Thomas Sowell signs off

Hoover Institution fellow Thomas Sowell is a remarkable man who has produced a distinguished body of work over a long career. I have discovered many friends and acquaintances have Sowell’s books and columns to be a source of inspiration. In 2003 President Bush awarded Sowell a National Humanities Medal; he sent his friend Justice Clarence Thomas to pick it up on his behalf. Nevertheless, his achievements should long ago have been recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom or Nobel Prize for Economics.

Now, at age 86, Sowell declares an end to his Creators Syndicate column. His penultimate column serves to remind us what we’ll be missing.

When he turned 75 Sowell celebrated the occasion with a characteristically thoughtful column. His conclusion then is equally apt now:

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.

Sowell’s December 1975 review of the Galbraith book — his first of several important pieces published in Commentary — is accessible via Commentary’s digital archives here. I tumbled to Sowell through the review. Sowell 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 usual advocacy of the average citizen 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.

I don’t want to overlook this trenchant observation:

[I]n the picture that Galbraith presents, there are no real issues. There is only the Keynesian truth and those too blind to acknowledge it. Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the phrase, “economic royalists.” There are also intellectual royalists, who rule by decree and give the peasants no reasons, but only the time-honored “bread and circuses.” Galbraith omits the bread.

This observation has become something like a truth universally applicable to the intellectual heirs of Galbraith in the Democratic Party and its media adjunct.

Responses