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Today, June 30, marks the 92nd birthday of a man who has been defined as one of the most important political philosophers in modern American history and as wherever he went, “the smartest person in the room.” He is economist Thomas Sowell, author of dozens of books and eminence for all those who celebrate property, limited government, free markets, and, above all, common sense.
Thomas Sowell’s Life
He began his journey as a Southern African American boy without many resources; was orphaned; moved to New York, became a fervent Marxist, and earned degrees at Harvard and Chicago University.
His mind suffered a sea change when he got a job at the U.S. Department of Labor, a position that led him to rethink his ideological convictions and to become a reference point for everything that, in his former ideological home, was destructive.
His studies on the wage gap, affirmative action, race, and many other issues have often led him to find himself on the “politically incorrect” side of the debate.
However, as Victor Davis Hanson commented in a documentary in his honor, Sowell “is not interested in making people happy or angry, he is interested in telling people what the data show.”
With 92 years of life, there is a lot of material to cut, so there is no need to lengthen the introduction. Let’s dive right into the story of this empiricist worthy of a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
First Steps and His Obsession with Education
Thomas Sowell was born on June 30, 1930, in the city of Gastonia, North Carolina, and like many African American families of the time, he had no electricity, heat or hot water. His father died before he was born, and his mother was only able to share the first few years with him, as she also lost her life due to illness.
After being orphaned, he was adopted by his great-aunt, who raised him with her two daughters. While he was growing up, no one close to him had graduated from high school, a complex situation, but to which Sowell himself attributes part of the success he achieved over the years.
When he turned 8 years old, they moved to New York’s Harlem, at 720 St Nicholas Avenue. There, his abilities allowed him to access an education far superior to what he would have received in the still segregated Deep South.
There he soaked up what the street is all about and found a friend in Eddie Mad, another kid who, while living in the neighborhood, was as much as Sowell as cottage cheese is to a plum. He came from an extremely educated family, and it was he who introduced him to a world our protagonist could never leave: books.
“Really had I not encountered him [Eddie], the entire rest of the story could not have been the way it was. When you start getting in the habit of reading when you are 8 years old, that´s a different ball game than if you what till you are a teenager and it’s too late now” Sowell confessed years later.
Sometime later, it was time for high school. However, Little Tom, as he was nicknamed by the locals, was a bit of a slump. Fortunately, he asked to transfer and did, although not many other children were able to do so.
This episode made him a fierce advocate of school choice, a policy that seeks to allow parents to decide which school to send their children to. Interestingly, this is what his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, which he published in 2020, is about.
Army and College
Before starting college he was drafted into the Army, where he served in the Korean War and due to his camera skills, was assigned to the Marine Corps’ camera division.
Once he finished his time there, he got a scholarship to Harvard University due to his excellent scores on the relevant exams and letters of recommendation from various professors. All this despite the fact that he never finished high school due to problems at home. In 1958, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Economics and, after this experience, he went on to Stanford University, where he earned a Master’s Degree. Not content with this, he furthered his studies at the University of Chicago under the guidance of Milton Friedman. He received his doctorate in this subject in 1968.
Despite remaining a Marxist, he learned perhaps one of the most important lessons of his life: hard data, the need to look for sources, and to always speak with empirical support. In that institution, and even more so with the professors there, one had to defend one’s position tooth and nail.
Clearing up doubts as to whether he learned the lesson, he chose the following phrase from John Adams to begin his book, Economic Facts and Fallacies: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
“I am Mr. Sowell”
In 1965, he began teaching at Cornell University, but left quickly disenchanted by the effects of affirmative action on African American students, which many years later motivated him to write Affirmative Action Around the World.
After leaving Cornell, he moved schools to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where one of Peltzman’s favorite anecdotes occurred. “I was sitting in my office at UCLA one day, when the black student association delegation marched into his office. I heard all of this. One of them said ‘well, how you doing brother?’. Tom punched his desk and replied: ‘just a minute, I am not your brother, I am Mr. Sowell, and you will address me that way.’”
“Boy, that was a shock to these folks. In the US context, he would have been expected to acknowledge a special connection to the black students association, which was seeking special privileges for black students. He completely rejected that approach,” said Sam Peltzman, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who has known him for more than 40 years.
From Marxism to Freedom
As he grew older, Sowell became a devout Marxist, eager for revolution. To give you an idea of how committed he was to the manifesto drafted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, not even his time at the University of Chicago changed his mind. That is, he took classes with Milton Friedman and after that, he continued to profess these two authors. This would be equivalent to headbutting a wall, experiencing the pain, and seconds later headbutting it again even harder.
Despite being a public and well-known person in his country, he prefers to keep to himself. He is famous for not giving interviews and for keeping journalists waiting for years to talk to him. Not long ago, however, he decided to make an exception to the rule. At 88 years old, he sat down for an hour to talk to Dave Rubin on his show The Rubin Report. The host stated that he spent four years trying to get that note.
