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The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy

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One of America’s pre-eminent economists offers a provocative critique of the failures of liberalism

In The Vision of the Anointed , Thomas Sowell presents a devastating critique of the mind-set behind the failed social policies of the past thirty years. Sowell sees what has happened during that time not as a series of isolated mistakes but as a logical consequence of a tainted vision whose defects have led to crises in education, crime, and family dynamics, and to other social pathologies. In this book, he describes how elites—the anointed—have replaced facts and rational thinking with rhetorical assertions, thereby altering the course of our social policy.

320 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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About the author

Thomas Sowell

86 books4,339 followers
Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social commentator, and author of dozens of books. He often writes from an economically laissez-faire perspective. He is currently a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 1990, he won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science.

Sowell was born in North Carolina, where, he recounted in his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, his encounters with Caucasians were so limited he didn't believe that "yellow" was a hair color. He moved to Harlem, New York City with his mother's sister (whom he believed was his mother); his father had died before he was born. Sowell went to Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out at 17 because of financial difficulties and a deteriorating home environment. He worked at various jobs to support himself, including in a machine shop and as a delivery man for Western Union. He applied to enter the Civil Service and was eventually accepted, moving to Washington DC. He was drafted in 1951, during the Korean War, and assigned to the US Marine Corps. Due to prior experience in photography, he worked in a photography unit.

After his discharge, Sowell passed the GED examination and enrolled at Howard University. He transfered to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. He received a Master of Arts in Economics from Columbia University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Chicago. Sowell initially chose Columbia University because he wanted to study under George Stigler. After arriving at Columbia and learning that Stigler had moved to Chicago, he followed him there.

Sowell has taught Economics at Howard University, Cornell University, Brandeis University, and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 261 reviews
Profile Image for Amora.
197 reviews153 followers
June 15, 2020
Thomas Sowell pulls no punches in this classic. In this classic gem, Sowell catalogs the efforts of the anointed, or rather cultural elites who believe they know better than the rest of us, to make society more just for those who they perceive to be victims. According to the vision of the anointed, equality can only be achieved using the power of the legislature and the courts because society is naturally broken. Sowell explains how their assumptions about society are inaccurate and have led to disastrous consequences. This book covers social policy from the 1960s to the 1990s and is still just as relevant as when it was when it first came out in 1995.
Profile Image for Cassandra Kay Silva.
704 reviews276 followers
February 15, 2012
Ok I admit it I am a liberal and I read one of Sowells books, so sue me. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about and to be honest I was fairly pleasantly surprised. I am generally one of these that believes in the "root cause" of social problems as he puts it, perhaps I even have some of this anointed mindset "gasp". I like to think we can change people by changing behavior and circumstances, but I think he made a good number of points about when we should say enough is enough, does that mean I personally think these programs are not beneficial? Actually I don't but I do believe that we have to take into account the loss/benefit spectrum as there is always a trade off for what we determine to put our financial resources in to. I don't know if eliminating these programs is the answer, nor can I comment on the statistical aspect of it other than I think we can all agree that a lot of these "social problems" are getting worse. I think Liberals and Conservatives alike are fairly frustrated with the legal/prison system, at least I have always been fairly miffed by it. I hope we are able to elect leaders that are not so blinded by their vision as Sowell calls it that they can't see the other side of the issue. I think Liberals and Conservatives are possibly more alike in many of their goals than we all admit, perhaps none of our current approaches are good enough, perhaps we need a third perspective to put something completely new in place. A lot of what we are currently doing is not working and its true that this "self congratulatory" vantage point for viewing the world is not helpful at all.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,395 reviews583 followers
May 30, 2018
This is such an excellent book that after the 1st read I'm going to buy it.

You have to know my copy was library loan and it has a cracked spine and has been in constant circulation for about 20 years. For good reasons. He has defined in precise terms and logic the "anointed" elite's social constructions set into their new religion of social "goods". And that he did this decades ago and saw where it was progressing! And foresaw that they would ultimately accept no other opinions but their anointed own.

The book is held together at this point with a rubber banding for shipping. I'm going to make sure it gets replaced. This year.

But I need to buy this for myself and slowly reread to understand the issues that I have actually seen with my own eyes (especially in the outcomes of dire, dire situations for the poorest and those who have lived for generation upon generation within social welfare ghettos)- in order to completely understand what he observed in such cause/ effect description.

What a superb work. What a clear and clairvoyant perception! Some only feel, some only think. Few are those who can think in such quantity to understand the onus of where the "feel" doesn't begin and end within wishes and hope filled theories. But instead common sense that takes plans only as a starting point.
206 reviews6 followers
April 20, 2009
A must read. As apropos for today as when it was written in the 90's. If you tire of the lightweight stuff from the talking heads like a Hannity, a Rush, or an O'Reilly, then read Sowell's Vision of the Anointed. Watch Sowell fillet mostly leftist-type thought chapter after chapter, page after page, even paragraph after paragraph. Sowell brings to bear so many of his skills as a sociologist and economist that the reader cannot possibly master all of Sowell's arguments after just one read. So, not only does this book proved laughes-a-minute seeing Sowell trounce liberalesk positions on poverty, racism, sexism, crime, government, family, religion, etc., it could also serve as a non-technical textbook on how to do good sociological work. Thus, multiple reads are probably needed for maximum benefit. However, one read will do just fine in allowing you to knock around the majority of anointed you run into on the street, at the water cooler, or even at the next family Thanksgiving.

