Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Sowell (born June 30, 1930) is an American economist and political commentator.


  • It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. Know-it-alls in the school system do not lose one dime or one hour's sleep if their bright ideas turn out to be all wrong, or even disastrous, for the child.
    • Jewish World Review; "Wake up, Parents"; 18 August 2000
  • People who think that they are being "exploited" should ask themselves whether they would be missed if they left, or whether people would say: "Good riddance"?
    • Random thoughts, 29 April 2002
  • What the welfare system and other kinds of governmental programs are doing is paying people to fail. In so far as they fail, they receive the money; in so far as they succeed, even to a moderate extent, the money is taken away.
    • During a discussion in Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" television series in 1980
  • Racism has never done this country any good, and it needs to be fought against, not put under new management for different groups.
  • I'm always embarrassed when people say that I'm courageous. Soldiers are courageous. Policemen are courageous. Firemen are courageous. I just have a thick hide and disregard what silly people say.
  • It may be expecting too much to expect most intellectuals to have common sense, when their whole life is based on their being uncommon -- that is, saying things that are different from what everyone else is saying. There is only so much genuine originality in anyone. After that, being uncommon means indulging in pointless eccentricities or clever attempts to mock or shock.
  • Before the Iraq war I was quite disturbed by some of the neoconservatives, who were saying things like, "What is the point of being a superpower if you can't do such-and-such, take on these responsibilities?" The point of being a superpower is that people will leave you alone.
  • If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win.
  • One undeniable accomplishment of Bill Clinton's presidency was that it kept Jimmy Carter from being the worst U.S. president in history.
  • Nothing could be more jolting and discordant with the vision of today's intellectuals than the fact that it was businessmen, devout religious leaders and Western imperialists who together destroyed slavery around the world. And if it doesn't fit their vision, it is the same to them as if it never happened.
  • When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.
  • Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who "speak truth to power" but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.
  • Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.
  • Too often what are called "educated" people are simply people who have been sheltered from reality for years in ivy-covered buildings. Those whose whole careers have been spent in ivy-covered buildings, insulated by tenure, can remain adolescents on into their golden retirement years.
  • Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.
  • Some of the most vocal critics of the way things are being done are people who have done nothing themselves, and whose only contributions to society are their complaints and moral exhibitionism.
  • One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people's motives, make bold assertions, repeat slogans-- anything except reason.
  • Although I am ready to defend what I have said, many people expect me to defend what others have attributed to me.
  • As far as party primaries are concerned, both Republican and Democratic Party primaries are dominated by the most zealous voters, whose views may not reflect the views of most members of their own respective parties, much less the views of those who are going to vote in the November general election.
    In recent times, each election year has seen each party's nominee selected - or at least subject to veto - by its most extreme wing and then forced to try to move back to the center before the general election.
    This can only undermine the public's confidence in the integrity of the candidates of both parties.
  • Right after liberal Democrats, the most dangerous politicians are country club Republicans.
  • Republicans won big, running as Republicans, in 2004. But once they took control of Congress, they started acting like Democrats and lost big. There is a lesson in that somewhere but whether Republicans will learn it is another story entirely.
  • When we hear about rent control or gun control, we may think about rent or guns but the word that really matters is 'control.' That is what the political left is all about, as you can see by the incessant creation of new restrictions in places where they are strongly entrenched in power, such as San Francisco or New York.
  • To find anything comparable to crowds' euphoric reactions to Obama, you would have to go back to old newsreels of German crowds in the 1930s, with their adulation of their fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. With hindsight, we can look back on those people with pity, knowing now how many of them would be led to their deaths by the man they idolized.
  • “Anyone who has actually had to take responsibility for consequences by running any kind of enterprise — whether economic or academic, or even just managing a sports team — is likely at some point to be chastened by either the setbacks brought on by his own mistakes or by seeing his successes followed by negative consequences that he never anticipated.”
  • "'Global warming' is just the latest in a long line of hysterical crusades to which we seem to be increasingly susceptible."
  • "Both history and contemporary data show that countries prosper more when there are stable and dependable rules, under which people can make investments without having to fear unpredictable new government interventions before these investments can pay off."


Knowledge and Decisions (1980)[edit]

  • It is amazing that people who think we cannot afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, and medication somehow think that we can afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, medication and a government bureaucracy to administer it. (chapter: "What society expends?")
  • Freedom has cost too much blood and agony to be relinquished at the cheap price of rhetoric." (chapter: "Political Trade-Offs")

A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (1987)[edit]

  • Facts do not "speak for themselves." They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theory or visions are mere isolated curiosities.

Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays (1987)[edit]

  • Competition does a much more effective job than government at protecting consumers. (chapter: "Bogeyman Economics")
  • One of the grand fallacies of our time is that something beneficial should be subsidized. (chapter: "Cutting the Budget")
  • The case for the political left looks more plausible on the surface but is harder to keep believing in as you become more experienced. (chapter: "Left Vs. Right")
  • Understanding the limitations of human beings is the beginning of wisdom. (chapter: "Police Shootings")
  • The key feature of Communist propaganda has been the depiction of people who are more productive as mere exploiters of others. (chapter: "Twentieth Century Limited")

Is Reality Optional? (1993)[edit]

  • Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. In area after area - crime, education, housing, race relations - the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.

Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays (1999)[edit]

  • When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.
  • I have never understood why it is "greed" to want to keep the money you have earned but not greed to want to take somebody else's money.
  • People who pride themselves on their "complexity" and deride others for being "simplistic" should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.
  • Those who believe that "basic necessities" should belong to people as a matter of right ignore the implication -- that people are to work only for amenities, frivolities, and ego. Will that mean more work or less work? And if less, where are all those "basic necessities" coming from that the government is supposed to hand out?
  • Many of the dangerous things that drivers do are not likely to save them even 10 seconds. When you bet your life against 10 seconds, that is giving bigger odds than you are ever likely to get in Las Vegas.
  • Most problems do not get solved. They get superceded by other concerns.
  • People who talk incessantly about "change" are often dogmatically set in their ways. They want to change other people.
  • Maturity is not a matter of age. You have matured when you are no longer concerned with showing how clever you are, and give your full attention to getting the job done right. Many never reach that stage, no matter how old they get.
  • One of the most ridiculous defenses of foreign aid is that it is a very small part of our national income. If the average American set fire to a five-dollar bill, it would be an even smaller percentage of his annual income. But everyone would consider him foolish for doing it.
  • Letters from teachers continue to confirm the incompetence which they deny. A teacher in Montana says that my criticisms of teachers are "nieve." No, that wasn't a typographical error. He spelled it that way twice.
  • If I could offer one piece of advice to young people thinking about their future, it would be this: Don't preconceive. Find out what the opportunities are.
  • Some of the people on death row today might not be there if the courts had not been so lenient on them when they were first offenders.
  • If you don't believe in the innate unreasonableness of human beings, just try raising children.
  • Time was when people used to brag about how old they were -- and I am old enough to remember it.

A Personal Odyssey (2000)[edit]

  • In the summer of 1959, I worked as a clerk-typist in the headquarters of the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington. The people I worked for were very nice and I grew to like them. One day, a man had a heart attack at around 5 PM, on the sidewalk outside the Public Health Service. He was taken inside to the nurse's room, where he was asked if he was a government employee. If he were, he would have been eligible to be taken to a medical facility there. Unfortunately, he was not, so a phone call was made to a local hospital to send an ambulance. By the time this ambulance made its way through miles of Washington rush-hour traffic, the man was dead. He died waiting for a doctor, in a building full of doctors. Nothing so dramatized for me the nature of a bureaucracy and its emphasis on procedures, rather than results.

The Thomas Sowell Reader (2011)[edit]

  • The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.
    • Chapter: "The Survival of the Left"

Quotes about Sowell[edit]

  • For many years the term Austrian school in the United States was synonymous with Mises’s disciples. The first outstanding pupils to find themselves highly respected were Murray N. Rothbard and Israel M. Kirzner. In the 1970s and 1980s the group greatly expanded, with the present most representative work probably being done by Thomas Sowell.
    • Friedrich Hayek, unfinished essay for the New Palgrave dictionary of economics, published in addendum of Chapter 1 of The fortunes of liberalism: essays on Austrian economics and the ideal of freedom (2012)
  • The best book in general economics in many a year.
    • F. A. Hayek, on Sowell's Knowledge and Dicision, in "The Best Book on General Economics in Many a Year," Reason, Vol. 13, No. 8 (December 1981)
  • Professor Sowell is one of the rare minds who, after they have ascended from the infinite variety of concrete facts to a general view accounting for the structure of the complex world, find their way back to the wealth of particulars from which they started and in which ordinary people, other than economic theorists, are alone interested.
    • F. A. Hayek, in "The Best Book on General Economics in Many a Year," Reason, Vol. 13, No. 8 (December 1981)
  • He's a genius.
    • Friedrich Hayek, on Sowell, in Hayek-North/Skousen interview, quoted in Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 5 Money and Capital.

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