17 Jun Thomas Sowell at 90: Understanding Race Relations Around the World
The issue of race relations in America has reached a new high pitch with the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, followed by mass peaceful demonstrations and instances of violence, looting, and arson in cities around the country. A new soul-searching on matters of race and racism are now, also, impacting a growing number of academic and professional fields, including the economics profession.
On June 5, 2020, the American Economic Association (AEA), the premier organization among economists in the United States, issued a statement saying that it was time for officers and governance committees within the Association to look into racism and racist practices and presumptions within the profession. It was pointed out that while black Americans make up 13 percent of the nation’s population, only 3 percent of economists who are members of the AEA identity themselves as black, and 47 percent of those surveyed said that they experienced instances of discrimination within the profession.
A Limited Race Awareness Reading List for Economists
The AEA statement promised that the association would “invest in programs, policies, and practices that bring students from underrepresented groups into economics and that strive to create a culture of inclusion in our classrooms, curricula, research, and workplaces.”
The statement also encourages economists “to seek out existing scholarship on race, stratification economics and related topics.” To begin this process, the AEA is compiling a reading list on racism and the experiences of Black Americans. The purpose being to encourage the integrating such works and their diverse authors into economics course syllabi. They ask member economists to “pledge” to do so. This is necessary “to better understand racism, a word that rarely appears in our professional journals, and how to end its impact on our economy.” Furthermore, the AEA will encourage submissions to Association journals “that address aspects of racism and economics.”
The beginning reading list compiled and recommended by the AEA to start this process cries out with the notable absence of a number of authors and their works that have appeared over the decades precisely on issues of race, racism, and economic discrimination. For instance, there is no mention of Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination (1957), or the insightful chapter on “Capitalism and Discrimination” in Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962), or William H. Hutt’s study of racial segregation in South Africa, The Economics of the Color Bar (1964).
These writers might be set aside because, after all, they are DWMs – Dead White Males. But what about certain other economists who are from the black community in the United States? There is no recommendation for interested and “pledging” members of the AEA to read Walter E. Williams’ The State Against Blacks (1982) or South Africa’s War Against Capitalism (1989, 2nd ed., 1990) or Race and Economics: How Much Can be Blamed on Discrimination? (2011).
And most certainly there is no recommendation to read any of the works of Thomas Sowell, who had devoted a good part of his scholarly and professional life to the issues and problems surrounding race and discrimination both within the United States and around the world. To name just a few of his many works specifically on this theme: Race and Economics (1975), Markets and Minorities (1981), Ethnic America: A History (1981), The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), Preferential Policies (1990), Race and Culture (1995), Migrations and Cultures (1996), Conquests and Cultures (1998), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005), Intellectuals and Race (2013), Wealth, Poverty and Politics, (2016), and Discrimination and Disparities (2018, revised ed., 2019).
These authors, and others like them, are seemingly Orwellian “non-persons,” airbrushed out of the economic and academic community by the AEA for their failure to fit the politically correct and identity politics profile that is required to be considered a scholar relevant to the issues and problems of race and racism in America.
Marking Thomas Sowell’s 90th Birthday
It seems worthwhile, therefore, to take notice, in particular, of Thomas Sowell’s contributions to these and a variety of other topics, given the fact that June 30, 2020 marks his 90th birthday. This is a milestone that deserves recognition, especially for someone who, if there was any justice in the world, would have long ago been awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics for his wide-ranging and interdisciplinary studies of race, culture and economic policies covering centuries and continents.
Thomas Sowell was born on June 30, 1930 in North Carolina. He grew up in New York City’s Harlem area, and served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He earned his BA degree in economics from Harvard University (1958), his MA degree in economics from Columbia University (1959), and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago (1968).
He tells in his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey (2000), that for most the time while earning his degrees, he considered himself a Marxist. However, studying the effects of a variety of government interventions in the marketplace, including minimum wage laws, led him to the conclusion that free competitive markets were the institutional avenues for betterment and prosperity, especially for the least well-off in society. He found that those planning, guiding, and administrating the regulatory and welfare state had self-interested goals and purposes that often had little or nothing to do with improving the circumstances of those for whom such legislation supposedly had been passed. Sometimes very much to the contrary.
