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The Enduring Relevance of Thomas Sowell

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The Enduring Relevance of Thomas Sowell

10 Blocks podcast June 17, 2021
Economy, finance, and budgets

Jason Riley talks with Brian Anderson about his new book, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell. They discuss Sowell’s upbringing, his work as an academic economist and a public intellectual, his research on disparities between groups, and more.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Jason Riley. Jason is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and a commentator for Fox News. He was awarded the Bradley Prize in 2018 and he's the author of a terrific new book that will be our topic of discussion today, the just-released Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell. Jason, thanks very much for joining us.

Jason L. Riley: Good to be here, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Thomas Sowell's early life, growing up in Harlem, serving in the military, going on to Ivy League schools, it's quite a compelling story. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about his upbringing and how that upbringing led him to form his views on economics, how he moved away from an orthodox Marxist position in his youth and toward a more free-market position?

Jason L. Riley: Sure. It's not that uncommon for conservatives today to have started out on the left. Milton Friedman started out on the left, Ronald Reagan started out on the left. It's especially true of black conservatives who not only start out slightly left of center, but way on the left. You mentioned Sowell starting out as a Marxist, but Clarence Thomas was a Black Panther in college; Walter Williams, the late Walter Williams, another free-market economist, was far more sympathetic to the views of Malcolm X in his youth than to the views of Martin Luther King; Shelby Steele, another race scholar at at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University was a leftist radical in his early days. So it's not uncommon and Sowell fits that pattern. He was born in 1930 in the Jim Crow South.

So this is a Depression-era, very poor family. He was orphaned as a child, never knew his father who died before he was born. And his mother died in childbirth to a younger brother. So Sowell never knew his parents. He was taken in by a distant relative who moved the family up north to Harlem when he was eight or nine years old and so he was raised there. And he was a smart, a smart kid, but he had a rather tumultuous home life and ended up dropping out of high school, he never earned a high school degree. And he left home at the age of 17, striking out on his own, had a number of menial jobs, including one for Western Union. And the office was located in lower Manhattan, down in the Wall Street area. And he talks about how . . . so this would be the 1940s, how he would sometimes ride the double decker bus home to Harlem at the end of his work day and just watch the neighborhoods change on the trip.

He'd go up to Wall Street, he'd go pass the ritzy shopping districts like Saks Fifth Avenue, turn onto Riverside Drive and go through other wealthy neighborhoods, residential neighborhoods. And then he crossed this viaduct and there would be the tenements, the ghetto, and that's where he would get off. And he'd look around and he'd say, "What just happened? Why did things look the way they did for this whole trip until I got up here?" And he said that Marx explained that. He had picked up a secondhand copy of encyclopedias and started reading about Marx on his own. So he was self-taught at this point, he was in his late teens. And he said . . . Marx offered an explanation that made sense to me, explained my surroundings; the capitalist exploiting the proletariat, the workers, and so forth.

And he found that very attractive. And he remained a Marxist during his stint in the Marines, he got a GI Bill, was able to go to the college on the GI Bill after leaving the military. So all through his undergraduate days, starting out at Howard University, the black college in D.C., moving on to Harvard, then Columbia, then the University of Chicago, where he studied under George Stigler and Milton Friedman, these two great economists known for their free market views. All the while, Tom Sowell remained a Marxist. And it wasn't until his early thirties after taking a job in government, that he started to change his views about socialism. He was working in the Department of Labor and studying minimum wage laws in Puerto Rico, and looked at the employment effects of these laws, particularly on minorities.

And it changed his view, not only about minimum wage laws, but about government benevolence in general. And that is what began his movement away from the left and toward a more free market way of viewing things. So it was a combination of personal experience and study that produced the Tom Sowell we have today. I'll give you one other quick example of how personal experience impacted him. He tells a story in his memoir about working as a summer intern at the U.S. Public Health Service in the late fifties, working at their headquarters in Washington, DC, and tells a story about a man who suffered a heart attack on the sidewalk outside of the building one afternoon. And they brought him into the building and took him to the nurse's office. But they determined that he wasn't a government employee, so he couldn't be treated in the building.

