The Patriot Post® · The Remarkable Thomas Sowell
Inasmuch as a single quote can say it all about Thomas Sowell, this one would have to be it. Speaking of himself some decades ago, he said during an interview: “People say, ‘You’re a very tough person.’ I’m not tough. Life is tough. I’m merely trying to acquaint you with those facts.”
Sowell did indeed acquaint the world with hard facts about the harsh realities of life — facts about human nature and economics and politics and history and sociology and race and culture and so many other things — but even this magnificent bit of plainspoken brilliance falls short. Sowell modestly says he’s not tough, but anyone who knows anything about the man knows this simply isn’t true. No one could’ve grown up an orphaned black boy and a high school dropout in the Jim Crow South and put together such a stunning body of intellectual work. No one could’ve endured such a long lifetime of slings and arrows from the Left without having been tough as nails.
Sowell, who’ll turn 92 in June, published his 36th book two years ago. At the time, no one had written a book about his remarkable life. That changed last year, and thankfully so, when Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member Jason Riley published Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.
The need for telling the Sowell story was obvious. As the book’s overview puts it: “His bold and unsentimental assaults on liberal orthodoxy have endeared him to many readers but have also enraged fellow intellectuals, the civil-rights establishment, and much of the mainstream media. The result has been a lack of acknowledgment of his scholarship among critics who prioritize political correctness.”
Riley says that when he was researching Sowell, he noticed that man’s descriptions of the thinkers he admired most could’ve been written about the man himself. Take this one, for example, about Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, one of Sowell’s professors at the University of Chicago:
In a world of self-promoting academics, coining buzzwords and aligning themselves on the side of the angels of the moment, George Stigler epitomized a rare integrity as well as a rare intellect. He jumped on no bandwagons, beat no drums for causes, created no personal cult. He did the work of a scholar and a teacher — both superbly — and found that sufficient. If you wanted to learn, and above all if you wanted to learn how to think — how to avoid the vague words, fuzzy thoughts, or maudlin sentiments that cloud over reality — then Stigler was your man.
And if Stigler was your man, then so was Sowell. Or take his description of another Nobel Laureate, another professor of his at Chicago, Milton Friedman, whom he said “was one of the very few intellectuals with both genius and common sense. He could express himself at the highest analytical levels to his fellow economists in academic publications and still write popular books … that could be understood by people who knew nothing about economics.”
One would be hard-pressed to find two words that better describe Sowell than “genius” and “common sense.” (Friedman, incidentally, once said this about Sowell: “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it’s becoming meaningless, but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.”)
That genius, though, had the humblest of beginnings. Sowell’s dad had died a few months before his birth, and his mom, a housemaid, already had four kids, so off young Thomas went to be raised by a great-aunt. His family, such as it was, moved to Harlem when he was nine, and Sowell became the first member of his family to get past the seventh grade. He dropped out of high school to get a job, and only attended college after having completed a Korean War-era tour in the Marine Corps. Then it was Howard, Harvard, and Columbia, where he earned a Ph.D.
Remarkably, Sowell was a Marxist in his 20s and early 30s. His awakening, as historian John Steel Gordon writes, came when he saw how the U.S. government’s minimum wage laws affected the workforce at a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico: As wages went up, the number of workers went down. Thus, a well-intended law was actually a net detriment to those it was intended to help. Imagine that.
“From there on,” Sowell wrote with biting understatement, “as I learned more and more from both experience and research, my adherence to the visions and doctrines of the left began to erode rapidly.”
Which brings us back to that 36th book of his, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, which explores a topic long near and dear to him. As Sowell wrote about some highly successful schools with predominantly low-income black and Hispanic student bodies:
The educational success of these charter schools undermines theories of genetic determinism, claims of cultural bias in the tests, assertions that racial “integration” is necessary for blacks to reach educational parity, and presumptions that income differences are among the “root causes” of educational differences.
Having dispensed with the easy and often lazy excuse of race, Sowell then set his sights on the failure of public schools:
Schools exist for the education of children. Schools do not exist to provide iron-clad jobs for teachers, billions of dollars in union dues for teachers unions, monopolies for educational bureaucracies, a guaranteed market for [graduates of] teachers colleges, or a captive audience for indoctrinators.
As Riley reflects on the state of black intellectual thought, he laments that names like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram Kendi, and Nikole Hannah-Jones are better known today than Sowell’s name — and for obvious reason. But Sowell’s “scholarship runs circles around those individuals,” he writes. “And it’s not just the volume of his writings, it’s also the range and depth and rigor of his analysis. He anticipated and refuted many of their arguments decades ago, in some cases before the people making them today were even born.”
We here at The Patriot Post have profited greatly from Dr. Sowell’s wisdom over the years, and we’ve tried to impart it whenever possible. He is often quoted in our pages and we will maintain his column archive of much of the man’s syndicated work. His last column, from December 3, 2020, was a tribute to his dear friend and fellow black conservative trailblazer, Walter Williams.
The Thomas Sowell Twitter page, which is actually managed by an ardent fan of his, is a treasure trove of daily quotes and video snapshots.
In closing, we’ll leave you with Sowell’s Three Questions, which he suggests we apply to all great ideas that emanate from the Left: Compared to what? At what cost? What hard evidence do you have?
Sowell says there are very few ideas on the Left that can withstand all three, and he contrasts the Left’s view, “the Rousseau notion that man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” with the Right’s more pragmatic, more commonsensical view: “Man is flawed from Day One, and there are no solutions, only trade-offs. And whatever you do to deal with one of man’s flaws, it creates another problem. But you try to get the best trade-off you can get, and that’s all you can hope for.”
Spoken like a wise man, and a tough one at that.