Individual Knowledge and Market-Guided Decisions
Having taught at a number of universities, including UCLA, since 1980 Sowell has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University. During all these years, he has gone against most of the collectivist currents of our time. He demonstrated this with his important work, Knowledge and Decisions (1980). The core conceptual framework that he lays out, and which has remained the foundation for most of all his later writings is the basic economic insight that there are rarely perfect or absolute solutions in life, whether inside or outside of the marketplace. There are only better or worse tradeoffs, given the inescapable scarcity of all the means at our disposal and the institutional settings within which choices are made.
While this is a view that virtually all economists would admit and accept in principle, Sowell’s creative contribution was to take this idea and rigorously apply it with the additional “Austrian” insight that knowledge is divided and dispersed among all the people in society in different ways, with each individual understanding and interpreting their knowledge in ways only fully appreciated by the person possessing it. Furthermore, only free markets and competitive price systems have the ability to successfully integrate and coordinate all that knowledge for a general societal benefit.
He applied this framework to analyze “trends” in economics, law, and politics. The upshot was a methodical and detailed study of why it is that freedom and prosperity are rare and precious things in the long history of tyranny and poverty. He concluded with:
Historically, freedom is a rare and fragile thing . . . Freedom has cost the blood of millions in obscure places and in historic sites ranging from Gettysburg to the Gulag Archipelago . . .That something that cost so much in human lives should be surrendered piecemeal in exchange for visions and rhetoric seems grotesque. Freedom is not simply the right of intellectuals to circulate their merchandise. It is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters’.
Conflicting Visions and the Quest for Cosmic Justice
Through a series of other works A Conflict of Visions (1987), The Vision of the Anointed (1995), The Quest for Cosmic Justice (1999), and Intellectuals and Society (2009; 2nd ed., 2011), Sowell has tried to explain why and how it is that many people see society, markets, and the role of government in so radically different ways, especially in the circle of academics and intellectuals whose ideas influence public policy.
Sowell contrasts two conceptions of man: the constrained and the unconstrained views of man, or as he also calls them, the tragic vision and the vision of the anointed. By the constrained or tragic view of man, Sowell means the acceptance that there are natural and inherent limitations upon man — physical, mental, social — that will always prevent the possibility of creating a utopia on earth. Life is a never-ending struggle of using limited means to satisfy our numerous ends, with the necessity of having to accept tradeoffs that we hope will make us better off but never fully satisfied. And among those limited means are our own imperfections of knowledge that make it impossible for us to have either the ability or the wisdom to make a perfect world.
The unconstrained vision of the anointed is the view that there are some who have been able to mentally rise above the limitations of the existing social order and who are able to imagine and design plans for the remaking of man and the human condition. They see themselves as superior in wisdom and understanding in comparison to the ordinary, average person. They want power to remold the world to fit their model of how they think the rest of us should live and act and what we should believe in and value.
So strongly do these “anointed” feel about their visions, they are willing to do everything to shield themselves from any information and evidence that might contradict and undermine their utopian fantasies. Sowell has shown in a devastating manner how they too frequently either ignore or distort the statistical data to fit their preconceived ideas.
His discussions of race, poverty, and crime are masterful demonstrations of how, for decades, the elitist social engineers in our society have: (a) created the illusion of various social crises and problems that either were almost nonexistent or were already on the way of being ameliorated by normal market forces; (b) proposed government solutions for these supposed social problems that free-market proponents, at the same time, argued would make the problems worse and not better; and (c) when the actual results of these state interventions have produced the outcomes the free-market advocates warned about, they have “covered their tracks” by insisting that it has not been the interventionist policies that have failed but rather simply a failure of the government in not intervening even more thoroughly or effectively.
