Thomas Sowell, Harlem born June 30, 1930 – is an economist, social theorist, and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Born in North Carolina, Sowell grew up in Harlem, New York. Due to financial issues and deteriorated home conditions, he dropped out of Stuyvesant High School and later served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Upon returning to the United States, Sowell enrolled at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude in 1958.
Sowell had served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He had also worked at think tanks such as the Urban Institute.
Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he served as the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy. Sowell writes from a libertarian–conservative perspective.
Sowell has written more than thirty books, and his work has been widely anthologized. He was a National Humanities Medal recipient for an innovative scholarship that incorporated history, economics, and political science.
Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina. His father died shortly before he was born, leaving behind Sowell’s mother, a housemaid, who already had four children. A great-aunt and her two grown daughters adopted Sowell and raised him.
In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, Sowell wrote that his childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not know that blond was a hair color.
When Sowell was nine, his family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Harlem, New York City, for greater opportunities, joining in the large-scale trend of African-American migration from the American South to the North.
When Sowell was nine, his family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Harlem, New York, for greater opportunities, joining in the large-scale trend of African-American migration from the American South to the North.
He qualified for Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious academic high school in New York City; he was the first in his family to study beyond the sixth grade.
However, he was forced to drop out at age 17 because of financial difficulties and problems in his home.
Sowell held a number of positions, including one at a machine shop and another as a delivery man for Western Union; he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.
He was drafted into the military in 1951, during the Korean War, and was assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. Because of his experience in photography, Sowell became a Marine Corps photographer.
Higher education and early career
After his honorable discharge, Sowell worked a civil service job in Washington, DC, and attended night classes at Howard University, a historically black college.
His high scores on the College Board exams and recommendations by two professors helped him gain admission to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in Harlem, NY the following year.
Sowell has said that he was a Marxist “during the decade of my 20s”; accordingly, one of his earliest professional publications was a sympathetic examination of Marxist thought vs. Marxist–Leninist practice.
However, his experience working as a federal government intern during the summer of 1960 caused him to reject Marxian economic theory in favor of free-market economics.
During his work, Sowell discovered an association between the rise of mandated minimum wages for workers in the sugar industry of Puerto Rico and the rise of unemployment in that industry.
Studying the patterns led Sowell to theorize that the government employees who administered the minimum wage law cared more about their own jobs than the plight of the poor.
Sowell received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968. His dissertation was titled “Say’s Law and the General Glut Controversy”.
Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University in Harlem to study under George Stigler, who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. When he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there.
From 1965 to 1969, Sowell was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. Writing 30 years later about the 1969 takeover by black Cornell students of Willard Straight Hall, Sowell characterized the students as “hoodlums” with “serious academic problems [who were] admitted under lower academic standards”, and noted, “it so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca.”
Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Since 1980, he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman, his mentor.
In addition, Sowell appeared several times on William F. Buckley Jr.’s show Firing Line, during which he discussed the economics of race and privatization.
In 1987, Sowell testified in favor of federal appeals court judge Robert Bork during the hearings for Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his testimony, Sowell said that Bork was “the most highly qualified nominee of this generation” and that what he viewed as judicial activism, a concept that Bork opposed as a self-described originalist and textualist, “has not been beneficial to minorities.”
In a review of Sowell’s 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, Larry D. Nachman in Commentary magazine described Sowell as a leading representative of the Chicago school of economics.
Previously married to Alma Jean Parr from 1964 to 1975, Sowell married Mary Ash in 1981.
He has two children, John and Lorraine.
In 2007, Sowell commented that modern television talk shows did not match the quality of David Susskind’s Open End or The University of Chicago Roundtable and that Meet the Press moderated by Tim Russert was unlike the shows moderated by Lawrence Spivak or Bill Monroe. Sowell is also known for his disdain of self-promotion.
Writings and thought
Themes of Sowell’s writing range from social policy on race, ethnic groups, education, and decision-making, to classical and Marxian economics, to the problems of children perceived as having disabilities.
Sowell had a nationally syndicated column distributed by Creators Syndicate that was published in Forbes magazine, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The New York Post, and other major newspapers, as well as online on websites such as RealClearPolitics, Townhall, WorldNetDaily, and the Jewish World Review.
Sowell commented on current issues, which include liberal media bias; judicial activism (while defending originalism); intact dilation and extraction (commonly known as, and described in U.S. federal law as, partial-birth abortion); minimum wage; universal health care; the tension between government policies, programs, and protections and familial autonomy; affirmative action; government bureaucracy; gun control; militancy in U.S. foreign policy; the war on drugs, and multiculturalism.
According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Sowell was the most cited black economist between 1991 and 1995.
On December 27, 2016, Sowell announced the end of his syndicated column, writing that, at age 86, “the question is not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long,” and cited a desire to focus on his photography hobby.
A documentary detailing his career entitled “Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World” was released on January 25, 2021, by the Free to Choose Network.
