Sowell asked right questions


Economist and N.C. native Thomas Sowell’s recent decision to end his syndicated newspaper column at age 86 has prompted this observer to revisit some of Sowell’s most compelling observations.

“Many a foolish policy is based on trying to make the real world match the picture inside someone’s head.”

“Good things have costs, often costs out of all proportion to whatever good they might do. But notions like trade-offs and diminishing returns seldom deter zealots, whose own egos are served by their zealotry in imposing their vision, however costly or counterproductive it may be for others.”

“Trade-offs and diminishing returns are not the stuff from which heady visions and dramatic crusades are made. For that you need goals to be reached ‘at all costs’ and a clash between heroes and villains. This appeals to the young and those who remain adolescents all their lives.”

These are three of the nearly two dozen permanently flagged quotations in a well-worn copy of Sowell’s 2006 essay collection, “Ever Wonder Why?” Many more deserved to be flagged. And that doesn’t even consider the insights and expertise shared in dozens of other books and thousands of additional columns Sowell crafted over the decades.

His analysis will be missed.

One hopes, though, that Sowell’s regular readers will remember his most valuable lessons. Apply those lessons to key public policy controversies of today — and tomorrow — and state and national governments might generate better outcomes.

A fourth flagged quote from Sowell’s 2006 book comes from a column titled “Hiroshima.” The 60th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of that Japanese city served as Sowell’s prompt. But the quote itself merits consideration beyond that context.

“Much of the self-righteous nonsense that abounds on so many subjects cannot stand up to three questions: (1) Compared to what? (2) At what cost? and (3) What are the hard facts?”

Those who advocate new or expanded government programs often lament some harm that the program will address. The problem exists, the argument goes, and the government program will fix it.

The program likely sounds reasonable on paper. Sowell’s three questions can help policymakers decide whether advocates’ arguments withstand scrutiny. Starting with the third question first: What are the “hard facts”? Does a problem exist? If so, does the real problem mirror the arguments advocates are making for increased government involvement?

Back to the first question: What’s the point of comparison? Is this problem new? Has it existed in perpetuity? Is the problem unique to this state or nation? If it’s a long-standing problem, have conditions improved or deteriorated over time?

Sowell’s second question addresses the critical concept of trade-offs. Perhaps government can address the problem, but how much will it cost? Would hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending barely move the needle in addressing the problem? Would new spending on this program necessitate less spending on another more effective program? Would new spending necessitate a tax increase that would stop people from spending their own money in ways that are more important to them than addressing the problem?

Policymakers ought to address all of these questions as they make decisions about proper use of tax dollars and government workers’ time. And Sowell’s framework, useful as it is, does not have to serve as the only template.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute has recommended a four-question test to determine when government action is appropriate. First, is there a source of “market failure,” in which free markets fail to produce efficient outcomes? Second, is there evidence of actual failure? Third, can government reasonably solve the problem? Fourth, would the benefits of government action outweigh the costs?

Another framework, set out in a previous Daily Journal, mirrors Sowell by employing just three questions: Is there a problem? Can government do anything about the problem? Should government do anything about the problem?

People will disagree about the answers to these questions as they’re applied to particular public policy disputes. But that’s where disputes should take place — while answering critical questions about real problems and the trade-offs associated with addressing them.

As long as policymakers are asking the right questions, we’re less likely to encounter as much of the “self-righteous nonsense” that attracted much of Thomas Sowell’s attention for decades.

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Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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