Thomas Sowell

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The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

Thomas Sowell (born June 30, 1930) is an American economist and political commentator. He taught economics at Cornell University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and since 1980 at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is currently Senior Fellow.

Sowell writes from a libertarian conservative perspective, advocating supply-side economics. He has written more than thirty books (a number of which have been reprinted in revised editions). In 2002 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal.


Ideas are everywhere, but knowledge is rare.
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.
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.
Freedom has cost too much blood and agony to be relinquished at the cheap price of rhetoric.
If there is one thing that is bipartisan in Washington, it is brazen hypocrisy.
Socialism sounds great. It has always sounded great. And it will probably always continue to sound great. It is only when you go beyond rhetoric, and start looking at hard facts, that socialism turns out to be a big disappointment, if not a disaster.
The fact that so many successful politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it is also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy.


  • 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.
  • Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.
    • The Thomas Sowell Reader, New York: NY, Basic Books (2011) p. 144, Forbes magazine, "The survival of the left" (Sept. 8, 1997)
  • Too many Republicans treat English as a second language, with Beltway lingo being their native tongue.
  • 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.
  • If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago and a racist today.
  • Ideas are everywhere, but knowledge is rare.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • Ideas, as the raw material from which knowledge is produced, exist in superabundance, but that makes the production of knowledge more difficult rather than easier.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • Civilization is an enormous device for economizing on knowledge.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • Knowledge may be enjoyed as a speculative diversion, but it is needed for decision making.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • It is unnecessary to attempt any general rule as to where the overall balance lies in comparing the respective costs of knowledge in larger and smaller decision-making units. What is important is to understand that (1) the respective cost advantages of the large and small units differ according to the kind of knowledge involved (general versus specific), that (2) most decisions involve mixtures of the two kinds of knowledge, so that the net advantages of the larger and smaller units vary with the kind of decision, and (3) the effectiveness of hierarchical subordination varies with the extent to which the subordinate unit has knowledge advantages over the higher unit.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • While decisions are constrained by the kinds of organizations and the kinds of knowledge involved, the Impetus for decisions comes from the internal preferences and external incentives facing those who actually make the decisions.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • Key indicators require some specified time span during which they are to be tabulated for purposes of reward or penalty. The time span can vary enormously according to the process and the indicator.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Knowledge
  • Before attempting to determine the effect of institutions, it is necessary to consider the inherent circumstances, constraints, and impelling forces at work in the environment within which the institutional mechanisms function.
    • Ch. 2 : Decision-Making Processes
  • The cavemen had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.
    • Ch. 3 : Economic Trade-Offs
  • Freedom has cost too much blood and agony to be relinquished at the cheap price of rhetoric.
    • Ch. 5 : Political Trade-Offs

A Conflict of Visions (1987)


Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (1987)

  • We will do almost anything for our visions, except think about them. The purpose of this book is to think about them.
    • p. xiv
  • Facts do not "speak for themselves." They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theory or visions are mere isolated curiosities.
    • Ch. 1 : The Role of Vision

Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays (1987)


Thomas Sowell, Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays (1987)

  • Competition does a much more effective job than government at protecting consumers.
    • Bogeyman Economics
  • One of the grand fallacies of our time is that something beneficial should be subsidized.
    • 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.
    • Left versus Right
  • Understanding the limitations of human beings is the beginning of wisdom.
    • Police Shootings
  • The key feature of Communist propaganda has been the depiction of people who are more productive as mere exploiters of others.
    • Twentieth Century Limited
  • In short, it is not merely that Johnny can't read, or even that Johnny can't think. Johnny doesn't know what thinking is, because thinking is so often confused with feeling in many public schools. [emphasis in the original]

Is Reality Optional? (1993)


Thomas Sowell, Is Reality Optional? (1993)

  • 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.
    • Social Deterioration
  • The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.
    • Student Loans
  • Both free speech rights and property rights belong legally to individuals, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise these rights.
    • Will Property Rights Return?
  • Envy plus rhetoric equals 'social justice'.
    • Random Thoughts

Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays (1999)


Thomas Sowell, Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays (1999)

  • History shows that degeneracy can be turned around because it has been done in the past. But the real question today is: Will we turn it around-or is what we are doing likely to make matters worse?
    • Barbarians inside the Gates?
Random Thoughts (Creators Syndicate, various dates)
  • Just as any moron can destroy a priceless Ming vase, so the shallow and ill-educated people who run our schools can undermine and destroy from within a great civilization that took centuries of dedicated effort to create and maintain. (27 December 2002)
  • 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 superseded 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.


  • 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.
  • The greatness of a free-market economy is that it does not depend upon the wisdom of those who happen to be on top at the moment.
    • “Rise and fall of a business,” Monterey Herald, December 30, 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"?
  • To the economically illiterate, if some company makes a million dollars in profit, this means that their products cost a million dollars more than they would have cost without profits. It never occurs to such people that these products might cost several million dollars more to produce if they were produced by enterprises operating without the incentives to be efficient created by the prospect of profits.
    • [1], South Florida Sun Sentinel, December 26, 2003
  • 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.
  • Walter Williams figured out some years ago that the amount of money needed to move the poor out of poverty would be trivial compared to the amount of money that's spent on these damn programs that are supposed to help the poor but usually don't. But the poor are being used as human shields in the political battle. You put the poor up in front of you as you march across the battlefield and enemy troops won't fire, so you can expand your power, and raise taxes, and so forth.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It is amazing how many people think that they can answer an argument by attributing bad motives to those who disagree with them. Using this kind of reasoning, you can believe or not believe anything about anything, without having to bother to deal with facts or logic.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "'Global warming' is just the latest in a long line of hysterical crusades to which we seem to be increasingly susceptible."
  • In a world where young blacks, especially, are bombarded with claims that they are being unfairly targeted by police, and where a general attitude of belligerence is being promoted literally in word and song, it is hard not to wonder whether some people's responses to policemen do not have something to do with the policemen's responses to them. Neither the police nor people in any other occupation always do what is right but automatic belligerence is not the answer.
  • 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.”
  • Racism has never done this country any good, and it needs to be fought against, not put under new management for different groups.
  • The average black student at MIT is in the bottom 10% of MIT students in math. But he is in the top 90% of all American students in math. Something like one fourth of all the black students going to MIT do not graduate. You're talking about a pool of people whom you are artificially turning into failures by mismatching them with the school.

Basic Economics (2000)


Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey (2000), (4th ed., 2010)

A Personal Odyssey (2000)


Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey (2000)

  • In the summer of 1959, as in the summer of 1957, 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.
    • Ch. 5 : Halls of Ivy

The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2001)


Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2001)

  • In its pursuit of justice for a segment of society, in disregard of the consequences for society as a whole, what is called 'social justice' might more accurately be called anti-social justice, since what consistently gets ignored or dismissed are precisely the costs to society. Such a conception of justice seeks to correct, not only biased or discriminatory acts by individuals or by social institutions, but unmerited disadvantages in general, from whatever source they may arise.
    • p.10, Simon and Schuster

Ever Wonder Why? and Other Controversial Essays (2006)


Thomas Sowell, Ever Wonder Why? and Other Controversial Essays (2006)

  • 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.
    • Random Thought
  • 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 "universal health care."
    • Random Thought


