“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”
— Thomas Sowell
Uncommon Knowledge, Interview with Prof. Thomas Sowell:
Professor Thomas Sowell announced his retirement last week. At 86, he has earned it. While he will be sorely missed, he has thankfully left us with an immense body of his work. Before addressing that in detail, let me tell you a little bit about the good Professor.
In November, 2015, Steve Forbes wrote in a review of Prof. Thomas Sowell’s last book, Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective:
It’s a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books.
Truer words never spoken. For much of his 86 years on God’s earth, Thomas Sowell has been turning out books and articles on free market economics, affirmative action (harmful), social disparities (natural), income inequality (canard), and in his younger days, Communism. If you were to read his collected works, you will find the answers, researched and footnoted, to virtually every progressive canard and shibboleth of the past half century. Which, to respond to Mr. Forbes, is why the Enron adviser, serial failed prognosticator and prog polemicist Paul Krugman has a Nobel, but Thomas Sowell does not.
Prof. Sowell’s background is fascinating. He was born into poverty in the South during the Jim Crow era. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother, already with four children to feed and unable to take on another, gave Sowell to her sister to raise. Nine years later, Sowell and his aunt moved to Harlem. There, despite being the first in his family to stay in school beyond the sixth grade, Sowell excelled in academics and was accepted into a very select High School. Three things became apparent during these years. One was his scholastic bent; two, his willingness to fight; and three, an innate disrespect for authority. At 17, Sowell, despite excelling in high school, dropped out and left home to fend for himself on the streets of Harlem. When he turned 19, he was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
He emerged from the Marine Corps two years later a card carrying member of the American Communist Party. He maintained his belief in Marxism and Marxist economics throughout his twenties, until he took a job as a federal civil servant in 1960. Tasked to review a minimum wage law and its impact upon employees in the sugar industry in Puerto Rico, Sowell had an epiphany. Seeing direct causation between the law and rising unemployment in the industry, Sowell determined the law was detrimental to the workers. He further noted that the law was kept in place only because it benefited the government employees administering the program. One of America’s preeminent free market economists was born.
This from Wikipedia discussing the rest of Sowell’s distinguished career:
[Sowell worked his way through college,] attending night classes at Howard University, a historically black college. His high scores on the College Board exams and recommendations by two professors helped him gain admission to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958 with a BA in economics. He earned a Master’s degree from Columbia Univ. the following year.
Sowell received a Ph.D. in economics from the Univ. of Chicago in 1968. His dissertation was on Say’s Law and the General Glut Controversy. Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University to study under George Stigler (who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics.) When he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there.
From 1965–1969, Sowell was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell Univ. Writing thirty years later about the 1969 violent takeover by black Cornell students of Willard Straight Hall, Sowell characterized the students as “hoodlums” with “serious academic problems [and] admitted under lower academic standards”, and noted “it so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca.”
Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis Univ., Amherst College and UCLA. Since 1980 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford Univ., where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman, his mentor.
Most importantly from my perspective, Prof. Sowell has been a prolific author. I would describe Prof. Sowell’s writings as uniquely clear and understandable by layman and academic alike, and all thoroughly researched. Indeed, he writes with such clarity that his books can be fully understood by your average teenager. Moreover, Prof. Sowell has an extraordinary ability to make the dry academics of his topics interesting and thought provoking. Kevin Williamson, in a book review written in 2011, gave his own perspective on Prof. Sowell:
Thomas Sowell is that rarest of things among serious academics: plainspoken. This characteristic, a by-product of both his innate temperament and the intellectual courage for which nature does not deserve the credit, surely has been bad for his career. (Intellectual courage tends to impede the career path of an intellectual.) . . . His plain speaking also makes him dangerous, and that danger is intensified by the fact that Sowell is black. And not just black, but unassailably black: He’s Southern-born, Harlem-raised, brought up poor, and the first of his family to be educated beyond the sixth grade.
If a mad scientist were to repair to his laboratory to design a machine that would make white liberals uncomfortable, that machine would be Thomas Sowell, whose input is data and whose output is socioeconomic criticism in several grades, ranging from bemused observation to thorough debunking to high-test scorn—all of which are represented in The Thomas Sowell Reader.
Now 81 years old, Sowell is known as a libertarian-leaning conservative, which he is, and he has a thriving sideline in debunking racial platitudes. But he is first an economist, which means he is first an observer and reporter of facts, and if those facts take him to uncomfortable places, so be it. No, the prevalence of black men in the NBA doesn’t mean that the NBA is racist, it means that reality is racist. Yes, Barack Obama and congressional Democrats really do practice the same kind of ethnic politics that resulted in the Rwandan genocide and the Sri Lankan civil war, even if they do not practice them to the same extent. Yes, affirmative action is naked racism. No, rent-control laws don’t control rent. No, gun-control laws don’t control guns. No, standardized exams are not culturally biased—but, yes, life is culturally biased. . . .
If you have not read any of Dr. Sowell’s works, you have deprived yourself. If I had to recommend one, it would be his magnum opus, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy. It is a Ph.D. course in free market economics and a thorough explanation of why progonomics do not work. I keep mine on my desk for handy reference and, having bought copies for my children upon their respective fifteenth birthdays, I made it required reading for their continued room and board. They actually appreciated it once they completed the book. It is a book every American should read.
As to his other books, everyone of them is worth reading. I include a comprehensive list below if you would like to peruse the titles. Virtually all of them are available through Amazon on the Thomas Sowell pages. Happy reading.
- 1975. Race and Economics.
- 1980. Knowledge and Decisions.
- 1981. Markets and Minorities.
- 1981. Ethnic America: A History.
- 1983. The Economics and Politics of Race.
- 1984. Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?
- 1985. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics.
- 1986. Education: Assumptions Versus History.
- 1987. Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays.
- 1987. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
- 1990. Preferential Policies: An International Perspective
- 1993. Inside American Education,
- 1993. Is Reality Optional?
- 1995. Race and Culture: A World View.
- 1995. The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy
- 1996. Migrations and Cultures: A World View
- 1998. Conquests and Cultures: An International History
- 2002. The Quest For Cosmic Justice
- 2002. A Personal Odyssey
- 2002. Controversial Essays
- 2002. The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late
- 2004. Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study.
- 2005. Black Rednecks and White Liberals: And Other Cultural and Ethnic Issues.
- 2006. On Classical Economics.
- 2006. Ever Wonder Why? And Other Controversial Essays.
- 2007. A Man of Letters.
- 2007. Economic Facts and Fallacies. Basic Books.
- 2008. Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One (2nd ed.).
- 2009. The Housing Boom and Bust.
- 2010. Intellectuals and Society.
- 2010. Dismantling America. .
- 2011. The Thomas Sowell Reader.
- 2013. Intellectuals and Race.
- 2014. Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (5th ed.)
- 2015. Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective.