Jason Riley is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, Maverick, is an intellectual biography of the economist and public intellectual Thomas Sowell. Focusing mainly on Sowell’s thinking, it presents only the bare facts of his life. Sowell has averaged about one book a year over the past half century. Thus, Riley’s 304 page book can only hint at the thinking of one of America’s most influential and prolific intellectuals – an appellation Sowell would likely find discomforting or inadequate. Sowell also wrote a nationally syndicated twice weekly column which he only abandoned at age 86. Somehow, he also found time to be a serious photographer.
So prodigious and profound is Sowell’s output that someone not conversant with his work may not know where to start. Riley’s summation of Sowell’s career, which at age 91 does not appear over, serves as an introduction to the writings of a unique thinker. Sowell got a late start. His family moved to Harlem from North Carolina when he was 9. He gained admission to Stuyvesant High School , a magnet school for gifted students – the kind Mayor de Blasio wants to eliminate. He dropped out because of family and financial difficulties. After a succession of menial jobs he was drafted during the Korean War and served in the Marine Corps. Following discharge he got his GED diploma, worked during the day, and took night courses at Howard University. He then was admitted to Harvard graduating magna cum laude with a BA in economics in 1958. He earned a master’s degree in economics from Columbia in 1959. He then attended the University of Chicago where his studied economics with Frederick Hayek, Milton Friedman, and George Stigler. He received his PhD in 1968.
Sowell was a Marxist until he went to work for the federal government during the 1960s. He observed that his fellow government workers were more interested in their careers than the public well-being. He stopped being a Marxist. When he asked why, his one word reply was facts.
Riley describes Sowell’s unbending resistance to political correctness. When on the faculty of Cornell University he refused to grant special dispensations to black students and was totally opposed to the demonstrations at the Ivy League school that overturned normal campus life. He left when he decided that he couldn’t abide the campus culture. Eventually, after a series of academic appointments, he left academia entirely in 1981 to become a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University. This job gave him complete freedom to pursue his writing on a full time basis.
Sowell’s refusal to follow the party line of his fellow black intellectuals has caused many of them to brand him as a traitor to his heritage. He sees his position in a very different light. He has argued persuasively and often that affirmative action has held blacks back and has denigrated their real achievements. He has examined preferential programs all over the world and shown that everywhere they work opposite to their stated purpose. His insistence on reality has made him persona non grata among those black elites who insist that their fellow blacks are victims who cannot rise without massive governmental assistance. Sowell thinks this view nonsense and give many examples that refute it, such as the success of students graduating from the all black high school Dunbar. Sowell wrote this about the school:
For Washington, the end of racial segregation led to a political compromise, in which all schools became neighborhood schools. Dunbar, which had been accepting outstanding black students from anywhere in the city, could now accept only students from the rough ghetto neighborhood in which it was located. Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired. More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.
But his writings on race are just a small part of his output. He has argued, persuasively in my view, that minimum wage laws harm those in the lowest economic strata. His book Basic Economics has gone through five editions. Though he studied with Hayek at Chicago it took a while for one of Hayek’s essential insights to crystalize in Sowell’s thinking. That society is so interconnected and variable means that no one person or group of people can have sufficient knowledge to effectively intervene and direct its course. This means, as Sowell argued many times, that whenever possible it is best to leave the economy alone and let the market work things out as best it can. This view is rarely enacted. Watch how the current economic and social crises play out under the heavy hand of the government.
One of Sowell’s most pungent observations concerns the view that undeveloped parts of the world could not achieve sufficient growth to reach the level of the advanced West without foreign aid and management. Of course, post-war Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore did just that on their own. Sowell’s views were always based on evidence not ideology, which made him both a real expert and a target among those wedded to cant rather than data.
As alluded to above, Rileys short and well researched and written biography of a great American intellect is a fine gateway to a massive body of work unmatched in both scope and depth of thought by any other economist or social thinker. Highly recommended.