  • Envy plus rhetoric equals "social justice."
    • The Thomas Sowell Reader (2011), p.399, Basic Books
  • The fact that so many successful politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it is also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy.
  • "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."
  • What socialism, fascism and other ideologies of the left have in common is an assumption that some very wise people—like themselves—need to take decisions out of the hands of lesser people, like the rest of us, and impose those decisions by government fiat.
    • "Socialist or Fascist?", Jewish World Review (June 12, 2012)
    • NOTE: "Fascism is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe."
  • If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win.
  • In a country with more than 300 million people, it is remarkable how obsessed the media have become with just one—Donald Trump. What is even more remarkable is that, after seven years of repeated disasters, both domestically and internationally, under a glib egomaniac in the White House, so many potential voters are turning to another glib egomaniac to be his successor.
  • What was special about America was not that it had slavery, which existed all over the world, but that Americans were among the very few peoples who began to question the morality of holding human beings in bondage. That was not yet a majority view among Americans in the 18th century, but it was not even a serious minority view.
  • If there is one thing that is bipartisan in Washington, it is brazen hypocrisy.
  • Socialism sounds great. It has always sounded great. And it will probably always continue to sound great. It is only when you go beyond rhetoric, and start looking at hard facts, that socialism turns out to be a big disappointment, if not a disaster.

Intellectuals and Society (2010)

Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (2010)
  • Some intellectuals’ downplaying of objective reality and enduring criteria extends beyond social, scientific, or economic phenomena into art, music, and philosophy. The one over-riding consistency across all these disparate venues is the self-exaltation of the intellectuals. Unlike great cultural achievements of the past, such as magnificent cathedrals, which were intended to inspire kings and peasants alike, the hallmark of self-consciously “modern” art and music is its inaccessibility to the masses and often even its deliberate offensiveness to, or mockery of, the masses.
    Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive, without at least the will to resist.
    • Ch. 22 : The Influence of Intellectuals

Dismantling America and Other Controversial Essays (2011)

  • Since this is an era when many people are concerned about 'fairness' and 'social justice,' what is your 'fair share' of what someone else has worked for?
    • p.397
  • Envy is always referred to by its political alias, 'social justice'.
    • p.44

Controversial Essays (2013)

  • The question is not what anybody deserves. The question is who is to take on the God-like role of deciding what everybody else deserves. You can talk about 'social justice' all you want. But what death taxes boil down to is letting politicians take money from widows and orphans to pay for goodies that they will hand out to others, in order to buy votes to get re-elected. That is not social justice or any other kind of justice.
    • p.59, Hoover Press

Discriminations and Disparities (2018)

Thomas Sowell, Discriminations and Disparities (2018)
  • Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved... The idea that it would be a level playing field, if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.
    • p. 17.