(P.S. Many Republicans, neocons, and even many evangelicals of the so-called Christian right fit into the camp of anointed; or so I say. So, Sowell's not a talking head for the Republican party. In fact, he's a brilliant Stanford sociologist and economoist who also happens to be black, which has to just grate on the nerves of many anointed, which I might in other circumstances be ashamed to admit gives me some mild sadistic pleasure.)
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books2,156 followers
June 2, 2022
Simply a must read and would be great for a late high school student.
Profile Image for E.W..
90 reviews
July 15, 2011
There is much that one could like here. The basic framework that Sowell lays down about the way many policies are drafted is clear and accurate. The problem, however, is that he seems to believe that only "The Anointed" (i.e. liberals) use this method to create policy. As I was listening, I kept thinking, "Wow, this seems like a playbook for George W. Bush's administration," but Sowell repeatedly lionizes Reagan and believes that the "Benighted" (i.e. conservatives) can do no wrong.

This might have been a great book, had he not belabored the idea that you are either one thing or the other. There is no room in Sowell's view for anything other than black and white. Had he attacked conservative policies that are equally bad and focused his attention on ALL public policies that are based in an elitist ideal, then this book would have potential. Any time someone believes, beyond all doubt, that they know what is the best thing for others, you are heading for trouble, but to Sowell, apparently only liberals are so inclined.

Sowell spends a great deal of time saying that liberals don't use any facts in their policy making, and then, to prove a point on how bad a policy is, uses innuendo and speculation as proof. He continually implies certain results based on the negative. This didn't happen, so this must have happened, but he rarely supports these claims.

I'm sure that for those that hold Sowell's political views, this reads like a brilliant text, but it is so utterly biased as to be nearly useless. As I said, there is a kernel of a great idea in here, but it needs to be applied without regard to one's political leanings.
Profile Image for Skylar Burris.
Author 20 books238 followers
July 23, 2012
This is a superb book if you want to know precisely how statistics are manipulated, ignored, or misinterpreted in order to support social/political visions that are impervious to empirical evidence. It's wonderful for debunking a plethora of doomsday economic and social myths, and it provides a thorough outline of the type of specious arguments used to avoid addressing specific objections to specific policies and programs. Any student of economics, politics, or sociology should read this book and heed its call to intellectual honesty by committing to examining policies on the basis of their actual outcomes as indicated by empirical evidence rather than evaluating them according to their philosophical conformity with a pre-existing set of assumptions.

The book contrasts the two primary visions held by people: "the vision of the anointed" and "the tragic vision" and how these visions affect policy approaches. To the anointed, there are solutions, but, to the tragic, there are only trade-offs. "To those with the vision of the anointed, the question is: What will remove particular negative features in the existing situation to create a solution? Those with the tragic vision ask: What must be sacrificed to achieve this particular improvement?" For the anointed, "costless" solutions abound, requiring only their discernment to discover and their informed third-party decision making to implement. The vision of the anointed does "not…incorporate constraints as the central feature and ever-present ingredient in its thinking, while the tragic vision does." To those with the tragic vision, says Sowell, "the central question is 'Who is to choose? And by what process, and with what consequences for being wrong?'" Sowell bemoans how easy it is "to be wrong - - and to persist in being wrong - - when the costs of being wrong are paid by others."

Sowell has a bone to pick with "anointed" politicians: "political attempts to 'solve' various 'problems' ignores the costs created by each 'solution' and how that exacerbates other problems. Much of political rhetoric is concerned with presenting issues as isolated problems to be solved - - not as trade-offs within an overall system constrained by inherent limitations of resources and knowledge."

I've been reading Thomas Sowell for awhile, and I know he has long been disturbed by the way "anointed" politicians and bureaucrats enact policies in the United States: "To a remarkable extent…empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted. Facts may be marshaled for a position already taken, but that is very different from systematically testing opposing theories by evidence." Having worked as an economist for the government, he knows what it is like to be asked to ignore or gloss over data that doesn't support a particular policy. Having systematically studied the actual affects of policies throughout the world, he knows how little politicians care if the evidence does not support the theory. His frustration is palpable, and he makes me feel it in this book, just as he did (in a different way) in his autobiography. As always, he can be a little slow plodding at times, but I never leave his books without learning something new and being greatly impressed by his quest for empirical reality.

