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The Vision of the Anointed

Think Tank Transcripts:Thomas Sowell

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. On this edition of'Think Tank,' we will talk one on one with social critic andeconomist Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution. Tom Sowell's newbook, 'The Vision of the Anointed,' argues that the assumptions andbeliefs of America's liberal elite have created 30 years of disasterin education, crime and welfare policy.

What are these assumptions? Are they wrong? Where are they leadingus? A conversation with Thomas Sowell, this week on 'Think Tank.'

Joining us today is Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the HooverInstitution at Stanford University. He is the author of many booksthat have cast a critical eye at American society, including 'InsideAmerican Education' and 'Race and Culture.'

His latest book, 'The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulationas the Basis for Social Policy,' has been called a broadside againstthe received wisdom of America's elite liberal intelligentsia.

Tom Sowell, why don't you start out and tell us what 'The Visionof the Anointed' is about. What is it?

MR. SOWELL: Well, it's, one, a vision that the problems that wesee in the world are due to the fact that other people are just notas bright or as compassionate as they are, and that there are allthese solutions out there waiting to be discovered and they havethem, and that these solutions are to be imposed upon the rest of usby the power of government through taxation or in other ways.

And what's really crucial about it is that their passion is somuch greater than the passion on the other side, largely because whatthey have involved is more.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who is they?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, the media elite, the academic elite, politicalelites. And the reason we talk about their vision, even though theyobviously in their opinions, is that the basic set of underlyingassumptions about the world are very similar.

And because these assumptions are the prevailing assumptions, theneed to find evidence for them or to offer proof is much less. Ifsomething happens, they'll explain it in a way which will fit thatvision.

For example, when they find that prenatal care is less amongblacks than among whites and that infant mortality rates are higher,they immediately assume this is because of society's neglect, andtherefore if only the government will step in and provide moreprenatal care, that that problem solves itself.

But in reality, other groups have even less prenatal care thanblacks and don't have any more infant mortality than whites. But theydon't ever get to that second stage because once they've seensomething that fits their conception of how the world works, that'ssort of the end of it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me go back to that idea of who the they is. Imean, in your cosmology, are these liberals? Is that what they are?

MR. SOWELL: Yes. 'The New York Times,' 'The Washington Post,'Harvard, Stanford. Oh, the Edward Kennedys, the -- all the usualsuspects.


MR. SOWELL: But it's more than those particular people becausethis mindset goes back at least 200 years.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who does it start with?

MR. SOWELL: I don't know where it starts, but you could find it inthe 18th century. If you read William Godwin, 'Inquiry ConcerningPolitical Justice,' in 1793, you have the whole vision laid out justas it was in the 1960s. But the 1960s were a crucial point becausethat's when this vision became dominant.

MR. WATTENBERG: This sort of arrogant vision that we know best?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: And don't even have to subject it to normal formsof proof?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, let me read you something that SpeakerGingrich wrote in his book, 'To Renew America.' He said, 'Since 1965,there has been a calculated effort by cultural elites to discreditthis civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibilitythat is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them.'Do you buy that? Is that basically what you're --

MR. SOWELL: Yes, although I would limit to those who are sort ofat the top of this kind of thing, because further down the peoplebelieve things because so many others believe them because they're inthe air, and so on.

MR. WATTENBERG: You know, I was particularly interested in -- whathe said was that it is 'a calculated effort.' Now, do you believethat the people, 'the anointed,' as you call them, are sitting aroundin a conspiratorial mode calculating, as Newt Gingrich says, andsaying, 'Here's what we're going to do'? Or do you just think they'rewrong and this is what they believe and they have this certainarrogance about it? Because those are two very different ideas, youknow.

MR. SOWELL: Well, this is why I made the distinction between theleaders and the others. I mean I think that when people say thingslike, 'More American wives are battered on Super Bowl Sunday' -- yousee that -- 'than any other time of the year,' and there's not aspeck of evidence for that, that is calculated, because they -- oh, Imean there is no data that could even be misinterpreted that way; inother words, because there is no data, period. And so, yes. But Ithink that 99 percent of the people who believe it are notcalculating.

I think one of the reasons that it flies without even beingchallenged for evidence is that there is a certain vision of how theworld is, and in that world, men are oppressing women. And thereforewhen you say something like this, it fits the vision and that's theend of it. There's no demand for evidence.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have in your book sort of a series toward thebeginning of how the actual process works of forming one of theseideas -- MR. SOWELL: Yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- and selling it and rejecting the proof. Maybeyou could just kind of march us through this as a model of it.

MR. SOWELL: All right, there's a four-stage pattern. And in thefirst stage is what I call the crisis. And so we're hyped to believethat something is a terrible crisis for which something must be done.And what was fascinating to me in doing the research for this book isthat very often the thing that's said to be in crisis has often beengetting better for years on end, but that gets ignored.

In the second stage --

MR. WATTENBERG: For example, infant mortality, to use one of thethings you were talking about before. MR. SOWELL: Well, I'm thinkingabout teenage pregnancy and venereal disease. Those things weregetting better -- teenage pregnancy was going down for more than adecade before sex education was introduced. Venereal disease,syphilis in the 1960s had only half the incidence that it had in1950.

So all of these things are going down, yet we're said to need sexeducation to deal with this crisis which has been manufactured.Again, this is where the calculated part comes in. Now, 99 percent ofthe people who hear this don't know that, but the reason they acceptit is because they also share the same vision, and because this isconsonant with that vision, they don't have to ask for evidence.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, so what's stage two?

MR. SOWELL: Stage two is --

MR. WATTENBERG: The first one is there's a crisis.


MR. WATTENBERG: They establish a crisis, usually an artificialone.

MR. SOWELL: Yes. Then stage two is the solution. You have asolution for this crisis. In this case, you have sex education in theschools. And then at that point, you say, If we do this, this willlead to beneficial result A. The critics say, No, it will lead todetrimental result Z.

Stage three are the results. You put it in and directly you finddetrimental result Z, namely, venereal disease and teenage pregnancytake off into the stratosphere.

And then stage four is the fascinating part in which they simplysay, No, that doesn't prove that this was a bad policy because thereare many factors; there is complexity, it's simplistic to blame it onthis.

Well, they run through this routine on so many different things,including crime. Similarly, they said, you know, in 1960, JudgeBaselon (ph) said we just desperately need to have some kind ofchange in the criminal justice system.

Now, in 1960, there were fewer murders than there had been in1950, 1940 or 1930. But again, that was completely ignored. And sonow we have the revolution of the criminal justice system. Peoplesay, No, if you put these new things in, there will be more crimethan before. They put them in. Almost instantly the declining crimerate turns around and heads up again.

And they say, No, it's simplistic to blame this on this; the rootcause is in the neglect of society, and all the rest of it. So it'sheads I win, tails you lose.

MR. WATTENBERG: So to go to that earliest example that you gave,you think the increase in venereal disease was caused by sexeducation?

MR. SOWELL: I don't have to say that. I don't even have to believethat. All I have to say is that they --

MR. WATTENBERG: But do you?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, I think it's hard to explain otherwise. I mean,you know, you don't get social changes that drastic in a few yearswithout some particular cause. But the argument doesn't depend onthat at all.

The point is, they created the crisis artificially. The evidenceshows there was no crisis. But they would not even subject it to anyempirical test. If they want to show some other factor came in andreally caused this, I'm happy to hear that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why would a group of liberal intellectuals orpoliticians or media stars -- or whatever, why would they sit aroundand decide to dismember or dilute the criminal justice system if theythought in advance that it would raise the amount of criminality?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, they didn't think that, but the point is -- MR.WATTENBERG: They just thought wrongly that it would be -- that itwould help?

MR. SOWELL: Yes, but it would also give them an enormously largerrole than they had before. I mean, a judge who just sits there andapplies the laws that have been passed by the legislature has a veryminor role. But if he takes the expansive, judicial activist role,then of course he's on the leading edge and he can look for thehosannas and all the rest of it.

MR. WATTENBERG: How does this play out in the realm of somethingyou have written about, which is affirmative action? How does thatprocess -- what's the 1, 2, 3, 4 on that?

MR. SOWELL: I haven't worked it out like that, but certainly thereis no interest whatever in finding out empirically whether thingshave been made better or worse for minorities as a result of thisprogram. And in fact, if you bring up evidence, they'll say, Ah, butthings would have been even worse had we not done this.

