Thomas Sowell -- Still Relevant at 93

The occasion of Thomas Sowell’s 93rd birthday offers an opportunity to share with folks who are only recently becoming acquainted with him the best starting place for understanding the basic outlines that define Sowell’s analysis of social problems.

Because it puts forward one of Sowell’s most important lessons in my opinion, namely his hypothesis that much of Western political debates are predicated on one of two predominant worldviews, what Sowell refers to as the constrained and unconstrained visions, reading his A Conflict of Visions as a good place for the new student to start. As he progresses through this and Sowell’s other works, it will be clear that the constrained vision informs Sowell’s analysis of a host of controversial issues, from economics to race and discrimination to history and cross-cultural comparisons.  If I had to point to just a handful of topics the dedicated student of Sowell is likely to pick up, they would be

  1. The amelioration or eradication of human social problems is not realistic, much less attainable.  The best we can do is reduce such problems by (a) leaving individuals, groups, or associations to work out compromises as they see fit -- given that they are best positioned to know how certain actions will affect their lives in both the short- and long-run -- rather than depending on the so-called expertise of third parties who have neither the history nor institutional knowledge needed to decide a best course from a litany of options, or -- when compromise is ineffective because of the size and complexity of the problems -- (b) carefully enacting and implementing policies that, at the very least, do not exacerbate social problems. As Sowell succinctly puts it, and I paraphrase, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
  2. One’s brilliance or giftedness in one domain, or area of expertise, does not mean that that person is qualified to speak authoritatively in some other domain.  Both Marc Chaikin and Jim Rogers might be quite knowledgeable about particular aspects of economics, generally, and financial and commodity markets, specifically, but their competence in those areas do not, for instance, translate into competence regarding the feasibility of so-called renewable energy sources replacing fossil fuels.  “It takes considerable knowledge,” Sowell has written, “just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”
  3. A corollary is that knowledge in society is dispersed widely, both across individuals and time, having been attained through trial and error across many generations, but often unequally among the various peoples of the world and among individuals within specific communities. Only the hubristic person believes that all knowledge is somehow resident in him or in a select class of enlightened human beings informed only by unaided reason.
  4. A theory about how human beings should behave because of some policy that has been enacted into law will never correspond to reality because people are not, as Sowell likes to say, “inert blocks of wood.”  Politicians may pass any number of laws and bureaucrats may deploy all sorts of rules; neither, however, may expect that the targets of such laws and rules will respond to them uniformly.  Human beings respond to all sorts of incentives based on where each is in life, the cultural orientations inculcated in them, and various other constraints.

The aim of much gun control legislation, for instance, is supposedly to keep firearms out of the hands of those who would use them for nefarious purposes.The law themselves, however, are typically aimed at the transaction between legitimate gun sellers and potential lawful purchasers.At no point does it appear that lawmakers even consider that there would be illegitimate gun sellers and potential lawless, i.e., criminal, purchasers who make a mockery of the law.That is, insofar as the criminal who desires a firearm is forbidden from lawfully purchasing one, he will seek to obtain one illegitimately in whatever way he can.

Having absorbed these lessons with several supporting examples, the new students of Sowell will be prepared to consume social science data with a more critical eye.  Attempts to elicit emotions designed to provoke unthinking social action will give way to calm, measured analysis that does its best to consider a host of alternative outcomes when such unthinking social action is set in motion.  Facts will matter more than feelings.

I encourage the new student of Sowell to investigate a few resources with which they are likely unfamiliar, however, before they move on to engaging other thinkers of either the constrained or unconstrained vision.  Each will deepen his understanding of Sowell's contributions to public policy and economic debates.

  1. At the top of the list is Alan Wolan's The Genius of Thomas Sowell podcast, which debuted in August of 2021 and is available on multiple platforms (Apple Podcasts, Audible, iHeart Podcasts, etc.).  Mr. Wolan's podcast is the first of its kind.  While the host is partial to Sowell, he is unafraid of hosting guests who may disagree with Sowell's take on a particular issue.
  2. Next up are episodes (“Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, and Richard Epstein: The Good and Bad in Three Fellow Travelers”), (“The Work of Thomas Sowell: An Appreciation”), and (“A Conflict of Visions: Michael Malice and Tom Talk Thomas Sowell”) of The Tom Woods Show.
  3. Episode 23 of Conservative Minds podcast presents a discussion of Sowell's thesis of competing visions highlighted in A Conflict of Visions.
  4. The Curiously Disagreeable podcast features four episodes on Sowell's classic and best-selling Basic Economics.
  5. In Episode 235 of the Michael Shermer Show, the host interviews Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal editorial board member, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and author of the only biography of Thomas Sowell, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell.
  6. Finally, please see the documentary Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World, a production of the Free to Choose Network and hosted by Jason Riley.

Interest in Sowell’s body of work portends good long-term outcomes for U.S. society if new students of Sowell go beyond reactions and engage Sowell’s body of work for themselves, and if they share their new understanding of political and economic matters with others in their social circles.

D. Diego Torres is senior analyst at a large community college system in Texas.

Image: Basic Books

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