Trickle-Down Ignorance

by | Apr 2, 2005 | POLITICS

As much as I enjoy most of the messages from readers, there is no way that I can answer more than a small fraction of them. The messages I don’t reply to at all are those from obviously ignorant people who offer insults instead of arguments. However, a recent column has brought forth more than […]

As much as I enjoy most of the messages from readers, there is no way that I can answer more than a small fraction of them. The messages I don’t reply to at all are those from obviously ignorant people who offer insults instead of arguments. However, a recent column has brought forth more than the usual number of uninformed denunciations, so it may be useful to other readers to explain why they should not take such nonsense seriously when they encounter it.

What I said that set off the crazies was that there is no such thing as “trickle-down” economics. Supposedly those who believe in trickle-down economics want to give benefits to the rich, on the assumption that these benefits will trickle down to the poor.

As someone who spent the first decade of his career researching, teaching and writing about the history of economic thought, I can say that no economist of the past two centuries had any such theory.

Some of those who denounced me for saying that there was no trickle-down theory cited an article by David Stockman years ago — as if David Stockman was the last word, and I should forget everything I learned in years of research because David Stockman said otherwise.

What is often confused with a trickle-down theory is supply-side economics, such as that advocated by Arthur Laffer. That theory is that tax cuts can generate more tax revenue for the government because it changes people’s behavior, causing more economic activity to take place, leading to more taxable income, as well as a faster growing economy.

It is not hard to find examples of when this happened — for example, during the Kennedy administration, among other times and places.

Whether it will happen in a given set of circumstances is what is controversial, but none of this has anything to do with money trickling down from the rich to the poor. It has to do with the creation of more wealth in the economy as a whole.

The notion of a trickle-down theory is debunked on pages 388-389 of my book “Basic Economics” (2nd edition). But most of those who went ballistic over my denial of a trickle-down theory were not seeking further information.

As far as they were concerned, they already had the absolute truth and only needed to vent their anger over my having dared to say otherwise. That is a sign of a much more general and much more dangerous trend in our society today that goes far beyond a handful of true believers foaming at the mouth against one columnist.

If education provides anything, it should be an ability to think — that is, to weigh one idea against an opposing idea, and to use evidence and logic to try to determine what is true and what is false. That is precisely what our schools and colleges are failing to teach today.

It is worse than that. Too many teachers, from the elementary schools to the graduate schools, see their role as indoctrinating students with what these teachers regard as the right beliefs and opinions. Usually that means the left’s beliefs and opinions.

The merits or demerits of those ideas is far less important than whether or not students learn to analyze and weigh those merits and demerits. Educators used to say, “We are here to teach you how to think, not what to think.”

Today, students can spend years in educational institutions, discussing all sorts of issues, without ever having heard a coherent statement of the other side of those issues that differ from what their politically correct teachers say.

There are students in our most prestigious law schools who have never heard arguments for the social importance of property rights — not just for those fortunate enough to own property, but for those who don’t own a square inch of real estate or a single share of stock. How they would view the issues if they did is a moot point because they have heard only one side of the issue.

People who go through life never having heard the other side of issues ranging from environmentalism to minimum wage laws are nevertheless emboldened to lash out in ignorance at anyone who disturbs their vision of the world. The self-confident moral preening of ignoramuses is perhaps an inevitable product of the promotion of “self-esteem” in our schools.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.


  1. As is so often the case, Sowell’s argument is specious. If I juxtapose the definitions of “trickle down” economics and “supply side” economics, it seems like the difference is mostly semantic, as admitted by David Stockman (who, to be fair, was not a trained economist..) Mr. Sowell appears to believe that there is indeed such a thing as “supply side” economics (though I would argue that he misrepresents Laffer’s position on tax cuts – separate argument..), yet he spends no effort to distinguish it from “trickle down”, electing instead to go on a rant about how “the left” seems to be winning in the marketplace of ideas, in academe.
    Mr. Sowell even evinces sympathy for the “trickle down” school, partaking as he does in the iconography of “makers and takers”, and the logic of government tax policy favoring the “productive” (wealthier) class. And this from a guy who believes that people don’t, and shouldn’t, have a “right” to clean water.
    The self-confident moral preening of libertarian economists is perhaps an inevitable product of the insularity of their expertise…

  2. The right to an object, such as clean water, no. The right to act, free of coercion, to clean the water you drink, yes.

