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T H O M A S   S O W E L L

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The Vision of the Anointed


One of the soundest thinkers and clearest writers on the subject of modern political expression is Dr. Thomas Sowell. In his book, The Vision of the Anointed (1995, HarperCollins), he presents a powerful model for understanding the process by which today's liberals achieve their public policy goals. (The views which follow are based on my own understanding of Dr. Sowell's book; in no way should he be held responsible for any of my opinions expressed below.)

This book is subtitled "Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy". The author backs up that assertion with pertinent facts, ruthless logic, appropriate examples, and a sense of humor that is restrained out of deference to the human damage done by the liberal model of public policy debate. This is, in fact, the larger point of the book, a point generally missed by reviewers (particularly the poisonous Kirkus species). It's not about attacking any particular "bad" liberal policy; Dr. Sowell stalks much larger game here. Namely, he is out to expose the fundamental basis by which movement liberals choose all their policies, and the common method by which they attempt to implement those policies.

For Dr. Sowell, both expressions grow from the essential liberal motivation: "I'm better than you because I care more than you do." In other words, both what they do and how they do it are driven by a desire to enhance their self-esteem at someone else's expense. It is not enough to be simply a good person; the ideological liberal must believe that he is better than you in order to feel good about himself. All else follows from this quest to prove moral superiority.

In particular, what follows is a crusade to change some aspect of human nature by changing human society from the top down. When the crusade fails--often spectacularly, human nature being irrationally resistant to nagging--the continuation of demonstrably unnecessary and even counterproductive social policies is defended in hyperemotional attacks on critics. The admission of error is evaded at any cost, because it would mean forfeiting the belief of moral superiority.

Within the first few pages of The Vision of the Anointed Dr. Sowell lists the elements that are common to the liberal crusades of this century, and the pattern in which these policy demands are imposed and maintained. The rest of the book explains why this pattern is the predictable outcome of having a vision of oneself as anointed to save the world--whether it needs saving or not.

The Elements of the Crusade

Despite the variety of liberal crusades in the latter part of this century--examples include the welfare state, socialism, communism, Keynesian economics, environmentalism (particularly Malthusianism and "global warming"), and medical, automotive, and nuclear safety--these crusades share certain similar elements.

  • The Warning of Danger

    A great danger to the whole society is asserted, a danger to which the masses are oblivious (but to which the anointed are uniquely sensitive).

  • The Call to Action

    Urgent action is demanded to avert the impending catastrophe. Again, while malevolent forces try to preserve the status quo, the anointed--wiser and more caring than others--are fighting to rescue you.

  • The Invocation of Authority

    The government is called upon to set stringent limits on the dangerous behavior of the many, in recognition of the prescient conclusions of the few. Since most people aren't as enlightened as the anointed, it stands to reason that they are part of the problem. They are thus likely to resist the proposed change, so--for their own good, of course--they must be forced via the threat or actual application of state power to comply with the new required behavior.

  • The Demonization of Critics

    Arguments which criticize any aspect of the crusade are dismissed as uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by unworthy purposes. Since the self-esteem of the anointed rests on being perceived as a savior, anyone who threatens to reveal the truth--that the solution was worse than the supposed problem--is by definition evil. Destroying such critics is a commendable act of "courage."

The Pattern of Failure

As all humans are imperfect, any human vision must be flawed as well. A key feature of any vision is the degree to which it recognizes its inherent imperfection and adapts itself to reality as new information is revealed.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the vision of the anointed is its astonishing resistance to accepting reality. So strong is the impulse toward moral superiority that evidence which contradicts claims made by the anointed is often ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or shouted down. A recent example is the release of statistics concerning minority entrance applications to the University of California system of colleges. The UC system released only the information for the two campuses whose minority applications dropped the most. By the time the much higher numbers for the other campuses were released two days later, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times had printed front-page, headline stories (picked up by other news agencies) claiming that ending the UC system's special racial preferences had in fact led to more "discrimination." The facts which contradicted this conclusion were buried... if they were published at all. Evidence that threatened the position of the anointed--that not giving blacks and members of certain other groups special preference in college admissions (even at the expense of better-qualified members of other groups) would cause massive discriminatory harm--was ignored. As with other crusades whose primary purpose is proving moral superiority, if reality conflicts with the desired perception, then reality must be suppressed.

