Archives for posts with tag: Thomas Sowell

…reposting from The Libertarian Standard, May 13, 2010:

A schoolmate of mine, a Christian conservative, once insisted that the reason our public school teachers informed us about Eskimos leaving their aged on the ice to die was to prepare the way for doing something similar to our oldsters.

That seemed like quite large dose of paranoia, to me. After all, also in public school we learned that Aztecs cut the hearts out of those they sacrificed to their gods. The pyramid steps of Teotihuacan ran red with blood. We were told this, I thought, because it was true. Could there have been an organ harvesting agenda behind the history lesson?

Seemed unlikely.

Before asserting a major conspiracy, it strikes me as worth addressing, openly, all aspects of the problem that might give birth to such concerns. Was euthanasia of the elderly in the future? Probably only when I get old, I thought, darkly. But seriously, why would it be considered?

Because of the expense, of course.

But whose expense?

This is lightly touched on in Thomas Sowell’s recent column, “A ‘Duty to Die’?”

This is how Sowell begins:

One of the many fashionable notions that have caught on among some of the intelligentsia is that old people have “a duty to die,” rather than become a burden to others.

This is more than just an idea discussed around a seminar table. Already the government-run medical system in Britain is restricting what medications or treatments it will authorize for the elderly. Moreover, it seems almost certain that similar attempts to contain runaway costs will lead to similar policies when American medical care is taken over by the government.

Sowell then goes on to regale the reader with the heart-warming tale of his “Aunt Nance Ann,” who, penniless, moved from relative to relative in the days of his youth, without ever once being left on an ice floe.

Poor as we were, I never heard anybody say, or even intimate, that Aunt Nance Ann had “a duty to die.”

Sowell goes on to say that he only heard such talk years later, “from highly educated people in an affluent age, when even most families living below the official poverty level owned a car or truck and had air-conditioning.”

Sowell ends his column on a moralistic note, and though it is not completely out of whack with my sentiments, there is something missing in his analysis. Something important. What could it be?

Sowell is an economist, so it may come as some surprise to his readers to realize that what Sowell does not venture on the topic is any economic insight whatsoever. He makes a historical comparison but without drawing on the relevant forces at work.

Something has changed since the time of his poor Aunt Nance Ann. Expenses of medical care have gone up — way, way up — and the expectation that every person must be given the limit of medical care possible is now a dominant, almost unshakeable notion.

And, surprise surprise, government intervention is largely responsible for both developments.

The institutions of the state have taken over paying for medical care for oldsters, since the inception of Medicare in the ’60s. This apparently “free good” (little or no cost at “time of purchase”) has increased the demand for medical services, and with this increased demand costs have risen. None of this is shocking to an economist. But you might think it worth mentioning in a situation where costs must be borne.

When the Aunt Nances of yesteryear experienced, say, a failing kidney, and expensive treatment was briefly mentioned, how many relatives pooled their resources together to get that $10,000 treatment, considering that she was due to die “any year now anyways”? In the house I grew up in, two sets of great grandparents expired in the bed downstairs. A number of years ago, my mother died not in that same bedroom, but in the hospital. Why? Because she was on Medicare, and it was just a natural thing to do to send her to the hospital. The price tag for her last week of life was many thousands. (I’ve blocked the exact figure out of my mind. I remember writing out one check in installment payment for my father to sign, and then his never receiving another bill. This is how many huge medical expenses are handled in America: By writing them off, without ever even seeking legal recourse.)

The issue is not a “duty to die.” The issue is the keeping of failing people alive at gargantuan expense. Withholding major expenditures from one’s relatives was treated as a matter of course when economist Tom Sowell was a child. Nowadays, granting major expenditures without thinking of the costs is the matter of course.

In the old days, if you didn’t have money, you didn’t demand the expensive services. Nowadays, people without money are routinely given services without talking much about expenses.

But the system cannot just go on having hospitals eating costs (“writing them off”) and the government writing blank checks (“Medicare” and similar programs). Somehow services purchased must be paid for.

No one seems to want to confront this as a major problem. The people talking about a “duty to die” (I’ve actually never heard an intellectual really and honestly advocate such a duty, by the way) are at least confronting an economic issue. Thomas Sowell is not.

I’m sure he does elsewhere . . . for Thomas Sowell is an honest man.

But still, this column of his bugs me. It makes cheap moralistic points while ignoring huge swaths of reality.

It also neglects to place the blame for the development of the current situation squarely where it lies: at government, and political demands for same. Worse yet, it plays into people’s idiotic expectations of freebie care. We hate intrusive government! said in the same breath as Politicians are taking away our Medicare!

Ridiculous brain-dead Republicanism at its worst. And Sowell seems to be fanning the flames.

Innocent people should not be foisted with “a duty to die.” The right to life means, for adults, a right to liberty, which protects them from people with knives who wish to take away their lives.

But, to balance the point, this right to liberty prevents one from claiming the wealth of others to keep one’s life going. If one hasn’t prepared (by savings or insurance or a combination of both) to pay for future needs — for, say, end-of-life medical maintenance — then maybe you have a duty not to demand services. At most you may beg. Others may offer, but a beggar wouldn’t want to stretch the budgets of his or her benefactors.

Trouble is, this looks an awful lot like the duty to die that Sowell excoriates. But this sense of duty-not-to-ask-too-much was a given, an understood notion before Medicare. And because medical care was so primitive then — and the expectation that the service provided to millionaires would not be offered to aging people two steps up from mendicant — kept this moral sense just below the surface, just below the gaze of young Tommy Sowell’s attention.

But we’re adults here, right? Today, the live question is this: Is there any chance this ethos can be reinstated in a society that now demands everything but liberty and responsibility?

Not if thinkers like Sowell won’t confront it, and continue to feed the frenzy of those who still refuse to face reality.