Naturally, those who do not share the "vision of the anointed" will ask: Why cling to a vision without regard for reality? Why promote policies regardless of whether or not they actually achieve the end you claim to wish to achieve? Because, Sowell says, the vision offers "a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be…morally on a higher plane. Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are not merely in error, but in sin." Confront the vision with empirical evidence, and your evidence is not labeled a bad argument; rather, you are labeled a bad person. The evidence itself is not engaged: your character is engaged (and questioned). This is why words like "compassion" and "concern" are so often used by the anointed; such words imply that opponents of the prevailing vision are unconcerned and callous. To admit that opponents might be equally caring is an impossibility, for it "would mean that opposing arguments on social policy were arguments about methods, probabilities and empirical evidence—with compassion, caring, and the like being common features on both sides, thus canceling out and disappearing from the debate."

It would be nice indeed if words like compassion, concern, and patriotism could dissolve from the U.S. political debate, if we could acknowledge that both sides care about both our nation and about the suffering masses of the world, and if debates on policy could therefore be directed toward the actual costs, actual benefits, and actual long-term affects of actual policies on actual people. It would be nice, but I don't see it happening anytime soon - - on either side.
Profile Image for Bibliobites  Veronica .
173 reviews22 followers
May 10, 2023
This was a pre-read for me, as it’s part of Ambleside Online’s Year 11. This type of reading is the most difficult for me because it can’t just be skimmed, I had to read carefully and with a pencil marking the ha up so I could follow Sowell’s arguments. I can tell he is brilliant, and he has a knack for throwing a memorable alliterative phrase into a sentence, though I sometimes felt he was a bit repetitive, and occasionally wondered if he wasn’t falling into some logical fallacies himself, but no, I’m not going to cite examples here.

It was rather fascinating though. In the beginning when he is discussing the tactics of the Anointed he uses examples of policies that were somewhat before my time. I know of them but didn’t really have first hand knowledge of living through the times when those policies were put into place. But because they were just examples of the overarching principles/tactics he was discussing, I could see how exactly these ideas are still playing out in current events - and it was eerily on point. So, though published in the 90s, I’d say this is still a highly relevant read, and though it may not initially interest everyone, it’s very close to a Must Read, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Cav.
703 reviews101 followers
August 8, 2022
"The views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world—a certain vision of reality."

The Vision of the Anointed was another great book from Thomas Sowell. He drops the above quote in the book's intro, setting the pace for the writing to follow.

Author Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked at think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he served as the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy. Sowell writes from a libertarian–conservative perspective. Sowell has written more than thirty books, and his work has been widely anthologized. He is a National Humanities Medal recipient for innovative scholarship which incorporated history, economics and political science.

Thomas Sowell:

The Vision of the Anointed is my 6th book from Sowell. Sowell's writing here was exceptional, as usual. His analysis is super-nuanced and insightful, in line with other titles of his that I've read.

"The Vision of the Anointed" The title could be somewhat ambiguous... What does it mean?? Well, expanding on his quote above; people are born into a society and culture where often one dominant set of axiomatic assumptions about the way the world operates are bestowed upon them. Rarely are these fundamental tenets examined closely using empirical evidence. Rather they are assumed to be true by means of social proof.

Sowell takes a shot at the current ideological orthodoxy and the people who propagate these ideas. He calls these the "visions of the anointed." The French have a term for these people - "bien pensants". These are people who largely see the world as they'd like it to be, and not how it is. As the term implies, there is also a strong religious element to this line of thinking. There is original sin, heretics, protected groups, mascots, and protected symbols.
This viewpoint is contrasted with those who hold the "tragic vision" of reality; which is to accept the flawed nature of man, and find realistic solutions to social policy based on data, empiricism, and taking human nature into account.

He launches an opening salvo with this quote:
"The prevailing vision of our era is long overdue for a critical reexamination—or, for many, a first examination. This vision so permeates the media and academia, and has made such major inroads into the religious community, that many grow to adulthood unaware that there is any other way of looking at things, or that evidence might be relevant to checking out the sweeping assumptions of so-called “thinking people.” Many of these “thinking people” could more accurately be characterized as articulate people, as people whose verbal nimbleness can elude both evidence and logic. This can be a fatal talent, when it supplies the crucial insulation from reality behind many historic catastrophes..."

The scope of the book is broad in nature; Sowell covers much of the modern thought orthodoxy here. In this quote, he speaks to the failure of the welfare program to lift people out of poverty:
"Despite initial claims that various government services would lead to reduced federal outlays on welfare programs as more people became self sufficient, the very opposite happened. The number of people receiving public assistance more than doubled from 1960 to 1977.23 The dollar value of public housing rose nearly five-fold in a decade and the amount spent on food stamps rose more than ten-fold. All government-provided in-kind benefits increased about eight-fold from 1965 to 1969 and more than twenty-fold by 1974.24 Federal spending on such social welfare programs not only rose in dollar terms and in real terms, but also a percentage of the nation’s gross national product, going from 8 percent of GNP in 1960 to 16 percent by 1974.25"

