April 8, 2006


Classy Economist: Thomas Sowell is a lifetime student of the market force. (JASON L. RILEY, March 25, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Mr. Sowell's forte has always been rigorous analysis and adherence to facts, however stubborn and wherever they lead. And the facts led him on a writing tear in the '70s and '80s. Some titles, like "Race and Economics" (1975), "Markets and Minorities" (1981) and "The Economics and Politics of Race" (1983), betray his technical background. But Mr. Sowell's other influential books of this period--"Black Education: Myths and Tragedies" (1972), "Ethnic America" (1981), "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" (1984)--are no less distinguished by the dispassionate empiricism he brings to such emotionally charged topics. In these tomes and elsewhere, Mr. Sowell's research questions the basic assumptions behind popular public policies aimed at minorities.

And in the process, he's made mincemeat of the sloppy methodology and flaccid arguments put forward by mainstream civil right leaders and their liberal sympathizers. He has shown, empirically, that affirmative action does not benefit poor blacks. He has shown, empirically, that political clout is not a prerequisite for ethnic economic advancement. And most importantly, he has exposed the harmful fallacy of using racial and gender discrimination as an all-purpose explanation for statistical group disparities.

Asked why many of these failed ideas, and the black leaders who promote them, don't seem to lose credibility, Mr. Sowell responds that the phenomenon is hardly limited to the realm of race. "You could take it beyond the black leadership," he says. "Has [John Kenneth] Galbraith lost any credibility? I remember 'The New Industrial State'"--the 1967 book in which Mr. Galbraith famously argued that large corporations were immune to marketplace forces--"but since then, Eastern Airlines has gone out of business. The Graflex Corporation has gone out of business. Similarly with all kinds of big businesses. This hasn't made the slightest dent in Galbraith's reputation. We have Paul Ehrlich, who has told us there would be mass starvation in the world in the '80s, and now we find our two biggest problems are obesity and how to get rid of agricultural surpluses." Mr. Sowell's conclusion is a cynical one. "I have a book called 'The Vision of the Anointed,' and there's a chapter in there called 'The Irrelevance of Evidence.'"

The idea to apply economic concepts to racial issues came, says Mr. Sowell, from the late Benjamin Rogge, who taught economics at Wabash College in Indiana. "I was at Cornell, and Ben Rogge came on campus to give a talk called 'The Welfare State Against the Negro.' I happened to be out of town, so when I got back I wrote him a letter that said I heard you gave this talk and that you're going to write a book on the same theme. I said it's really amazing that no one's thought of this before because there's so much material out there. At this point [in the late '60s] I had no thought that I would ever touch it myself."

The two became friends over the years and "it occurred to Ben that he was never going to write that book. And so Ben Rogge took his manuscript and simply handed it to me and said do with it whatever you can. I was flabbergasted. I don't think I ever used anything directly from his manuscript. But the fundamental idea the you could apply economics to racial issues--that was the inspiration."

Similarly, Mr. Sowell says his interest in "international perspectives"--most notably demonstrated in his lengthy trilogy on cultural history published in the 1990s--initially came from reading Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1963 classic study, "Beyond the Melting Pot." "It was really the first book I read about different ethnic groups. There were many different patterns. And more than anything else, each group had its own pattern.

"The left likes to portray a group as sort of a creature of surrounding society. But that's not true. For example, back during the immigrant era, you had neighborhoods on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] where Jews and Italians arrived at virtually identical times. Lived in the same neighborhoods. Kids sat side by side in the same schools. But totally different outcomes. Now, if you look back at the history of the Jews and the history of the Italians you can see why that would be. In the early 19th century, Russian officials report that even the poorest Jews find some way to get some books in their home, even though they're living in a society where over 90% of the people are illiterate.

"Conversely, in southern Italy, which is where most Italian-Americans originated, when they put in compulsory school-attendance laws, there were riots. There were schoolhouses burning down. So now you take these two kids and sit them side by side in a school. If you believe that environment means the immediate surroundings, they're in the same environment. But if you believe environment includes this cultural pattern that goes back centuries before they were born, then no, they're not in the same environment. They don't come into that school building with the same mindset. And they don't get the same results."

One of those writers who truly makes you rethink your opinions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2006 6:02 AM

Mr. Sowell is the rare academic/intellectual who lives in the real world. One of the president's real failings is his failure to induce Sowell to join his cabinet or to name him to a significant post in his administration.

Posted by: erp at April 8, 2006 9:48 AM

I always thought Sowell was visionary. He has always made mincemeat of liberal arguments about poverty and race, and he does it in a way that even the dumbest liberal can understand, which is why they hate him.

Posted by: sharon at April 8, 2006 10:02 AM

There are lots of people who can make mincemeat of liberal "arguments". They hate him for his skin color, not because he shows them to be the fools they are.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 8, 2006 12:55 PM

anyone know what his views are on illegal immigration ? just asking...

Posted by: toe at April 8, 2006 1:18 PM




overall a rational and balanced approach to the situation, that never sacrifices american workers on the personal altars of the author. refreshing in its total lack of name calling and invective.

Posted by: toe at April 8, 2006 1:27 PM

Believe it or not, I learned in HS why Jews have books.

Because they could carry them with them, they got kicked out from so many places. You take eduction w/you.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 8, 2006 1:46 PM

Mr. Sowell's work has such clarity of purpose it's difficult to pass up any of his writings. Funny thing but of all the people I know of I would pick him to just sit down to drinks, or a meal, and just listen.

Posted by: Tom Wall at April 8, 2006 7:36 PM

Plenty of his books are excellent, but if you want a real barn-burner read Knowledge and Decisions. That book has been known to turn people from liberals into conservatives almost overnight, I kid you not.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 9, 2006 2:09 AM


He would never accept an offer, he's decisively turned down such offers before.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 9, 2006 2:20 AM

Matt, I know that, but surely he could have been appealed to in some way. Offering him Sec. of Ed. was, I think, insulting. Bush probably didn't know who he was or he would have been offered a position with a lot more power and status.

It's a shame that he's so little known outside of conservative circles. Sowell's writing is so clear and simply stated, it requires no erudition to understand. His books should be required/recommended reading along with the leftwing black authors already on most high school lists.

Posted by: erp at April 9, 2006 11:31 AM


I wasn't aware that Bush ever offered his EdSec, although I had heard that the Reagan administration pondered it. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that he briefly pondered some political position but was horrified when a GOP honcho told him that from now on, he should view his family only as smiling faces who accompany him on photo ops. He then turned decidedly against the idea and even did a nice impression of General Sherman in announcing his decision.

You're right that it's too bad he's not better known, because his books are filled with great information you can't find anywhere else, and he is a master at cutting through obfuscation and getting to the root of things. His theory of the subconscious assumptions that underlie political differences is absolutely unparalled: the MIT psychologist Steven Pinker (no conservative) thinks the theory is utterly brilliant and used it extensively in one of his books.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 9, 2006 9:29 PM