Thomas Sowell’s contribution to American intellectual life spans many fields.
Sowell studied for his graduate economics degree under Milton Friedman and George Stigler of the University of Chicago. Both are Nobel Prize winners, and both are oriented toward classical economics.
Sowell’s study of economics eventually led him to author a textbook, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to The Economy. Consistent with his desire to make economics as intelligible as possible, the book contains no equations or graphs. Sowell instead uses historical examples and everyday analogies to explain concepts such as inflation, deflation, business cycles, and monetary policy. In Knowledge and Decisions, originally published in 1980, Sowell points out the huge amount of information that is required to understand the reasoning that consumers and business make in even the simplest decisions. Sowell argues that a necessary consequence of this fact is that large institutions such as government are ill-suited to provide goods and services, and that much regulation may be unnecessary or actively unhelpful. In this book, Sowell was popularizing and expanding upon ideas that had been broadly outlined by earlier writers such as Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter.
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Sowell’s reputation derives in large part from his analyses of the motives, reasoning, and logic of intellectuals and intellectual movements. His work in this area often combines economics with psychology.
In A Conflict of Visions (1987) Sowell contrasts those such as Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler who believe that political activity requires purity of intentions with a second group, who are concerned with the consequences of policies, rather than the sincerity and earnestness of those advocating them. Adam Smith is an example of the second group. Sowell suggests that the idea that one should aim for purity in political process and leadership is bound up with what he calls an “unconstrained” vision of the world. Adherents of these beliefs may be drawn toward utopian fantasies by the feelings of moral uplift and self-satisfaction that their attachment to these aims awakens.
Sowell investigated this question further in his book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1996). He asks why so many intellectuals think themselves better and wiser than others, and thereby fit to make decisions for them and reconstruct society radically. Many in this category (such as Ralph Nader) are “Teflon prophets,” self-adoring intellectuals convinced of their own integrity and moral uprightness, whose failed policy prescriptions and ignorance of their purported areas of expertise have often not restrained them from continuing advocacy.
Sowell returned to the subject of the intelligentsia in The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2002), in which he ponders the change in the meaning of the term “justice.” A word that once meant equal treatment before the law is now identified by many thinkers with the goal of creating a society in which all past inequities are to be righted. Sowell contends that this ambition is not only impractical, but bound to undermine traditional ideas of fairness. To this end, he criticizes the popular ideas of John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice.
Sowell ties the ideas of thinkers such as Rawls to the problems of different outcomes and affirmative action by noting the enormous variety in the actions and attainments of assorted ethnic groups and the impossibility of teasing out all its causes. For example, should the government intervene because more than four-fifths of California doughnut shops are owned by people of Cambodian ancestry? Is this proof of prejudice within the industry?
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Sowell’s writings about affirmative action are among his most controversial.
Sowell’s interest in affirmative action was spurred by his experience as a professor at Cornell University in the 1960s. When he arrived at the school, it had few black students and professors. Sowell’s enthusiasm about the increase in the number of black students in the second half of the decade turned to unease when he realized that the school was deliberately recruiting students who would not have been admitted were they Asian or Caucasian.
Many of these students struggled academically, a high proportion of them eventually flunked out, and several formed the core of the student group that in 1969 armed itself and held a university building hostage, demanding segregated housing and special, blacks-only classes.
Sowell has noted that Cornell’s affirmative action admittees were above the national average in their test scores and would likely have excelled at schools with a less demanding pace. He has more than once cited this as an example of the “mismatching” caused by affirmative action. Above-average students wind up failing because they are placed in a setting for which they are not adequately prepared. Sowell also observed that because of its affirmative action policies, Cornell soon began directing many black students away from academically rigorous and demanding classes, as it did student athletes. These experiences prompted Sowell to write a much-discussed article for The New York Times Magazine that described the University administration’s persistent dissembling and spinelessness in dealing with black student radicals, and with the faltering affirmative action policies it had instituted.
Over three decades later, Sowell returned to the subject in Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (2004). This book examines the application and consequences of affirmative action policies in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, and the United States. In each case, Sowell reports the resentment and conflict that preferential policies provoked, and their eventual politicization. He emphasizes how such policies in hiring and employment have benefited a small number of already advantaged or “connected” people, and not the genuinely disadvantaged or disenfranchised. Sowell’s conclusions are that affirmative action in schooling often leads to needless failure, while affirmative action in hiring leads to the awakening of grievances among those who are discriminated against, all for the sake of helping modest numbers of already well-off beneficiaries.
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Ethnicity, Ethnic Identity, and IQ
Sowell wrote more broadly on the subject of race and ethnicity in Ethnic America: A History (1981).