The writing here is very thoughtful and reasoned; typical of Sowell. He is a brilliant mind, for sure. Some more of what he covers here includes:
• The failures of sex education to lower STDS, teen pregnancies, as well as teen sex
• Criminal Justice
• The false assertion of mortgage "redlining"
• The long roots of this thinking; the French Revolution
• Trade-offs versus “Solutions”
• Crusades of the anointed
• The vocabulary of the anointed
• Personal Responsibility (REEEE)
• Judicial visions in court cases
• The world of the anointed


I haven't read a book by Thomas Sowell I didn't like, and this one was no exception. However, I will note that I felt the last ~third of it; where he takes a deep dive into Supreme Court Justices - went on for longer than it was worth. A minor gripe; the book was still excellent.
4.5 stars
Profile Image for David Robins.
342 reviews25 followers
April 22, 2010
So very true; enumerates so many of the distractions I have run up against talking with liberals. They close their eyes to reality and logic and argue with blind emotion, trying to frame rational people as unfeeling even as they rob them to fund their wasteful and destructive programs.

"The perennial desire to make particular things 'affordable' through public policy or to have government provide an ever-expanding list of 'basic needs' suggests that the economic realities conveyed by prices are seen as mere arbitrary social conventions, rather than expressions of inherent constraints and inescapable costs. Similarly, the desire to spare people 'stigmas' for their behavior treats such stigmas as representing mere arbitrary narrowness by others, rather than social retaliation for very real costs created by those who are being stigmatized and deterrence to others who might create more such costs in the absence of stigmas."
Profile Image for Elena.
131 reviews40 followers
June 15, 2018
I will never be bored with Sowel’s books - either more recent or older ones.

Souvenir from this one - don’t think solutions, think trade-offs (systemic analysis).
Profile Image for Charlene Mathe.
201 reviews20 followers
January 21, 2022
What, in his earlier work Sowell called "the constrained vs the unconstrained vision," and what Steven Pinker renamed "the tragic vs the Utopian vision, in this book Sowell discusses as "the tragic vision vs the vision of the anointed." Of course, the "vision of the anointed" IS a Utopian vision uncompromised by the constraints of "Tragic" realities.
Why would anyone choose tragic constraints over Utopian possibilities? Think back to American civics classes. The Constitution is framed to "constrain" the corruptions and limitations of human nature in the exercise of power. Government of-the-people is based in trade-offs and compromises that always fall short -- that are subject to criticism and grievance from one or all sides.
Why do "the Anointed" choose an "unconstrained" or "Utopian" vision? I will try to summarize by saying that the Utopian vision gives "the Anointed" an edge over the "unenlightened." Utopian policies are the evidence of their moral superiority over the "less caring," or frequently "angry" masses. In this 1995 book, Sowell even goes so far as to say that the Elites even relish the outrage their policies may elicit from the masses, because the opposition increases the distance or the heights from which the Elites can look down upon the masses! (p.248) I am sure that were he writing today (over 20 years later), Sowell would point to Angela Merkel vs the common people of Germany. Merkel and other governing Elites of the EU have opened the borders of Europe to millions of unvetted Muslim refugees. Consequently and inevitably, Europe is plagued with riots, gang rapes and mass murders. Citizen opposition is mobilizing street protests and media mockery of Angela Merkel. Yet she is doubling down on her open borders policies. Insane?? or "the vision of the Anointed"?
"Consistent with this pattern of seeking differentiation at virtually all cost has been the adoption of a variety of anti-social individuals and groups as special objects of solicitude--which is to say, special examples of the wider and loftier vision of the anointed." (p.248) This explains to me the parade at the 2016 Democratic National Convention--mothers of cop killers, transgenders and victims of social injustice.
To rise above the masses, the Anointed espouse views more advanced than the norm; they must "progress" beyond the Founders, and purify society of the prejudices and superstitions of traditions. They are "change agents." Sowell quotes historians Will and Ariel Durant from their "Lessons of History:"
"No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history." (p.112)
The reckless change in social, economic and foreign policy we see transforming our world today is the result of the Anointed exercising power. But the anarchy and ruin of civilization is necessary in order to install a new, better world order -- the Utopia of the Anointed.
Profile Image for Keith.
540 reviews58 followers
October 5, 2017
I have always wondered why so many social policies, all of which seem like good and even noble ideas at the time, turn out so badly. Sowell presents one view and a caustic one it is. Essentially, his thesis is that policy makers have far too often replaced rational analysis of outcomes with wishful and willful assertions that run counter to the facts of the case. The anointed live in a rarefied world in which reality plays little role and the opinions of the non-anointed even less:

"The presumed irrationality of the public is a pattern running through many, if not most or all, of the great crusades of the anointed in the twentieth century--regardless of the subject matter of the crusade or the field in which it arises. Whether the issue has been 'overpopulation,' Keynesian economics, criminal justice, or natural resource exhaustion, a key assumption has been that the public is so irrational that the superior wisdom of the anointed must be imposed, in order to avert disaster. The anointed do not simply happen to have a disdain for the public. Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is preemption of the decisions of others." -- P. 123-12

