Early in his administration, President Reagan confidently asserted that “America’s best days lie ahead.” Noted economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, thinks it’s no longer the case.
In his new book, Dismantling America, Sowell argues that this nation is becoming one that many Americans no longer recognize as the country they grew up in or expected to pass on to their children and grandchildren. Rather, like Rome, America may be entering a prolonged period of decline.
Sowell sat down with Investor’s Business Daily to discuss the political, social, and economic forces leading to this decline and what, if anything, can reverse it.
David Hogberg, Investor’s Business Daily: What are the markers of national decline? What characteristics are different from a few decades ago that if they don’t improve will lead to this country falling apart?
Thomas Sowell: One of the most serious current signs is the governing style of this administration, which is to impose as many things as possible on the public from the top down, without even letting them know what’s going on.
Huge bills that fundamentally change the way the economy operates have been rushed through Congress without hearings, without debate, and so fast that not even the members of Congress have a chance to read them. That’s circumventing the notion of a constitutional government, and that’s really at the heart of what the country is. The only analogy I can think of from history is when the Norman conquerors of England published their laws in French for an English-speaking nation. The utter arrogance—you’re not even to know what the laws are until it is too late.
Reckless spending is another. The deficit and the national debt, as a percentage of GNP, are higher now than during any time except World War II. Moreover, once World War II was over we stopped the spending and started paying off the existing debt. We’re going in exactly the opposite direction.
Of course, the one that trumps them all is on the international scene. That’s where Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons. I’m just staggered at how little attention is being paid to that compared to frivolous things. If a nation with a record of sponsoring international terrorism gets nuclear weapons, that changes everything and it changes it forever.
Someday, historians may wonder what we were thinking—when you look at the imbalance of power between the United States and Iran, while we sat there with folded hands and watched this happen, going through just enough motions at the United Nations to lull the public to sleep. That, I think, is the biggest threat.
Hogberg: Do you think the Israelis will take out Iran’s nuclear program if they will be condemned by the “international community” and can’t rely on backing from the Obama administration?
Sowell: If the choice is between condemnation or annihilation, I think they will go for condemnation. There may be reasons why it isn’t feasible, but it’s a tremendous choice to leave on them.
Hogberg: What has Obama done to hasten our decline?
Sowell: He has affronted our allies, but he’s very clever about it. He’s done it in ways that the general public is unlikely to notice. But it is in ways that people in other countries cannot mistake at all, such as the downgrading of the visits of the prime minister of Britain or Israel. At one time the visit of the prime minister of Great Britain meant a state dinner, a press conference, and so on.
His first foreign policy gambit was to fly to Russia and offer to renege on the American commitment to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe, in hopes of getting Russian cooperation with the United States. All he really got out of that was a demonstration of his amateurishness and of his willingness to sell out allies in hopes of winning over enemies. That ploy was tried in the 1930s and didn’t work all that well.
Hogberg: One big trend leading to America’s decline that came through in the book was how politicians and activists use rhetoric.
Sowell: It’s partly that, but it is also that the education system has not taught people how to see through rhetoric. Somewhere, Oliver Wendell Holmes says that the purpose of education is to create a mind that cannot be humbugged by words. Well, that is not the purpose of American education now. Much of the humbugging by words takes place inside the educational institutions themselves. Students are not generally taught to see both sides of an issue and learn how to analyze in such ways to see what the differences are and how you would sort it all out. Instead they’re given one side and they’re told that one side is it.
Schools all around the country have shown Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But I doubt that one-tenth of students have seen the British Channel 4 production called The Great Global Warming Swindle.
Hogberg: So if children are taught only one side as unquestioned truth, what’s the value of experience and wisdom?
Sowell: At one time students were taught, “You’re young, you’re inexperienced, you have a lot to learn. It’s not up to you to make sweeping conclusions about society.” Today that is not the message. Today when I see young kids, sometimes elementary students, carrying banners for some crusade, someone ought to tell them that you don’t even know anything. Or you hear they are writing letters to the president on nuclear policy and so on. Within the past week, I got a letter from a high school senior who was about to inform me about economics in general and about the reason why there was a Great Depression and why it is necessary that Obama does the things he does. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But students are encouraged to think that way.
Hogberg: You note in your book that Americans take a lot of good things in this country for granted. How does that hasten our decline?
Sowell: You have to have a sense that freedom is always under siege, and not just by people who don’t believe in freedom but by people who have their own agendas and either don’t know or don’t care that those agendas mean reducing other people’s freedom. So if you don’t have a sense of the danger from those sources, you’re going to face a steady erosion of freedom, because people put their own agendas ahead of other people’s freedom.
