Acton Institute Powerblog

Empirical maverick: ‘Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World’ (watch)

(Photo credit: Screenshot.)

“You’re about to meet one of the greatest minds of the past half-century,” says Jason Riley as he introduces his new documentary about economist Thomas Sowell. For once, a host’s description of his subject does not disappoint.

The love of Riley, the author of the Wall Street Journal’s “Upward Mobility” column, for Sowell’s ideas shapes every aspect of Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World. The 57-minute documentary, which is drawn largely from Riley’s forthcoming book, Maverick: A Biography of Thomsa Sowell, is produced by Free to Choose Media.

The most illustrative insight into Sowell’s character comes during an exchange with podcaster Dave Rubin. When Rubin asked what accounts for Sowell’s rejection of his early, Marxist worldview, Sowell replied tersely, “Facts.” In another context, Sowell summarized, “The only reason for not believing in it [Marxism] is it doesn’t work.” Quips like that, which exemplify the 90-year-old economist’s intellectual journey from collectivist to libertarian, caused Riley to say, “Thomas Sowell is that rarest of species: an honest intellectual.”

After reading an endless array of books and columns, and assembling all the available video footage of Sowell’s half-century as a public intellectual, Riley distills the essence of Sowell’s thought into four pillars:

What distinguishes Thomas Sowell’s scholarship? First, intellectual honesty, asking the right questions, gathering the relevant data, and following the facts to their logical conclusion – even if that conclusion turns out to be unpopular. Second, the importance of incentives and the reality of trade-offs in addressing our social problems. Third, the belief that a group’s upward mobility derives primarily from its development of human capital. And finally, Sowell has an abiding respect for social processes and existing institutions, and the role they play in decision-making.

Thomas Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, on June 30, 1930. His father died before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth while Sowell was a young boy. He was raised by his great aunt and her two adult daughters without electricity, central heat, or hot water. At the age of nine, they moved to Harlem.

Although his relatives lacked formal education, they invested in the development of his prodigious intellect. “Nobody in that family had graduated from high school, and most had not graduated from grade school,” he said. “But they were interested in education, and they were interested in me.”

They and a family friend taught him the importance of education. His friend took Sowell as a young child to the Harlem Public Library and taught him the joy of reading. “At some point, I would have learned what a public library was, but by then it would have been too late,” Sowell said. The same friend taught Sowell how to transfer to a better school when he entered junior high school, cementing Sowell’s belief in school choice – a passion reflected in his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies.

Sowell would learn that education comes in many forms. He earned degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. During this time, Sowell was so convinced a socialist that even a class with Milton Friedman did not alter his views.

What Friedman could not accomplish with all his persuasion, one summer internship at the Department of Labor would affect through its feckless indifference. Sowell helped the DOL oversee the minimum wage – a perennially controversial issue. When he found that raising the minimum wage forces minorities and young people out of work, federal bureaucrats persisted in their promotion of economic interventionism. After all, the consequences did not affect them; they had more to lose from undermining the regnant Keynesianism of their day.

The facts had spoken. Sowell chose to follow them, rather than defaulting to comfort and conformity. An intellectual maverick had been born.

Sowell clashed with black militants during this career as an academic in the 1960s, confounding them when they learned he shared neither their grievances nor their demands for greater government intervention in their lives. Their admission to elite universities where they could not thrive, rather than second-tier schools for which they would have been well suited, showed Sowell the unintended consequences of affirmative action. Sowell discovered that the welfare state had decimated the black family, public schools had favored teachers’ unions over black students, quotas had mismatched black scholars with the best secondary educational opportunities, and minimum wage hikes dried up potential sources of employment for young black people. The resultant lack of human capital created a panoply of social pathologies. Economic freedom and opportunity, he concluded, provided the best tools for the black community – or any community – to rise out of poverty.

Before leaving academia for a post at the Hoover Institution, Sowell met Walter Williams. The two remained friends until Williams’ death last month. Together, they taught non-economists the economic way of thinking. Williams, who appears in the film posthumously, says that “Tom has the gift of being able to do that, to be able to explain potentially complex ideas in economics to the ordinary person.”

Sowell left the classroom, but he never stopped teaching. He has authored more than 30 books, written a nationally syndicated newspaper column (until December 2016), and appeared in countless TV and radio interviews. He’s written on topics as diverse as education, wages, federal policy, and the phenomenon of children who begin to speak later in life.

Sowell has produced more, and more substantive, books since turning 80 than many academics produce in a lifetime.

To each subject, Sowell brings academic precision – looking at each facet of the issue and subjecting each hypothesis to a rigorous vetting process of multivariate analysis. Along the way he concluded that no amount of federal funding can overcome a deficit in social institutions, like two loving parents. “I’m fairly sure Tom would say the 75% rate of illegitimacy among blacks is a devastating problem, but it’s not a racial problem. It’s not a legacy of slavery,” says Williams. “I believe Tom would say as well that the crime we see in many black communities is a devastating problem, but it has nothing to do with racial discrimination.”

Disproving the notion that all racial disparities derive from racism – the central thesis of critical theory – has been perhaps Sowell’s most explosive, and most valuable, undertaking. Sowell’s intellectual might allows him to topple an endless series of shibboleths with one piece of data. “Japanese Americans have a median age of 50. Hispanic Americans have a median age of 26,” he said recently. “There’s no way they could be equally divided on activities that either require the strength and energy of youth such as playing major league baseball, or things that require long years of experience and education such as being a surgeon or a CEO.” Economic discrepancies come from one of the age-old explanations of income inequality: age.

Through it all, Sowell reveals, his greatest joy comes from being able to get “the hard data and find out what’s really happening.” Our greatest joy comes from the clear and entertaining way he shares them with us – and the heartburn he causes pure ideologues.

Sowell “can be a contrarian,” says his fellow Hoover Institution intellectual Victor Davis Hanson. He “gravitates” toward “areas that are unpopular, or they’re plagued by false knowledge or misconceptions.” When Sowell’s insights puncture popular opinion, “the results tend to bother people,” Hanson says, yet Sowell remains “dispassionate.”

“As an African-American intellectual, he’s supposed to fit a preconceived, academic, ideological position – and it’s not that he doesn’t. He’s just not interested in it,” Hanson says. “He doesn’t make friends or enemies based on tribal considerations or popular consensus.”

This documentary is another in the welcome trend of productions celebrating the contributions of conservative black intellectuals. This category includes Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, Walter Williams: Suffer No Fools, and the broader scope of Larry Elder’s Uncle Tom. Riley’s documentary lacks one element that makes other projects so endearing: autobiographical accounts told in the voice of the subject himself. In lieu of Sowell or his family, Riley features numerous Willims, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, and vignettes – all featuring musicians – that are reminiscent of the original PBS miniseries Free to Choose (in which Sowell participated). Still, a Sowell-less documentary is less effective than a Sowell-ful one.

That uncontrollable issue notwithstanding, Riley has rendered a valuable service by exposing a new generation to the thought of a man he so clearly respects – one whose empirical approach to contentious issues is too-little replicated. As Anthony Bradley noted last month after the death of Walter Williams:

Thomas Sowell is 90 years old. Glenn Loury is in his early seventies. Where is the next generation of black classical liberal and conservative economists, who use data to challenge prevailing narratives while arguing for greater political and economic liberty?

Perhaps the next generation will come from watching these documentaries and reading the wisdom of Sowell, Williams, et. al. Whether they can spark a much-needed intellectual renaissance remains open to debate. “What no one can doubt,” Riley says of Sowell, “is the courage of this maverick intellectual.”

You can watch the full documentary below:

 

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is the former Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty.