Compassion vs. Guilt in the Age of Barack Obama

Thomas Sowell’s writings from 30 years ago are as relevant as ever.

Surely at some point in his long-admired writing career Thomas Sowell has grown frustrated. What to do when the same issues arise over and over again in the national debate and he’s already addressed them many times only to continue to be ignored by a political Left unwilling to deal with inconvenient facts? Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays is the first collection of Sowell’s newspaper columns and features his selections from 1982 through 1986. Most of the pieces are as fresh and relevant today as when they were first published.

Sowell articulates the central theme that binds these essays together in the title essay. When looking at all the suffering around the world it’s natural for Americans to have a sense of guilt since they were born into more prosperous circumstances by chance. The attempts to alleviate these feelings have often been efforts to show compassion for the less fortunate. Sowell warns,

Many of our attempts to share our good fortune with others, at home and abroad, have undermined the very efforts, standards and values that make that good fortune possible. Trying to ease our own guilt feelings is very different from trying to advance those less fortunate.

Just because a policy is put in place with the compassionate goal of trying to help those less fortunate does not mean that the less fortunate will be helped. This has been one of the central themes of Sowell’s work in fields ranging from race relations to economics.

Sowell urges a “There, but for the grace of God, go I” mentality – an approach far removed from the Obama administration’s visions of helping the uninsured with new government regulations that will have unintended consequences. For example, surveys of business-owners recently showed that come 2014, when the law’s provisions kick in, 30% of employers plan on dropping health coverage.

The common refrain from the President’s supporters when conservatives point out these unintended consequences is one Sowell anticipated decades ago: well what’s your solution?

Sowell challenges the “crusaders” and “deep thinkers” who think every problem has a solution. In an essay on the 1980s drug war – which could just as well be reprinted today following Barney Frank and Ron Paul’s legislation on marijuana – Sowell advocates legalization not as a “solution” but a trade-off. Noting that bootleggers often financed the campaigns to ban liquor, Sowell brings an economic perspective to the issue:

Legalization of narcotics would similarly destroy the profits of today’s drug pushers. There is no way that they can compete with drugs that can be mass-produced cheaply by big pharmaceutical companies.

This is not a complete “solution.” Nowhere is it written in stone that there are always answers in the back of the book. What we can do as a society is to cut our losses. It is bad enough that some people destroy their own lives with drugs. We don’t need to add vast numbers of innocent victims who are robbed, mugged or murdered by addicts trying to get money for a fix.

Sowell also has his eye on foreign policy and applies this paradigm of compassion versus guilt and solutions versus trade-offs. The United Nations was created with the noble, “compassionate” agenda of preventing wars and facilitating peace talks and negotiations. But this emphasis on trying to make negotiations the “solution” to every conflict has unequal costs for different nations:

Nothing is more predictable in any war today than a U.N. call for a “cease-fire” and “negotiations.” Non-democratic aggressors, like the Soviets in Afghanistan or the Syrians in Lebanon, ignore such calls with impunity. But in democratic nations, the political weight of this call from “world opinion” cannot always be brushed aside.

This has made aggression a game of heads-I-win and tails-we-tie.

Those words were published in September of 1983 but almost 30 years later they are just as relevant and accurate, particularly when it comes to the Jihadist war against Israel. This is what Caroline Glick means when she talks about Israel as a “shackled warrior” unable to fight its enemies properly.

A new Sowell column arrives only once a week. However for those who cannot get enough of the thinker’s insights and refreshingly straightforward prose, perhaps it’s time to dig into the archives a bit.