Sowell on Classical Economics

by Don Boudreaux on March 25, 2006

in History

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on Thomas Sowell, drawn from an interview he did with the WSJ‘s writer Jason Riley.  (Unfortunately, this article shows up only as a pop-up, so I can get no URL address as a link.)

Sowell, who has a new book forthcoming on classical economics, strikes an important theme sounded frequently by my colleague David Levy.  Here’s a paragraph from today’s WSJ article:

Free-market economics, a legacy of the classical school, is thought of
as an old conservative doctrine. But Mr. Sowell explains that it was in
fact one of the most revolutionary concepts to emerge in the history of
ideas. Moreover, "the thinking of the classical economist was not only
a radical break from landmark intellectual figures like Plato and
Machiavelli but also from mainstream thinking to this day." The notion
of a self-equilibrating system — the market economy — meant a reduced
role for intellectuals and politicians, he says. "And even today many
still haven’t accepted that their superior wisdom might be superfluous,
if not damaging."

(Hat tip to Susan Dudley.)

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Eli March 25, 2006 at 5:34 pm
JohnJ March 25, 2006 at 5:46 pm

After reading Applied Economics, I ordered two more books by this incredibly intelligent guy, who is quite possibly the smartest person in the world (except for that idea about having trained jurists, but it may just be that I'm not smart enough to comprehend it).

Chris Meisenzahl March 25, 2006 at 10:39 pm

I read it this morning too and loved it. Ther interview reaffirmed my admiration for the man, what he has done, and how he has done it.

I still wish his columns or Basic Economics were required reading for every high school senior, or at least Congressmen. ;-)

drtaxsacto March 26, 2006 at 1:06 am
PJGoober March 26, 2006 at 1:30 pm

Immigration taboos
Aug 16, 2005
by Thomas Sowell ( bio | archive | contact )

A A Immigration has joined the long list of subjects on which it is taboo to talk sense in plain English. At the heart of much confusion about immigration is the notion that we "need" immigrants — legal or illegal — to do work that Americans won't do.

What we "need" depends on what it costs and what we are willing to pay. If I were a billionaire, I might "need" my own private jet. But I can remember a time when my family didn't even "need" electricity.

Leaving prices out of the picture is probably the source of more fallacies in economics than any other single misconception. At current wages for low-level jobs and current levels of welfare, there are indeed many jobs that Americans will not take.

The fact that immigrants — and especially illegal immigrants — will take those jobs is the very reason the wage levels will not rise enough to attract Americans.

This is not rocket science. It is elementary supply and demand. Yet we continue to hear about the "need" for immigrants to do jobs that Americans will not do — even though these are all jobs that Americans have done for generations before mass illegal immigration became a way of life.

There is more to this issue than economics. The same mindless substitution of rhetoric for thinking that prevails on economic issues also prevails on other aspects of immigration.

Bombings in London, Madrid and the 9/11 terrorist attacks here are all part of the high price being paid today for decades of importing human time bombs from the Arab world. That in turn has been the fruit of an unwillingness to filter out people according to the countries they come from.

That squeamishness is still with us today, as shown by all the hand-wringing about "profiling" Middle Eastern airline passengers.

No doubt most Middle Eastern airline passengers are not carrying any weapons or any bombs — and wouldn't be, even if there were no airport security to go through. But it is also true that most of the time you will not be harmed by playing Russian roulette.

Europeans and Americans have for decades been playing Russian roulette with their loose immigration policies. The intelligentsia have told us that it would be wrong, and even racist, to set limits based on where the immigrants come from.

There are thousands of Americans who might still be alive if we had banned immigration from Saudi Arabia — and perhaps that might be more important than the rhetoric of the intelligentsia.

In that rhetoric, all differences between peoples are magically transformed into mere "stereotypes" and "perceptions."

This blithely ignores hard data showing, for example, that people who come here from some countries are ten times more likely to go on welfare as people from some other countries.

The media and the intelligentsia love to say that most immigrants, from whatever group, are good people. But what "most" people from a given country are like is irrelevant.

If 85 percent of group A are fine people and 95 percent of group B are fine people, that means you are going to be importing three times as many undesirables when you let in people from Group A.

Citizen-of-the-world types are resistant to the idea of tightening our borders, and especially resistant to the idea of making a distinction between people from different countries. But the real problem is not their self-righteous fetishes but the fact that they have intimidated so many other people into silence.

In the current climate of political correctness it is taboo even to mention facts that go against the rosy picture of immigrants — for example, the fact that Russia and Nigeria are always listed among the most corrupt countries on earth, and that Russian and Nigerian immigrants in the United States have already established patterns of crime well known to law enforcement but kept from the public by the mainstream media.

Self-preservation used to be called the first law of nature. But today self-preservation has been superseded by a need to preserve the prevailing rhetoric and visions. Immigration is just one of the things we can no longer discuss rationally as a result.

PJGoover March 26, 2006 at 1:31 pm
Ray March 26, 2006 at 11:17 pm

Thomas Sowell was my introduction to economics, way before his Basic and Applied Economics even came out.

"their superior wisdom might be superfluous, if not damaging."

NathanB March 27, 2006 at 4:17 pm

Sowell's book Basic Economics is the best book on its type. His critique of rent control (chapter 3 I think) is the clearest and most enjoyable bit of economic writing for lay people I've ever seen. David R. Henderson's book The Joy of Freedom is also very good, especially where he explains the reason that health insurance is so expensive is because we each pay so little for it.

BTW, in popups without URL bars you can usually right click on the page and select "properties" to find the URL.

GL March 29, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Am puzzled as to why someone who claims to support the free market like Sowell is against immigration. Immigration is merely a free market in labour.

If people believe in freedom for goods and capital to move across international borders, why do they suddenly resist market principles when it comes to freedom of movement for workers?

Fiml March 30, 2006 at 9:42 am

I like it very much

bbartlog March 31, 2006 at 9:38 am

GL -
if the workers involved in the posited free market for labor were to be transported to their home countries, Star Trek fashion, after every shift, then such a simple model would make sense. However, unlike imported widgets, which arrive relatively unencumbered, immigrants bring a host of externalities with them. It is certainly possible to support free trade in goods while not supporting open borders.

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