An interview with the Hoover Institution’s great economist.
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In the later decades of the 20th century the intellectuals went to the other end of the spectrum. And now all differences in racial or ethnic groups were attributed to how they were mistreated by the larger society. So all the problems of the minorities were due to the minorities in the view of the intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century, and all of the problems of the minorities were caused by the majority as the intellectuals saw it at the end of the 20th century.
AmSpec: Yet you note that there are patterns among the intelligentsia that are constant regarding what they do to protect their prevailing vision.
Sowell: In both eras, they would not even engage in any serious discussion with people who went against the prevailing vision. Madison Grant called people who disagreed with genetic determinism “sentimentalists,” and someone else called it the “Pollyanna School.” Of course, toward the end of the 20th century, those who dared disagree with the prevailing vision were called “racists” or at minimum people who were “blaming the victim,” which of course is a great phrase that begs all questions.
AmSpec: Why do they behave that way? Why won’t they subject their vision to tests of logic and fact?
Sowell: I’m convinced it is because they have a huge “ego stake” in the vision of the anointed. Contrast it with the “Tragic Vision” of human nature — people with the Tragic Vision might believe in judicial restraint, free markets, families, and all that. That doesn’t exalt them in any way. But if you believe in the Vision of the Anointed, you become one of the Anointed. You’re for social justice, you’re for protecting the environment, you’re anti-war. You are an exalted person. People with that vision have a lot more to lose if anything seriously challenges that vision than do people on the other side.
AmSpec: Let’s talk a bit about race and disparities in income and their causes. How do intellectuals look at that, and given all the research you’ve done over the years, what would you say are the likely causes of those disparities?
Sowell: The great tendency of intellectuals is to look for a single, overriding cause, and in particular a cause which allows them to be the side of the angels against the forces of evil.
I would go about it an entirely different way. I would ask the question, what would lead you to believe that various causes, and there are an enormous range of causes, would come together in such a way that all groups, or even a substantial number of the groups, would have identical achievements, would have identical capacity to generate wealth? When you run through some of the ramifications of geography, climate, and history — if, say, the Siege of Vienna (1529) had gone the other way Europe would be an Islamic continent now — and it could gone one way or the other. So these are just the happenstances of military events.
So all the factors that go into achievement — if you just begin to enumerate those factors, you begin to wonder if it was ever possible.
But if you go beyond the theoretical things like that, where on this planet or when in history over thousands of years have we found groups that were the same, that were equally distributed in occupations, income levels and so forth? The studies that I’ve seen and conducted myself, have turned up no such groups
One example: In a worldwide study of military forces, the author was unable to find any multi-ethnic society in which the military forces were even approximately representative of the ethnic makeup of the society.
AmSpec: How does the intelligentsia often respond to disparities? What are some of their ways to address them? In particular, there was this phrase in one of your chapters, “the surplus of intellectuals.” How can that factor into it?
Sowell: In countries around the world newly emerging intellectuals from groups that are lagging behind, they almost always study in soft subjects. They do not study in subjects that would give them marketable skills, or for that matter great intellectual advantages in the sense of rigorous thinking and so forth. Moreover they’re usually produced in numbers vastly greater than there is any demand for in the market. And so they are almost invariably disgruntled from both a personal point of view and from the point of view of being part of a group that is lagging and is not as highly regarded as other groups that are more advanced. So they launch attacks against groups that are more advanced. In a sense, it’s insane.
I cited one counter-example. David Hume urged his fellow Scots in the 18th century to learn the English language, which they did. All over Scotland there were courses on the English language. What Hume was trying to do was to get the Scots to avail themselves of the same culture that had allowed the English to advance, so the Scots could advance themselves. And as they did, the Scots became wholly disproportionately represented among the leading British intellectuals from about the middle of 18th century until the middle of the 19th century.
But that is not the course taken by most intellectuals from most groups that are lagging in most countries around the world. On the contrary, they argue they must cling to their own culture. They must fight against those who have a different culture. And they must blame those who have a different culture for the gap that exists.
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