Thomas Sowell’s 3-question test

It is difficult to think of the trade-offs involved with any given decision when you have an idea in mind that you like. It is much easier to think of the positive things that you hope to result from your chosen course of action.

The same principle of critical self appraisal applies to argumentation and writing – it is very hard to question your own beliefs, and subject them to the kind of scrutiny that an opponent might. Even more difficult is the ability to be charitable to the views of someone you disagree with.

At the very least, if you are proposing a plan of action, you should consider the alternatives. Thomas Sowell has a three-question test that any political proposal should be subjected to prior to its implementation. As a voter, it is useful to pose these three questions to yourself when evaluating a suggested course of action. They are – ‘compared to what?’, ‘at what cost?’, and ‘what is the hard evidence in support of this?’.

When one puts forth a new proposal, the idea is that it should fare better than the alternative. The first step then, is to criticize the existing one that is to be replaced. We must ask of such criticisms – ‘compared to what’? Contemporary institutions and policies are frequently chided for having some deficiency or other. Capitalism is bad because it rewards ‘greed’; fossil fuels are bad because they produce emissions and pollution; education and health care should be provided equally, at the same cost and same quality to all.

It should be completely obvious to everyone that every institution is going to have problems. The question ‘compared to what’ is especially useful for countering proposals that aim to reject institutions that work well compared with alternatives. This is the key point.

Greed is a human problem, not at all unique to, or exacerbated by ‘capitalism’. The development of market economies have been enormously beneficial, in spite of their inability to ‘solve’ the problems that beset the permanently flawed human condition. Who would have thought that ‘capitalism’ could make people into saints? We have other practices and institutions for that.

Fossil fuels do cause pollution. We should innovate to develop alternatives. Great. Fossil fuels were developed in order to solve problems, and have contributed to staggering innovation in many domains around the world. Life for most people in every age has been fraught with difficulty – high infant mortality, no sanitation, war, subsistence living, small life spans, inability to predict and respond to natural catastrophes, illness – the list is endless. Fossil fuels have created technologies that have lessened many of those problems. They still do this, and at a cost far cheaper than the alternatives. At present, it is best that people in the rich world, and in those countries struggling to improve conditions for their citizens have access to these resources. The many alternatives that are being developed simply are not available at present at the levels required of them. Ask yourself, ‘compared to what’ else?

Health care and education are provided through a combination of public and private organizations and funds in many countries, and certain aspects of each are subsidized by tax revenue, so that all people are able to make use of them. Many practical concerns make it impossible to provide certain services in health care to all, and ‘ensure’ perfectly equal quality across all schools and school boards with a full public funding structure. When people criticize either on the grounds that elements of them are not ‘effectively equal’, then, we should first listen, and ask – ‘compared to what’? On doing so, we would recognize that many of the alternatives are simply not feasible given the many other programs that require funding, businesses to be run, taxes to keep low so that people can do things that they like, and so on and so forth.

This question – ‘compared to what’ – is extremely effective at revealing the fact that many left-wing ideas are not actually grounded in reality, but refer to an ideal future – one so different from our own, and often defiant of plain logic and common sense, that it deserves the label ‘imaginary’. What I mean by this is that the very way in which the ‘problem’ is conceived reveals that the future state that is supposed to be achieved by the new ‘solution’ is unreal in some sense, the further left you go, the more imaginary, and utopian.

It might also be the case that this reveals something about radical thinkers in general, who are always complaining about some new injustice. The point reveals that these injustices only have the sting that they do because they only deserve to be thought of in such a strong way because they are being compared to an imaginary, often logically incoherent reality. If you consistently allow emotions to overpower common sense and mundane, prosaic reasoning, the more radical you are inclined to be.

If an idea passes this first test, we must then ask ourselves of the new proposal that they suggest – ‘at what cost’? Here, it is useful to have recourse to the comparison of alternatives, and the effect that delivering on some promise will have on the surrounding environment.

A few ideas that are bandied about frequently are initiatives aimed at ‘ending’ problems such as bullying, racism, sexism, poverty, you name it. It could be said that this is just a rhetorical move designed to inspire, and not to be taken literally. Fair enough. This is no doubt true in some cases, but not when you realize how, in spite of major advances in each of these problem areas – arguably, and ironically, not primarily the product of activism but of increased prosperity and freedom – the definition of these words change frequently to include ever more minor and relative cases, so as to mobilize even more frenzied support for the initiatives aimed at ‘ending’ these things.

Proponents of such causes quickly realize that to ‘end’ such things, they need to eradicate the proximate causes of any number of factors that contribute to them. To end bullying, you need to silence all marginally offensive jokes, ban certain kinds of speech, and expand supervision at schools, spending on mental health, etc. Ironically, and this is the real rub, these initiatives are too frequently aimed, not at helping individuals becoming more resilient, but in providing more and more ‘supports’. In doing so, they are in fact worsening the problem, as the supports are crutches that stifle resiliency and character development.

In spite of massive improvements in wealth among countries, and within them (in terms of the increase of the share of wealth among groups within a society), the fact that there is not perfect proportionality or equality in terms of income levels or job representation between them is deemed a ‘structural injustice’, and a matter of ‘social justice’. To rectify such ‘pernicious’ inequities, people now use blatantly discriminatory policies for hiring on the basis of the possession of contingent and arbitrary group traits. Of course, this cannot, in principle, ‘end’ differences in demographic representation among a number of statistical categories deemed to be salient indicators of ‘oppression’ because it is a solution aimed at the wrong problem. There are many non-insidious factors that explain differences among groups. You cannot have equal pay, or participation rates in literally any profession because people actively organize in groups based on their preferences, abilities, and interests – none of which can be equalized without measures that have been tried in all true socialist experiments. The attempts at ‘ending’ some issue that is rooted in the human condition are nonsensical, for they require an outsized fixation on singular issue, leaving a torrent of negative side effects in their wake.

Lastly, if an idea has passed one of these two tests, you should ask, ‘what hard evidence do you have to support the effectiveness of your initiative’? This one is a bit unfair given what was revealed about these proposals in the first question. Most radical ideas require imagined future states that are characterized not just by the proposed change in question, but to a whole host of other things that must also be changed, so that the specific proposal in question will work properly.

It is frequently argued that large companies should be broken up or nationalized. Case in point – the major social media companies. The idea is that if they can be broken up, their content regulated, and prices reduced, then more people can use them ‘freely”. Though in the short run you could reduce the price at some point in the supply chain, the cost would just go up in the long run and the price ‘reduction’ that has just been imposed has merely been distributed among the taxpayers, overwhelmingly the middle class. Youtube and Google already deploy armies of people to regulate ‘hate speech’, and are pretty unsuccessful according to their own standards, because their standards are hopelessly vague. To the reply that this does not matter because people would now have ‘equal access’, you should counter that decisions are never made in isolation, and have wider effects. These being that the costs of any imposition on a firm that provides goods just reappear in some different level of the supply chain, or another part of the price of a related good or service.

Unfortunately, none of these points are likely to be very persuasive. This is because there seems to be very different starting premises upon which the world views that are home to opposing political and social ideas are built. There are a number of fundamental differences between what Sowell calls the ‘constrained’ and the ‘unconstrained’ visions of the world that correlate roughly with conservative and left-liberal political thinking.

Progressives think that humans are highly malleable, and that the problems we see are the result of bad institutions. If we just changed them, things would be better. There is a very good case for this, since there have been many improvements over the span of human civilization’s long development, and especially of late. They also believe much more strongly in human improvability, and their ideas seem to presume belief in the idea that there are genuine ‘solutions’ to humanity’s problems.

Conservatives, on the other hand, think people are basically unformed and amoral, without refinement through upbringing, culture and institutions that are required to bring out the best in them. Because of this, they don’t assume that there are ‘solutions’ out there in the world of political and social decision-making. Instead, there are only better and worse trade-offs that we can make with limited resources, knowledge, and flawed characters. Ultimately, every person must become good themselves through the actions that they undertake in their lives. You cannot ‘engineer’ this, it must be made and earned through trial and error, the development of personal character and excellence, the experience and overcoming of hardship, and hard work by real people, not imposed benevolently through the designs of bureaucrats or intellectuals.

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