06 December 2014

Through the Looking Glass: A Journey into the Fantasy World of Thomas Sowell (6)


That arbitrary and unsubstantiated assumption underlies a wide spectrum of laws and policies over the years, ranging from urban renewal to ObamaCare.

One of the many international crusades by busybodies on the left is the drive to limit the hours of work by people in other countries – especially poorer countries – in businesses operated by multinational corporations. One international monitoring group has taken on the task of making sure that people in China do not work more than the legally prescribed 49 hours per week.

Why international monitoring groups, led by affluent Americans or Europeans, would imagine that they know what is best for people who are far poorer than they are, and with far fewer options, is one of the many mysteries of the busybody elite.


While I would agree many labour laws are out of control, the shadow of the 19th century and the Robber Baron era hangs over this discussion. Sowell idolizes these men and believes the era should be celebrated and revisited.

I'm speaking of the era of subsistence poverty, child labour, and oppressive conditions. Laws were passed to improve the lives of ordinary people who were being exploited.

Why do people in developed countries think they can help those in the Third World? Because our societies already passed through that phase of industrialization and these folks would like to think they learned something from it. Some would even argue they have a moral duty to try and help others when they're aware of the situation.

Not a few people are troubled that the American Dream is very often a nightmare for people in other countries.

Both groups err. The Left thinks it can hold people to account and genuinely change the world. I don't think too many actually hold to Utopian ideals anymore. But from a Christian perspective they are engaged in fantasy.

Sowell's capitalism also inhabits a world of dreams. This worldview has no concept of sin except in militaristic terms. It still amazes me that so many Christians think this view harmonious with Scripture. Capitalism operates under the assumption that people are basically good and won't exploit and crush others around them...and therefore need no restraint. The laws of nature expressed as the Market are sufficient.


As someone who left home at the age of 17, with no high school diploma, no job experience and no skills, I spent several years learning the hard way what poverty is like. One of the happier times during those years was a brief period when I worked 60 hours a week – 40 hours delivering telegrams during the day and 20 hours working part-time in a machine shop at night.

Why was I happy? Because, before finding these jobs, I had spent weeks desperately looking for any job, while my meager savings dwindled down to literally my last dollar, before finally finding the part-time job at night in a machine shop.

I had to walk several miles from the rooming house where I lived in Harlem to the machine shop located just below the Brooklyn Bridge, in order to save that last dollar to buy bread until I got a payday.

When I then found a full-time job delivering telegrams during the day, the money from the two jobs combined was more than I had ever made before. I could pay the back rent I owed on my room and both eat and ride the subways back and forth to work.

I could even put aside some money for a rainy day. It was the closest thing to nirvana for me.

Thank heaven there were no busybodies to prevent me from working more hours than they thought I should.

There was a minimum wage law, but this was 1949 and the wages set by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had been rendered meaningless by years of inflation. In the absence of an effective minimum wage law, unemployment among black teenagers in the recession year of 1949 was a fraction of what it would be in even the most prosperous years of the 1960s and beyond.

As the morally anointed busybodies raised the minimum wage rate, beginning in the 1950s, black teenage unemployment skyrocketed. We have now become so used to tragically high rates of unemployment among this group that many people have no idea that things were not always like that, much less that policies of the busybody left had such catastrophic consequences.

 I don't know what I would have done if such busybody policies had been in effect back in 1949, and prevented me from finding a job before my last dollar ran out.

My personal experience is just one small example of what it is like when your options are very limited. The prosperous busybodies of the left are constantly promoting policies which reduce the existing options of poor people even more.


Touching to be sure, but how sad that he's learned very little from it! This situation does not reflect reality for many. That era no longer exists. He is out of touch with economic and social realities.

It worked for him, but for a myriad more it didn't work and they did nothing wrong. It just didn't work. That same person today can trip and fall on the subway and end up homeless in a week.

He speaks of an era of economic boom. Jobs were plentiful, especially in a major metropolitan area. Not everyone lives in such a place and not every city affords such opportunities. Dhaka, Lagos and Sao Paolo are different cities.

His story is very telling. It demonstrates he has no grasp of American social history and a very poor grasp of economics. His critics have been pointing this out for years.

This is common among those of his stripe. They were successful and can't understand why everyone else isn't. I make it a point to talk to people as often as I can. People will pour out their life stories if you let them. This is especially true in American culture. Listen to them and you will find there are a lot of foolish people who make bad mistakes but there are also a lot of hardworking people who have taken a lot of knocks. The more crises you face, the more tough decisions you'll have to make. The likelihood of always making the right decision is slim.

I've worked for some pretty wealthy people. Some of them are quite lazy but they can afford to be. There are many well-to-do middle class people who have undeservedly attained success. Many have been raised in prosperous stable homes, more or less had life handed to them, and would quickly crumble if forced to face even one day in the life of the woman I mentioned above who works two jobs, has no time off and struggles to pay her bills.

I've worked for other wealthy people who are very foolish with their money, are wasteful and have made disastrous business and personal financial decisions. I've watched people literally throw away tens of thousands of dollars in badly planned investments and projects.

The difference is they are able to absorb it and move on. When you've got a half-million in the bank, losing $50,000 hurts but you can deal with it. For many a $300 error brings on a crisis. A $1000 error is apocalyptic.

Sowell thinks the poor are rolling in money because they have colour televisions and automobiles. He embraces the argument that cheap consumer goods means wages have in fact effectively been raised. He doesn't understand the nature of inflation and what it has done to the economy at large and who has been hurt the most by it.
As far as the minimum wage argument, his statistics are bunk. Black unemployment was first recorded in 1954 and went up toward then end of the 1950's, went down in the early 1960's and skyrocketed in the 1970's but especially in the 1980's. Sowell is just flat wrong. The youth unemployment figures are usually different in terms of numerics but they more or less follow the general trend. There are many other factors at work that have also contributed to minority teen unemployment. Suburbanization has been cited as a major factor, something Sowell doesn't even address. There are economic and social factors at work. As usual, and though it irks Sowell to no end... it's more complicated than his worldview will allow.

To blame it all on minimum wage law is a reductionism at best. If you start to formulate a system based on reductionism you end up with a false system and a host of bad conclusions.

As one commentator put it not long ago, Sowell needs to retire. He's so out of touch with reality that he's just making a fool of himself.