In Defence of Liberty

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Thomas Sowell: Society as a Metaphor

Using "society" as a metaphor can elide over important changes. (Edited: Daniel J. Mitchell)

Using “society” as a metaphor can elide over important changes. (Edited: Daniel J. Mitchell)

The following is an excerpt from Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at The Hoover Institution, and is an economist, author, and social and political theorist. This book is available as an audiobook, read by Robertson Dean.

While metaphors may sometimes be useful shortcuts, like other shortcuts they can also take us further away from our destination and delay or even prevent our arrival there.

Metaphors which suggest that “society” is a decision-making unit can be very misleading, by ignoring situations in which decisions are what they are precisely because the actual decision-making units face a particular kind of incentive structure. To ignore the specific nature of the decision-making units is to expect improvement by trying to substitute “the good guys” for “the bad guys”, or by waiting for the Messiah or for the general triumph of human reason, whichever seems less improbable or les remote in time. Sometimes the metaphor of “society” is used more tendentiously, to quietly shift the locus of decision making from smaller and more numerous units to a single decision-making unit. The merits or demerits of such a change in any specific case are simply bypassed by metaphors which proceed as if “society” is doing this now and ought to do that instead – when in fact one set of decision-making units is operating under one structure of incentives now and the advantages and disadvantages of an alternative decision-making unit and the alternative set of incentives is precisely what needs to be explicitly analysed, not covered up by metaphors about “society”.

There is no one named “society” who decides anything. Even in the most democratic nations few issues are ever decided by a specific nationwide referendum. And even if they were, who could say that a bare majority as of a given instant constitutes the judgement of an organic society subsisting over the generations? Unless national laws are to vary literally from moment to moment, some decision-making units must make decisions which are binding on other units which either disagree or were not consulted. Posterity is of course never consulted.

One of the peculiarities of the American Revolution was that its leaders pinned their hopes on the organisation of decision-making units, the structuring of their incentives, and the counterbalancing of the units against one another, rather than on the more usual (and more exciting) principle of substituting “the good guys” for “the bad guys” – i.e., substituting “the people” for “the oppressors”, the faithful for the heathens, the Jews for the gentiles, the gentiles for the Jews, and such substitutions based on differences of history, physiognomy or mannerisms.

The domain of decision-making units need not be discrete or mutually exclusive. Indeed they cannot be either, or there would be no such social phenomenon as would cause us to refer even metaphorically to “society”. Decision-making units seldom have complete control, even of a given segment of a society, and no decision-making unit controls the whole society, except very approximately under a totalitarian regime.


One comment on “Thomas Sowell: Society as a Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Models and Melodrama | In Defence of Liberty

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This entry was posted on December 8, 2014 by in American Politics and tagged .
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