Thomas Sowell Quotes #6


“One of the difficulties with trying to create ‘solutions’ is the uncertainty of defining what is a ‘problem.’ When A and B make a transaction between themselves that C does not like, is that a problem to be solved?

A and B may be employer and employee, landlord and tenant or lender and borrower. No doubt each of the primary parties to any of these transactions would prefer terms more favourable to himself or herself, but the transactions would not have taken place unless at least one, and probably both, were willing to accept something less than they might hope for.

“But many among the intelligentsia press for government to ‘do something’ about transactions terms that the parties themselves have agreed to, this call for government intervention often being based on ideas similar to those expressed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. However, the question must be raised as to the basis for arming intellectual coteries with the massive powers of government to forcibly undo economic transactions terms made by millions of people intimately familiar with their own individual circumstances and alternatives, in a way that distant intellectuals or government functionaries cannot possibly be familiar.”

~from Wealth, Poverty and Politics, page 361

Deceptive Simplicity


Sometimes we can use simple illustrations to explain more complex ideas. That is fine if the illustration is in fact used to explain the more complex idea. Often that’s not what happens – often we’re just shown the illustration, and because it’s simple, we think we understand the more complex situation automatically.

Take the picture above: On the left, they all have a box, but still the short guy can’t see. So, on the right, the tall guy gives him his box and all is well. That’s justice, see? Simple.

Well, if I were at a game watching over the fence and some guy needed my box to stand on, and I didn’t need it myself, of course I would give mine to him – I’m not a complete jerk. But of course, a baseball game is not what’s really the issue here. We’re talking about wealth, poverty, and social politics – much more complex issues.

How can we translate the simple illustration to the real complex problem?

We ask what each item in the illustration represents.

What do the boxes represent? Money? Power? Knowledge? All three? Something else? Why are there only three boxes? They can’t get more? Why do they all start off with one box each? Why is one guy taller than the other? Do these guys always stay the same height over the course of their lives? How is time illustrated in this picture, if at all?

What does the fence represent? Why is it the height it is? Is it shorter in other places where the short guy could see over with only one box? Why are all three guys standing right next to each other? In the real world, does the tall guy even know the short guy exists? Could the tall guy simple pass his box over to the short guy without someone else getting involved? What if the tall guy doesn’t want to give up his box? What if he’s going to need it to look over a taller section of fence further down?

What does the baseball game represent? Happiness? A house, car, and a flatscreen TV? Or just basic living needs? Who determines what poverty is? What’s being compared to what? Is the standard of living the same for all three guys? Is it essential to watch the game at all? Why don’t they buy tickets and watch inside?

These are just starter questions. As they’re answered more questions will come.

So, try answering all these questions and you’ll see that the situation is much more complicated than what the picture suggests.

Here’s a couple of other versions of the picture I found online…


Ha! Okay, evil conservatives are the problem.


Chain link fences! Of course!