- - Friday, January 27, 2012

By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, $29.99, 449 pages

“The Thomas Sowell Reader” is a collection to be lingered over, a bouquet of clarity, wit and common sense regarding American life, served up in a world accustomed to sprays of excuse-mongering, dying-duck special pleading and smug ideological twaddle.

A nationally syndicated columnist, economist and social commentator of conservative inclinations, Mr. Sowell has assembled a collection of his representative columns and longer writings to “reduce the likelihood that readers will misunderstand what I have said on many controversial issues over the years.”

He adds, “In each of the various sections of the book - whether on culture, economics, politics, law, education or race - I have led off with newspaper columns before moving on to longer writings that permit more in-depth explorations. Each reader can choose from a wide spectrum of subjects to explore and decide which to sample and which to go into more deeply.”

In the movable feast that follows, Mr. Sowell is strongest in his writings focusing upon the loose amalgamation of self-styled experts and opinion shapers he calls “the anointed.” He scorns these people - newspaper and magazine writers, political figures, professors and think-tank chin-scratchers - not because they are highly educated or can read without moving their lips but because they consider themselves to be among the secular elect. They are a self-defined aristocracy of enlightenment who went to the right schools, mouth the correct political shibboleths and are destined by fate and their own sheer wonderfulness to direct the lives of others.

Gazing upon our current time of troubles and the deep divisions within American society, he writes mordantly, “Cultural wars are so desperate because they are not simply about the merits or demerits of particular policies. They are about the anointeds’ whole conception of themselves - about whether they are in the heady role of a vanguard or in the pathetic role of pretentious and silly people, infatuated with themselves.”

Here, as elsewhere in this collection, writers and would-be writers will find themselves thinking, “I wish I could write like that.” For example, there is Mr. Sowell’s comment, “‘Funding’ is one of the big phony words of our time - used by people too squeamish to say ‘money’ but not too proud to take it, usually from the taxpayers.” Each essay includes such astringent truths.

Although he is a man with many interests, Mr. Sowell is sometime less successful when he turns from his areas of strength - economics and social criticism - to topics about life and leisure in general. One article on professional baseball, specifically regarding the introduction of the “live ball” in 1920 and percentages of home runs hit during the decade that followed, could have presented a lively and interesting nugget of wisdom. Instead, it is something of an overthought piece that borders on boring, a feat that is hard to pull off in a 640-word column.

But for the most part, “The Thomas Sowell Reader” is filled with much-needed insight into modern America and the follies of our time. A recurrent theme is the harsh side of the law of unintended consequences: the fact that political and economic decisions that are made with the best of intentions more often than not result in destructive consequences that could have been anticipated with prudent forethought. (Rent control, anyone?)

On this theme, Mr. Sowell’s article “Affordability” is alone worth the price of the volume, as is his short, disturbing (because of its truthfulness) piece “Picturing the trust fund,” regarding the future of Social Security.

In much of what he writes, Mr. Sowell is simply common-sensical, but because common sense seems in short supply most days, his words are refreshing. His article “The economics of crime,” for example, demonstrates convincingly that the incidence of such crimes as assault and home invasion is diminished not through blue-ribbon commissions or strong words of warning. It is diminished through the criminal’s knowledge that there is the strong probability, bordering on certainty, that he will be injured, killed or severely punished if caught in the act. Draw your own conclusions.

There is a wealth of instructive reading in “The Thomas Sowell Reader,” on the modern world and its discontents, on dogs and baseball, on life as a black child coming of age in New York, on John Stuart Mill’s essay “On liberty,” and much else. While he seeks to “reduce the likelihood that readers will misunderstand what I have said,” he certainly will be misunderstood by stubborn ideologues and the willfully stupid. “At one time I was foolish enough to try to reason with such people,” he has written recently. “But one of the best New Year’s resolutions I ever made, some years ago, was to stop trying to reason with unreasonable people. It has been good for my blood pressure and probably for my health in general.” Words well worth considering.

James E. Person Jr. is author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).

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