Manipulating Words and Ideas to Falsify Reality
An especially powerful technique in advancing their visions for paternalistic government, Sowell argues, has been the manipulative use of words by the anointed. “Public service” means not the private market’s provision of goods and services desired and valued by the consumers of society. Instead, it means governmental employment in which the state preempts the voluntary wishes of people with the preferences of those who control the state. “Greed” refers to the peaceful, market-oriented attempt of people to improve the circumstances of themselves and their families. “No amount of taxation is ever described by the anointed as ‘greed’ on the part of the government or the clientele of government.” “Responsibility” does not mean the individual’s accountability for his own actions and their consequences; rather, it refers to the collective guilt of society for creating poverty, crime, or racially biased attitudes. “Rights” do not mean the inalienable liberties that all men have, and which may not be abridged without causing real injustice; instead, they refer to the ever-expanding redistributive “entitlements” which governments are to give to some at the expense of others in society.
Through the manipulation of history, the abuse of statistical evidence, a distorted view of man and society, and the twisting of words and ideas, the intellectual elite – the anointed – are able to attain their goal: the control of other people’s lives through political power over society. These techniques also enable them to maintain a fantasy world in which they can retain their conception of themselves as more virtuous, wiser, and better than their fellow human beings.
“Without a sense of the tragedy of the human condition, and of the painful tradeoffs implied by inherent constraints,” Sowell argues, “the anointed are free to believe that the unhappiness they observe and the anomalies they encounter are due to the public’s not being as wise or virtuous as themselves. . . . It is a world of victims, villains, and rescuers, with the anointed cast in the last and most heroic of these roles.”
This is why political correctness in politics, education, culture, history, and literature is so important to these anointed social engineers. Through this means, they hope, the human mind can be wiped clean and filled with the preconceived ideas and myths that will enable them to control those over whom they desire to have mastery.
The American Experiment in Freedom and Impartial Rule of Law
Sowell also reminds us of just how unique the American experiment in free government was from its very founding. Justice meant the impartial enforcement of the rule of law, in which the rule of law referred to the protection of individual liberty, private property, and freedom of association and contract. Law was meant to represent the rules within which free men might voluntarily interact, without interference from the government. The outcomes from such free interactions and associations were not of central relevance: they were merely the spontaneous and often unintended results of human action. In the market and social arenas of competition and peaceful cooperation, some might “win” and others might “lose,” but what was crucial was that each participant “played the game” according to the rules of the free society.
In the 20th century, Sowell argues, the quest for redistributive or “outcome” justice has replaced the older conception of justice among men. Not that most ordinary people are really that much concerned in everyday life if “Joe” has earned more than “Sam,” as long as there is a general sense that their relative incomes have been acquired honestly and “aboveboard” without favors, privileges, and political corruption. It is for the self-appointed and anointed intellectual elites for whom this issue predominantly matters. They dream dreams of better worlds in which each has received what he “really” deserves and to which he has a material “right,” separate from the “arbitrary” results of the market forces of supply and demand.
For purposes of this “cosmic deservedness,” as Sowell refers to it, people are no longer thought of as distinct, flesh-and-blood individuals. No, they are now arranged and classified in social, racial, and class groupings that are considered the “reality” of the world by these intellectual elites. These collective groupings then define who and what people are and determine the distributive share they deserve as a member of one of these groups.
The Fallacy of an “Objective” Standard for Social Justice
But as Sowell cogently explains, there are no “objectively” correct answers as to what individuals within these collective groupings should receive as their just due. The types of knowledge that would be needed to do so and the interpretive capacity to evaluate the relative merits of the factors that should be weighed for making a “just” determination is beyond human ability. Only a cosmic or godlike perspective could claim to know what each of us “deserves.”
Instead, the intellectual elites claim the supposedly disinterested superiority to bear the burden of these momentous decisions. They arrogantly presume to do away with all the circumstances that make the patterns of society what they are: custom, culture, tradition, the competitive processes of the market, and the free choices of individual human beings. All these are to be set aside, with large swatches of society re-configured according to the designs of the social engineering elite.
