Book Review: Compassion Versus Guilt And Other Essays by Thomas Sowell

William Morrow and Co., Inc.. 105 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016 • 1987 • 246 pages • $15.95 cloth

“When a political crusade is on, there is no time to wait and see if anybody knows what they are talking about.” To anyone who has followed only Thomas Sowell’s scholarly writings over the last decade, such a bald and sardonic comment may seem a bit out of character in tone, though not at all in content. With meticulous scholarship, Sowell’s works of the 1980s, beginning with the brilliant and seminal Knowledge and Decisions, have unraveled the verbal veils in which activists, academics, and politicians have clothed so many factually shallow and logically absurd theories and policies.

But Sowell’s latest book is a collection of powerful broadsides, originally published as newspaper columns. The language here is blunter, the arguments terse and less courteous, the overall effect more scathing—and very emotionally satisfying.

Most of the essays in Compassion versus Guilt are, in effect, popular treatments of the philosophical themes set out in Sowell’s previous book, A Conflict of Visions. In that work he posited a dichotomy between “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of man’s moral and mental natures and capacities. The constrained vision holds social change as something to be approached cautiously because of the intractable limitations of human morality and knowledge. The unconstrained view holds social change as directly manageable, at least by a selfless and enlightened few.

In this book, Sowell takes a side—the constrained side. The most frequent target of his barbs are “deep thinkers,” people whose credo has such items as: by eliminating high standards we can eliminate failure; people are entitled to welfare in preference to “menial” work; only political and bureaucratic jobs are noble and valuable; sex education is the solution tothe teen pregnancy problem; affirmative action is good despite the opposition of its supposed beneficiaries; and so on. Sowell is at his polemical best when he shows the contortions his opponents must perform to sustain these views in the face of their absurd or disastrous implications and results.

Thomas Sowell’s works provide lovers of liberty with a vast store of careful logic and illumi-mating facts that can help us change minds and even policies. But most of us must make our arguments for liberty in situations that demand brevity—letters to editors, private conversations, local meetings, and the like. These essays show that issues can be dealt with briefly yet trenchantly, with respect for facts and with ex plosive effect on statist arguments. []

Mr. Stewart is an advertising copywriter and a free-lance writer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.