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I’ve Got Sowell… and It’s Super Bad

August 5th, 2006 · 9 Comments

I’m not sure who I’m more embarassed for after reading this TownHall column: Thomas Sowell for writing it, or PowerLine for linking and quoting such a self-evidently ludicrous argument so uncritically. At 76, Sowell can at least plead creeping senility if he’s slipping; the PoweLine boys lack that excuse, but my expectations for them are so low that falling short of them doesn’t mean falling far. Anyway, the offending paragraphs:

“Peace” movements are among those who take advantage of this widespread inability to see beyond rhetoric to realities. Few people even seem interested in the actual track record of so-called “peace” movements — that is, whether such movements actually produce peace or war.

Take the Middle East. People are calling for a cease-fire in the interests of peace. But there have been more cease-fires in the Middle East than anywhere else. If cease-fires actually promoted peace, the Middle East would be the most peaceful region on the face of the earth instead of the most violent.

I don’t actually need to refute this, do I? Well, just for fun: The most incorrigibly addicted smokers are the ones who’ve tried to quit the most times, ergo attempts to quit smoking cause addiction. The sickest people are the ones who’ve taken the most medicine and had the most treatments, ergo medical care causes illness. In fact, people are hugely disproportionately likely to die in hospitals—if hospitals really save lives, why do they seem to be such deathtraps? Whee! Have fun coming up with your own.

Tags: War



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg Newburn // Aug 5, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    It doesn’t look like Sowell is saying peace movements “cause violence,” only that they don’t “cause peace.” If he is saying that (and I can see a reasonable reading where that’s what it looks like), then you’re right. But if the meaning is “cease fires don’t cause peace,” then I don’t see how your argument works.

    In other words, his argument wouldn’t amount to “attempts to quit smoking cause addiction,” but “some particular attempts to quit don’t work, and people end up smoking again.” And not, “medical care causes illness,” but “some types of medical care don’t work to cure some types of illness, so people stay sick.”

    Perhaps it’s unjustified respect for Sowell based on his life’s work talking here, but I can’t imagine he’s stupid enough to buy the argument you ascribe to him.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 5, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Eh, I’ve read a good deal of Sowell’s life’s work and managed to avoid developing an excess of respect. Anyway, his argument if you read the whole column really does seem to amount to the charge that peace movements cause war. If it were just the weaker claim, it would be equally stupid: If Sowell were only making the obvious point that sometimes ceasefires don’t hold and peace doesn’t last, after all, it wouldn’t count as much of an argument against them.

  • 3 Greg Newburn // Aug 6, 2006 at 12:36 am

    “Knowledge and Decisions”? “Conflict of Visions”? Good stuff…

    Anyway, after reading the whole article, I still don’t think your critique is on point. Ultimately his argument is, “peace movements don’t preserve peace, but military strength does.” Put in terms of one of your analogies, it would be as if someone said, “These magical beans cure cancer,” and Sowell replied, “No they don’t, but chemotherapy does.”

    In other words, he’s not arguing that peace movements “cause war,” but create conditions under which would-be aggressors don’t fear full retaliation and are therefore more likely to start wars. So it isnt that peace movements “cause war,” but that they are an ineffective means of “preventing war” (or at least less effective than balls-out military retaliation).

    Whether he’s right about that or not, I have no fucking clue, but I don’t see any logical problem with the argument.

  • 4 Gabriel Mihalache // Aug 6, 2006 at 6:43 am

    Arguably, this kind of pseudo-logical nitpicking reflects poorly on you, not on him. We all understand what he meant and it has nothing to do with your analysis. If cease-fired would lead to peace, then we’d have a lot of peace. But we don’t, so they don’t.

    Some people call for lots of trepanations in the treatment of headaches. But we had a lot of trepanations and instead of health we see a dead patient.

    Moreover, “peace movements” DO in fact hamper policy in countries with democratic government thus relatively empowering the war-bent dictators or authoritarians. Try having an unofficial peace rally in Iran and see how long it takes for you to get beaten in a basement.

  • 5 Dave Weeden // Aug 6, 2006 at 8:58 am

    “If cease-fired would lead to peace, then we’d have a lot of peace.” But that’s not right either. Arguably we *do* have a lot of peace (there hasn’t been a civil war in the US since the mid-nineteenth century, for example; shooting wars in Europe are still rare, even most of the Middle East is at peace most of the time), but if cease-fires don’t lead to peace, what does? It’s true that a lot of cease-fires fail; and a lot of burglars are recidivists.

    Oh, I’ve read the article now. What garbage. The US was opposed to the British use of force in the Falklands War because Argentina was a friendly country in Latin America. That was diplomacy, not pacifism (pretty disgraceful diplomacy, but I’m British). His conclusion is ‘”Peace” movements don’t bring peace but war’ Gabriel, what do you mean “We all understand what he meant …”? Thomas Sowell doesn’t seem to be included in that ‘we’. The West, as you say, has peace movements. Neither Iran nor Iraq, as you also note, had. They had a long, bloody, and fairly pointless war.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Aug 6, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    C’mon, Greg, you’ve got higher standards than that. Conflict of Visions might have been a semi-interesting 5,000 word article; at book length it’s as tedious as it is self-congratulatory. And Gabriel weirdly asserts that “what Sowell meant” was something utterly different from what I represented, then proceeds to summarize it… by offering the same argument, that because we see lots of ceasefires in the most violent places, we can conclude they’re not conducive to peace.

  • 7 Greg Newburn // Aug 6, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Agreed completely that after about page 40 CV starts to get old and fast. But the thesis is good, and he explains it well.

    Anyway, I think I’m starting to come around to your interpretation of that column after re-reading it a few times with the clear head of Sunday afternoon.

  • 8 Travis // Aug 7, 2006 at 5:21 am

    Wow, that article sucks. Maybe peace movements don’t have a great track record for stopping wars, but that doesn’t in any way invalidate the idea that reasonable people can be opposed to a war.
    Most of the examples he lists make me think the world would be a better place if more people where in the peacenik camp. I have no idea why anyone who doesn’t live in the Falklands should care what flag flies there and I dont see how Sherman murdering a bunch of southerners makes the world a better place today.
    This article doesn’t in any way convince me that peace movements are counterproductive, if anything it makes me wish that the activists where more effective.
    God knows if they had kept us out of vietnam, vietnam wouldn’t be any less free, and there’d be a lot more living baby boomers and no emotionally damaged nam vets living on the streets of seattle.

  • 9 Chuck // Aug 23, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    Thinking by analogy can be kind of unhelpful.

    I think a better reply to Sowell would be that he is making an invalid generalization. Wether or not a cease-fire is in the interest of peace depends on the circumstances. I have not read the column, but I am guessing, having read a recent, entirely theoretical column of his, that he didn’t address the circumstances.

    But, if I were to analogize the situation, I would do so as:

    Sowell: Chemo doesn’t cure cancer every time and it has side effects, so we shouldn’t use it.

    I would reply: Chemo is a necessary step to curing some cancers some of the time, and so in some circumstances you should tyr.