And so they called an ambulance to take him somewhere where he could be treated, and the man died before the ambulance arrived. And for Sowell, this dramatized the nature of bureaucracies, not just government bureaucracies, but bureaucracies in general and their emphasis on procedures rather than results. Here was a man who died waiting for a doctor in a building full of doctors. And Sowell took away from that experience a certain skepticism of bureaucrats and bureaucracies in general. And it's just one of the many ways in which his life story often informed his scholarship later on

Brian Anderson: Sowell is both an academic economist and has also played the role of a public intellectual. He's written pioneering works on technical scholarly topics, but also written a number of books that are really better described as political theory or political philosophy. So, one day he's conducting research on Say's Law, the next he's writing The Vision of the Anointed. I wonder how in his view of his own work, he thinks of these different domains. Are they related? Does the academic work inform his writing on the more philosophical topics and vice versa? Or is this really just part of the same kind of intellectual portfolio that he approaches the world with?

Jason L. Riley: Well, he is an economist by training and his specialty was economic history, the history of economic thought, history of ideas. That's what he earned his Ph.D in, studying under Stigler and Milton Friedman. In fact, he had originally planned to pursue his Ph.D. at Columbia, where he did his master's under Stigler, because Stigler was the foremost scholar in the country on the history of ideas and the history of economic thought. But Stigler moved to Chicago, and so Sowell followed him there. And that's how he ended up studying under both Stigler and Friedman, but he went there to study under Stigler.

Thomas continued to write in his discipline, economic history, and also on economics more broadly. His best-selling book is Basic Economics, which is essentially an economics textbook without any graphs and charts and free of a lot of the typical jargon you find in an economics textbook. But he also wrote an economics textbook for college, with full of graphs and charts and jargon, so he's done both. He, however, takes great pride in the fact that most of his books are not written for fellow intellectuals, but are in fact written for the general public, in very straightforward language that can be understood by the average person. He thinks that is part of the role of a public intellectual to do that.

And I think he, to some extent, got that from Milton Friedman, who for him was a kind of model public intellectual after Friedman left teaching in the 1970s. He, too, wrote books for the general public, gave speeches around the country to audiences who were not economists, wrote a column for a Newsweek Magazine and so forth. And Tom has very much pursued that model of public intellectual prism through his columns, through his books, the thinking there being that scholars shouldn't spend all their time simply talking to one another. They should explain their discipline to non-experts, to non intellectuals. And so he's been something of a popularizer in the way that Friedman was. In terms of his framework of thinking, though, whether he's writing about economic history or racial preferences, or school choice or antitrust law, or the civil rights leadership, he does have a certain intellectual framework that he's operating from.

And that is laid out in his favorite book, which is A Conflict of Visions that he published in the mid 1980s—1987, I believe. And it's a book about political philosophy, and it traces our various political and social disputes to how people think about human nature and the way the world works. And he traces these two conflicting visions as he puts them; the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision back hundreds of years. And there are views that people hold even unconsciously. But it's why if someone tells you what they think about military spending, you can probably guess what they think about taxes and abortion and regulation and rent control, and all the rest. And for Sowell, the unconstrained vision he sometimes calls the utopian vision, and the constrained vision he sometimes calls the tragic vision.

And again, he traces these back hundreds of years to writers like William Godwin, Rousseau, Adam Smith, down through writers like John Rawls. And if you hold that constrained vision, it basically means that you think there are limits to human betterment, that there are problems that we'd like to solve, but are unlikely to ever get rid of altogether. So we may want to end war, we may want to end racism and poverty and so forth, but that's not likely to happen. And so the best that we can do is to put in place institutions and processes that help us deal with problems to the best of our ability, problems that we'll probably never entirely eliminate. So you may want world peace, but it's probably not going to happen, so it's good to have the military in place. You may want to end crime, but that too is unlikely to happen. So you're going to need a court system to adjudicate disputes and so forth.