Sowell details all the consequences that have followed and inevitably must follow from such hubris: freedom lost and control transferred to the government, as grand political schemes are implemented with little or no thought to the cost in terms of either material standards of living or their impact on the actual human beings who must serve as the manipulated ingredients for these redistributive recipes.
The fundamental principle of the American experiment in freedom, Sowell says, was captured in the Bill of Rights, where it was clearly stated that “Congress shall make no law….” To be exempt from the laws that government might wish to impose to restrict our peaceful conduct is the essence of constitutionally protected liberty. And it is this freedom that is being threatened in America and the world in general by those who, like the Bolsheviks of a hundred years ago, continue to claim that everything is permitted to them in the pursuit of making us and our world over into their utopian image of how they think we should be.
Society’s Outcomes are Not Planned Results of Human Action
Thomas Sowell has taken these ideas as the backdrop against which he has analyzed issues of race and discrimination. The heart of his message is that men are not born equal; that not all cultures are equal contributors to world civilization; that the world is a complex and diverse cultural place, the causes and consequences of which we still have little understanding; that markets tend to harmonize the interests of, or at least minimize the friction between, various peoples and cultures, while politics creates conflict and privileges for some at the expense of others.
Sowell takes to task those who assert that since all people are alike, any distribution of people among occupations in a society that does not match the racial and gender demographics of that society demonstrates that racial or gender discrimination must be present. In other words, if women make up about fifty percent of the population and if an ethnic minority group makes up about 13 percent of that same population, then racial and gender discrimination is “shown” to be at work unless women and members of that ethnic minority group are more or less represented in each and every occupation by the same, respective, percentages.
Sowell draws from the history of the world to counter this claim by explaining that different groups in different cultures have not randomly distributed themselves in economic activities. Rather, they are often “clustered” around various occupations and professions that are frequently passed from generation to generation. Even when members of a particular ethnic or cultural group have migrated away from their original homeland, similar cultural traits and occupational patterns can be observed in their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.
This is not to say, Sowell insists, that immigrants do not adapt to their new land or absorb attitudes and beliefs from their new country. They do. But at the same time, the cultural residues of the “old country” can leave their mark on future generations. This, in turn, can influence attitudes towards work, education, values, and interpersonal behavior among different groups in a society.
The problem with the social engineer, in Sowell’s view, is precisely the fact that he wishes to treat people as blank slates upon which the social planner can imprint any desired behavioral qualities that he thinks are best. If people do not conform to his preferred patterns and forms of cultural and social behavior, this means, in the planner’s eyes, that evil forces must be at work.
Societal Causalities Not Easily Traced and Dangerous to Manipulate
Another element in Sowell’s analysis is the fact that we just do not know any social laws or rules of cultural development to explain how or why these diverse patterns of behavior and values emerge the way they do. They are the consequences of the interconnected forces of a society’s history: the geography of where a people live; the result of being either conquerors or the conquered at various times in the past; the types of interactions with other groups and peoples over the centuries; effects of emigration and immigration, as well as numerous other influences.
Each will have had its effect in leaving an imprint upon the culture and society in question, with each people and cultural group developing in its own unique way because of the type and intensity of impact that each of these influences will have left in its wake. There is simply no rule or law to explain it. It just happens, and that’s what makes a people, a culture, or some of the social characteristics of many of the individual members of a racial group.
What we call a culture, therefore – the value systems and behavioral patterns discernible among many of its members – is the cumulative outcome of this process. Culture, in other words, is one of those examples of the unintended consequences of human action, an example of social order that is the result of human action, but not of human design.
For the social engineer to condemn it and try to remake it in his own desired image is one more example of what Friedrich Hayek called the “pretense of knowledge,” the belief that the planner has the knowledge and ability to reorder the social universe in a way that is better than when people are left to follow their own course. That course may be influenced, even burdened, by the cultural prejudices of a society’s traditions and history, but it still remains the individual’s course as he tries to either work within the cultural bounds of the society into which he has been born, or tries to stretch its bounds or work outside of it, and in the process perhaps influencing that society’s future cultural trends.
Sowell takes these ideas and demonstrates their consequences for both individuals and society as a whole when governments intervene into and attempt to regulate the choices and voluntary transactions of market participants. And he concludes: “Being wrong may be a free good for intellectuals, judges, or the media, but not for economic transactors in the marketplace.” He means that for the social engineer, the costs he imposes on society as a result of his meddling is usually high for others, but minimal for himself. Hence, the social engineer rarely feels, personally, most of the negative consequences from his interventionist actions. This is a central reason why he is so dangerous in the fight to preserve and extend human freedom. And it is the reason why all of us who are his planned victims must do everything possible to prevent his mischief.
Social Groups in Complex Historical Processes
In his collection of essays, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell applied these ideas for understanding various groups. He showed, for instance, that what often passes for “black culture” in the United States, with its particular language, customs, behavioral characteristics, and attitudes toward work and leisure, is in fact a collection of traits adopted from earlier white southern culture.
Sowell traces this culture to several generations of mostly Scotsmen and northern Englishmen who migrated to many of the southern American colonies in the 18th century. The outstanding features of this redneck culture, or “cracker” culture as it was called in Great Britain at that time, included “an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship, reckless searches for excitement, lively music and dance, and a style of religious oratory marked by rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and abeyant imagery.” It also included “touchy pride, vanity, and boastful self-dramatization.”
Any commercial industriousness and innovation introduced in the southern states in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Sowell demonstrated, primarily came from businessmen, merchants, and educators who moved there from the northern and especially the New England states. The north generally had a different culture of work, savings, personal responsibility, and forethought – that resulted in the southern United States lagging far behind much of the rest of the country – a contrast often highlighted by 19th century European visitors.
The great tragedy for much of the black population, concentrated as it was in the southern states, was that it absorbed a good deal of this white southern redneck culture, and retained it longer than the descendants of those Scottish and English immigrants. Sowell explains that in the decades following the Civil War, black schools and colleges in the south were mostly manned by white administrators and teachers from New England who, with noticeable success, worked to instill “Yankee” virtues of hard work, discipline, education, and self-reliance.
In spite of racial prejudice and legal discrimination, especially in the southern states, by the middle decades of the 20th century a growing number of black Americans were slowly but surely catching up with white Americans in terms of education, skills, and income. One of the great perversities of the second part of the 20th century, Sowell showed, is that this advancement decelerated following the enactment of the civil-rights laws of the 1960s, with the accompanying affirmative action and emphasis on respecting the “diversity” of black culture. This has delayed the movement of more black Americans into the mainstream under the false belief that “black culture” is somehow distinct and unique, when in reality it is the residue of an earlier failed white culture that retarded the south for almost 200 years.
The Institution of Slavery First Overturned in the West
A related theme that Sowell discusses is that the institution of human bondage is far older than the experience of black enslavement in colonial and then independent America. Indeed, slavery has burdened the human race during all of recorded history and everywhere around the globe. Its origins and practice have had nothing to do with race or racism. Ancient Greeks enslaved other Greeks; Romans enslaved other Europeans; Asians enslaved Asians; and Africans enslaved Africans, just as the Aztecs enslaved other native groups in what we now call Mexico and Central America. Among the most prominent slave traders and slave owners up to our own time have been Arabs, who enslaved Europeans, Africans, and Asians. In fact, while officially banned, it is an open secret that such slavery still exists in a number of Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Equally ignored, Sowell reminds us, is that it was only in the West that slavery was challenged on philosophical and political grounds, and that antislavery efforts became a mass movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery was first ended in the European countries, and then Western pressure in the 19th and 20th centuries brought about its demise in most of the rest of the world. But this fact has been downplayed because it does not fit into the politically correct fashions of our time. It is significant that in 1984, on the 150th anniversary of the ending of slavery in the British Empire, there was virtually no celebration of what was a profound historical turning point in bringing this terrible institution to a close around the world.