And of course the ends always justify the means even if inclusion and reflection play no part:

"In their zeal for particular kinds of decisions to be made, those with the vision of the anointed seldom consider the nature of the process by which decisions are made. Often what they propose amounts to third-party decision making by people who pay no cost for being wrong--surely one of the least promising ways of reaching decisions satisfactory to those who must live with the consequences." -- P. 129

Sowell gives dozens of examples of the assertions that the anointed make to justify the policy and then subjects those assertion to rigorous and often statistical analysis to deftly illustrate the faulty and often false assumptions inserted into contemporary policy making.
Profile Image for Justin Lonas.
359 reviews29 followers
February 2, 2022
Sowell at his prescient and ascerbic finest. He fires a volley of logic and research across the bow of the ship of self-righteous elitism in effort to warn them of the approaching icebergs. He synthesizes and builds on some of the ideas developed in his other works (notably A Conflict of Visions), and the result is an elegant and digestible summary of Sowell's thought.

He picks apart the insulated, echo-chamber ideas of the social/political elites--the anointed (since they have named themselves the de facto saviors of the world)--and argues for the historic, "tragic" vision of a world in which personal responsibility matters, human nature is not perfect, and there are no "solutions" to the world's problems, only trade-offs between equally good or equally bad options.

In essence, this is a book about how man is not and cannot be sovereign over the world, despite his fervent efforts to the contrary.

The implications of Sowell's reasoning are clear at a political and economic level, but there is a clear warning for personal and spiritual issues as well. The tendency to believe that we can "change the world" and bring about "social justice" is just as pervasive in the Church as it is in the world. We have to work within the responsibilities and possibilites given to us and guard against the temptation to usurp God's place as the only righteous judge.
Profile Image for Dale.
1,756 reviews60 followers
February 27, 2012
Good, but needed more detail

Thomas Sowell, a noted conservative thinker and a genuinely interesting person (I've heard him as a guest on a local radio station several times) writes an effective book against the actions of those whom he calls 'The Annointed.' The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy is effective, but not a great work.

Who are The Annointed?

He uses the term in a sarcastic way here to illuminate those 'Teflon prophets' (he uses that term because some of them are still considered credible despite no evidence that their predictions have ever come true) that scream doom and gloom and offer the direst of predictions unless we immediately give them the power to save us - since we are too simple to see the problem for ourselves and take the actions needed to save ourselves.

Read more at: http://dwdsreviews.blogspot.com/2011/...
Profile Image for Ryan.
14 reviews1 follower
April 5, 2009
For some of the Libertarian opinions I have come to hold, I have been called “at least partially evil” on one occasion and told to “have a heart” on too many occasions to count – and both of these comments from some of the people who know me best. And that is to say nothing of the times my arguments have been called "simplistic" and yet no reason is ever given for why they are actually wrong. This form of attack is one which Sowell writes about to some length and in that, and numerous other respects his book resonated with me. The Vision of the Anointed is Sowell’s counter attack directed towards powerful elites whose "vision" can most easily be summed up as "we know better than you, due to our superior intellect, morality or both and we intend to use our political power to re-engineer society for you (all in your own best interest of course)."

Sowell's critique of this vision is directed almost entirely towards the political left. While an attack aimed primarily towards “liberals” is often justified, I think it could have very easily been applied to any big government vision be it liberal or conservative (especially given the hubris and big government conservatism surrounding George W. Bush's tenure. In fairness to Sowell however, his book was published in '95). The fact that Sowell's book didn't do this made the message less persuasive than it could have been. Yet at times, the message is quite persuasive. For example, Sowell contrasts those with the vision of the anointed with those of a "tragic" vision of the world. (The anointed being those who see the world in terms of "problems" and "solutions" while those with the tragic vision see the world as a balance of trade offs, each with their own set of problems.) When politicians say things like, "We know how to solve the problem of poverty/drug abuse/poor educational outcomes" they are making implicit assumptions that these problems are a fault of "society" and therefore they can impose a so called "solution" by re-engineering society. Those with a tragic vision see these problems as being either an inherent part of the human condition or often times even a direct result of the very "solutions" put in place to alleviate the problem in the first place. It is not a simple matter of imposing a solution because the very act of such an imposition has its own set of problems (think of the war on drugs - something I might add which is both a liberal and conservative obsession). Sowell writes:

The hallmark of the vision of the anointed is that what the anointed consider lacking for the kind of social progress they envision is will and power, not knowledge. But to those with the tragic vision, what is dangerous are will and power without knowledge - and for many expansive purposes, knowledge is inherently insufficient....