His aim is to show how different racial and ethnic groups have fared over time and how their experiences in America have differed. To this end he examines official reports on employment, accumulated wealth, level of education, housing, IQ, entrepreneurial activity, and many other factors. As in research reported by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sowell’s work shows that racial and ethnic groups can maintain patterns of behavior and occupational choice over many generations. German immigrants, for example, have started piano manufacturing businesses and breweries wherever they have settled.
At the same time, Sowell also emphasizes that ethnic identity, modes of life, and performance on standardized tests can shift dramatically over time. Thus, while many immigrant groups have initially had low average IQ scores when they first arrived in the United States, it has not been unusual to see these scores rise markedly as the groups become acculturated, nor is it unusual to see marked differences among subsets of ethnic groups.
Although IQ is a meaningful indicator of educational preparedness, Sowell argues that evidence indicates that differences in group IQ scores do not indicate underlying or inherited differences in group aptitude.
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Sowell addressed the issue of civil rights legislation in his book Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? (1984). Once again Sowell’s research is based on empirical evidence and examination of data provided by official sources.
In his discussion of this legislation Sowell points out that the economic and educational gains of blacks and women were greatest in the two decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, while the gains decreased after its passage. His argument is that government policies were not what provided blacks and women with greater opportunities. Rather, it is the existence of a free-market economy and employers who made use of the skills and talents of these workers.
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Sowell’s writings on education criticize common misconceptions about the history of black education in the United States. His works also address the deleterious role of education schools and labor unions in public education, and of administrators in post-secondary education.
Black Education: Myths and Tragedies (1972) is a mixture of personal reminiscence and study of forgotten but exceptional black primary and secondary schools such as Washington’s Dunbar High School. Sowell argues that some of the schools that produced the greatest number of recognized black intellectuals were not “progressive” and did not have majorities of students from affluent or educated homes. Further, many were segregated. What distinguished them, he says, were high expectations and standards for students, and motivated and capable teachers and administrators.
In Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas (1992) he considers the harmful influences of teachers’ unions and of education school requirements on standards of American pedagogy, and the decline since the 1960s in University faculty teaching loads and student workloads. His work on education also includes interest in “late-talking” children, prompted by experience in his own family.
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In Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Sowell attempts sympathetically to correct falsehoods about Marx’s views of capital and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” while questioning the adequacy of his economic understanding of value.
Sowell reminds readers that Marx’s thought is based on the earlier ideas of Hegel and on Hegel’s idea of a historical process in which societies evolve through the conflict of opposing forces. For Marx, capitalist society must be seen in some respects as an advance on previous economic systems, but also as one station along a longer line in the course of history. Sowell also emphasizes that Marx did not believe in a crude or reductive concept of “economic determinism” in which economic forces alone dictated people’s beliefs or aims. Indeed, Marx’s critique of capitalism is founded on his conviction that industrial labor and economic relations within capitalism limit and dehumanize industrial workers, and that a future society could be constructed without these problems. Sowell argues, to the contrary, that the social structure that Marx and Engels proposed as a means to the construction of their hoped-for utopia inevitably led to a concentration of power and, through this, to the tyrannies that socialist regimes have consistently become, even apart from their economic failings.
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Trade, Migration, and Colonialism
Sowell’s interest in the relationship between culture and economics is reflected in a series of books he has written on the movement of peoples around the world. This is the principal subject of Migrations and Cultures: A World View (1996) and Conquests and Cultures: An International History (1998).
Both depict the brutality often inflicted by colonizers and the sufferings imposed upon uprooted or subjugated peoples. At the same time, Sowell seeks to correct false but common beliefs about imperialism. To this end he documents the gains brought by contact between cultures and nations—even through war and conquest—in terms of increased technical knowledge and the dispersion of skills. Cities that were pivots for trade,such as Singapore and Hong Kong,have especially benefited. By contrast, landlocked and mountainous peoples who have escaped imperialism and colonization, such as Ethiopia and Afghanistan, are the ones who generally show the lowest levels of economic development.
Sowell presents evidence that the countries that expanded their empires during the nineteenth century frequently spent much more on development in their colonies than the amount of trade that they acquired, while the European powers that avoided colonizing schemes, such as Switzerland and Sweden, grew to greater prosperity. Sowell further observes that multinational corporations, which are so often derided in popular culture, have proved among the most effective instruments for disseminating useful technology and know-how to third-world countries.
–Essays by Jonathan Leaf
For further reading, see:
Also see Thomas Sowell’s archive of writings on his personal website.