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The vision of the self-anointed

The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy
Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 1996

The title illustrates the difficulty of captioning and characterising the problem the author is up against. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” seems to be the sentiment behind the title – except that “the anointed” are the self-anointed. To some extent the sub-title of the book helps: “Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy”, defining as it does the moral complacency of the left-liberal consensus and its absence of self-doubt even when policies fail. Sowell does not like the classification into left and right, but it is difficult to avoid.

He also points out that while the attitude of controversialists on the right to those on the left is that they are misguided or foolish, the converse attitude of the left is that the others are evil and “Problems exist because others are not as wise or as virtuous as the anointed.”

Ch. 2 defines a “Pattern of Failure” when the anointed initiate a program as involving four stages “The Crisis”; “The Solution”; “The Results” and “The Response” and illustrates this with three examples – President Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, Sex Education (starting at about the same time) and Criminal Justice (the new “criminals’ rights” initiated a little earlier). Matters had actually been improving in all three, so that whether any of the changes were needed is questionable. After all these programs or initiatives had been in operation for some time, all three situations were manifestly worse.

The “response” was usually to talk about something else rather than to admit the problem wasn’t solved. The War on Poverty was to abolish dependency; it increased it, but, naturally “it benefitted a lot of people”; sex education was to reduce teen-age pregnancies; these increased but “people felt better about sex”; crimes increased after criminals were given more rights, but Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had been most responsible for this merely claimed that people were “overlooking the root causes of crime” – without explaining how these must have got worse after 1960. This chapter is perhaps the most tightly argued in the book, but other chapters are also valuable, pursuing the contorted reasoning of those who know they are right, despite everything that happens to the contrary.

Later, he introduces the instructive concept of “trade-offs” (see Index): that improvements in one direction may result in deterioration in another and that cost is something that must always be taken into consideration.

There are also “mascots” (Index), normally “undeserving” sorts of people who are treated as if they can do no wrong – vagrants, homeless persons, the “handicapped”, homosexuals, AIDS sufferers. Just as some hazards are exaggerated (ignoring the “trade-off” factor), others are pooh-poohed, perhaps the most tragic being AIDS. Transfusions had been proclaimed safe (without testing); about half of all haemophiliacs in the US became infected with AIDS from them, because homosexuals were “mascots”. And there are extraordinary contortions of logic to let criminals off. The victimisation of business and the professions is nothing short of frightening.

What is not so clear is where the mind-set comes from that so persistently flouts conventional wisdom. It seems to result from the idea that, because any situations is not perfect – and is therefore a problem – some alternative must be better. What could be simpler than to carry the honourable Anglo-American tradition of dissent to its reductio ad absurdum and proclaim that to do the opposite of what always has been done must be the solution? But who started this Gadarene rush?

9 comments to The vision of the self-anointed

  • Brian Micklethwait


    I find it extraordinarily interesting that, near the end of your piece, you use the phrase “conventional wisdom” in an approving manner.

    For as long as I can remember, the “conventional” bit has been sucking all the wisdom out of the “wisdom”.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Sorry, Brian – you’re probably right. Put it down to my age; once “conventional wisdom” meant “common sense”, so maybe that could go in, unless it’s been taken over. And – er – isn’t it my review?

  • Brian Micklethwait


    And I’m sorry too, for even suggesting that there is anything wrong with using the phrase “conventional wisdom” to mean … conventional wisdom!

    When I said your usage was interesting, I meant exactly that. Not mistaken or ignorant. Believe me, if I thought it a bad or foolish usage I would have found a way to say so directly, although I hope politely.

    My point was that I’m sick to death of the ironic sneer usage of “wisdom” in this phrase to mean blind and unthinking stupidity, and it was most refreshing to read the words used with their literal, non-ironic meanings untouched.

    I hope it spreads.

  • anonymous coward

    The books look interesting; thanks for the pointer.

    “The converse attitude of the left is that the others are evil” — that’s exactly why I don’t much care for debating politics. I don’t need even more aggravation than what I get from everyday life 🙂

  • Dan McWiggins


    I’ve read it and have a copy. It was a good book and spelled out pretty clearly why the left sees themselves justified in using any means available, including the most despicable, to attack anyone who stands in their way. Sowell is a fine and very percipient writer and his comments about trade-offs are golden.

    I suggest, if you haven’t already done so, that you read David Horowitz’s “The Politics Of Bad Faith.” After I finished that book, I realized that anyone openly, consciously espousing a left-wing worldview was either a) completely clueless, or b)completely amoral, with a seriously nasty streak in their character to boot.

    After reading both of those books, it came as no surprise to find that Lefty Joe Stalin had killed considerably more kulaks than Hitler had Jews. Murderous bunch, those lefties, when they get the upper hand.

  • Pshaw. Liberals always know what’s best for everyone. Their nosiness nose no bounds (sorry ’bout the pun, it’s been a long day).

    Hillary Clinton, liberal extraordinaire, is no pushing to make seatbelt law contravention a FEDERAL matter.

    Statist bitch.

  • Editor’s note: For those who noticed, the author on this article has been changed to Findlay as it was intended by Brian who merely kindly posted his article on his behalf (and forgot to do it under the author’s name). I personally blame it on Brian’s hectic social life. Details just become a blur. 🙂

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Yes, my apologies for all the confusion here. As Adriana says, this posting was Findlay’s not mine.

    Re my hectic social life, I have just been at a meeting where it was revealed that brianmicklethwait.com (i.e. my Education and Culture blogs) had an amazing spike in mid-November. Don’t know why.

    Anyway, this being Findlay’s post, this explains why I was arguing with Findlay about its contents, having seemed to have written it myself, which must have been confusing to third parties.


  • One other characteristic of the Anointed is, as Dr. Sowell puts it, their immunity to evidence. That’s why they don’t have the “courage to quit” after doing the same thing over and over again with failure resulting every time.

    (Astute readers will recall that the source of the quote was Bill Clinton, someone who continued the failed policy of gun control and once backed an effort to socialize American medicine. He is also one of many who is immune to the evidence contrary to the whackball environmentalist theories of Pleistocene Liberation Organization radicals.)