Hogberg: The “vision of the anointed”—the idea that there is an anointed elite qualified to run other people’s lives—surely that must be playing a role in the dismantling of America.
Sowell: Oh, absolutely! And I think no one believes in that vision more than Barack Obama, with the possible exception of Michelle Obama. They are the ones who know what we need. The very idea that anyone would take over someone else’s medical care and think that it can be run from Washington by bureaucrats is just staggering. There needs to be a healthy fear of “making a difference” in areas where you have no expertise. Some years ago I was in a hotel, and the hotel clerk called me up and asked, “Is this Doctor Sowell?” I said yes. He said, “There is a pregnant woman downstairs in labor. Would you please come downstairs and help with the delivery?” I was absolutely appalled. That ought to be the reaction of most people when presented with an opportunity to “make a difference” in an area where they don’t know what they are talking about.
Hogberg: How does the housing crisis embody some of the trends in the book?
Sowell: Everything that was done wrong in the past has been continued and escalated in the present. The recent so-called financial reform act left out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It’s like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark. Fannie and Freddie are two institutions that are in the production and distribution of moral hazard.
Nothing will increase risk more than by shifting it to somebody else. If I thought the government would back me up, I’d go into the commodities market and put a million dollars into soybean futures. Knowing that the government is not going to back me up, I won’t go within a hundred miles of the commodities market.
Politicians know that politically it pays to have the taxpayers pick up the bill (as with Fannie and Freddie). People ask me sometimes, “Why do politicians keep making the same mistakes? Don’t they ever learn?” And I reply, “They do learn! They learn they can get away with it. That’s what they learn.”
Hogberg: What is the “fallacy of fairness”?
Sowell: Most people would say that the government should treat everybody alike, judge them by the same standards, reward or punish them according to the same rules. That we can pretty much agree on.
But there is a more esoteric notion of fairness. Is it fair if one person is born into the world in circumstances that virtually guarantee their failure and others are born into circumstances that virtually guarantee their success? That kind of fairness is not social injustice, because society doesn’t create it and society can’t do much about it.
In my case I can see it pretty vividly. I was separated from my siblings in infancy, grew up not knowing they existed, and learned about them later on. We were all raised by poor people with very little education. But the family in which I was raised was determined that although they had no education, I should have an education. I remember what a fuss was made when I was promoted to the seventh grade. I was taken aback by it and someone said to me, “You’ve now gone further than any of us.”
Now contrast that with my younger brother, raised down in North Carolina. One day, when he was a teenager, someone noticed he had on his Sunday clothes in the middle of the week. When asked why, he said he was graduating from high school that day. No one came to see him graduate or thought much of it, even though none of the people in his family had ever gone to high school. So he had to do it all on his own.
I had a sister who was also raised hundreds of miles away. And when she went to Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., which was an elite school, there was resentment in her adoptive family. The reason was that the biological daughters in that family were nowhere near smart enough to go to that school.
Sociologists would come along and lump all three of these families together. But the kinds of things that matter are the things that politicians and bureaucrats can’t do much about.
Now, you can create scholarships, tutoring programs, and so on. But you have to recognize that the values that the kids have are the crucial things that will make or break them.
Hogberg: In your book you have two columns titled “ ‘Empathy’ Versus Law,” and you discuss the rule of law versus the rule of lawyers and judges. Explain how that is leading to our decline.
Sowell: Empathy is one of the weasel words of our time. It is a prettier word than bias, but it means the same thing. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with those firefighters in Connecticut, gave a free demonstration of what empathy and bias mean. And yet not only was she confirmed; there were Republicans who announced going in that they were going to confirm her.
People have no sense of what the law is supposed to be. It’s not a matter of righting wrongs.
In the days of the French Revolution, “representatives on missions” were sent around the country to right wrongs. They had the power to overrule any laws or local officials. They carried their own guillotines. That notion of law, that’s the direction those who are pushing judicial activism are going.
There was a time when we understood the judge’s job is not to have empathy; his job is to carry out the law as written. And if it was a bad law, it was up to the legislature to change it.
Hogberg: What do you think of the tea party movement? Could it reverse our decline?
Sowell: I’m sure it’s one of the elements. I think one of the things more important than the tea parties is that so many people who were not political activists before have been spurred into action by the kinds of things that have been done and the dangers they see. The biggest danger is not to see the danger. There are increasing numbers of people who see the danger. There are increasing numbers of people, according to the polls, who have no confidence in the media. I was delighted that Newsweek magazine is having so much trouble because they richly deserve it. There was a time I wondered who they were going to put on the cover once the Obamas were gone. So there are those signs, and as the great philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s not over till it’s over.”