Economic and political ideology
While often described as a black conservative, he prefers not to be labeled, having stated, “I prefer not to have labels, but I suspect that ‘libertarian’ would suit me better than many others, although I disagree with the libertarian movement on a number of things.”
Sowell primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free-market approach to capitalism. Sowell opposes the Federal Reserve, arguing that it has been unsuccessful in preventing economic depressions and limiting inflation.
Sowell has also written a trilogy of books on ideologies and political positions, including A Conflict of Visions, in which he speaks on the origins of political strife; The Vision of the Anointed, in which he compares the conservative/libertarian and liberal/progressive worldviews; and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, in which, as in many of his other writings, he outlines his thesis of the need for intellectuals, politicians, and leaders to fix and perfect the world in utopian and ultimately, he posits, disastrous fashions. Separate from the trilogy, but also in discussion of the subject, he wrote Intellectuals and Society, building on his earlier work, in which he discusses what he argues to be the blind hubris and follies of intellectuals in a variety of areas.
His book Knowledge and Decisions, a winner of the 1980 Law and Economics Center Prize, was heralded as a “landmark work,” selected for this prize “because of its cogent contribution to our understanding of the differences between the market process and the process of government.” In announcing the award, the centre acclaimed Sowell, whose “contribution to our understanding of the process of regulation alone would make the book important, but in reemphasizing the diversity and efficiency that the market makes possible, [his] work goes deeper and becomes even more significant.”
Friedrich Hayek wrote: “In a wholly original manner [Sowell] succeeds in translating abstract and theoretical argument into a highly concrete and realistic discussion of the central problems of contemporary economic policy.”
Sowell also favors decriminalization of all drugs, and occasionally writes on the subject of gun control; for example: “One can cherry-pick the factual studies, or cite some studies that have subsequently been discredited, but the great bulk of the studies show that gun control laws do not in fact control guns. On net balance, they do not save lives, but cost lives.”
Race and ethnicity
Sowell thinks that systemic racism is an untested, questionable hypothesis that is a piece of propaganda pushed on the American people.
Sowell has said that “it really has no meaning that can be specified and tested in the way that one tests hypotheses” and “it’s one of many words that I don’t think even the people who use it have any clear idea what they’re saying”.
He has argued that it is a propaganda tactic akin to those used by Joseph Goebbels because it comes with an attitude that it must be “repeated long enough and loud enough” until it is believed and people “cave in” to it.
In several of his works—including The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), Ethnic America (1981), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), and other books—Sowell challenges the notion that black progress is due to progressive government programs or policies.
He claims that many problems identified with blacks in modern society are not unique, neither in terms of American ethnic groups nor in terms of a rural proletariat struggling with disruption as it became urbanized, as discussed in his Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005).
Sowell also writes on racial topics, typically critical of affirmative action and race-based quotas. He takes strong issue with the notion of government as a helper or savior of minorities, arguing that the historical record shows quite the opposite.
In Affirmative Action Around the World, Sowell holds that affirmative action affects more groups than is commonly understood, though its impacts occur through different mechanisms, and has long since ceased to favor blacks.
One of the few policies that can be said to harm virtually every group in a different way.… Obviously, whites and Asians lose out when you have preferential admission for black students or Hispanic students—but blacks and Hispanics lose out because what typically happens is the students who have all the credentials to succeed in college are admitted to colleges where the standards are so much higher than they fail.
In Intellectuals and Race (2013), Sowell argues that intelligence quotient (IQ) gaps are hardly startling or unusual between, or within, ethnic groups.
He notes that the roughly 15-point gap in contemporary black-white IQ scores is similar to that between the national average and the scores of certain ethnic white groups in years past, in periods when the nation was absorbing new immigrants.
Late-talking and the Einstein syndrome
Sowell wrote The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, a follow-up to his Late-Talking Children, discussing a condition he termed the Einstein syndrome.
This book investigates the phenomenon of late-talking children, frequently misdiagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder.
He includes the research of Stephen Camarata and Steven Pinker, among others, in this overview of a poorly understood developmental trait.
It is a trait that he says affected many historical figures who developed prominent careers, such as physicists Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, and Richard Feynman; mathematician Julia Robinson; and musicians Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann.
He makes the case for the theory that some children develop unevenly (asynchronous development) for a period in childhood due to rapid and extraordinary development in the analytical functions of the brain. This may temporarily “rob resources” from neighboring functions such as language development. As such, Sowell disagrees with Simon Baron-Cohen’s speculation that Einstein may have had Asperger syndrome.
In a Townhall editorial, titled “The Bush Legacy”, Sowell assessed President George W. Bush as “a mixed bag” but “an honorable man.”
Sowell was strongly critical of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and officially endorsed Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries in a February article.
However, he indicated that he would vote in the general election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, due to fears about the appointments Clinton would possibly make to the Supreme Court.
