Today President Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to eight men and women of varying merits, Cuban dissident Oscar Biscet most notably among them. In one respect, however, today’s awards are a profound disappointment. I don’t think there’s an American whose service to freedom outside the armed forces makes him more deserving of a Medal of Freedom than Hoover Institution Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow Thomas Sowell.
Sowell is a remarkable man who has produced a distinguished body of work over a long career. I tumbled to Sowell through a hilariously derisive book review he had written for Commentary in 1975 of a book by John Kenneth Galbraith. Sowell’s December 1975 review of the Galbraith book — his first of several important pieces for Commentary — took on Galbraith at a time when he was (in the words of George Will) one of liberalism’s leading public intellectuals. The review fairly represents Sowell’s lucidity and wit in the service of freedom. Here is Sowell, for example, on Galbraith’s advocacy of government price controls:
Perhaps the most courageous–or brazen–position taken by Galbraith is in defense of government price-fixing. He not only pronounces World War II price-fixing right and good, but even defends the National Recovery Administration of the early New Deal. His defense of NRA may be unique among economists. The NRA theory was that the general price level could be raised by raising individual prices, industry by industry. This ignores the role of the money supply. If prices are forced up on products A, B, and C, then clearly there will be less money left to spend on products X, Y, and Z, which will then have correspondingly lower prices than otherwise, because of a lower demand. So while individual prices can be forced up (or down) by price-fixing, the general price level rises and falls as the money supply rises and falls.
Price-fixing during World War II was in the opposite direction–trying to keep prices down while
the money supply rose. These controls were “highly effective” according to Galbraith. His evidence? The official price index did not rise much during World War II. That is, the prices officially reported to the government did not rise much during a time when it was a federal crime to raise prices. The black markets and quality deteriorations of the period are mere “legend,” according to Galbraith, though those of us who lived through it may remember it quite differently. Galbraith also glides smoothly over the horrendous shortages resulting from price-fixing which often reduced the “official” price to a hypothetical number showing what you would pay if you could actually get butter, steak, or housing. Of course, if you were serious about getting those things, you paid a lot more–and neither you nor the seller reported those prices to the government.
Sowell concluded the review with his characteristic advocacy of the average citizen over against the intellectual elite:
[I]f we stop and think, Galbraith’s whole game will be over. The name of that game is power to the Galbraiths of the world, to direct our lives in the way that he helped direct the price controls of World War II which he now pronounces “highly effective.” The only unifying thread running through Galbraith’s Keynesianism, market-“power” assertions, and “affluent-society” wastefulness theories is that we would all be better off to abdicate our tastes and preferences-and the market mechanisms through which they are expressed-in favor of the higher values and superior wisdom of the beautiful people, like Galbraith. From this perspective, it is only consistent that he does not bother to present serious evidence that would allow us to judge for ourselves.
Sowell’s books and columns have been a source of inspiration to many lovers of freedom. Recogniton of Sowell with a Medal of Freedom would be the proper accompaniment to the Medal awarded in 2004 to former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, who was responsible for bringing Sowell to the attention of many readers like me.
When Sowell turned 75 a few years ago, he celebrated the occasion with a thoughtful column. Here was his conclusion:
All the dark and ominous times that this country and the world have passed through and overcome in the past 75 years make it hard to despair, even in the face of growing signs of internal degeneracy today. Pessimism, yes. Despair, not yet.
In my personal life, I can remember a time when our family had no such frills as electricity, central heating, or hot running water.
Even after we left the poverty-stricken Jim Crow South and moved to a new life in Harlem, I can remember at the age of nine seeing a public library for the first time and having to have a young friend explain to me patiently what a public library was.
There is much to complain about today and to fear for the future of our children and our country. But despair? Not yet.
We have all come through too much for that.
In his Impromptus column this morning, Jay Nordlinger speaks up on behalf of Dr. Sowell:
On the subject of Medals of Freedom: Last week, I heard from my friend and comrade Scott Johnson, of Powerline. He said, “Why hasn’t Thomas Sowell received a Presidential Medal of Freedom?” Good question. I was surprised to hear that he hadn’t. Does GWB have one more shot at these babies? And might he remedy this oversight next year?
Sowell is not a seeker after awards — far from it. He might not even show up to receive it. Still, they should at least ship it to him.
Jay’s comment alludes to the fact that Sowell sent Justice Thomas to pick up the National Humanities Medal for him in the Oval Office in 2003. I’m sure Justice Thomas would be willing to stand in for Sowell if need be next year one more time.
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