenon is hardly limited to the realm of race. "You could take it beyond the black leadership," he says. "Has [John Kenneth] Galbraith lost any credibility? I remember 'The New Industrial State'"--the 1967 book in which Mr. Galbraith famously argued that large corporations were immune to marketplace forces--"but since then, Eastern Airlines has gone out of business. The Graflex Corporation has gone out of business. Similarly with all kinds of big businesses. This hasn't made the slightest dent in Galbraith's reputation. We have Paul Ehrlich, who has told us there would be mass starvation in the world in the '80s, and now we find our two biggest problems are obesity and how to get rid of agricultural surpluses." Mr. Sowell's conclusion is a cynical one. "I have a book called 'The Vision of the Anointed,' and there's a chapter in there called 'The Irrelevance of Evidence.'"

The idea to apply economic concepts to racial issues came, says Mr. Sowell, from the late Benjamin Rogge, who taught economics at Wabash College in Indiana. "I was at Cornell, and Ben Rogge came on campus to give a talk called 'The Welfare State Against the Negro.' I happened to be out of town, so when I got back I wrote him a letter that said I heard you gave this talk and that you're going to write a book on the same theme. I said it's really amazing that no one's thought of this before because there's so much material out there. At this point [in the late '60s] I had no thought that I would ever touch it myself."

The two became friends over the years and "it occurred to Ben that he was never going to write that book. And so Ben Rogge took his manuscript and simply handed it to me and said do with it whatever you can. I was flabbergasted. I don't think I ever used anything directly from his manuscript. But the fundamental idea the you could apply economics to racial issues--that was the inspiration."

Similarly, Mr. Sowell says his interest in "international perspectives"--most notably demonstrated in his lengthy trilogy on cultural history published in the 1990s--initially came from reading Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1963 classic study, "Beyond the Melting Pot." "It was really the first book I read about different ethnic groups. There were many different patterns. And more than anything else, each group had its own pattern.

"The left likes to portray a group as sort of a creature of surrounding society. But that's not true. For example, back during the immigrant era, you had neighborhoods on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] where Jews and Italians arrived at virtually identical times. Lived in the same neighborhoods. Kids sat side by side in the same schools. But totally different outcomes. Now, if you look back at the history of the Jews and the history of the Italians you can see why that would be. In the early 19th century, Russian officials report that even the poorest Jews find some way to get some books in their home, even though they're living in a society where over 90% of the people are illiterate.

"Conversely, in southern Italy, which is where most Italian-Americans originated, when they put in compulsory school-attendance laws, there were riots. There were schoolhouses burning down. So now you take these two kids and sit them side by side in a school. If you believe that environment means the immediate surroundings, they're in the same environment. But if you believe environment includes this cultural pattern that goes back centuries before they were born, then no, they're not in the same environment. They don't come into that school building with the same mindset. And they don't get the same results."

It somehow seems an imposition to press Mr. Sowell on his next project, though he graciously allows that a collection of correspondence, as well as a book on intellectuals, is in the works. As the interview clock winds down, however, he returns briefly to the topic of race. He laments the fact that more public intellectuals aren't applying economic analyses to racial policies, even while he understands the hesitation.

"I think it would be great if someone would sit down and take a sort of systematic textbook approach to it," says Mr. Sowell. "[George Mason University economist] Walter Williams has written a couple of very good books, but unfortunately they were not well promoted. Guys like Gary Becker have other fish to fry, and they're writing for a different audience. Besides Walter and me, I don't know who else out there would write it. And heaven knows it's not the golden pathway to instant popularity."

Mr. Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.


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