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Book Review: The Vision of the Anointed

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The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy
by Thomas Sowell (New York: Basic Books, 1995); 305 pages; $25.

In an article entitled “The Attitude of the Intellectuals to the Market Economy,” published in The Owl in January 1951, French social theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel tried to explain the anticapitalist bias of many in the intellectual community. He suggested at least three reasons for this tendency.

First, intellectuals — particularly those in academic life-devote a good part of their time building analytical models of the world — models in which the intellectual creates conceptions of hypothetically orderly and ideal conditions for man in society. When he contrasts his own theoretical fantasies with reality, the unplanned — and seemingly chaotic — situations of actual market life repulses the model-builder. He desires to rearrange the human condition to match his more perfect model.

Second, the intellectual is often deeply disturbed by the fact that the world seems to be governed and guided by irrational and perverse hierarchies of value. The intellectual, with his conception of the well-ordered and designed society, is revolted by the fact that the market does not serve what he — the model-builder — considers the good and most valuable, the more just and worthwhile. Instead, in his view, the market serves the lowest and often the “merely” materialistic wishes of the average man. Furthermore, and just as bad, many businessmen have made vast fortunes from this pandering to the uncultured in man.

Third, the intellectual is often disturbed and angered by the fact that he — who understands so much more, who comprehends the beautiful and the just so much better than many others, and who only wants to remake the world for the good of all — is forced to sell his talents to the whims and demands of the private employer to earn a living. His talents and gifts are straightjacketed to the confines and dictates of the marketplace, where they are forced to serve the base wants of the masses in the businessman’s pursuit of ever-greater profits.

This is the theme of Thomas Sowell’s newest book, The Vision of the Anointed . He wants us to better understand the sources and consequences of the intellectual’s revolt against the market order and the free society. At the core of his analysis is an idea he developed several years ago in an earlier volume entitled A Conflict of Visions (1987). He contrasts two conceptions of man: the constrained and the unconstrained view of man, or as he now calls them, the tragic vision and the vision of the anointed. By the constrained or tragic view of man, Sowell means the acceptance that there are natural and inherent limitations upon man — physical, mental, social — that will always prevent the possibility of creating a utopia on earth. Life is a never-ending struggle of using limited means to satisfy our numerous ends, with the necessity of having to accept tradeoffs that we hope will make us better off but never fully satisfied. And among those limited means are our own imperfections of knowledge that make it impossible for us to have either the ability or the wisdom to make a perfect world.

The unconstrained vision of the anointed is the view that there are some who have been able to mentally rise above the limitations of the existing social order and who are able to imagine and design plans for the remaking of man and the human condition. They see themselves as superior in wisdom and understanding in comparison to the ordinary, average man. They want power to remold the world to fit their model of how they think the rest of us should live and act and what we should believe in and value.

So strongly do these “anointed” feel about their visions, they are willing to do everything to shield themselves from any information and evidence that might contradict and undermine their utopian fantasies. Sowell shows in a devastating manner how they either ignore or distort the statistical data to fit their preconceived ideas. His discussions of race, poverty, and crime are masterful demonstrations of how, for decades, the elitist social engineers in our society have: (a) created the illusion of various social crises and problems that either were almost nonexistent or were already on the way of being ameliorated by normal market forces; (b) proposed government solutions for these supposed social problems that free-market critics, at the same time, argued would make the problems worse and not better; and (c) when the actual results of these state interventions have produced the outcomes the free-market critics warned about, “covered their tracks” by insisting that it has not been the interventionist policies that have failed but rather simply a failure of the government in not intervening even more thoroughly or effectively.

An especially powerful technique in advancing their visions for paternalistic government, Sowell argues, has been the manipulative use of words by the anointed. “Public service” means not the private market provision of goods and services desired and valued by the consumers of society. Instead, it means governmental employment in which the state preempts the voluntary wishes of people with the preferences of those who control the state. “Greed” refers to the peaceful, market-oriented attempt of people to improve the circumstances of themselves and their families. “No amount of taxation is ever described by the anointed as ‘greed’ on the part of the government or the clientele of government.” “Responsibility” does not mean the individual’s accountability for his own actions and their consequences; rather, it refers to the collective guilt of society for creating poverty, crime, or racially biased attitudes. “Rights” do not mean the inalienable liberties that all men have and which may not be abridged without causing real injustice; instead, they refer to the ever-expanding redistributive “entitlements” which governments are to give to some at the expense of others in society.

Through the manipulation of history, the abuse of statistical evidence, a distorted view of man and society, and the twisting of words and ideas, the intellectual elite — the anointed — are able to attain their goal: the control of other people’s lives through political power over society. These techniques also enable them to maintain a fantasy world in which they can retain their conception of themselves as more virtuous, wiser, and better than their fellow human beings.

“Without a sense of the tragedy of the human condition, and of the painful tradeoffs implied by inherent constraints,” Sowell argues, “the anointed are free to believe that the unhappiness they observe and the anomalies they encounter are due to the public’s not being as wise or virtuous as themselves. . . . It is a world of victims, villains, and rescuers, with the anointed cast in the last and most heroic of these roles.” This is why political correctness in politics, education, culture, history, and literature is so important to these anointed social engineers. Through this means, they hope, the human mind can be wiped clean and filled with the preconceived ideas and myths that will enable them to control those whom they desire to have mastery over.

If they succeed, the free society will cease to exist. After such an insightful analysis of the dangers of the vision of the anointed, it is unfortunate that Dr. Sowell leaves off at the point at which his assistance would be most useful: how to stop the social engineers and reverse the intellectual and cultural environment they have created.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).