Thomas Sowell retired from writing his syndicated column a few weeks ago. And so the tributes have been coming in. As they should.

img_1961I note that Paul Jacob at, and Gene Epstein on the Tom Woods Show, both have praised Sowell for his astute and well-explained economics popularizing while expressing their chagrin that Sowell never seemed to apply the same “thinking beyond Stage One” approach to foreign policy.

This was a point I made in one of my earliest published reviews, of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, to be found in the premiere issue of Liberty, way back in 1987. (Which you can read on this site, now — O, lucky you!)

So, if we are all pretty much saying the same thing, what can I say differently?

Well, I could mention my favorite Sowell book, his first: Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis. This is probably his most difficult book, in no small part because Say’s Law is itself a surprisingly difficult concept. It has been years since my last reading — and I have read it at least three times, even now wishing to return to it, give it another go.

I first read the book in tandem with W. H. Hutt’s quirky A Rehabilitation of Say’s Law. Each book helped me understand the other.

One of the really tricky things about Says Law is that it is a macro theory; but many authors found its chief resonance on the micro level. Indeed, though Say’s Law was first marshaled to debunk one theory of economic depression, the general glut theory, W. F. Lloyd, in his classic essay on value, tied that macro problem very closely to what became the theory of marginal utility, the micro theory par excellence. And Say’s Law according to Say’s disciplines — the Third School, or Catallactic economists — turned into a theory of “harmonies,” not equilibrium. It was another macro approach based on a micro insight that in turn was used against not merely general glut theories, but also protectionism and socialism. Sowell, if I remember correctly, does not extend his analysis into the third school, except insofar as he deals with Walras’s Identity.

As an economic popularizer and as an economic historian, particular of race and cultures, Sowell was magnificent. Yes. But as a social philosopher he was perhaps even better. More necessary.

There is a caveat to this judgment, however. Jacob and Epstein and Woods all discussed their favorite Sowell contributions. I have done the same, with his recondite Say’s Law survey. But let me offer a balance: his worst book, something neither Epstein nor Jacob bother with.

I nominate Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985). This book is easier to read than Say’s Law, my favorite, and it probably packs more punch . . . at least in terms of surprise value. But one of the big surprises is a huge whopper of an error. It is an error, of all things, about value.

Sowell asserts, in Marxism, that Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was wrong on Marx’s labor theory of value.

When I read this, I had not only read Böhm’s classic “Zum Abschluss des Marxschen Systems,” translated under the provocative-if-puzzling title Karl Marx and the Close of His System (first English language edition, Alice MacDonald, 1898), but also two other important books related to the subject: Destutt de Tracy’s A Treatise on Political Economy (Thomas Jefferson, 1817) and a crucial chapter in Karl Marx’s infamous Das Kapital (1867).

You might be wondering: what the heck — what’s with the Tracy? Well, Tracy makes much of the Condillac thesis of both parties to an exchange gaining value in the transaction. So when I read Marx’s obscurantist dismissal of that thesis, wherein the old socialist crank mocks Condillac and Tracy’s mutual gain thesis, I was prepared for Sowell’s disagreement with Böhm.

The key Marxian error, in my opinion, is that repudiation of mutual gain through trade. It was there that Marx necessarily went off track, not seeing how value is increased as goods flow through the market nexus. The marginalist view of value is intricately entangled with the mutual gain concept, and by rejecting mutual surplus of value in each trade, Marx took his most decisive turn the wrong way. Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the British economists had sent economics down the wrong path in 1776, and Marx took their labor theory of value to its absurdist conclusion. Sowell basically apologizes for Marx. He insists, without much evidence (and with the evidene right there in Das Kapital, on the pages citing Condillac and Tracy), that Marx’s formalistic definition of value as (somehow) incorporating socially necessary labor time was indeed compatible with marginalism. This thesis seems not in the tiniest degree defensible.

A few years later (if memory serves), David Ramsay Steele cleared all this up in his magnificent book on the socialist calculation problem, From Marx to Mises (1992), speculating that Sowell was merely regurgitating the views of his Marxist-apologist professors in the days before his conversion.

In any case, Sowell has, since his conversion from Marxism under the influence chiefly (I think) of Milton Friedman, remailed too closely tied to the British Classical School. He seems uninterested in, perhaps dismissive of the Third School tradition starting with Condillac and moving through Tracy, Comte and Dunoyer, Bastiat, Perry, Henry Dunning Macleod, and Gustave de Molinari. (Half of these economists are French or Belgian or Swiss, so the tradition is often called the French Liberal School. But that is too narrow a reading of this dissident, proto-marginalist tradition.) The later Third Schoolers ran off-track, too, in not accepting the important proof of the basic idea in the marginalist advances of W. S. Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras. While Menger did not go on at length about what he owed to the Third School economists, Jevons sure did, while heaping scorn upon the Ricardians. And Walras, it is worth noting, was himself the son of a Third School economist, Auguste.

This lack of interest in these economists seems especially strange to me, since Sowell has repeatedly dipped into the rhetorical well so ably primed by Third Schoolers Frédéric Bastiat and Yves Guyot. (See my forewords to Bastiat’s and Guyot’s classics, available on Amazon/Kindle and iBooks.)

But it has been a long time since I read Sowell’s Marxism. Perhaps my memory is fuzzy. And my view of the Marxian surplus value and exploitation theories needs refreshing. So, after just now re-reading my three decades’ old review of A Conflict of Visions, I won’t direct my attentionimg_1963 to The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulaton as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), which I had been planning to do. I will go back and re-read Böhm-Bawerk’s take-down of Marx, instead.

So perhaps I will follow up this post with a corrective, soon. I should not be this fuzzy on something so basic as “surplus value.”