Sowell’s Questions: What You Should Ask About Any Political Proposal

How do you decide whether some politician’s or government official’s proposal makes sense, i.e., whether, on balance, it will make your and other people’s lives better? None of us has the time to explore all the ins and outs. How then do we balance making the best possible choice against the constraints of limited time and mental energy? All we know for sure at the outset is that we are never given the whole story.

Thomas Sowell provides us with the conceptual tools we need. For my money, Dr. Sowell ( is one of the towering American public policy intellectuals of the last hundred years. His writings on economics, race, education, culture, markets and government, and the role of intellectuals in society are unmatched for their clarity and incisiveness, always backed by evidence.

Dr. Sowell has given us three questions which help us peer through the thicket of rhetoric to the heart of the matter with minimum fuss. When faced with making your mind up on any political or economic issue, here is what you need to ask:
1. Compared to what?
2. At what cost?
3. What is the evidence?

You will be amazed how asking yourself these three questions helps you separate truth from nonsense with tremendous efficiency.

Compared to What?

No action should be taken until it is compared to alternatives. If only one choice is being considered, how can you or anyone judge whether somebody’s proposal is the best choice possible? So, for any issue – taxation, a new regulation, subsidies, climate policy, vaccination, immigration, voting – the very first step is to identify alternatives, including doing nothing. The very act of thinking about alternatives helps you focus not just on the specifics of a proposal, which always is packaged to persuade, but on what problem it is designed to solve.

An additional benefit from starting by identifying and comparing alternatives is that it forces you to focus on what’s most important, namely, consequences, and enables you to ignore beguiling but not-so-important considerations such as someone’s personality, public stature, or authority. At the very least, the “compared to what” question gives you a rational starting point for making up your own mind.

At What Cost?

The wisdom of this question arises from an immutable fact that is always and everywhere true: in the universe we live in, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Ever. No proposal is without costs. You must always understand what they are. Equally important, you must know how a proposed policy affects the crucial question of who gets to decide – the people or a handful of people with power? If you haven’t thought about costs, you can’t assess tradeoffs, and if you don’t consider tradeoffs, you will not understand the likely consequences of what is being advocated.

By considering costs, I don’t mean trying to do a quantitative cost/benefit analysis. Quantification often confers a false sense of precision, and for purposes of making a sensible judgment it usually is not necessary. Rather, I mean asking yourself what in fact the costs are and who gets stuck with them. Once you start identifying costs, you will be amazed how seldom and how poorly the issue of costs is addressed.

What is the Evidence?

An isolated fact by itself is not evidence. A fact becomes evidence only when put in context with other facts to give you information as to what has happened over time. On any subject, When asking someone to justify why he believes something is true, you must ask what pattern of facts supports his point of view and why he thinks contrary facts do not disconfirm his position. It is always surprising how helpful gathering a few elementary facts can be in helping you filter out viewpoints that sound plausible but are just wrong.

Here are a couple of examples of evidence at work:
• Teacher’s union official: “We need to spend more money on education.” Evidence test: What is the relationship between spending and educational attainment?
• Climate activist: “Human generated CO2 emissions have caused a rise in adverse climatic events.: Evidence test: What has been the trend in the prevalence and severity of droughts, hurricanes, tornados, floods over time?

If you get in the habit of asking yourself Sowell’s three questions, I can’t guarantee that you or I will make good decisions, but I can guarantee that your judgments will be more rational and better informed. I know of no more efficient and effective way of filtering out nonsense.

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Ground rules for comments 

I strongly welcome comments, but  ask you to abide by the principle, “Always respect the person, never respect the idea.”  A thoughtful analysis of why the views  I present are wrong helps all of us get closer to discerning what is true, but civility must rule.



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