In my last column here for 2020, I’d like to look back to one of my favorite books from the 1990s, Thomas Sowell’s “The Vision of the Anointed.”
To say that the book was prescient is an understatement. You can instantly discern its prescience by savoring its subtitle: “Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.”
Sowell published his book in 1995. There was plenty of self-congratulation sprouting across the fruited plain even then.
Indeed, it had been a wildly invasive species since the late 1960s.
But today, it is epidemic.
For the last couple of years, we have heard a lot about the depredations of “the elites.”
But Sowell’s phrase, “the anointed,” is more evocative, not least because of that virus-like insinuation of self-congratulation into the sinews of our national life.
Sowell explained the same phenomenon by distinguishing between “the benighted” and “the anointed.”
The distinction is as much a matter of sensibility as of political coloration or class.
The anointed believe that human nature is essentially and indefinitely malleable, that it’s susceptible of endless improvement, and that the improvement can be brought about by (and really only by) large-scale bureaucratic initiative.
“The benighted,” by contrast, intuitively acknowledge the “tragic” dimension of human life: that it’s ineradicably limited and imperfect.
Sowell lists five key propositions that characterize the vision of the anointed.
Numbers 4 and 5 are especially pertinent to the realities of our current situation:
“4. Great social or biological dangers can be averted only by the imposition of the vision of the anointed on less enlightened people by the government.”
Dr. Fauci, call your office! Bring your mask!
“5. 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.”
Invite a Never Trumper to breakfast and see how the conversation proceeds.
The critical thing to appreciate about what Sowell calls the “vision of the anointed” is the extent to which it can develop and thrive only in a soil that resists the tenets of the anointed. The irony is that the greater the inroads made by the anointed, the more precincts of reality are slated to be colonized as benighted.
Freud spoke of “the narcissism of small differences.” Tocqueville noticed that the more equal a society became, the more intolerable remaining inequalities seem.
Just so for the anointed: we can never be green enough, nor will we ever be truly free from the threat of COVID, racism, or the inequalities bequeathed to us by the operation of the market, to say nothing of human nature itself.
We tend to think of bureaucracy as being opposed to the spirit of revolution. The vision of the anointed shows that they can be one and the same.
The vision of the anointed, although inextricably wedded to the intricacies of bureaucratic organization, is also, in its innermost logic, essentially revolutionary in its allergy to imperfection and impatience with impurity.
At present, that impatience is still somewhat cloaked because “benighted” or “deplorable” sentiments continue, at least intermittently, to intrude upon and color the vision of the anointed.
“Even the anointed themselves,” Sowell writes in his final chapter, “are currently under at least residual influence of traditional philosophical, religious, and moral inhibitions.”
Nevertheless, “To the extent that their vision prevails and endures … successive generations of the anointed will be less and less under the influence of these eroding traditional constraints, and the pure logic of their vision can operate more fully.”
At the same time, resistance to both the program and to the spirit of the anointed will likely fade—we see it already in the diminution of allegiance to traditional social, moral, and political structures.
“Conversely,” Sowell warns, “among those not convinced of this vision’s virtues, the spirit of resistance may well erode and the sense of outrage at its consequences become dulled by the accumulation of precedents for policies and actions that might once have been considered intolerable.”
Anyone who doubts this might start by making a list of moral “innovations” that, even a generation ago, would have seemed outlandish if not impossible but are today taken for granted and accepted where they aren’t actively championed to the utter exclusion of all opposition or criticism.
Consider, to take just one item on a very long list, the issue of “transgenderism.”
A scant decade or two ago, the whole question would have been docketed as a rare pathology deserving of our compassion, no doubt, but certainly not our approbation. And today?
Sowell ends with this sobering but deeply pertinent summary:
“In the anointed, we find a whole class of supposedly ‘thinking people’ who do remarkably little thinking about substance and a great deal of verbal expression.”
Yes, but how have the anointed managed to arrogate to themselves effective control of the levers of social and political power?
“In order that this relatively small group of people can believe themselves wiser and nobler than the common herd,” Sowell explains, “we have adopted policies which impose heavy costs on millions of other human beings, not only in taxes but also in lost jobs, social disintegration, and a loss of personal safety.”
Who can doubt it?
As I say, Sowell was writing in the mid-1990s. Even then, the outcome was obvious. How much, much more is it now?
“Seldom have so few cost so much to so many.”
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.