Similarly with the war on poverty, you can show how dependency ongovernment was going down, poverty was going down before this programwas ever put in. And within a few years, dependence on government wasgoing up, and after a few more years, the absolute number of peoplein poverty was going up.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah. I read that in your book, but the absolutenumber of poverty is not the relevant data. The relevant data wouldbe the rate of poverty, and the rate of poverty, in fact, in the 19-- I worked for President Johnson so we have to establish that.


MR. WATTENBERG: You know, so I mean the line we took was thatduring the 1960s, during the Kennedy-Johnson administration, povertydid in fact go down sharply. And then the rate since then -- not theabsolute number because the country has grown larger -- the rate hassort of bounced around at about flat, somewhere between 12 and 15percent.

MR. SOWELL: Yes, but don't forget, this was sold to the countrynot on the grounds that if you transferred money from A to B, that Bwould have more money. That was not the argument. The argument wasthat dependency would be reduced, that you would, quote, 'invest inpeople,' as Bill Clinton is now saying now that people have forgottenwhat was said in the '60s. This will then -- you give them jobtraining and all those kinds of things, parenting skills, the wholebit, and this will then be an investment that will pay off in thefuture because there will be fewer people dependent upon thegovernment than there were before.

And I go through a great number of people, from John F. Kennedy toLyndon Johnson, 'The New York Times.' Again all the usual suspectssaid all these things.

MR. WATTENBERG: Lyndon Johnson was not a usual suspect, Tom.

MR. SOWELL: Well, he was the primary suspect, all right. But thefact is that was never tested. And when there were all thesewonderful retrospectives held down in Texas and other places aboutthis, the first order of business is to evade the criteria that theythemselves set up when they set this out. And so no matter whathappens, if it's a failure by the original criterion, then we justfind another criterion by which it will be a success.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, let's just examine that for a minute. I have-- a friend of mine from those old White House days was listening to,again, Gingrich, shortly after we had this great Republicanrevolution in 1994 -- great meaning huge, not necessarily wonderful.We shall see about that. And he kept hearing Newt Gingrich use theword 'opportunity': 'This conservative opportunity society; 'We haveto provide opportunity.'

And I was talking to him, and he said, 'You know, Gingrich usesthat word 'opportunity' almost as much as Johnson did, which is whatyou're saying, that that was the rhetoric. It was called the Equal --OEO is the Office of Economic Opportunity, and that's what it was.

Now, so if liberals were talking about opportunity and nowconservatives are talking about opportunity, and I'm sure you're foropportunity --

MR. SOWELL: All God's children got opportunity.

MR. WATTENBERG: All God's children got opportunity, so what isyour problem that liberals said we ought to create programs foropportunity? And in point of fact, I mean just to -- I won't say playdevil's advocate -- a lot of the things that came out of the GreatSociety, building all those junior colleges and community colleges --

MR. SOWELL: Oh, I would disagree entirely. That was a tragedy ofthe first magnitude.

MR. WATTENBERG: That was a tragedy?


MR. WATTENBERG: Why is that a tragedy?

MR. SOWELL: You have millions of people who have absolutely nodesire for an education using up billions of dollars of thetaxpayers' money; and not only not getting an education themselves,but making it more difficult to give an education to those people whocame to college with an idea of getting one.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, you say they have no desire for an education.I mean, nobody is herding them into these community colleges and intothe junior colleges and into the state universities.

MR. SOWELL: Oh. Oh, oh.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, they have a desire, obviously.

MR. SOWELL: No, they do not, obviously, because lots of things goon in those places that are not education. I mean, where else can youfind so many young people of the same age and opposite sex in oneplace, a nice convenient place to be? But anyone who has taught in alot of these places, this ferocious desire for education as such isnot terribly visible. And I've taught at places where we've gotten,you know, the upper 10, 15 percent of students, I mean UCLA andwhatnot, and neither I nor my colleagues found this great desire foreducation as such.