Although followers of this tradition [the anointed:] often advocate more egalitarian economic and social results, they necessarily seek to achieve thoseresults through highly unequal influence and power, and–especially in the twentieth century–through an increased concentration of power in the central government, which is thereby enabled to redistribute economic resources more equally. While those with the vision of the anointed emphasize the knowledge and resources available to promote the various policy programs they favor, those with the tragic vision of the human condition emphasize that these resources are taken from other uses ("there is no free lunch") and that the knowledge and wisdom required to run ambitious social programs far exceed what any human being has ever possessed, as the unintended negative consequences of such programs repeatedly demonstrate.

This is one idea which the book explores in much more depth and is quite compelling. At other times however, Sowell paints "the anointed" with such a broad brush or the examples he uses are not explored in enough depth to fully buy into all that he writes. In a book that explores the negative effects of a small class of elite individuals (politicians) making expansive decisions to re-engineer society, Sowell does a poor job to clearly define the boundaries between where individual liberty ends and appropriate state action begins. For example, based on the overall writing, Sowell would seem to be in favor of the death penalty, state restrictions on abortion, and certain individual rights to privacy (most notably where public health is–arguably–at stake). And yet in a careful reading of the book, one realizes that Sowell rarely expresses direct opinions on these issues but mostly critiques the way in which the "anointed" apply inconsistent logic in how the issues are dealt with.

On the whole the book had many strong areas and will likely give a reader a new look on the world at large. At times however it oversteps its bounds and is in murky water if it is trying to describe a comprehensive alternative to the vision of the anointed. I particularly liked the chapter "Courting Disaster" on judicial activism vs. judicial restraint and how with increasing judicial activism we seem to be slipping away from the ideal of "a government of laws and not of men" and the senseless debate that surrounds the "intentions" of the framers of the constitution vs. what they clearly articulated given the legal language of the time. (And he points out that a built in framework exists to chaning what we no longer agree with is in place but that framework does not involve the arbitrary decisions of individual judges.) In his conclusion, Sowell has a very brief but enticing section on the role of journalism and the media and some of the inherent problems within. Speaking as somone who majored in journalism in college, I found his ideas to mirror many of my own and I would have liked him to explore the subject further.

Profile Image for Nate.
303 reviews4 followers
December 22, 2022
Helpful for understanding why the prevailing narrative prevails. Sowell has keen insight into the motives and and thinking of the "annointed."

Sowell covers a lot of ground and there's a lot of gems in here. He also give you some tools to dismantle their tired talking points.

But truly, this book doesn't need to be read by the "benighted" so much as those who unthinkingly parrot the vison of the anointed so that they can fit in and feel like good people.
Profile Image for Adam Graham.
Author 63 books66 followers
June 5, 2014

In his book Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell offers key insights into how and why the American left has run wild in it’s attempts to change America.

As the subtitle suggests, “Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy,” Sowell posits that the American left’s policies are egocentric exercises meant to establish themselves as saviors and their opponents as villains. Sowell shows that historically the left has been far more willing to condemn their opponents as evil even though the people they’re condemning will be more likely to tag them as merely mistaken.

Sowell points out the history of the left’s willingness to move the goal posts for policy proposals. When the War on Poverty was passed, the stated goal was to reduce poverty federal welfare roles through “hand ups not hand outs”, when sex education was introduced the goal was to reduce teen pregnancy. However when the programs were enacted and had the opposite effect, the liberals invented new goals to justify the programs saying things would have been worse had these programs not been implemented despite the fact that both poverty and teen pregnancy were headed down prior to the introduction of liberal efforts to fix them.

Sowell also gives a great clinic on how liberals will often manipulate statistics. He shows how liberals manage to magnify and exaggerate concerns over “income inequality” by failing into consideration simple factors such as the fact that younger people tend to make less than older people and that poverty tends to be much more of a transient state in America.

Sowe’ll’s wide-ranging treatise covers such items as the number of the people who manage to be ridiculously wrong without losing one iota of credibility such as Paul Ehrlich who made the bold yet very wrong predictions of a population bomb. He also cites many of the falsehoods behind leftist crusades including how the car that served as the basis for Ralph Nader’s “unsafe at any speed” campaign wasn’t so unsafe after all.

Sowell contrasts the vision of the anointed with what he calls the tragic vision, which many Christians would equate to our life in a fallen world. Because we live in an imperfect world, Sowell posits “there are no solutions only trade offs.” One example he cites was a proposed regulation that was offered after a baby was sucked out of an airplane when a cabin depressurized. The regulation would have required parents to purchase a seat for children under two when flying on planes. A study found that to pass a regulation that would prevent the death of one baby on an airplane would actually lead to the deaths of nine others due to parents who would be unable to afford the extra seat and be forced to take less expensive and less safe transportation, in addition to high economic costs.

Because the left fails to recognize this and because they shut themselves off to the impact of reality through moving targets and ignoring inconvenient facts, Sowell argues that the unquestioned predominance of the vision of the anointed is a danger to America’s economic and political freedom. While the book written nearly twenty years ago, the book feels as if it could have been written today as we’ve seen much of the same phenomena in the debates over same sex marriage and Obamacare.