Quotes about Sowell

  • I must take the occasion to apologize for a major omission from my article, my failure to give credit to Professor Thomas Sowell for two excellent discussions on Marxian economics which I have only recently come across. While he does not deal explicitly with the transformation problem, his discussion of Marxian value theory, which is documented with exquisite care, comes to conclusions very similar to my own on the tautological nature of the value theory and on the nature of Marx' interests in the subject. Though he does sometimes speak of value theory as a first approximation [3,1967, p. 66] he makes it clear that Marx always considered the deviations between prices and values to be systematic [3, 1967, pp. 65-6]. I recommend these pieces unhesitatingly as models of Marxian scholarship.
    • William J. Baumol, "The Fundamental Marxian Theorem: A Reply to Samuelson: Comment", Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Mar., 1974)
  • Sowell is an economist by training and should not be expected to know much about American foreign policy, as it’s beyond his area of expertise. I do find it a little rich, however, that Sowell has written a book complaining about what happens when intellectuals leave their knowledge reservation to opine about events of the day — and then proceeds to commit that precise sin during his book promotion.
    There are two possibilities here. Either Sowell has no capacity for irony, or he’s cleverly trying to add data points to support his argument.
  • Thomas Sowell is a gifted applied economist with much of importance to say about the larger issues in social policy and government regulation of economic affairs. [...] Sowell, however, has two failings. First, he has no heart for the plight of the poor, so his work in this area is illuminating for the false ideas he debunks, but does not contribute in any way to dealing with the problem of poverty. Second, he is a thorough-going right-wing ideologue, who is often cogent in his critique of liberal ideas, but is blind to similar, indeed often parallel, problems with conservative ideas. This book suffers especially from the second of these weaknesses. [...]Sowell has no understanding of information economics. He follows Hayek on the distributed nature of information, but he never confronts the literature that deals with the transformation of private information into public information. The importance of public information, central for instance to Durkheim and Aumann, is completely ignored in his treatment of government regulation.
  • 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).
  • 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. Although his exposition of economic theory is impeccable and contains many original contributions, the strength of the book, its impressiveness and liveliness, is due to his always having before his eyes the concrete phenomena. Simple and vivid illustrations make us aware of the practical implications of his theoretical insights. [...] What I mean by the heading I have given to this review is that if I should now be asked by persons capable of exact thinking but ignorant of technical economics (and there must be hundreds of thousands of them who have great influence on policy) what single modern work would give them the best introduction to the present knowledge needed to judge the wisdom or folly of current policies, I would without hesitation refer them to Professor Sowell’s book.
    • Friedrich Hayek, in "The Best Book on General Economics in Many a Year, Knowledge and Decision By Thomas Sowell: Reviewed by F. A. Hayek" Reason, Vol. 13, No. 8 (December 1981).
  • All in all, Sowell offers a number of intriguing ideas in the book, but he leaves too many of them only partly developed and defended. One final example: Sowell claims that those of us who favor free markets are more empirically inclined and have less ego invested in our views than those who advocate central planning and heavy government intervention generally. That is my impression too, and it is one of the most interesting and important ideas in his book. Unfortunately, he gives no evidence for that comparison. The book would have been a great forum in which to do so, but on this idea and too many others, he leaves his readers unsatisfied.
    • David Henderson, Review of Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell, Regulation (2010)
  • Sowell likes history, but he likes it on Post-it notes. He also prefers to revisit stale arguments rather than intervene in current controversies. In a book about intellectuals and society, he manages to ignore the health-care and financial crises. Instead, he argues that intellectuals have misunderstood Herbert Hoover. Wouldn't VLII help us with the current economic crisis, to find out which ideas "worked"?
  • Instead of addressing any concrete issues, Mr. Sowell simply repeats the bluster that intellectuals play rhetorical tricks and avoid arguments. As usual, he provides no details. If teaching consists of repetition, Mr. Sowell is a master. As to the single specific point in Sowell's note—that he in fact offers criticism of contemporary intellectuals, for instance, of myself: Dream on. Sowell cites me in two sentences—that is all—and he cites me in error. In Sowell country, a passing mention or mismention constitutes criticism.
  • I have a very high likelihood of finding amusement in the things that Thomas Sowell says. It's not what he says so much as the fact that he's saying it. ... Thomas Sowell is very well known for his critique of intellectuals who make claims about society. That's all well and good - he even has some good points in the critique. But I just can't bring myself to take Sowell completely seriously when he puts on his public intellectual hat, precisely because he is so widely identified as an anti-public-intellectual. ... A lot of this is just meant to be in fun - the point of Intellectuals and Society was a good point. Unfortunately, it's often people who complain the loudest about the misbehavior of others that are successful in taking the spotlight off themselves.
