Thomas Sowell: Understanding the Past In Its Own Context


Dr. Thomas Sowell has long been a source of cutting-edge insight on the topics of economics, race-relations, family structure, and poverty. He recently retired from his weekly column, but still managed to write another book examining the tough topics of our day. The book, titled Discrimination and Disparities, has received a great deal of praise for Sowell's insights.

In the book, the chapter titled “Social Visions and Human Consequences,” he wrote a section discussing the idea of how to judge past events. It's easy to look back on the past and make blanket judgments based on what we know now, but Sowell believes that such judgments are often unfair:

The past must be understood in its own context. It cannot be seen as if its context were just like the context of the present, but with events simply taking place in an earlier time. That would be as great an error as failing to understand the implications of the fact that the past is irrevocable. Because human beings can make choices only among options actually available, events in the past can be understood and judged only within the inherent constraints of their particular times and places.

Obvious as this may seem, it is often forgotten. Nothing that Germans can do today will in any way mitigate the staggering evils of what Hitler did in the past. Nor can apologies in America today for slavery in the past have any meaning, much less do any good, for either blacks or whites today. What can it mean for A to apologize for what B did, even among contemporaries, much less across the vast chasm between the living and the dead?

The only times over which we have any degree of influence at all are the present and the future — both of which can be made worse by attempts at symbolic restitution among the living for what happened among the dead, who are far beyond our power to help or punish or avenge. Galling as these restrictive facts may be, that does not stop them from being facts beyond our control. Pretending to have powers that we do not, in fact, have risks creating needless evils in the present while claiming to deal with the evils of the past.

Any serious consideration of the world as it is around us today must tell us that maintaining common decency, much less peace and harmony, among living contemporaries is a major challenge, both among nations and within nations. To admit that we can do nothing about what happened among the dead is not to give up the struggle for a better world, but to concentrate our efforts where they have at least some hope of making things better for the living.

As economics professor Mark Perry puts it, Sowell has a kind of masterful "idea density," where he can find such a great deal of thought and wisdom into so few words, more in one sentence than in several paragraphs, and more in several paragraphs in in an entire chapter or book.

What are your thoughts on Sowell's perspective? Let us know in the comments section!