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An Independent Sowell

While Sowell regularly uses divisive political labels to attack his critics, he does not like to be labeled himself.

Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason L. Riley, (Basic Books: 2021), 290 pages.

If you learn one thing about the economic sociologist Thomas Sowell in reading Jason Riley’s wide-ranging intellectual biography, it’s his fierce independence. “Maverick” fits the bill. Orphaned at age four, he grew up dirt poor in the South, moved to Harlem, dropped out of high school, moved into a shelter of homeless boys, and joined the Marines, where he was almost court-martialed. 

But Sowell was a gifted student and exuded self-confidence. While working a government job in Washington, DC, in the 1950s, he went to night school at Howard University and so impressed his professors that he enrolled at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude in 1958. He went on to get his master’s degree in economics at Columbia and a Ph.D. at Chicago, both under George Stigler. “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it’s becoming meaningless,” said Milton Friedman, one of his teachers, “but nevertheless, I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.”

That’s one of many reasons why Sowell is so disdainful of affirmative action and special privileges for minorities. He went to Harvard and Chicago before there were any racial quotas. He got his teaching position at UCLA based solely on his abilities. He writes, “When Bill Allen was chairman at UCLA, he violently refused to hire anyone on the basis of ethnic representation—and thereby made it possible for me to come there a year later with my head held up.” He has written over 30 books and hundreds of academic papers. 

But with that pride of accomplishment also came obstinacy. He had numerous run-ins with teachers and colleagues at Harvard, Chicago, Howard, Cornell, and UCLA. He seldom lasted longer than a few years at various institutions. He hardly ever gave A’s (he learned that from Milton Friedman, who himself gave Sowell a B in his price theory class at Chicago). He fought endlessly with George Stigler over his dissertation on Say’s law. 

He is famous for refusing interviews and turning down speaking engagements, no matter what the offer. We invited him to speak at FreedomFest in front of 3,000 fans, offering him a private jet and a generous honorarium. He turned us down. 

Sowell refuses to compromise. His first marriage ended in divorce. According to Riley, he once returned a book advance after refusing to acquiesce to the publisher’s demand to change dates in the manuscript to read AD 800 instead of 800 AD. When he was forbidden to flunk a student in a summer program at Cornell, he resigned. Several colleagues and even the sponsor of the program, the Rockefeller Foundation, tried to convince him to reconsider, but he stubbornly refused. “I really lost whatever residual respect I had for the academic world that year [1969],” he told Riley. “When I came to Cornell, there would be parties at which people of all persuasions would be present. The year I left that was no longer the case, even in the economics department. That’s another thing that happened since the 1960s.”

He didn’t settle down until he became truly independent and a virtual recluse when he accepted a position in 1980 at the Hoover Institution, where scholars are “paid to think.” There were no teaching requirements, no work hours, and no administrative duties. At age 90, he is the Milton and Rose Friedman Senior Fellow at Hoover. 

While Sowell regularly uses divisive political labels to attack his critics, he does not like to be labeled himself. Although he earned degrees from top Ivy League schools, he does not consider himself a Harvard or Chicago man. “I did not consider myself a ‘product’ of either institution,” he wrote. In his early years, he called himself a Marxist, but abandoned his socialist leanings after Chicago. He was a registered Democrat until 1972, never registered as a Republican, and has fittingly spent the rest of his life as an independent. 

Sowell is doubly uncomfortable being labeled (along with the late Walter Williams) as the country’s best-known “black conservative.” In a 2001 interview, he told National Review, “Most of those who are called black conservatives are certainly not interested in preserving the status quo. That status quo includes welfare, failing schools, quotas, and separatism that most black conservatives deplore and attack. Still less are they seeking to return to a status quo ante, such as the Jim Crow era.”

Nobel economist Jim Buchanan believed Sowell would still be read 100 years from now. Of the numerous books he has written, which ones will be read and debated in the future?

His books on racism and racial discrimination are still popular, but his influence has been mixed. In numerous books on racism, he has repeatedly argued that we should judge every candidate in the academic or business world based on abilities and merit, not race, gender, religion, or country of origin. But, does anyone really foresee a future where this is the case? In several cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that universities can consider race as a factor to consider when evaluating applicants while still prohibiting quotas. Now, it seems that almost every university has a vice president of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” whose job it is to ensure the “right” balance of race and gender representation. Major corporations are constantly under pressure to diversify board members and stakeholders. 

On the other hand, voters in trendsetting California have repeatedly confirmed their 1996 ban on affirmative action in the state’s public universities. Race and gender cannot be determining factors in college admissions or public agency hiring and contracting, at least in California. 

Basic Economics is Sowell’s most popular book. It has vastly improved since the first edition was released in 2000 by Basic Books in New York. I can only surmise that Sowell published it without asking any of his colleagues to review it, as it is a ramshackle work that only pretends to be a “common sense guide to the new economy.” He has good discussions on price theory, international trade, taxes, minimum wage legislation, wage-price controls, discrimination, property rights, and anti-trust, relying on The Economist as his primary source. 

But, imagine a book on the “basics” of the new economy without discussion or reference to economic growth theory, the invisible hand doctrine of Adam Smith, behavioral finance, and the economics of Keynes, Marx, Hayek, and Say (economists Sowell wrote entire books on). 

I wrote Sowell about these sins of omission in the early editions. To his credit, he completely revised the fifth edition in 2015, adding major sections to make up for these defects. Basic Economics now has a whole chapter on the warring schools of economics including the classical, Marxist, Keynesian and Chicago schools—though oddly he omits a discussion of the Austrian school and makes no reference to Menger, Mises, or Rothbard. He does briefly mention Hayek and Schumpeter. He also added several pages on Say’s law and quotes the great development economist P. T. Bauer—all my suggestions but without attribution. He also has a new chapter on “International Disparities of Wealth.”

Riley’s biography notes that two of the 30-plus books that Sowell has written are classics that will stand the test of time. The first is Knowledge and Decisions (1980), a lengthy work on decentralized decision-making inspired by Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Sowell demonstrates his remarkable breadth of expertise by applying his thesis to economic, legal, political, and cultural policies. The growing disjunction between knowledge and policy due to the ever-expanding dominance of “elitist intellectuals” who arrogantly ignore evidence contrary to their biases “threatens not only our economic and political efficiency but our very freedom.” Reading this book of innumerable peccadilloes of modern society, one can surmise that Sowell is no optimist.

The second was published in 1987 and revised in 2007, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. This is his most original contribution to political culture. He divides the world of ideology not into the tired old left–right dichotomy but between the “constrained” Christian vision of mankind, which sees man as fundamentally flawed and limited, and the “unconstrained” utopian worldview where mankind can achieve unlimited success through reason, willpower, and the right kind of secular institutional reform. As an example of the constrained view, he uses the American Revolution of 1776 and the subsequent constitutional rights and trade-offs; of the unconstrained utopian vision, the French revolution of 1789 and the subsequent Rights of Man philosophy. We all know which revolution succeeded and which failed. 

Most importantly, Sowell warns against mechanically applying this ideological dualism to today’s liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. I might add that the criticism of excessive partisanship could also be made of this biographer and his subject. In the book, both overdo name-calling and political labeling. I suspect that if Riley and Sowell focused on individual issues instead of dividing people into camps, the country would see more progress. We need to focus more on best solutions to the problems of race, inequality, poverty, and justice. It’s not who is right, but what is right. 

Mark Skousen is Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, editor of Forecasts & Strategies, and author of The Making of Modern Economics, now in its third edition.