In Which Thomas Sowell Falls off the Right-hand Edge of the Political Spectrum

The Progressive Legacy: Part II, by Thomas Sowell

In years past I would read columns by Thomas Sowell, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. He and I would agree about as often as we disagree, but I found his voice refreshing as it was backed by facts.

I am starting to lose faith, however, when I read his three-part emasculation of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In as ideological a screed as I have read from any writer, Sowell brands both presidents as racists, accuses both of being constitution-haters, and criticizes Roosevelt’s support of the Sherman Anti-Trust act all as an effort to use their acts (that don’t serve Sowell’s ideology) against President Obama.

Leave aside whatever you may feel about the sitting president, and let’s ignore his ad hominem attacks on Roosevelt and Wilson. In taking on Roosevelt’s trust-busting effort,  Dr. Sowell forgets that the reason the Sherman Anti-Trust act was passed and the reason the Standard Oil Trust was broken apart was because there are good economic reasons to support competition in any industry. Competition drives innovation, greater efficiency, and greater savings for all, as well as more opportunities for shareholders to benefit from having multiple companies in a given sector.

Dr. Sowell’s leap into the waterbed of history alongside the Robber Barons and their apologists brands him not as a conservative, but as a voice of reaction. While we can agree in principle that business should not be micromanaged by government, neither should government be micromanaged by business. What brought about the progressive era, and what pulled conservatives like T.R. into its vortex, was that companies were running the government. You need look no further than our own Golden State and how the Southern Pacific Railroad ran elections and controlled not only local governments, but the state house as well. It took twenty years and a constitutional convention to pull the teeth of that dragon, but it was the movement that Teddy Roosevelt spawned that gained California a modicum of independence from narrow business interests.

Sowell is guilty of taking a good idea – the essential role of private enterprise in our system – to the extreme, by placing private enterprise above everything else. What happens to the Constitution, Dr. Sorrell, when the leaders of a railroad buy elections as if entire states were roman Latifundia? What happens when corporations are able to vie with – and offset – the importance of the individual in the political process, as with Citizens United? And what happens when concentrations of money, whether from business interests or left-wing political movements, are able to control the American political process?

The problem in America today is not that we have too much of Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy in our system. The problem is that we have too little. Instead of careful and wise yet meaningful and effective evolution, we have the stalemate caused by ideological extremism.

Enjoy your tenure at The Hoover, Dr. Sowell. But please spend some of your time in Palo Alto reading some of your older, more measured columns. We could use a little of the old Dr. Sowell back in our political dialogue.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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