And in contrast that with this unconstrained or utopian vision, which essentially says, no, there are no limits to human betterment, to the certain perfectability of humankind. It's just a matter of willpower and reason. And we can not only simply manage these problems that we have and quality and so forth, we can solve them entirely. And moreover we can do so without any trade-offs whatsoever. And Sowell says that these are really two views that go back hundreds of years. And if you really want to know where he's coming from on any number of subjects, that's the book to read, and that's the framework in which he's really operating.

That book is part of an informal trilogy. The other two were called The Quest for Cosmic Justice and The Vision of The Anointed. In those two latter books, he critiques the various visions themselves, but in the first book, A Conflict of Visions, it's a much more a neutral book. He doesn't hide the fact that he shares that more tragic vision, but he's much more interested in simply describing the two visions and laying this out as an intellectual framework with which to study or policy disputes and social disputes down through the ages.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned racial preferences, Jason, and one of the major themes of Sowell's work of course, is that disparities between groups are not necessarily evidence of over discrimination, that they may be result of distinct cultural patterns of attitudes toward economic activity, family, that there are cultural differences. These days, a leading figure in contemporary left progressivism, Ibram Kendi, has become pretty notorious these days defining racism as basically anything that furthers disparities between racial groups. What is the response that Tom would make to Kendi's position and what explains the resurgence of this idea, which Sowell's work over the years has dismantled.

Jason L. Riley: So one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because I think it's tragic, really, that names like Ibram Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Cornel West are better known than Thomas Sowell, whose scholarship I think runs run circles around those guys, maybe around all of them put together. And not only in terms of his breadth, or the hot topics he has covered, but the depth and the rigor of his thinking, I think those others do not come close to matching. I think the first way that Sowell would take issue with Kendi's premise is to reject the premise itself. Kendi is operating from the premise that on equal outcomes, or I should put it this way, he's operating from the premise that equal outcomes are the norm, and that where we don't see them, something is wrong.

It's an assumption that that human capital as economists refer to it, cultural attitudes and abilities and skills and habits and behaviors, that human capital is evenly distributed among groups in society. And therefore we should see equal outcomes in terms of educational attainment, in terms of income, in terms of representation and skilled professions and so forth. And where we don't see it, something nefarious is going on. That is Kendi's premise. And so I would say, where is your evidence that equal outcomes are the norm?

People who have studied societies down through history have never found this evenness of outcomes that Kendi is holding up as normal. And so I think he would start right there. But you're right Sowell has also shown that groups that do have that human capital are able to overcome all kinds of things and including being discriminated against by others in society. And he's studied this issue, not only among groups here in the US, but internationally. So he's looked at the ethnic Chinese and Southeast Asia, a hated group banned from participating in certain occupations, limited in what schools they can attend and so forth, yet outperforming the native population both academically and economically throughout Southeast Asia. You can point to groups like the Japanese here in America.

There were times when they couldn't own land in certain states, were kept out of certain professions, were interned during World War II. Japanese Americans today outperform whites, both academically and economically, and have for decades. So this whole idea that discrimination can be held up as this all-purpose explanation for group disparities is refuted by the experience of groups the world over.

Brian Anderson: You've written what is the first biography of Thomas Sowell, I believe. This is quite an achievement. I'd just like to ask about what the writing process was like. How did you research the book? Whom did you speak with in order to get a picture of Sowell as a man? And what's the reception of the book like so far?

