Thomas Sowell om varför vänstern alltid är god

I Intellectuals and Society beskriver ekonomen Thomas Sowell hans syn på en konflikt mellan två fundamentalt olika världsåskådningar hos samhällets intellektuella. (Om vad han menar med intellektuella har Thomas Sowell bland annat det här att säga:

‘Here “intellectuals” refers to an occupational category, people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like. Most of us do not think of brain surgeons or engineers as intellectuals, despite the demanding mental training that each goes through, and virtually no one regards even the most brilliant and successful financial wizard as an intellectual.

At the core of the notion of an intellectual is the dealer in ideas, as such—not the personal application of ideas, as engineers apply complex scientific principles to create physical structures or mechanisms.’

Till intellgentian (skillnaden mellan den och intellektuella behöver inte bekymra oss här) räknar han akademiker, policy-författare, journalister (som kolumnister och författare av ledarsidor och debattartiklar, inte i egenskap av nyhetsreportrar), vissa juristproffessioner, politiska rådgivare, lärare, aktivister, och liknande.)

Den världsåskådning han själv bekänner sig till präglas av en syn på problem som fattigdom och konflikter som urtillståndet, med förbättringar ett resultat av mänskliga ansträngningar vars effekter måste utvärderas empiriskt (av denna anledning kallar han världsbilden för ”the tragic vision”). Motståndarsidan (som han kallar ”the vision of the annointed”) präglas av självgodhet och en närmast axiomatisk tro på att deras hemsnickrade teorier är korrekta, utan att behöva kontrolleras mot erfarenheter i verkligheten. De anser att människan till sin natur är fredlig, tolerant mot andra grupper, och rik på materiella tillgångar, och att krig, fördomar, och fattigdom är sociala konstruktioner som kan upplösas genom kritisk analys från samhällets intelligentia. Jag har många gånger konfunderats av attityder som brukar sammanfattas som ”vänstern är alltid god,” och jag har tidigare bloggat om hur politisk korrekthet går ut på att tysta motståndare oavsett om de har fel, och fann därför den här texten läsvärd.

‘At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are “problems” created by existing institutions and that “solutions” to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals. This vision is both a vision of society and a vision of the role of intellectuals within society. In short, intellectuals have seen themselves not simply as an elite—in the passive sense in which large landowners, rentiers, or holders of various sinecures might qualify as elites—but as an anointed elite, people with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.

In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed, where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements which the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved—with these efforts to be based on actual experience, not on “exciting” new theories.

These opposing visions differ not only in what they believe exists and in what they think is possible, but also in what they think needs explaining. To those with the vision of the anointed, it is such evils as poverty, crime, war, and injustice which require explanation. To those with the tragic vision, it is prosperity, law, peace, and such justice as we have achieved, which require not only explanation but constant efforts, trade-offs, and sacrifices, just to maintain them at their existing levels, much less promote their enhancement over time.

[The tragic vision] does not assume that the chafing restrictions conveyed to us by social contrivances—from prices to stigmas—are caused by those contrivances. Above all, it does not assume that untried theories stand on the same footing as institutions and practices whose very existence demonstrate their ability to survive in the world of reality, however much that reality falls short of what can be imagined as a better world. As Professor Richard A. Epstein of the University of Chicago put it: “The study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections.”

The two visions differ fundamentally, not only in how they see the world but also in how those who believe in these visions see themselves. If you happen to believe in free markets, judicial restraint, traditional values and other features of the tragic vision, then you are just someone who believes in free markets, judicial restraint and traditional values. There is no personal exaltation resulting from those beliefs. But to be for “social justice” and “saving the environment,” or to be “anti-war” is more than just a set of beliefs about empirical facts. This vision puts you on a higher moral plane as someone concerned and compassionate, someone who is for peace in the world, a defender of the downtrodden, and someone who wants to preserve the beauty of nature and save the planet from being polluted by others less caring. In short, one vision makes you somebody special and the other vision does not. These visions are not symmetrical.


Because the vision of the anointed is a vision of themselves as well as a vision of the world, when they are defending that vision they are not simply defending a set of hypotheses about external events, they are in a sense defending their very souls—and the zeal and even ruthlessness with which they defend their vision are not surprising under these circumstances. But for people with opposite views, who may for example believe that most things work out better if left to free markets, traditions, families, etc., these are just a set of hypotheses about external events, and there is no such huge personal ego stake in whether those hypotheses are confirmed by empirical evidence. Obviously everyone would prefer to be proved right rather than proved wrong, but the point here is that there are no such comparable ego stakes involved among believers in the tragic vision.

This difference may help explain a striking pattern that goes back at least two centuries—the greater tendency of those with the vision of the anointed to see those they disagree with as enemies who are morally lacking. While there are individual variations in this, as with most things, there are nevertheless general patterns, which many have noticed, both in our times and in earlier centuries. For example, a contemporary account has noted:

Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope. Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil

Supporters of both visions, by definition, believe that those with the opposing vision are mistaken. But that is not enough for those with the vision of the anointed. It has long been taken for granted by those with the vision of the anointed that their opponents were lacking in compassion. Moreover, there was no felt need to test that belief empirically. As far back as the eighteenth century, the difference between supporters of the two visions in this regard was apparent in a controversy between Thomas Malthus and William Godwin. Malthus said of his opponents, “I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candour.” But when Godwin referred to Malthus, he called Malthus “malignant,” questioned “the humanity of the man,” and said “I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made.”