They wanted to be in ivy-covered buildings for four years in orderto get more money when they graduated, and have a good time whilethey're there.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you think the great American ideal, which hasreally been shared by both parties and both ideologies over recentdecades, to allow more people to get into higher education, that thatis a bankrupt idea? MR. SOWELL: Oh, to allow is one thing, but tosubsidize people at enormous cost with no real sign that this isproducing what we intended it to do --

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, when you say subsidize, I mean talk about ajunior college or community college. I guess that's subsidizing. It'sbelow cost --


MR. WATTENBERG: -- tuition, but it does allow kids who do not havethe money to go to Amherst or wherever to start a college education.I mean --

MR. SOWELL: People did that before the Great Society. I did itbefore the Great Society. My whole generation did it before the GreatSociety.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are saying that the great humanitarianpolitical impulses of the 1960s have been, almost without exception,bad?

MR. SOWELL: Well, there were some good ones, but I'm saying thatthe assumption that on the education front -- I mean, I would defyyou to find a large number of people who have actually taught thesestudents who really think that they're out there thirsting forknowledge. If you think --

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose they are thirsting for a better job, andwe have set up a society where you have to be credentialed with acertain amount of college, so aren't they able to get a better jobbecause of their credentials?

MR. SOWELL: No. This is the fallacy of composition. You know, ifone person stands up in the stadium, he sees the game better, but ifthey all stand up, they don't all see the game better. As long as --you know, if you have a degree and the other guy doesn't, then youget ahead of him in the employment line. But we're not going to allget ahead of each other in the employment line by all gettingdegrees.

MR. WATTENBERG: So this whole idea that I guess again bothliberals and conservatives are saying is that, at this particularmoment, 1995, we have to get more people into the education systembecause that's the way to compete, and we look at the data and we seethat the people with more education are earning more money than everbefore relative to the people with less education, that's all afallacy of everybody standing up in the stadium?

MR. SOWELL: People who fly on the Concorde -- kids who have flownon the Concorde undoubtedly will make more money than people who --kids who have only gone on buses. That does not mean if we put a lotof people on the Concorde, we're going to raise the national income.

MR. WATTENBERG: We would increase the revenues of the Concorde.

MR. SOWELL: Yes, which they desperately need, of course, butthat's another story.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, and just to review the bidding, youdate the full-blown nature of this situation sort of in the 1960s. Isthat right?

MR. SOWELL: Yes, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, and that's -- everyone on the conservativeside starts -- I mean 'genesis' is mid 1960s. That's when the worldstarted. I mean, and I'm not arguing with that necessarily. I --

MR. SOWELL: Well, not necessarily. I would say 'the fall in thegarden.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Right, okay. All right now, since the 1960s, theUnited States of America has won the Cold War, remained a -- while alot of people, including a lot of -- mostly conservatives weresaying, Oh, America has lost its nerve and we, because --

MR. SOWELL: I don't think it was mostly conservatives.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I recall an issue of the public interest inthe mid 1970s saying, Has America lost its nerve, with a whole bunchof conservatives saying, Oh, my God, it's terrible, we're -- MR.SOWELL: Well, this is Jimmy Carter's era.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, maybe that's right. But, so since thisterrible event 30 years ago, when the '60s dropped upon us, we havewon the Cold War, we have continued to grow in affluence, inprofessional skills, we have absorbed about 20 million immigrants, weare the wealthiest, freest country in the history of the world. Youwould agree with all of that, roughly?

MR. SOWELL: Well, I disagree entirely with your base period.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, no, it's your base period.

MR. SOWELL: No, no. No, no, no, no. None of these things --

MR. WATTENBERG: You established the 1960s, I didn't. I trappedyou.

MR. SOWELL: No, I'm saying that all those things that you talkabout began long before the 1960s. They faltered to a great extentunder Jimmy Carter. They were resumed with a renewed vigor in the1980s under an entirely different kind of vision. But I'm talkingabout the social decline of the country because the social decline isall the more striking because here is a country that is prosperous.You can't blame the crime rate on the fact that there is morepoverty. There is less poverty. There is more affluence. It's not dueto foreigners because, as you say, we've won the Cold War. All thenormal things that you might blame all this on aren't there. It's notbecause of diseases because science has conquered more diseases. It'sall because of self-inflicted wounds, and I'm saying these are thepeople who inflicted those wounds and this is why we shouldn't listento them anymore.

MR. WATTENBERG: What are the nature of those wounds?