Jason L. Riley: Well, the reception has been wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better reception. There's still a tremendous amount of interest in Sowell and his work, and I'm glad. I think I also did a documentary film. I narrated a documentary film about Sowell's life for public television, which came out earlier this year, and that, too, has been received quite well. And one of the things I was particularly pleased about learning is that the producers of the film were able to track who was watching it. You could watch it not only in your local public television station, but you could stream it on Amazon and YouTube and so forth. And they could could look at the demographics of who was in fact streaming it, and they trended younger. And I was quite pleased to hear that because one goal of the book was to reach a younger audience, or to raise Tom's profile among people who had heard something about him.

And so I think both the book and the film have been able to do that so far. In terms of the process of writing it, the biggest hurdle was Tom, who didn't have a biographer and didn't want one. I had been trying to convince him to cooperate on a book for some time. I could have written it without his cooperation, and he encouraged me to do so, but I wanted his cooperation. And finally, he was going to be 91 years old at the end of June. So maybe I just wore him down, or he's getting soft in his old age. But this has been a sort of, not a lifelong project, but almost a lifelong project. I first learned about Thomas Sowell when I was in college in the early 1990s.

And I worked on the school paper and we're sitting around having a conversation about affirmative action with some fellow students one day, and someone said, "Jason, you sound like Thomas Sowell." And I said, "Thomas who?" And the person wrote down the name on a book on a sheet of paper. And I went to the school library that evening and checked it out and read it in one sitting, and went back the next day and checked out the school's entire Thomas Sowell collection, and have been hooked ever since. After I joined the Wall Street Journal editorial page in the mid 1990s, I first got to meet Sowell in person. He would come through New York on book tours and meet with various editorial boards. And so that's when I initially got to meet him. And then in the mid 2000's, I went out to Hoover, the Hoover Institution, where he's based, and at Stanford University, and wrote up a profile of him for the paper.

And that's when we struck up an acquaintance that that has endured. And pretty much since then, since the mid 2000's, I've been trying to get him to cooperate on letting me work on a book. And unfortunately, a lot of the people I would have liked to interview about the book, people who knew him in his student days and so forth have now passed away. So I was a little annoyed that he took so long to say yes to the project. But some of his friends went to bat for me, Shelby Steele went to bat for me, and Walter Williams went to bat and said, "Somebody is going to write this book. It might as well be Jason." And Tom finally cooperated by sitting for a bunch of long interviews. He was very generous with his time. And so the biggest hurdle was just getting him to do that.

Brian Anderson: Final question, for a listener who might not have read any Sowell. You've mentioned A Conflict of Visions. I wonder, what are the three books that you would recommend for somebody to begin with? Because with Sowell's work, because the body of it is enormous. He is the author of many, many books, columns, it's really a lifetime project to read it all. Where would you start?

Jason L. Riley: He published a book in 2011 titled The Thomas Sowell Reader, and it's sort of a sampling of his work. It has some book chapters in there, it has a bunch of columns, longer essays and so forth on various topics; social theory, economics, culture, race, and so forth. So I might start there to get a taste of Sowell. And then if you do want to go a little deeper, I would go to A Conflict of Visions and read that, just understand his mindset where he's coming from on all these issues.

And then a third favorite of mine is a book called Race and Culture, which was published in 1994. And as part of a cultural trilogy, the other two books are called Conquests and Cultures and Migrations and Cultures. And Race and Culture, however, is kind of a summary of the trilogy. And it's a book that Thomas is quite proud of. It was years in the making, more than a decade in the making and writing this book. And it really remains relevant to a lot of the discussions we're having today about racial disparities, about inequality. And I think you'd get a really nice overview of Tom's work in this area and in that book. So that would be a third book I'd recommend.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much Jason. Don't forget to check out Jason Riley's work on the Manhattan Institute website, that's The new book is called Maverick: A biography of Thomas Sowell. It really is terrific. We'll link to the author page in the description of the podcast. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @Cityjournal and on Instagram @Cityjournal_MI. If you like what you've heard on the show, as always, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Jason Riley, thanks very much. It's good to talk with you, and congratulations on the fascinating book.

Jason L. Riley: Thank you very much, Brian.

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