Thomas Sowell’s Escape from Socialism

Sowell thought his way into Marxism, then back out again into a vision of freedom

By Joe Carter Published on June 26, 2016

“Socialism sounds great. It has always sounded great. And it will probably always continue to sound great,” wrote Thomas Sowell. “It is only when you go beyond rhetoric, and start looking at hard facts, that socialism turns out to be a big disappointment, if not a disaster.”

These words, the opening of a column from last year, provide a fair summation of Sowell’s own journey through socialist thought. Until he was in his thirties Sowell was a committed Marxist, and deeply attracted to socialism. It was only after he went beyond the rhetoric and started “looking at hard facts” that he came to see that socialism is always “a big disappointment, if not a disaster.”

Sowell’s Journey Into and Out of Socialist Thought

Sowell was born into poverty at the beginning of the Great Depression, a time when socialism appeared to offer hope to many in the struggling labor classes of America. As a young man Sowell purchased and read “an old second-hand set of encyclopedias” which led him to a fascination with the ideas of Karl Marx which “seemed to explain so much, and they explained it in a way to which my grim experience made me very receptive.” (A Personal Odyssey, 59-60)

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Sowell identified as a Marxist (he wrote his thesis on Marx’s Das Kapital) and would continue to do so even while earning his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. Sowell’s disillusionment with Marxism was gradual, but he eventually lost faith in the ability of socialist policies to solve the economic and political problems of society. While at Chicago, Sowell began to be influenced by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. From Hayek, Sowell began to appreciate “the role of a market economy in utilizing the fragmented knowledge scattered among vast numbers of people.” It would be almost twenty more years, though, before he would realize the full implications of the idea.

But that understanding of the limits of individual understanding became a dominant theme in his view of socialism. As T. Martin, Jr explains,

[Sowell] believes that the most knowledgeable person on earth, even if it had been Marx, could not devise a better system of resource allocation than capitalism because the collective wisdom of individuals within the market place is superior to any single individual intellect: that the experience of those within the marketplace trumps brilliance.

“[E]xperience trumps brilliance,” wrote Sowell. “Elites may have more brilliance, but those who make decisions for society as a whole cannot possibly have as much experience as the millions of people whose decisions they preempt.” He also explains in Intellectuals and Society that intellectuals “have often overlooked the crucial fact that the population at large may have vastly more total knowledge … than the elites.” In Knowledge and Decisions he says “the totality of knowledge conveyed by the innumerable prices and their widely varying rates of change vastly exceeds what nay individual can know or needs to know for his own purposes.”

Socialism’s Flawed Vision

This view of why socialism doesn’t work is succinctly summed up in what is arguably Sowell’s most important book, A Conflict of Visions. On the first page Sowell writes that “reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind.”

While many conservative critics of socialism tend to focus on the failures of the economic system, Sowell’s critique cuts deeper because it shows how the problem is rooted in a flawed worldview.

The key difference between socialism and free enterprise — and the reason the latter succeeds where the former fails — is rooted in what Sowell calls a “conflict of visions,” specifically the political divide separated by “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions.

As Sowell explains in his book of that title, an unconstrained vision — the “vision of the anointed” — is predicated on certain fixed ideas:

  • Human nature is essentially good, and thus perfectible.
  • Human capability is vast for the self-appointed “anointed” (e.g., technocrats, central planners).
  • Social problems have solutions.
  • Freedom is the ability to achieve the goals of the anointed.
  • Justice requires the equalization of chances or results.
  • Knowledge consists of the articulated intelligence of the more educated few.
  • Specialization is highly questionable.
  • The preferred mechanism for decision-making is deliberate plans that utilize the special talents and more advanced views of the few.

In contract, the constrained vision — the “tragic vision” — has key is predicated on the tragedy of the human condition, that is, the “inescapable fate inherent in the nature of things.” We learn from the tragic vision that:

  • Human nature is not inherently good, and certainly not perfectible.
  • Human capability is severely and inherently limited for all.
  • Social problems often have trade-offs, not solutions, which leave many needs unmet.
  • Freedom is the exemption from the power of others.
  • Justice refers to process rules with just characteristics.
  • Knowledge consists largely of the unarticulated experiences of the many.
  • Specialization is highly desirable.
  • The preferred mechanism for decision-making is systematic processes that convey the experiences and revealed preferences of the many.

When outlined in this way, it becomes clear that socialism is a prime example of an unconstrained vision while free enterprise is based on a constrained vision.

Sowell’s framing isn’t exactly new, of course. It’s mostly a modern elucidation of the argument between the secular utopianism of eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau and the Christian realism of the fourth century philosopher Augustine. But Sowell’s “conflict of visions” framework provides a handy tool not only for understanding the recurring appeal of socialism but also for improving our rhetorical effectiveness in rebutting the virulent ideology.

How to Argue Like Sowell

Because socialism is derived from a utopian and flawed view of reality and human nature, it will be unworkable in every form it takes, from the Maoism of China’s Cultural Revolution to the democratic socialism of Democratic senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. But how do we convince others of this truth?

In a 2005 interview, Sowell offered three queries that can help us clarify many economic and social questions, including the current debates over socialism:

I’ve often said there are three questions that would destroy most of the arguments on the left.

The first is: ‘Compared to what?’

The second is: ‘At what cost?’

And the third is: ‘What hard evidence do you have?’

Now there are very few ideas on the left that can pass all of those. …”

Too often in debates on economic issues with neo-socialists, conservatives tend to simply present our side of the issue and assume because our views are commonsensical (and they mostly are) that merely hearing them will cause rational people to accept them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Instead, we need to let those who disagree with us figure out for themselves why their preferred policies won’t work.

Asking Sowell’s questions — “Compared to what?” “At what cost?” “What hard evidence do you have?”— won’t help us win every political argument. But they can help reveal why the “unconstrained vision” is ineffective at increasing human flourishing. As Sowell said, socialism will probably always sound great. But by helping people see the “hard facts” we can help them recognize that socialism always turns out to be a big disappointment, if not a disaster.

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  • Shaune Scott

    Dr. Sowell should be required reading in high schools and colleges.

    • I took several economics courses in college. I subsequently read Sowell’s “Basic Economics.” I learned far, far more from Sowell that I ever learned in college. I strongly recommend reading “Basic Economics.” If you do, you will understand economics better than 99.999% of the population and 99.9% of the politicians – you know, the ones who think they can run and manage our economy. Sowell has a bunch of great books, but I think “Basic Economics” wil lgive you the best bang for the buck.

      • Wayne Cook

        Hard evidence can be obtained, but it’s not likely too many people will do that. Usually means living in a socialist country outside this one, such as Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, or Ecuador for a couple of years to watch people starve to death, beg on the streets, and try fruitlessly to get ahead in a society which rewards effort with loss of what you once owned.

  • Brian Sidi

    What would be an example of the “few ideas” that can pass all three questions?

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