The Life and Influence of Thomas Sowell
The Life and Influence of Thomas Sowell
How a black orphan from the Jim Crow South became one of our foremost public intellectuals.
From the 20th century to now, there have been a multitude of economists whose work and teachings have influenced life as we know it in America and how we look at economics today. One that is most widely known is Milton Friedman, whose work made an astronomical impact on public policy and economic thought, making him a giant in the free market movement. But Friedman’s work didn’t end with him. Thomas Sowell, mentee of Friedman, is a highly acclaimed American economist who has contributed greatly to the fields of economic history, social history, economic theory, and the free market/conservative movement.
In 1930, Sowell was born the youngest of five into poverty shortly before losing both parents in segregated North Carolina. In his autobiography, Personal Odyssey, he writes that his childhood interactions with white people were so few that he didn’t know blond was a hair color. At nine years old, his family relocated to the Harlem borough of New York City.
Sowell qualified for a prestigious academic high school but was forced to drop out due to financial difficulties. He worked odd jobs before enrolling in the United States Marine Corps, following his service, Sowell enrolled in night classes at Howard University, then attended Harvard University, obtained his masters from Columbia University, and doctorate from The University of Chicago.
In his professional life, we have been able to benefit from nearly fifty books, decades of articles, and even his highly active Twitter account. In his writings and teachings Sowell takes a free market approach to capitalism.
“Capitalism makes them pay a price for their failures, while socialism, feudalism, fascism, and other systems enable personal failures, especially by those at the top, to be ignored.”
In one of his most famous quotes, Sowell shows his belief in failure being a large part of a free market’s success. He suggests in Capitalism, the real-life option of failure makes people work harder and drives innovation, while other systems allow people to fail without consequence.
Sowell’s book, Knowledge and Decisions, analyzes social and economic knowledge and how it is transmitted through society, and how that transmission affects decision making. The text won the 1980 Law and Economics Center Price, and has been heralded as a “landmark work, because of its contribution to our understanding of the differences between the market process and the process of government. He warns that society suffers from an ever-widening gap between firsthand knowledge and decision making, which threatens our economics, politics, and our very freedom because actual knowledge is replaced by assumptions from an abstract and elitist social vision.
Raised with a deep sense of social responsibility, Sowell has also been a thought leader on social topics. His works take an in-depth challenge to the notion that black progress has come from progressive government programs and policies. He takes strong issue with the widely accepted thought that the government has been a helper of minorities, arguing that the historical record shows quite the opposite. He has argued that systematic racism is an untested, questionable hypothesis, writing, “I don’t think even the people who use it have any clear idea what they’re saying,” comparing it to propaganda tactics, saying if it’s “repeated long enough and loud enough [people] cave in.”
Thomas Sowell has been an influence on American politics, economics, and social policies for nearly five decades. His direct influence has reached across the country and up the political ladder as far as supreme court justices, and even presidents of the United States. Unfortunately, Sowell has not been held nearly as highly acclaimed as similarly accredited counter-parts and critics who prioritize political correctness. His bold and unsentimental views on widely-accepted liberal theories have grown him a large following, but have also enraged fellow intellectuals, the civil-rights establishment, and the majority of the mainstream media.