Sunday, August 03, 2014

Wisdom from Thomas Sowell

Larry Kotlikoff's comment on Paul Krugman's debating style in my previous post reminded me of an email I received earlier this summer:

Hi Professor Mankiw,
 
I'm an entering graduate student at [withheld] and a long-time reader (reading your blog when I was in high school introduced me to and got me interested in economics). I was reading Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions and stumbled upon a passage that immediately reminded me of you, and your debates with Professor Krugman. I think it accurately describes a lot of disputes I've seen among intellectuals.
 
If you're familiar with the basic premise of the book, you can skip this paragraph. If you aren't (or need a refresher) Sowell creates a spectrum of political visions. At one end, there is the unconstrained vision, which sees a more malleable human nature in which the reason of experts has great efficacy in solving society's problems. At the other end, there is the constrained vision, which sees man's reason as inherently limited to narrow fields, with the best social progress coming through less deliberate and more evolutionary means. Sowell would see you as closer to the perfectly constrained vision, and Professor Krugman as closer to the perfectly unconstrained vision.
 
Here is the passage that reminded me of your debates with him. I think you'll see what I mean:
 
Sincerity is so central to the unconstrained vision that it is not readily conceded to adversaries, who are often depicted as apologists, if not venal. It is not uncommon in this tradition to find references to their adversaries' "real" reasons, which must be "unmasked." Even where sincerity is conceded to adversaries, it is often accompanied by references to those adversaries' "blindness," "prejudice," or narrow inability to transcend the status quo. Within the unconstrained vision, sincerity is a great concession to make, while those with the constrained vision can more readily make that concession, since it means so much less to them. Nor need adversaries be depicted as stupid by those with the constrained vision, for they conceive of the social process as so complex that it is easy, even for wise and moral individuals, to be mistaken -- and dangerously so. They 'may do the worst of things without being the worst of man,' according to Burke. (pg 59-60)
 
You may have already‚Äč seen this and had similar thoughts, but if you hadn't, I thought you would find it interesting.
 
Best,
[name withheld]