Understanding Jews, Asians, and Germans in History
Sowell also turned his analytical eye to the question “Are Jews Generic?” Why have Jews been the victims of so much dislike and persecution throughout the centuries? He argued that the answer can be found in understanding the trades and professions they often specialized in because of legal discrimination and restrictions. Denied the right to own land and other real property in many European countries, and excluded from many politically privileged occupations, they become merchants, middlemen, and financiers. The middleman and the merchant, Sowell explains, have often been the least understood and most mistrusted members in any market economy. They seem to create profit for themselves “merely” by moving goods from one place to another without producing anything “real.” Furthermore, as financiers they seem to earn interest at the expense of others while doing none of the “real work.”
Sowell showed that the same suspicions, angers, and resentments often directed at Jews through the centuries have also been the fate of Chinese traders and merchants in Southeast Asia, or Indians and Pakistanis who have specialized in these activities in Africa. They, like many Jews, have been the victims of persecution, plunder, and physical harm more because of how they earn a living than who they are per se. It is economic ignorance and envy of success that have generated hatred against minorities. And by giving vent to these prejudices, majorities have invariably harmed their own economic well- being by driving out or killing those who performed essential market tasks that benefited all.
Sowell also challenged the conception that the Holocaust demonstrated something uniquely cruel and evil in the German people. Through the centuries, Germans were known for hard work, discipline, and skill in various specialized occupations and professions, and as respecters of the pursuit of knowledge and education. While anti-Semitism was an element of German society in the 19th and early 20th centuries before Hitler came to power, in comparison to many Eastern European nations, Germany was an example of tolerance and respect for civil liberties that attracted many Jewish families escaping from persecution in countries to the east.
To a dangerous extent, however, Germans fell victim to the ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and collectivism, which Hitler could play to in the years leading up to his gaining power in 1933. Sowell pointed out that while the Nazis were rabid in their hatred for Jews, through the 1930s Hitler had to carefully measure the degree to which he could violently persecute the German Jews without arousing the average German’s resistance to disorder and random violence. Also, during those years the Nazis often found it difficult to win the German people’s support for boycotting Jewish-owned businesses or breaking off social interactions with Jews. While the Nazi genocide of six million Jews was one of the great crimes of history, Sowell asked us to resist collectivist judgments and generalizations that detract from judging people as individuals.
Sowell has pleaded the case for letting history be free from bias, ideological agenda, or political manipulation. While every history is a story about man through the interpretive eyes of the historian, Sowell says that if we are to truly learn from history it should not be reduced to mere propaganda and political fashion.
Teaching the Essentials for Better Thinking About Policy
A particular knack that Thomas Sowell has had is the ability to explain these and multitudes of other ideas and policy issues in words and ways that any interested and informed reader can easily follow. For many decades, he wrote a weekly opinion column demonstrating this skill, which he only retired from in 2016.
In addition, he wrote a superb companion volume to any course in introductory economics, Basic Economics, the fifth edition of which Sowell published in 2014, bring all of his analytical ability to bear in clear and simple language and examples. For the more advanced student, he published, Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One (2nd ed., 2008).
Thomas Sowell’s message is not one of despair or resignation due to the complexities and many tragedies of history. It is, rather, an appeal to rightly understand how these historical processes have originated and played out and try to learn from the past to live better and more prosperous and more human and humane lives in the present and the future.
Sowell concludes one of his most recent works, Discrimination and Disparities with the following words:
Nothing that we can do today can undo the many evils and catastrophes of the past, but we can at least learn from them, and not repeat the mistakes of the past, many of which began with lofty-sounding goals. 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 endless evils in the present, while claiming to deal with the evils of the past . . . 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 for making things better for the living.
Now, at the age of 90, Thomas Sowell continues to offer us understanding and insight into the attitudes and institutions that can bring all people greater peace and prosperity, as well as human liberty. This includes an appreciation of how problems of race and race relations can have their improvement in a setting of the individualist ideas upon which the United States was founded, but which have not always been fully practiced, and from which the country is dangerously drifting even farther away.
This article was originally published by The American Institute for Economic Research.
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