  • Thomas Sowell, an eighty-seven-year-old African American economist, has written more than thirty mind-expanding books. These include his Culture trilogy which (among other things) anticipated Jared Diamond’s ideas in Guns, Germs, and Steel and explains the ubiquity of anti-Semitism; A Conflict of Visions, which identifies the rival theories of the human condition underlying left-wing and right-wing political ideologies; The Quest for Cosmic Justice, which compares this quixotic pursuit with the quest for human justice; Intellectuals and Society, an uncomfortable exposé of the follies of all-star intellectuals; and Late-Talking Children, which anticipated Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on the extreme male brain. Sowell is a libertarian conservative, which makes him taboo in mainstream intellectual circles, but even those who disagree are well advised to grasp his facts and arguments.
  • Sowell is misled, I believe, by his own basic strategy of taking familiar controversies about the market as the model for understanding a wide range of fundamental political disagreements. To begin with, the central virtues of competitive markets are not a matter of dispute among most of the theorists whom Sowell discusses. Rawls and Dworkin, for example, make clear their respect for the efficiency of markets as mechanisms for gathering information and allocating resources. What they question is the importance to be given to this kind of efficiency, as compared to other values such as equity and individual autonomy, when we are justifying economic and legal systems. The controversy is thus a moral one that cannot be avoided simply by “leaving it to the process” (i.e., to the market), since to do that would be already to decide the matter. The market is not a neutral means for deciding all social questions, and those who have doubts about its proper role need not claim that they can “do better” than the market in the sense of producing a more efficient outcome.
    Sowell’s strategy is also misleading in a further way: it overlooks important differences between competitive markets and other processes that he mentions, such as the common law, constitutional government, and the processes through which traditions and languages evolve. Three distinctive features of the market are important here. First, the ideal of the perfectly competitive market is a precise theoretical notion. No actual social institution can be identified with this ideal—since any such institution involves particular legal forms of property and contract, particular imperfections in knowledge, and particular limitations on freedom of entry into the market. But it is frequently quite clear which conditions move a system closer to perfect competition and which ones disrupt it.
    Second, market institutions (even actual, imperfect ones) produce their outcomes mechanically: prices and employment levels emerge as the result of competition, leaving little need for interpretation. Third, the efficiency of these outcomes is supposed to be a product of the process itself, not something with which any of the participants need be consciously concerned: agents in the perfectly competitive market are assumed to be assiduous pursuers of their own interests, but there is no need for anyone at any stage even to address the question of what would be best from a social point of view.
    • T. M. Scanlon, "Down from Liberalism", The New York Review of Books (April 28, 1988)
  • As I said in my review, “Sowell maintains that his purpose in A Conflict of Visions is not to argue for one of the visions he describes but rather to understand the nature of enduring differences in political outlook.” On the other hand, as I also said, it is quite clear where his sympathies lie, and I do not think that any careful reader could fail to conclude from this book that Sowell takes a concern with “results” rather than with “process” to be a fault. An adherent of what he calls the unconstrained vision would not describe that vision in the terms Sowell employs.
    • T. M. Scanlon, ‘Down from Liberalism’: An Exchange, The New York Review of Books (September 29, 1988)
  • Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions is, on the whole, a very stimulating book and it argues a very important point, namely, that the political struggles which will shape our future social and political order are not only, and maybe not even primarily, driven by identifiable interests and by rent-seeking activities that use politics as a pure machinery for the redistribution of material wealth. Sowell rightly reminds us of the genuine power of ideas and visions in the political arena.
    • Viktor Vanberg, "Review of A Conflict of Visions", Cato Journal (1987)
  • Perhaps Sowell’s joylessness stems from the fact that his main idea is the hatred of ideas. It is one thing to be an intellectual and love ideas: why else spend so much time reading and thinking about them? When I come across a bad idea, I disagree with it and, as I am doing here, I try to expose its silliness. But I value bad ideas well enough to take them seriously. I write about Thomas Sowell because I recognize in him a fellow intellectual.
    But it is by no means clear that Sowell recognizes himself as one. He does from time to time note the existence of “conservative and neo-conservative intellectuals” who offer “an alternative vision” to the dominant ideology and whose influence “no longer negligible” in the media. But then Sowell goes on to write as if the only talking heads on television belong to Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky. Safely back to his thesis that intellectuals are always loathsome meddlers who hate capitalism, rationalize evil, and get everything wrong, he is free to quote Eric Hoffer, Paul Johnson, and all like-thinking writers who trod this ground before him.
    • Alan Wolfe, "The Joyless Mind", The New Republic (February 9, 2010)
  • I'd say Tom is an empiricist, and by that I mean Tom looks at evidence, and then he makes a diagnosis, and then he offers a therapy for the perceived problem, and then he offers a prognosis, and he's not interested as much, if at all, on how people interpret that or what are the ramifications in contemporary political terms of his argument.
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