Sowell, Thomas. Dismantling America. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-465-02251-9.
Thomas Sowell has been, over his career, an optimist about individual liberty and economic freedom in the United States and around the world. Having been born in the segregated South, raised by a single mother in Harlem in the 1940s, he said that the progress he had observed in his own lifetime, rising from a high school dropout to the top of his profession, convinced him that America ultimately gets it right, and that opportunity for those who wish to advance through their own merit and hard work is perennial. In recent years, however, particularly since the rise and election of Barack Obama, his outlook has darkened considerably, almost approaching that of John Derbyshire. Do you think I exaggerate? Consider this passage from the preface:

No one issue and no one administration in Washington has been enough to create a perfect storm for a great nation that has weathered many storms in its more than two centuries of existence. But the Roman Empire lasted many times longer, and weathered many storms in its turbulent times—and yet it ultimately collapsed completely.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Europe rose again to the level it had achieved in Roman times. The collapse of civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions. It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts to begin rebuilding amid the ruins.

Is that where America is headed? I believe it is. Our only saving grace is that we are not there yet—and that nothing is inevitable until it happens.

Strong stuff! The present volume is a collection of the author's syndicated columns dating from before the U.S. election of 2008 into the first two years of the Obama administration. In them he traces how the degeneration and systematic dismantling of the underpinnings of American society which began in the 1960s culminated in the election of Obama, opening the doors to power to radicals hostile to what the U.S. has stood for since its founding and bent on its “fundamental transformation” into something very different. Unless checked by the elections of 2010 and 2012, Sowell fears the U.S. will pass a “point of no return” where a majority of the electorate will be dependent upon government largesse funded by a minority who pay taxes. I agree: I deemed it the tipping point almost two years ago.

A common theme in Sowell's writings of the last two decades has been how public intellectuals and leftists (but I repeat myself) attach an almost talismanic power to words and assume that good intentions, expressed in phrases that make those speaking them feel good about themselves, must automatically result in the intended outcomes. Hence the belief that a “stimulus bill” will stimulate the economy, a “jobs bill” will create jobs, that “gun control” will control the use of firearms by criminals, or that a rise in the minimum wage will increase the income of entry-level workers rather than price them out of the market and send their jobs to other countries. Many of the essays here illustrate how “progressives” believe, with the conviction of cargo cultists, that their policies will turn the U.S. from a social Darwinist cowboy capitalist society to a nurturing nanny state like Sweden or the Netherlands. Now, notwithstanding that the prospects of those two countries and many other European welfare states due to demographic collapse and Islamisation are dire indeed, the present “transformation” in the U.S. is more likely, in my opinion, to render it more like Perón's Argentina than France or Germany.

Another part of the “perfect storm” envisioned by Sowell is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the imperative that will create for other states in the region to go nuclear, and the consequent possibility that terrorist groups will gain access to these weapons. He observes that Japan in 1945 was a much tougher nation than the U.S. today, yet only two nuclear bombs caused them to capitulate in a matter of days. How many cities would the U.S. have to lose? My guess is at least two but no more than five. People talk about there being no prospect of a battleship Missouri surrender in the War on Terror (or whatever they're calling it this week), but the prospect of a U.S. surrender on the carrier Khomeini in the Potomac is not as far fetched as you might think.

Sowell dashes off epigrams like others write grocery lists. Here are a few I noted:

  • One of the painful consequences of studying history is that it makes you realize how long people have been doing the same foolish things with the same disastrous results.
  • There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.
  • Do not expect sound judgments in a society where being “non-judgmental” is an exalted value. As someone has said, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
  • Progress in general seems to hold little interest for people who call themselves “progressives”. What arouses them are denunciations of social failures and accusations of wrong-doing.
      One wonders what they would do in heaven.
  • In a high-tech age that has seen the creation of artificial intelligence by computers, we are also seeing the creation of artificial stupidity by people who call themselves educators.
  • Most people on the left are not opposed to freedom. They are just in favor of all sorts of things that are incompatible with freedom.
  • Will those who are dismantling this society from within or those who seek to destroy us from without be the first to achieve their goal? It is too close to call.

As a collection of columns, you can read this book in any order you like (there are a few “arcs” of columns, but most are standalone), and pick it up and put it down whenever you like without missing anything. There is some duplication among the columns, but they never become tedious. Being newspaper columns, there are no source citations or notes, and there is no index. What are present in abundance are Sowell's acute observations of the contemporary scene, historical perspective, rigorous logic, economic common sense, and crystal clear exposition. I had read probably 80% of these columns when they originally appeared, but gleaned many new insights revisiting them in this collection.

The author discusses the book, topics raised in it, and the present scene in an extended video interview, for which a transcript exists. A shorter podcast interview with the author is also available.

October 2010 Permalink