The American economist, whose broad learning and philosopher’s eye bring a sharp clarity to the science, is applauded
The calm sunshine of the mind.” That was how David Hume described that exceedingly precious, and also exceedingly rare, mental commodity: unruffled rational thought. It’s a description I’ve long associated with the work of Thomas Sowell, the American economist and social commentator who is now in his 80th year.
I hesitated before using the designation “economist”. True, Sowell’s professional home is in that discipline. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in economics and holds advanced degrees in the subject from Columbia and the University of Chicago. Among his nearly 40 books (including two that I’ve published at Encounter Books) are technical studies and more general free-market titles like Economic Facts and Fallacies (2007) and On Classical Economics (2006). Sowell also recently published The Housing Boom and Bust, a penetrating study of the recent housing bubble that helped fuel the worldwide credit crisis we are still living through.
Still, Carlyle was on to something when he described economics as “the dismal science”. As often practised, economics seems pedantically abstract and divorced from the human realities it is meant to illuminate. Sowell is a rare practitioner of the discipline — Hayek was another — whose broad learning and psychological insight lifts his work in economics to the level of cultural criticism in the highest sense. When he writes about economic matters, Sowell writes not just about the behaviour of markets but also about that of people. Sowell brings a philosopher’s eye to the scientist’s data. “Evidence” is one of his favourite words, but what he does with evidence goes beyond explanation to the realm of cultural illumination. Like Anthony Trollope, he is interested in limning the way we live now. He specialises in the clear articulation of unpalatable truths. “Put bluntly,” he writes in an article about education, “failure attracts more money than success.” Naturally, the custodians of established opinion are not grateful for having the nakedness of their emperors pointed out with such clarity. As a result, although Sowell’s accomplishments have been handsomely recognised in conservative circles, he is conspicuously underrated by the cultural elite who dispense the demotic legitimisation of celebrity.
Sowell’s life is an American success story right out of the pages of Horatio Alger. He was born in North Carolina to a single mother in 1930. His family had neither electricity, central heating nor running water. When his mother died in childbirth, he was adopted by his mother’s sister. He grew up believing she was his mother in Harlem, New York. At 16, he dropped out of high school and skipped through a string of low-paying jobs until he was drafted into the Marines in 1951. Armed service, Sowell recalls in his memoir, A Personal Odyssey, was a challenging godsend. Not only did it give him much-needed personal discipline, it also introduced him to professional photography (a lifetime avocation) and, through the GI Bill, made his education possible. The Marines gave Sowell a chance. He seized it.
Sowell worked briefly as a government labour economist but soon found himself on an academic career track. He taught at Brandeis, Cornell and UCLA, among other institutions, before settling in 1980 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in a fellowship named for Rose and Milton Friedman.
But Sowell has never been a typical academic. For one thing, he is constitutionally averse to whining. In The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), he provides a brilliant anatomy of that toxic amalgam of victimisation and a sense of entitlement that fuels political correctness. Sowell ranges widely over many important social issues, showing how the supposedly good intentions of the anointed go awry.
Consider LBJ’s “war on poverty”. Launched in 1964 by cadres of liberal elites, it was a moralistic crusade that began by grossly overstating the problem in order to whip up self-righteous fervour among the susceptible. Its announced goal was not only to relieve poverty but also to quell urban violence and to increase the independence of its intended beneficiaries.
In fact, it had the opposite effect. The federal welfare programmes further stripped people of their autonomy by making them more dependent on public handouts. As Sowell shows, by the early 1960s poverty in the United States was declining sharply. In 1960, the number of people below the poverty line was half what it had been in 1950. But between 1960 and 1974, the number of people receiving public assistance nearly doubled. Between 1965 and 1974, government-provided benefits increased twenty-fold. And as for dealing with urban violence, it was in the 1960s and early 1970s that race riots raged across American cities and campuses.
In recent years, Sowell has emerged as one of America’s most clear-eyed and penetrating columnists. Whether the subject is terrorism, the economy, health care, or more general political and moral questions, Sowell weighs in with a forthrightness and sanity that is as refreshing as it is rare. “Many are for him,” Sowell wrote about Barack Obama during the campaign last year, “for no more serious reasons than his mouth and his complexion. . . . Here is a man who has consistently aided and abetted people who have openly expressed their contempt for this country, both in words and in such deeds as planting bombs to advance their left-wing agenda.” You see what I mean about Sowell not being a typical academic.