If the book can be faulted, it’s that Sowell is great at pointing out problems and the strategies of the Anointed must has no suggestions for overcoming them. He points that, in many cases, the very nature of media (even more than the bias of those who work in the media) works against conservatives. We saw this during the Obamacare debate. While most Americans were satisfied with their health care and receiving the care they needed, it’s very hard to make a dramatic emotional point about that.

Still, the book is great for those who want to understand the polemics of the left and how a small minority has succeeded in an aggressive culture war. The Vision of the Anointed is a solid read that offers keen insights into how we got where we are today.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
623 reviews28 followers
December 13, 2010
A truly devastating critique of the liberal mindset.


In reality, the entire population of the world today could be housed in the state of Texas, in single-story, single-family houses - four people to a house - and with a typical yard around each home.

Everyone is a “progressive” by his own lights. That the anointed believe that this label differentiates themselves from other people is one of a number of symptoms of their naive narcissism.

Rights from government interference - “Congress shall make no law,” as the Constitution says regarding religion, free speech, etc. - may be free, but rights to anything mean that someone else has been yoked to your service involuntarily, with no corresponding responsibility on your part to provide for yourself, to compensate others, or even to behave decently or responsibly.

For society as a whole, nothing is a right - not even bare subsistence, which has to be produced by human toil. Particular segments of society can of course be insulated from the necessities impinging on society as a whole, by having someone else carry their share of work, either temporarily or permanently. But, however much those others recede into the background in the verbal picture painted by words like “rights,” the whole process is one of differential privilege.

Among the many other questions raised by the nebulous concept of “greed” is why it is a term applied almost exclusively to those who want to earn more money or to keep what they have already earned - never to those wanting to take other people’s money in taxes or to those wishing to live on the largesse dispensed from such taxation.

To say that a shoe shine boy earns “too little” or a surgeon “too much” is to say that third parties should have the right to preempt the decisions of those who elected to spend their money on shoe shines or surgery.

...both poverty and dependency were declining for years prior to the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty.” Black income was rising, not only absolutely but relative to rising white income.

Those who wrote the American constitution were of course familiar with such terms as “due process,” “freedom of speech,” etc., from English common law and indicated no intention of giving them different meanings from what those terms already had.

[According to the anointed]: Opposition to the vision of the anointed is due not to a different reading of complex and inconclusive evidence, but exists because opponents are lacking, either intellectually or morally, or both.

The perennial desire to make particular things “affordable” through public policy or to have government provide an ever-expanding list of “basic needs” suggests that the economic realities conveyed by prices are seen as mere arbitrary social conventions, rather than expressions of inherent constraints and inescapable costs.
235 reviews13 followers
January 2, 2017
Positives from the book:
- fairly representative of the American right-wing in their stated public policy dimension.

Negatives from the book:
- ideological in nature, but presenting itself as a fact based guide to policy issues.
- black and white thinking, with no room for nuance.
- frequent straw-man of liberal viewpoints. Liberal arguments in this book are almost a caricature, so they can be more readily debunked.

Some views found in the books:
- Homosexuals are a danger to others due to the AIDS epidemic (p.216-217).
- Reagan tax cut for the rich didn't cause the budget deficit, because we had more in revenues under his administration than previous administrations (as if other taxes could not be increased during the same period).
- Black/white disparities are only due to falling marriage rates among African Americans, and not because of slavery, Jim Crow, or systemic discrimination.
- welfare is the root of all evil

All in all, I think there are strong conservative arguments out there. But this isn't it.

Profile Image for David.
120 reviews
January 7, 2018
A primer for understanding political correctness. Sowell brilliantly exposes the progressive mindset and methodology, and its cohesive dynamics in the irrational social system it propagates, including its psychological appeal to self-flattery, its lack of accountability or corrective feedback, and its special suitedness to media proliferation. The chapter “The Vocabulary of the Anointed” is particularly good and exposes the anointed’s successful mainstreaming of its language and all its in-built fallacies. My minor quibble is a few subtle notes of social conservatism. I recommend it to all those wanting, or merely willing, to question the established zeitgeist.
Rating: between 4 and 5 stars.
Profile Image for Marco.
378 reviews49 followers
October 27, 2021
Thomas Sowell is a delight to read, the man has the clearest of proses.

His arguments aren't flawless - far from it, as he often engages in the type of fallacy he has just denounced just like any good ideologue. Still, the man says many important things that are very much worth being aware of.

The book, written in 1995, seems to be more relevant today than ever, as the vision of the anointed keeps spreading unrestrained.
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
August 14, 2023
Not rated, DNF.

I often run across quotes by Thomas Sowell that resonate with me. "An influential African American economist who is known for his controversial views on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, Thomas Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1930."

Unfortunately, I no longer have the concentration to finish a book like this, despite finding the first few chapters really fascinating. The one thing that I noticed was that, despite being written almost 30 years ago, The Vision of the Anointed could have written yesterday. Consider this:
The focus here will be on... the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite of our time...which means that its assumptions are so much taken for granted by so many people, including the so called "thinking people," that neither those assumptions nor their corollaries are generally confronted with demands for empirical evidence. Indeed, empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect...

...what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it. Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane. For those who have this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same cold rules of logic and evidence.

Sowell promises in the book to offer "an empirical comparison between the promised benefits of policies based on that vision, and the grim and often bitter consequences of those political and judicial decisions. In short, the purpose is not simply to see what kind of world exists inside the minds of a self-anointed elite, but to see how that world effects the world of reality in terms as concrete as crime, family disintegration, and other crucial social phenomena of our times."

Sowell then describes a series of policies that have followed the "Pattern of Failure." He notes:

The great ideological crusades of the twentieth-century intellectuals have ranged across the most disparate fields...What all these have in common is their moral exaltation of the anointed above others, who are to have their different views nullified and superseded by the views of the anointed, imposed via the power of government...several key elements have been common to most of them:

1. Assertion of a great danger to the whole society, a danger to which the masses of people are oblivious.
2. An urgent need for government action to avert impending catastrophe.
3. A need for government to drastically curtail the dangerous behavior of the many, in response to the prescient conclusions of the few.
4. A disdainful dismissal of arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by unworthy purposes.

Remember, the above was written in 1995, and he describes policy failures from the previous 30 years. As far as I got in the book, it ironically makes me feel a bit better about the world - this has been going on for my entire lifetime, but I was never much interested in politics so I was just oblivious to it.

So now when I look around me, trying to understand why people can't have a rational discussion on important but controversial topics - e.g., gender issues, abortion, immigration, crime, climate change - I have to remember that this is not new. Instead of listening to and considering the opinion - or even evidence - of anyone with an opposing viewpoint, the default is just to assume that other person is evil, to insult and try to shut them down.

Although Sowell places the blame for this mostly on liberals as the "anointed," I really believe that now it goes both ways, and that social media has made this problem much, MUCH worse than it was 30 years ago. It's a shame, and hard to see a way out.
Profile Image for Toe.
194 reviews52 followers
November 21, 2008
A typical liberal flaw is explored here. Social policy must be based on actual results instead of merely good intentions. Soaring rhetoric without substance backing it often does more harm than good. The main reason, Sowell argues, that Liberals get away with their bad ideas is because the people who impose those ideas rarely pay for the costs associated with their failures. If a fashionable Liberal idea such as sex education or bilingual education programs creates more pregnant children or more children who can not speak English and thus can not enter the workforce at higher wage levels, it's not the Liberal academic or theorizer who suffers. It's somebody else's family and child who must deal with the mess these bad ideas leave behind.

Everyone wants to reduce poverty, hunger, disease, injustice, and misery. The question is: how do we do that? What are the best policies and actions to reach these goals? Liberals too often hijack the moral highground and put conservatives on the defensive by claiming that the Democrats are the party that cares about the poor and misfortunate. In truth, liberal policies commonly compound existing problems or create entirely new ones by enabling or excusing bad behavior. Simply put, conservative principles produce better results. Thomas Sowell provides examples here.

This book is closely related to "A Conflict of Visions" also by Thomas Sowell. While "A Conflict of Visions" is more focused on explaining differences between competing visions, this book takes sides. Here Sowell argues that the conservative vision is superior.
Profile Image for Sandy.
119 reviews3 followers
November 8, 2012
I have read Sowell before- his book Race and Culture and some of his editorials. If the book hadn't been copyrighted in 1995, I would have thought he was targeting the 2012 liberals. But I read this leading up to the election, so that might explain a lot of my response to the book. I want to believe we can correct our flaws in society and help our fellow man by pulling together, especially in the United States where we have solved so many problems of mankind. But his explanation of trade offs and his leadership in economics helped me understand why many well-meaning policies have failed. At a gut level I have felt many of Sowell's premises but did not know how to articulate them in a social or political discussion.

I feel better able to evaluate policies and understand that one can never depend on the media to report both sides of the issues.
Profile Image for Frederick.
Author 16 books11 followers
November 14, 2012
This is the clearest, sanest expression of liberal political thought you will ever read. If you are a Beckbot, a Rush clone, a Hanniday zombie it will be too deep and clear to impress you, though, as there isn't any lying, ranting, or flag waving. Sowell is extremely understandable and deep on the subject. I've read this book and re-read it over the months, checked out sources, and tried to think through his arguments. This is essential if you want to understand today's politics and how Democrats and most Republicans are liberals politically even if the rank and file Republicans think they are conservative. Its a brilliant piece of work.
Profile Image for Bill.
189 reviews5 followers
December 17, 2014
Thomas Sowell is quickly becoming my conservative intellectual father-figure. In this outstanding book, he exposes liberals for what they believe themselves to be - "the annointed". A very intellectual book - not casual reading, but worth the time to read carefully.
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