MR. SOWELL: Crime.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, no, no. I --

MR. SOWELL: The disintegration of the family, the disintegrationof the educational system. And it's not going to matter -- we'll belike the man who gained the whole world and lost his soul.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is there a common root to all of those problemsother than you heard them from the anointed class? I mean is theresomething --

MR. SOWELL: Yes, yes, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it big government? Is that what --

MR. SOWELL: No, no. It's the notion that ordinary people cannot betrusted to make the decisions that they've been making, that theymust be preempted, either by judges, in the case of crime, or by theschools taking over the indoctrination of other people's childrenbehind their back and against their protest, or what was the otherone? The family. Taking money from the taxpayers and subsidizingbehavior as well as encouraging it and legitimizing behavior that hasturned out to be enormously self-destructive, undermining the familyin a thousand different ways?

MR. WATTENBERG: Tom you write in your new book, 'The Vision of theAnointed,' available at all bookstores, about the 'Teflon prophets.'


MR. WATTENBERG: What is --

MR. SOWELL: Well, I think my favorite is Paul Ehrlich because hehas been so consistently wrong on so many things. One, predictingmass starvation, I think it was in the '70s or the '80s. Butpredicting that we're running out of -- running low on resources. AndJulian Simon made this famous bet with him that he would offer to betanybody a thousand dollars that they could name a set of resourcesand name a period of time, and at the end of that period of time,those resources would not be more expensive, as they would be if theywere really running low, but would be either stationary or falling inreal terms. And Ehrlich rushed in with his list of 10 resources, andhe decided we'd come back at the end of 10 years. At the end of 10years, not only was the bundle of 10 resources cheaper in real termsthan it was before, every single resource he named was cheaper.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me raise a final point here. You make thisvigorous attack in 'The Vision of the Anointed' that we should nolonger listen to these people. That's sort of the basic -- they'vebeen wrong, they don't prove their points, it's hurt us. Who shouldwe listen to?

MR. SOWELL: We should listen first and foremost to our ownexperience. You seem to be saying, well, there must be alternativesaviors. We should stop looking for saviors. I mean the society hasnot existed for thousands of years because it had a succession ofsaviors. It's existed because it has institutions and processesthrough which people can realize their own goals.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, I understand that, but you are attackingpeople who would like to lead us and tell us how the world works.

MR. SOWELL: No, no. No, no, they don't want to tell us how theworld works. They want to take over the decision for us. They don'ttell parents how they ought to teach sex education to their children.They put this material in the schools behind the backs of the parentswith instructions not to let the parents see it. That's the problem.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, but we live in an open and democraticsociety. Now, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public are listening to thisprogram, I hope, and they're saying, 'Boy, that guy really makes alot of sense.' But basically, it's been a negative proposition, don'tlisten to these people, don't do this, don't do that.

MR. SOWELL: No, no.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who should --

MR. SOWELL: Don't let those people run your lives.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, but how do you practically --

MR. SOWELL: I think it's a non-problem, Ben. It's a non-problem.Those people are adults just like you and me. They have been runningtheir lives for thousands of years. They don't need me to tell themwhat to do.

MR. WATTENBERG: But this is a --

MR. SOWELL: It's not a question I want to take over from people onthe left. I want them to continue to make their decisions as they seefit.

MR. WATTENBERG: Right, but this is a democracy. They have to vote.

MR. SOWELL: Even in a democracy, they can live their lives as theysee fit.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who should they vote for?

MR. SOWELL: Oh, good heavens. They've been voting for whoever theywanted to without my help for 200 years.

MR. WATTENBERG: But some people are voting for the people who arelistening to these anointed people. I mean, give the audience someadvice. Tell them what to do.

MR. SOWELL: Well, last year, in 1994, without any help from mewhatsoever, they changed who they voted for, and so it's anon-problem.

MR. WATTENBERG: You say without any help from you, but you andyour confreres in the conservative movement I think have had aninfluence.

MR. SOWELL: But it wasn't because of this book, obviously.

MR. WATTENBERG: Not because of this book, but because of yourearlier wonderful books. Tom Sowell, Thank you very much.

And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to: NewRiver Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036.We can also be reached via e-mail at, or on the WorldWide Web at

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. END

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