A flash of genius sheds light on the motivations of leaders – the Journal Record

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Andrew C. Spiropoulos

Genuine genius is exceptionally rare – only the lucky ones meet one. After Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman uses the word to describe his former student Thomas Sowell, it’s wise to find out more about what Sowell has to say. Fortunately, longtime columnist Jason Riley the Wall Street newspaper, recently published Maverick, a superb introduction to the life and thought of Sowell.

Many know Sowell as a leading social scientist devoted to rigorous empirical investigation of economic and social policy. The common thread of his work is his insistence that the good intentions of those who seek power to implement their reform plans count for nothing – we should only care about the results of these policies.

Sowell insists that we must engage in a rigorous empirical evaluation of public policies. Decades of experience in uncovering and analyzing the facts about the consequences of actions across the spectrum of policies has proven to Sowell that policymakers achieve superior results when, instead of implementing comprehensive and transformative reforms. Designed and administered by centralized bureaucracies employing intellectual experts, they establish decentralized processes that provide individual and family incentives to achieve socially more modest goals. This approach empowers individuals, families and associations who have the local knowledge necessary to make good decisions and are motivated by self-interest for the benefit of the community.

But Sowell’s work demonstrating the superior performance of market-oriented mechanisms, while superb, doesn’t make it special. What characterizes Sowell as a genius is his compelling explanation of why, despite endemic failure, intellectuals continue to propose these ambitious plans for social reform. These elites, or, as Sowell calls them, the anointed ones, still believe that if you give them just enough power and money, the next plan will work.

Sowell realized that common classifications of thinkers as left or right did not explain the compulsion to transform society – there are aspiring revolutionaries of all ideological shades. Sowell’s spark of insight is that the fundamental difference between social thinkers is not explained by their fully developed theories – it is rooted in what Sowell calls their vision. This view is precognitive, which means it’s an instinct or intuition that shapes your thinking about everything.

The flame of illumination ignited and produced by Sowell’s lightning keeps its promise of intellectual light. Sowell divides thinkers into those whose view of the human condition is either constrained or free. Those who are unconstrained believe that the possibilities for human achievement are limitless – they are optimistic about human nature. They believe that what matters most are our intentions – do we aspire to improve life or do we just want to get by? Those in the forced camp have a tragic outlook on life in which our inherent and ineradicable human weaknesses impose tangible limits on human achievement. We have no choice but to trade one good for another – you have to balance, for example, equality and freedom. The best we can do is establish functional processes that facilitate individual decisions about what to value the most.

It’s not hard to see why most intellectual elites fall into the camp unconstrainedly – what good is accumulating knowledge and power if you don’t believe you can use it to relieve humanity of its suffering. What Sowell – who turned 91 last month – has learned is that the nobility of your vision doesn’t matter if your actions make it worse for people.

Andrew Spiropoulos is Robert S. Kerr, Senior Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Oklahoma City and Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and should not be attributed to either institution.


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