What often distinguishes liberals from others,” according to best-selling author Andrew Hacker, is that they are “ready to share some of what they have with others less fortunate than themselves.”30 This is not a view peculiar to Professor Hacker. It reflects an opinion that was widespread among those with the vision of the anointed before he was born. But here, as elsewhere, the power of a vision is shown not by the evidence offered in favor of it but precisely by the lack of any sense of need for evidence—in this case, evidence of the lesser humanitarianism among conservatives opposed to “progressive” policies. However, an empirical study by Professor Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University, to test the extent to which liberals and conservatives in America donated money, blood, and time to philanthropic endeavors showed that conservatives donated on average both a larger amount of money and a higher percentage of their incomes (which were slightly lower than liberals’ incomes) to philanthropic causes, that they donated more hours of their time as volunteers, and that they donated far more blood.

This, of course, in no way proves that conservatives’ arguments on social or political issues are more valid. What it does show is how far wrong people can go when they believe what is convenient for their vision and see no need to test such convenient assumptions against any empirical evidence. The fact that the assumption that conservatives were less concerned about other people’s well-being prevailed so strongly and so unquestioningly for so long—literally for centuries—before even being tested reinforces the point.

Similarly, when those with the vision of the anointed advocate disarmament and international agreements among potential adversary nations as the way to preserve peace, and are opposed by those with the tragic vision who advocate military deterrence and military alliances as the way to preserve peace, these are seldom seen as simply different hypotheses about prospects and risks in the external world. Those with the vision of the anointed have far more often, for a very long time, seen such differences as signs of internal defects in those who disagree with them. Those who rely on stronger military forces, rather than disarmament or international agreements, to deter war have often been depicted by intellectuals as being in favor of war.

British writer J.B. Priestley likewise explained the failure of the pacifism common among his fellow intellectuals in the 1930s to catch on with the general public by saying that the public favored war out of “boredom,” a boredom leading to “the widespread desire for some grand piece of excitement, for fiery speeches and flag-waving, for special editions, troop trains, casualty lists.” While acknowledging “the enormous sales” of the anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Priestley said of the people who read it, “The very horrors fascinated them,” that the book was “too good a show as a tragic spectacle.”

In short, no matter what the empirical facts might be, they would simply be interpreted to fit Priestley’s vision. The desires arbitrarily attributed to the public made it unnecessary for Priestley to confront opposing arguments or to confront the possibility that there were gaps or flaws in the arguments advanced by pacifists like himself, which left the public unconvinced that the pacifists’ approach—disarmament and treaties—was likely to reduce the dangers of war. There has been a long history of a similar approach to issues of war and peace by intellectuals, going back at least as far as Godwin and Condorcet in the eighteenth century, and often depicting those who disagreed with them as people who favored war for some malign or irrational reason

The contrast between how those with the tragic vision and those with the vision of the anointed see opponents has been too widespread and too long-lasting to be attributed simply to differences in particular personalities, even if there are individual variations on both sides. The very nature of the visions themselves involve very different personal ego stakes. To believe in the vision of the anointed is to be oneself one of the anointed, something that many find too precious to risk forfeiting. As T.S. Eliot put it:

Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves’

Kort sagt kan man säga att den spridda uppfattningen att vänstern alltid är god förmodligen beror på att många vänsterintellektuella och deras anhang är emotionellt investerade i en världsbild som ger dem en känsla av handlingskraft och förmåga till social ”frigörelse” som sträcker sig långt bortom de befogenheter verkligheten tillåter. När man förklarar för en självgod vänsternisse att det är hyrestak, inte kapitalism, som orsakar bostadsbristen har man alltså inte bara falsifierat en hypotes, utan angripit en väldigt grundläggande beståndsdel i hans självuppfattning och syn på sig själv i förhållande till sin omvärld. Det är knappast en nyhet att vänstern är mer styrd av känslor än logiska argument, men med Thomas Sowells resonemang kan vi utveckla en hypotes som låter oss förstå varför och på vilket sätt vänstern är så känslostyrd.

För den som är intresserad av den oklippta versionen av den här texten finns den i kapitel 4 av boken Intellectuals and Society. Hela boken är läsvärd och rekommenderas.


En reaktion på ”Thomas Sowell om varför vänstern alltid är god

  1. […] Ett återkommande tema i många av hans böcker är en teori om varför vänster och höger så ofta verkar ha olika förhållningssätt till sina motståndare, och varför vissa frågor överhuvudtaget har en höger/vänster-dimension (varför verkar man till exempel kunna gissa någons syn på konflikten mellan Israel och Palestina baserat på om de vill höja skatten?). Jag har tidigare skrivit om det här på bloggen. […]



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