The Iconoclastic Thomas Sowell

Jason Fertig

Born into poverty in Charlotte, North Carolina, Thomas Sowell was adopted and raised by his aunt—his father had passed away before he was born and his mother, who already had four children, was unable to care for him. At age nine, Sowell moved with his aunt from Charlotte to Harlem. By seventeen, he had dropped out of school and was later drafted into the Marines during the Korean War.

His life could have veered in several negative directions, but it didn’t. After serving in the Marines, Sowell worked his way from a civil service job in Washington, D.C., to night classes at Howard University, to a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard, to a master’s in economics from Columbia, and finally to a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, where he studied under some fellow named Friedman.

Even after these academic successes, Sowell worked at a number of positions before he found his niche and voice. His steadfast insistence on high standards led to conflicts with administrators in a time when universities were increasingly catering to student desires. Rather than toeing the company line, Sowell experienced several starts and stops at Douglass College, Howard University, Brandeis College, and UCLA before finally settling at the Hoover Institution in 1980.

Presently, Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at Hoover. Prolific throughout his career, he has published more than thirty books, has a nationally syndicated column, and is quite skilled in photography.1

Many know of Sowell as a polemicist, but that is only one hat he wears. He is also among the few African Americans, and perhaps the first, who have dared to challenge left-wing orthodoxy on several key issues, including raising the minimum wage and affirmative action. His columns are often devoted to such matters, and his arguments are based on years of serious research and scholarship.

Consider raising the minimum wage, which has for decades been a preoccupation of the Left. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman may have made an emotional call for a higher “living wage” recently,2 but Sowell has for years been presenting the truth that minimum wage employment is often the path to success:

Those who disdain low-paying jobs as “menial” or who refuse to accept “chump change” for entry-level work are usually not thinking beyond stage one. Not only isolated individuals like Paul Williams or F.W. Woolworth began this way, so have great numbers of others who have developed human capital and collected the dividends later….Despite the assumption of fixed “classes” to which people belong for life, most Americans in lower income brackets do not stay in those brackets for more than a few years.3

Furthermore, upward social mobility is not confined to America. “Studies in Greece, Holland, Britain, Canada and New Zealand have found similar patterns,” Sowell reports, and “Even such a caste-ridden society as India has had some remarkable rags-to-riches stories, especially after more free markets emerged toward the end of the twentieth century.”4 A minimum wage job can impart basic skills and be the first rung on the employment ladder. As Sowell wrote about F.W. Woolworth, “three months of working for free paid off more than a lottery.”5

Sowell the scholar is equally articulate on the pitfalls of affirmative action, and he has written against the leftist narrative for several decades. Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.’s Mismatch theory in college admissions has received a great deal of attention,6 but Sowell expounded the general argument years ago. As far back as 1993, he detailed how using race as a means to accept academically underqualified applicants into upper echelon colleges in the name of diversity precipitates a spiral of mismatching throughout all levels of higher education.7

Furthermore, Sowell’s 1994 Race and Culture: A World View illustrated the ways in which different groups can bring different types of cultural capital to the social table, militating against the reductive utilitarian aim of having all groups represented proportionally in all areas. In this book Sowell “attempts to show some of the ways in which their cultures or ‘human capital’ have affected the advancement of particular groups, the societies of which they were part, and ultimately the human race.”8 As he explains:

Human capital has not been randomly distributed, being itself a product of circumstances that have varied widely in different parts of the world with different climates, geography, and histories. The purpose of this book is not to offer some grand theory explaining cultural differences. Its goal is to demonstrate the reality, persistence, and consequences of cultural differences—contrary to many of today’s grand theories, based on the supposedly dominant role of “objective conditions,” “economic forces,” or “social structures.”9

Several years later, Sowell dug even deeper. In 2004, he published Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study, a detailed work that provided much-needed rational arguments on an emotional issue:

While controversies rage over “affirmative action” policies in the United States, few Americans seem to notice the existence or relevance of similar policies in other countries around the world. Instead, the arguments pro and con tend to invoke history and traditions that are distinctively American. Yet group preferences and quotas have existed in other countries with wholly different histories and traditions—and in some countries, such policies have existed much longer than in the United States….

…The special situation of the Maoris in New Zealand, based on the 1840 treaty of Waitangi, is invoked as passionately in defense of preferential treatment there as the unique position of untouchables in India or of blacks in the United States.10

In this book, Sowell comes to the following conclusion regarding the effects of affirmative action in the United States, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria:

Innumerable principles, theories, assumptions and assertions have been used to justify affirmative action programs—some common around the world and some peculiar to particular countries or communities. What is remarkable is how seldom these notions have been tested empirically, or have even been defined clearly or examined logically, much less weighted against the large and often painful costs they entail. Despite sweeping claims made for affirmative action programs, an examination of their actual consequences makes it hard to support those claims, or even to say that these programs have been beneficial on net balance—unless one is prepared to say that any amount of social redress, however small, is worth any amount of costs and dangers, however large.11

His work in these areas has prompted Sowell to a broader philosophical vision of human nature. In his 1987 A Conflict of Visions, Sowell contrasts two views of human nature—the constrained (i.e., flawed) and unconstrained (i.e., perfectible)—and uses the distinction to comment on issues such as welfare and social justice.12 These two visions underlie most of the conflicts between conservatives and liberals today—whether man’s nature can be shaped and perfected by enlightened social policy under the guidance of benevolent leaders or whether that nature resists social engineering.

It’s a shame that many college students do not know of Thomas Sowell or read his work. While video games and the fast food information culture lead millennials to disdain the written word, their lack of intellectual curiosity is not completely their fault. Students are fed a steady diet of academic hogwash at all education levels, and they learn what’s needed to pass the next test and move on. Their economics courses are exhibit A in this regard.

“I hate it” and “Don’t ask me what I learned” are standard answers when I ask students what they learned in economics class. Many students are already fighting a natural aversion to math; encountering curve flipping and calculus early on in an introductory class does not facilitate learning to think about economics.

Thus, students are likely to hold simplistic positions (that Sowell refutes) such as “rent control is good,” “the minimum wage helps the poor,” and “affirmative action helps minorities” because of their emotional appeal and because such policies are likely to affect them directly—not to mention they hear it often enough on programs such as The Daily Show. Regrettably, college students are unlikely to get exposure to sound intellectual arguments against their positions.

Sowell is aware of the academy’s shortcomings; he is apt to blow the whistle on professors who think that the “Dr.” before their surname gives them carte blanche to comment on any area of life:

Degrees show that you have knowledge in some special area. Too often they embolden people to pontificate on a wide range of other subjects where they don’t know what they are talking about.13

In reflecting on his time editing academic work, he once quipped:

Too many academics write as if plain English is beneath their dignity and some seem to regard logic as an unconstitutional infringement of their freedom of speech.14

Thomas Sowell possesses an uncanny ability to translate his years of acquired knowledge and wisdom into clear, readable arguments. While this skill does not help in creating sexy titles for his many books—Basic Economics, Intellectuals and Race, The Housing Boom and Bust, and so on—it is a powerful tool for reaching those whose minds have closed to all things intellectual.

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