Dr. Sowell examines this effect by considering the typical pattern in which the visions of the anointed are imposed and fail.

  1. The "Crisis"

    Some situation is said to be so bad as to constitute a "crisis," even though only a few persons see it clearly enough to sound a warning. The evidence offered to support this claim is usually an exaggeration of the negatives that can be found in any human situation, or a misuse or misinterpretation of minimal or even unrelated statistics.

  2. The "Solution"

    The anointed offer a "solution" which they claim will lead to desirable result A. Critics dissent, offering evidence and logic to support the counterclaim that the proposed policy will actually lead to undesirable result Z. The anointed respond with scorn and ridicule, and imply dark motives on the part of their critics.

  3. The Results

    The policy is implemented and leads to undesirable result Z warned of by its critics.

  4. The Response

    Excuses, rationalizations and evasions ensue. Either some other factor or combination of factors caused undesirable result Z, or the solution wasn't given enough resources (time, money) to work, or the critics arrayed against the solution lied/conspired/outspent their moral betters, or things would actually have been far worse without the implemented solution, or undesirable result Z is actually a good thing, or some other form of handwaving is employed.

The point is always that the crisis was real and the solution wasn't wrong... and the anointed should be given credit for their courage in recognizing and publicizing the problem, and for their good intentions in trying to solve it--no matter how awful the result. They are never called to account for their failed original claim--that implementing their policy would lead to desirable result A--which is conveniently forgotten. Instead, the anointed place the burden of proof on their critics to show a linkage between the imposed policy and the undesirable result. This leaves the critics playing "what-if" games, which are rarely persuasive, even when news agencies bother to report them.


The main complaint against The Vision of the Anointed is that the repetition of the word "anointed" begins to grate after a while. (Just think how tired you are of seeing it in this short essay.) But this is a quibble. The important aspect of this work--its assertions that there is a reality-denying pattern to the policy activity of modern liberals, and that this pattern is the result of the desire of these persons to feel morally superior to other persons--is defended with clarity and precision.

A working model of a thing does more than just explain the current nature of that thing. It has a predictive power. Manipulate the model according to some understood input; if the model is a good one, its final configuration will accurately render what would happen in the real world. Dr. Sowell's model of liberal policy as the vision of the anointed is a good one, because it allows the person who understands it to accurately predict the liberal response to particular situations.

No model is ever anything more than an imperfect imitation of some real thing. For that reason, there are some situations to which it is not appropriate to apply a given model. This is true of Dr. Sowell's model as well. Not every liberal acts out of the anointed's desire to prove moral superiority; the power of Dr. Sowell's model to explain and predict their actions is limited. Only if one can demonstrate that the very impulse of liberalism itself--the urge toward improvement--is based on an desire to prove moral superiority can one condemn liberalism in totality.

I consider that unlikely. Nevertheless, for those liberals--and there seem to be an unfortunately large number of them--who are in fact motivated by the deep-seated desire to prove just how much wiser and more benevolent they are than the rest of us... Dr. Sowell's model explains a lot.

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Sowell, Thomas -- Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Quill, 1985. As with all of Sowell's writing, this book is highly readable without sacrificing intellectual rigor. Marx's economic thought is critically examined, followed by excellent (though too short) studies of Marx's political philosophy and Marx, the man.

Sowell, Thomas -- The Vision of the Anointed, Basic Books, 1995. This is one of the best books ever written on what makes most modern political liberals tick. Written in Sowell's characteristically clear and direct style, a fair-minded reader will be left in no doubt as to the perils of an idealogy based on impatience, personal gratification, and the dismissal of reality. (Another reason to check it out: the Kirkus Reviews people frothed venomously about it. Any political work that induces hysterical sputtering in the Kirkus crowd must be worth reading.)


Bomis: The Thomas Sowell Ring a set of links to resources about Thomas Sowell.

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