Thomas Sowell
Knowledge and Decisions

Smith had no faith whatever in the intentions of businessmen, whom he characterized as mean and rapacious, but argued that the characteristics of a market economic system would lead to beneficial results which were no part of the intention of those acting within the system. Karl Marx, of course, had a far less benign view of the results of a capitalist system, but he—like Smith—analyzed the results in terms of the presumed characteristics of the system, not the apparent intentions of individual capitalists. In the preface to the first volume of Capital, Marx dismissed any idea of explaining the capitalist system by capitalists' intentions. Engels sweepingly rejected that approach with respect to social phenomena in general, 'for what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.'

Attempts to explain striking differences among social groups (class, ethnic, regional) at a given point in time often lead to the animistic fallacy. The relative success or failure of these groups—whether measured in money or such social variables as family stability or crime rates—is often attributed to some merit or demerit on their part or on the part of some other group (including 'society') in dealing with them. 'Ability' or 'discrimination' are thus among the first explanations seized upon, much as primitive man explained the rustling of leaves by someone's deliberate moving of them. But once it is clear that results observable at a given point in time may be part of a process that stretches far back in time, it is no longer automatically necessary that their current situations be a result of either meritorious or unworthy/actions by contemporaries—either group members or others. Differences in cultural values, for example, have deep roots in centuries past and profound impact on current behavior.

Groups from an agricultural background have classic patterns of problems when transplanted to an urban, industrial and commercial environment. A social history of the Irish peasants who immigrated to American cities in the nineteenth century reads remarkably like a preview of the history of blacks from the rural South in those same cities in the twentieth century. The many historical, genetic, and other differences between the two groups only makes their parallel patterns all the more remarkable. Conversely, it is virtually impossible to explain the profound differences between contemporary Italian and Jewish immigrants in their responses to schools, libraries, and settlement houses in terms of any contemporary differences in their socioeconomic conditions in the nineteenth century immigrant neighborhoods where they lived side by side. But even the most casual acquaintance with the histories of Jews and southern Italian peasants in earlier centuries shows how far back these cultural patterns go.

Many of the attitudes, beliefs, and emphases of agrarian peoples are quite reasonable as adaptations to an agrarian environment, however counterproductive these approaches may turn out to be in an urban commercial setting. A fatalistic view of the future, for example, is fully understandable in a culture where people's whole lives hinge on the random variability of the weather. It is a challenge to try to find any group which emerged from centuries of agrarian life and became a success in an urban environment in one or two generations. Conversely, the long-urbanized Jews, who became the most successful of all American ethnic groups in the cities in which they concentrated, had an almost unbroken record of failure in agrarian undertakings in various parts of the United States. Generalized 'ability' or 'discrimination' seem to offer little explanation of such social phenomena, as compared to the explanation of evolutionary adaptation. For other social phenomena, the results may be different.

The point here is not to deny any effect of intentional actions, or even to claim that these are necessarily less than the effects of evolutionary social processes. The point is to challenge the presumptive priority of timeless, intentional explanations—i.e., the animistic fallacy. It is plausible but false to say that 'decisions made at random, or without any relation to each other do not fall into any pattern.' Darwin demonstrated that falsity in biology, and such disparate thinkers as Adam Smith and Karl Marx have rejected the same fallacy in analyzing social processes.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.