There, he recalled in first person his early Marxism and explained that “it’s not that unusual, many of the greatest thinkers started out as Marxists. Milton Friedman was a leftist Keynesian, Hayek was a socialist, and even Ronald Reagan was so far to the left that the FBI investigated him as a communist.”
“What was it that changed your mind?” asked Rubin, to which Sowell gave a somewhat shorter and more concise answer than expected: “the facts.” “The vision of the left is the most attractive. The only reason not to buy it is because it doesn’t work, but you don’t see that from the outside,” he added to laughter from around the studio.
If we dive a little deeper into this abrupt change, we find that the triggering factor was none other than his work for the state. In his own words, “one summer in the government was enough to make me say ‘the government is really not the answer’. So never say that the federal government doesn´t do anything.”
Many of my fellow readers may wonder what happened to him there to make him so traumatized. It turns out that he was an intern at the Ministry of Labor and, thanks to his studies in economics and his fascination with data, he reached out to his superiors with a study that concluded that minimum wage laws did not help people get jobs, quite the opposite.
Of course, he thought he was going to get a standing ovation, a raise, and even a subtle gold star on his forehead. However, to his surprise, nothing could be further from the truth.
This agency was getting almost a third of its funding from these kinds of laws, so they didn’t much care whether it was useful or not. “They were angry and said ‘this idiot is talking about something that can ruin us all’. Once you begin to see that government agencies have their own self-interests, quite aside from what they are supposed to be doing,” Sowell recalled in an interview.
It was like a hammer blow to the head that, far from knocking him down, led him to rethink his worldview. From then on, he began to change his ideas about a large and protagonist state, to defend the market, freedom, the importance of individual decisions, and, needless to say, data.
Leap to Fame
His popularity came in the 1980s, when he began commenting on a series of films by his former professor, Milton Friedman, Free to Choose. This led to his presence on various television programs, where he faced questions from the audience and the hosts themselves. Sowell’s data, wisdom, and articulation always made him stand out in these exchanges.
There were so few African-Americans who expressed these values with such fervor that it was William Buckley, an icon of conservatism in the 20th century, who once stated that “The Environmental Protection Agency should not allow Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams to travel together on the same plane.”
During that decade, the author of A Conflict of Visions landed at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, a place that allowed him to leave teaching and dedicate himself to the publication of articles, books, and research. In other words, he was paid to be Thomas Sowell. At that time he began to write his weekly column, which was distributed to more than 300 newspapers, including Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Fortuna, and The New York Times, although he would probably not be very proud to appear in the latter today.
He ended this custom on December 27, 2016, for many a date that merits a black ribbon on the arm. However, every now and then he tempts himself again and writes about current events, as happened last October with the Virginia gubernatorial election.
From then on, Sowell’s books began to skyrocket in popularity, making him one of the country’s leading economists and political philosophers. For example, in 1987, the U.S. Congress itself summoned him as an expert to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in connection with the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. There he gave his opinion on the negative effects of affirmative action and even had an interesting exchange with the current President, Joe Biden.
A Conflict of Visions
Perhaps his most outstanding and award-winning work is A Conflict of Visions. First published in 1987 and then re-released in 2007, it attempts to explain where the reasoning of the left and right in the United States comes from. Apparently, it did not do badly in its attempt, since the psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker assured that it was the best explanation of the subject.
This work also marked the life of Daniel Rodríguez Herrera, collaborator of the Juan de Mariana Institute and deputy director of the media Libertad Digital. “I found it tremendously enlightening because it helped me to understand my own way of thinking, to understand myself, which is not what you expect from the work of an economist. It also helped me to understand others and to see why they say what they say. It is still my favorite and is the book I recommend the most since it can be used by a person outside ideology,” he commented.
As of June 2022, Sowell’s works and teachings are not losing their relevance and do not seem to be in the mood to do so. Despite his advanced age, his mind remains intact and, to make it clear, since he turned 80 he has had the luxury of publishing 10 books (I dare say, one better than the other).
In spite of this, another of his classic works happens to be over 20 years old and, although its title may sound ‘simplistic’, its content is a bit more complex and meaty. We are talking about Basic Economics.
True to his style, he currently keeps a very low profile, although his popularity on YouTube and other social networks makes him an international celebrity. He appears from time to time on Peter Robinson’s show, Uncommon Knowledge, where he comments on his books and a juicy range of controversial topics.
How can Thomas Sowell be described?
Answering this question is complex, as it was asked by many economists, politicians, and thinkers. In turn, the best answer I found was one Robinson himself received from a passer-by. “The best definition was given to me by one of the people who watch Uncomoun Knowledge, it was a young guy. He stopped me and said, ‘You look like a man who knows how to think.'”