In 2020, Sowell wrote that if the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, it could signal a point of no return for the United States, a tipping point akin to the fall of the Roman Empire. In an interview in July 2020, he stated that “the Roman Empire overcame many problems in its long history but eventually it reached a point where it could no longer continue on, and much of that was from within, not just the barbarians attacking from outside.” Sowell wrote that if Biden became President, the Democratic Party would have a huge amount of control over the country and if this happened, they could twin with the “radical left” and ideas such as defunding the police could come to fruition.
Two weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Sowell urged voters to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. In 2018, when asked on his thoughts of Trump’s presidency, Sowell replied “I think he’s better than the previous president.”
In March 2019, Sowell commented on the public’s response to mainstream media’s allegations that Trump is a racist: “What’s tragic is that there’s so many people out there who simply respond to words rather than ask themselves ‘Is what this person says true? How can I check it?’ And so on.”
A month later, Sowell again defended Trump against media charges of racism, stating: “I’ve seen no hard evidence. And, unfortunately, we’re living in a time where no one expects hard evidence. You just repeat some familiar words and people will react pretty much the way Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to react to certain sounds.”
Sowell has written about education throughout his career. He has argued for the need for reform of the school system in the United States.
In his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies (2020), Sowell compares the educational outcomes of school children educated at charter schools with those at conventional public schools.
In his research, Sowell first explains the need and his methodology for choosing comparable students—both ethnically and socioeconomically—before listing his findings.
He presents the case that charter schools on the whole do significantly better in terms of educational outcomes than conventional schools.
Sowell also writes about the importance of education for young people. He argues that many schools are failing children in their education.
This is for numerous reasons among which he argues are that indoctrination has taken the place of proper education, teaching unions have been making unfair money out of schools and many schools have become monopolies for educational bureaucracies.
In his book Education: Assumptions Versus History (1986), Sowell analyzes the state of education in US schools and universities. In particular, he examines the experiences of blacks and other ethnic groups in the American education system and identifies the factors and patterns behind both success and failure.
Classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives of different disciplines have received Sowell’s work positively.
Among these, he has been noted for his originality, great depth and breadth, clarity of expression, and thoroughness of research.
Sowell’s publications have been received positively by economists Steven Plaut, Steve H. Hanke and John B. Taylor; philosophers Carl Cohen, and Tibor Machan; science historian Michael Shermer; essayist Gerald Early; political scientists Abigail Thernstrom and Charles Murray; psychologists Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt; Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit; Jay Nordlinger, Senior Editor of National Review; theater critic and political commentator Kevin D. Williamson; Walter E. Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University; and publishing executive Steve Forbes.
Conversely, James B. Stewart of Penn State wrote a critical review of Black Rednecks and White Liberals, calling it “the latest salvo in Thomas Sowell’s continuing crusade to represent allegedly dysfunctional value orientations and behavioral characteristics of African Americans as the principal reasons for persistent economic and social disparities.”
Other academics such as Hampton University economist Bernadette Chachere, Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson, social scientist Richard Coughlin, and Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford have been critical of some of his work in book reviews.
Criticisms include failure to take into account discrimination against women at work in Rhetoric or Reality?; the lack of a coherent methodology in Race and Culture: A World View; caricaturing and then attacking opposing theories in Intellectuals and Race.; ignoring the impact of slavery in Black Rednecks and White Liberals; and a failure to account for recent changes in demographics in Wealth, Poverty and Politics.
In a review in the Journal of Economic Literature, economist Jennifer Doleac criticized Discrimination and Disparities for ignoring the large economic literature that shows that statistical discrimination and racial animus are real and pervasive (Sowell argues that existing racial disparities are due to accurate sorting based on underlying characteristics, such as education), and that existing evidence indicates that government intervention can achieve societal goals and make markets work more efficiently.
Sowell denies the need to address global warming. He believes instead that climate scientists manufactured a need for their services and are chasing research funding.
Sowell compared climate science to weather forecasting, writing:
Meteorology has many facts and many scientific principles but, at this stage of its development, weather forecasts just a week ahead are still iffy. Why then should we let ourselves be stampeded into crippling the American economy with unending restrictions created by bureaucrats who pay no price for being wrong?
Upon the release of an EPA report in 2002, Sowell wrote:
The campaign to stampede the federal government into drastic action to counter “global warming” has never let honesty cramp its style. The most recent ploy has been the release of a study from the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded that human actions were responsible for rising temperatures and that government restrictions on those actions were necessary to prevent various disastrous scenarios from unfolding.
The problem is that all this hysteria was based on a computer model that had been shown to be incompatible with factual data. …
This is by no means the first time that a supposedly “scientific” report turned out to be a political report wrapping itself in the mantle of science.
Referring to the Climatic Research Unit email controversy Sowell asserted that climate scientists “knew darn well they couldn’t deal with all the evidence.” He also wrote, “Unfortunately, we are not likely to hear any similar apologies from those who have been promoting ‘global warming’ hysteria for years, in defiance of data that fail to fit their climate models.”