    The first will not give you clean water, either, or anything else. (As an aside, the source of the most egregious pollution in the nation comes from government run water treatment plants.)

    What the first _will_ give you is a messiah–or a despot.

  3. Should individuals have the “right” to poison common resources such as water supplies or the atmosphere? Of course not. Should individuals be coerced to refrain from poisoning those common resources? Yes, they absolutely should be so coerced. To allow pollution as a “right”, and to thus coerce the victims of the pollution to contend with the contamination, is a completely stupid and economically irrational proposition.
    “The source of the most egregious pollution in the nation comes from government run water treatment plants.” Extremely dubious – citation needed.

  4. Your links, taken together, make no case AT ALL for the assertion that “The source of the most egregious pollution in the nation comes from government run water treatment plants. Not even close. One of the articles isn’t even about “the nation” – it’s about Canada. The other articles do not compare the occasional sewage treatment plant overflow with truly egregious pollution events like the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill; or the Newtown Creek Superfund Site; (or any of the Superfund Sites for that matter,none of which are sewage treatment plants as far as I can tell); or Love Canal; or the flaming Cuyahoga River; etc. etc. etc.
    In fact, if it weren’t for “government run water treatment plants”, the entire hydrosphere would be hopelessly polluted by now. Sewage treatment is a classic case of the government having to provide a beneficial service because it is not a “profit center” for private enterprise. The alternative is (and actually was for many decades) a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons, where freedom to despoil a common resource leads to ruin of the resource. Unless you are just a free enterprise fanatic who has an irrational hatred of “almighty, holy government”, you should be grateful for “government run water treatment plants.”

  5. I didn’t say “U.S. government.” Toronto’s case is a suitable example of my statement.

    Tragedy of the commons is a result of a *lack* of private property rights and their enforcement and will not end with gov’t as overseer.

    If you’re going to rely on ad hominems: I’m a radical for capitalism.

    Asking for extensive research sources–how many “case studies” will be enough?–in the context of the comments section of some article is absurd. Besides, anything I present, you’ll disavow as “limited” or not as sweeping as the list you produce. In the end it comes down to a p****** contest.

    Kinda like trying to convince a supernaturalist that God is fable.

    So wax on with your religion. I’m finished here.

  6. “I’m a radical for capitalism.” Ugh – sounds kind of religious…
    Things are not true merely because you assert them. When you make a statement like “the source of the most egregious pollution in the nation comes from government run water treatment plants”, as a fairly transparent attempt to disparage and demonize (municipal!) “government”, you should have some evidence for your assertion. And you did give citations, for which thank you. And if you had said, for example, that the source of SOME of the most egregious…., I would not be so provoked to challenge you. (Yes, sewage treatment overflows are a fairly serious environmental problem; but they are never an intentional act, and are clearly NOT the “most egregious” pollution in THIS, or any, nation..) But you set the bar pretty high for yourself, and I think failed to demonstrate the validity of your judgment.

    As an aside, the Tragedy of the Commons is NOT “a result of a lack of private property rights”. In fact, it is a close relative of the economic principle of “moral hazard” where free marketeers endeavor to privatize profit, but socialize risk. I challenge you to present any kind of cogent argument about how “private property rights” make any sense as applied to the atmosphere, or the hydrosphere, or the ecosphere, “Private property rights” is a peculiar human construct that makes some sense to humans, but has no meaning in nature.
    But then capitalist radicals, like Sowell, are not known for their appreciation of nature..

  7. Of course there is no trickle down. Doesn’t take a genius to see it. Or maybe it does?

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Voice of Capitalism

Our weekly email newsletter.

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest