A New Generation Discovers Thomas Sowell

Today, Thursday, June 30, 2022, marks the 92nd birthday of one of the most prolific scholars and thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: Thomas Sowell.  A graduate of Harvard (A.B. in Economics, 1958), Columbia (A.M. in Economics, 1959), and the University of Chicago (Ph.D. in Economics, 1968), Sowell has the distinction of having been advised and mentored by both George Stigler and Milton Friedman, both of whom would later be honored with a Nobel Prize in Economics.  Brilliant in his own right, he has also held the title of Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution for more than 40 years.

Still productive in his nineties, Sowell has written 34 book reviews, 72 essays, 19 academic articles, 10 books of collected writings, and more than 35 books, some of which have multiple editions.  He wrote a weekly syndicated column for 25 years as well, addressing the major political and cultural topics of the day in real time.  In recognition of a long and productive career, President George W. Bush honored Sowell with the National Humanities Medal in 2002. In 2004, he was awarded a Bradley Prize.

All these facts notwithstanding, one would be hard-pressed to find a student on a college campus who has ever heard of Thomas Sowell.  Even at tony and august institutions such as Cornell and Brandeis, where Sowell taught in past years, the number of students who have heard of him, much less read any of his writings, is few.

Because he is both black and conservative and has spent a career testing and disproving the axiomatic claims made by welfare-state advocates and the conjectural arguments of so-called leaders of racial minorities, Thomas Sowell is, to borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, "He Who Must Not Be Named."  His work is dangerous enough to the Marxian march through U.S. institutions that it is better not to expose students to that work.

This is not to say that all of Sowell is right all the time about everything.  In the thinking of his opponents, however, Sowell is probably closer to the truth on most things that it is better to avoid him altogether rather than have to confront him on the battlefield of ideas and then be forced to adjust long-held ideological beliefs.  It is more comforting to have one's views validated and not challenged.

Unfortunately for those who would silence Sowell by ignoring him, a new front in the war of ideas has opened in this age of social media.  Particularly on YouTube, there are several Millennial- and Generation Z–aged individuals reacting to excerpts from books by, or old long-form interviews featuring, Thomas Sowell that have been posted to the same platform.  Some of these individuals have tens, and even hundreds of thousands of subscribers (e.g., search channels owned by LFR Family, Kingdom Reacts, Officialcammm, Asia and BJ, Doc Rich, Half and Jai, Munroe's Corner, Queen B Reacts, and Devin Gibson), many of whom are no doubt sharing the content they're viewing with family and friends.

After watching many of these reactions, it is apparent to me that most channel-owners are not college-educated, which is likely a good thing.  That is, while they have undoubtedly been undereducated by dumbed down and ideological K–12 curricula — as evidenced by their genuine responses to historical facts elucidated in Sowell's writings, or clearly explained in his discussions with interviewers — they are fortunate that they have not been steeped in the self-loathing pathos of Western elites, exemplified best in university professors and the graduate students, who, under their charge, instruct undergraduates.

Increasing exposure to the works of Thomas Sowell will, I believe, continue apace for the simple reason that his conclusions are not just sound, but also commonsensical.  This is refreshing in a world in which the smartest people seem to advocate the most nonsensical policies.  Indeed, the new students of Sowell will learn from Sowell the same things I learned in my own journey from left to right, and which I also had to discover on my own, outside the formal classroom.

Foremost among the lessons the new students of Sowell will learn is the thesis Sowell lays out in his book A Conflict of Visions — that, broadly speaking, modern Westerners tend to argue past one another on our views about the perfectibility of man.  Sowell distinguishes between what he calls the constrained and unconstrained vision, or the tragic view of man and the utopian view of man.

The constrained vision, he will learn, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian belief in the inherent fallibility of man.  That is, despite all his best efforts to attain the true, the good, and the beautiful, either individually or collectively, man is often his own foil.  In this view, history and tradition serve to make men and women suspicious of the motives and schemes of their fellows.  Knowing that others can be knaves as well as knights, sinners as well as saints, each of us looks to his own self-interest over the interests of others.  There being no solution to this standoff, we are all necessarily forced to make compromises to ensure that the greater self-interest of each is preserved in some sort of civil society.

Of the unconstrained vision, the new students of Sowell will learn that it is not man who is inherently fallible, but rather society itself, and it is an abstraction called society that corrupts.  As Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues in his famous dictum, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."  Stated differently, man is good, and he is made not good, or merely mediocre, only by the limitations placed on him by large, impersonal institutions or the forces of history and tradition.  Remove these stultifying constraints, and anything is possible for man to achieve; he is better still.  Social problems no longer constitute challenges to be adjudicated in a system of law and order, of checks and balances.

No.  If we could just recognize that social problems are actually institutional or historical or systemic, we see that law and order, checks and balances, stand in the way of human progress.  The good men, freed from the chains of society, seek ultimate solutions to what are called social problems then.  Unintended consequences are ignored and even deemed worth the cost so long as we are moving toward the perfected society.  This vision presupposes that a cadre of hubristic individuals will appoint themselves as the enlightened ones who must lead the rest of society out of their ignorance...by force if necessary.

We can leave it to the new student of Sowell whether he agrees with what James Madison took to be a self-evident truth about human nature (see, for example, the latter half of the fourth paragraph of The Federalist No. 51) or whether he agrees with the articulated rationality of an enlightened expert class.  At least he will have been introduced to and have contended with the ideas that Sowell has presented.

D. Diego Torres is an I.R. analyst.  He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, but he also produces decent fiction and poetry at https://vocal.media/authors/d-diego-torres.

Image: HooverInstitution via YouTube.

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