Thomas Sowell is one of the world’s greatest living intellectuals.
I write that sentence with mixed feelings because I don’t really believe Sowell is “one of” the world’s greatest intellectuals, I actually believe he is the greatest intellectual alive today. But because I can’t honestly say I am familiar with every intellectual alive today, it would be intellectually sloppy for me to make the far stronger claim, though I do believe it to be true.
Thomas Sowell is best known as an Economist who taught at many top schools including Cornell, Brandeis, Amherst and UCLA.
In 1977 he became a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and he has been there ever since, writing books and columns on a wide range of topics, including Economics, History, Sociology, Philosophy, Education, Political Theory, Race and Culture.
His career spans more than 6 decades, he has written over 40 books and published thousands of newspaper columns.
The vast majority of people, even highly educated individuals, have never even heard of Thomas Sowell and this fact never ceases to amaze and baffle me. Sowell’s relative anonymity is a key part of his story, and a proof of sorts that the intellectual powers-that -be have adopted a strategy of “if you can’t beat him, ignore him.”
Because Sowell is black, people who disagree with his intellectual methods and conclusions have discovered the two magic words they can deploy to delegitimize his ideas: “Uncle Tom.”
By suggesting that Sowell promotes certain views as a way of pleasing his white readers and fans, is to avoid the necessity of discussing his ideas from a rational and logical framework and enables his detractors to dismiss his views out of hand, without the need to refute them with evidence and reason.
“What do you think of Thomas Sowell’s views on the history of slavery?”
“Oh, that Uncle Tom, I don’t pay much attention to what he has to say.”
The great value of reading Sowell’s works lies not in learning this or that fact from history, or in hearing about this or that theory of why things work the way they work. Rather, to dive into Sowell’s books is to be exposed to a rigorous intellectual method which can be used in all arenas of scholarship and intellectual growth. His books literally teach you how to think about things, not what to think about things.
To read Thomas Sowell’s books is to embark on an intellectual journey of paradigm-shifting proportions. So many of the things you thought were true, if only because they are repeated endlessly in the media, have little or no evidence to support them, according to Sowell.
Here are 7 guiding principles of Sowell’s intellectual method:
- There are two dominant visions of human nature; the “constrained vision” and the “Utopian vision.” The constrained vision is the view that human beings are inherently flawed and always will be, and that progress can only come in the form of improving institutions in such a way that the negative aspects of human nature can be kept within the bounds of acceptability but will never be entirely eliminated. The utopian vision of human nature believes that people are blank slates at birth and can be perfected if only society were set up in just the right ways. This vision views basic human flaws such as crime, greed, laziness and envy as socially constructed phenomena which can, through reconstruction of social relations, be entirely eliminated. Sowell’s view is that the vision an individual holds dominant in this regard will determine how they judge all problems and issues in society and will determine the solutions they propose.
- There are no absolute solutions to human problems, there are only tradeoffs. Strongly related to #1 above, Sowell does not believe that most human problems can be “solved” or “eliminated”, but rather they can at best be attenuated to some degree or another, with the proposed solutions creating new problems of their own. For example, the problem of overly harsh criminal sentencing can be “solved” by letting some criminals out of jail early, which in turn leads to more crime.
- The actual consequences of a public policy are more important than the intentions of policy makers. Sowell believes that public policies should not be judged by the good intentions of their advocates nor by the high minded sounding names these programs are given, but rather by the actual consequences of the policies over time. So for example, the “Full Employment Act of 2020,” while it sounds like it’s advocates want full employment, which is laudable and certain sounds praiseworthy, whether or not the act increases or decreases employment is an empirical question which can only be determined after the policy is implemented.
- Who decides is a much more important factor than what gets decided. For Sowell, which party gets to make decisions is just as important as, if not more important than, what actually gets decided. Sowell believes that any decision making system in which the decision makers pay no price for being wrong, is inherently flawed and will seldom lead to good outcomes.
- “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” One of Sowell’s humorous stories is about how people often say “if we can put a man on the Moon, then certainly we can X (insert wished for policy outcome here). But for Sowell, the fact that we spent the time and money on putting a man on the Moon, is precisely the reason there are no resources available to implement Policy X.
- The intellectual elite of any society possess less than 10% of the knowledge of that society. 90% is widely distributed among common people throughout the society. Sowell wrote two books, Knowledge and Decisions and Intellectuals and Society in which he argues that where knowledge resides in a society and how it is communicated throughout that society determine how successful that society will be. In his view, one of the great mistakes of our age is the belief that intellectual elites hold all the answers and if only society would listen to them, things would be better. For Sowell, this reliance on the opinions and beliefs of intellectual elites is misguided and leads to disasters in many domains of public life
- Intellectuals get it wrong much of the time because of the constraints imposed on them by being professional intellectuals. Not only did Sowell believe that Intellectuals possess only a small portion of the knowledge available in any given society, he went even further and came to the conclusion that Intellectuals often get it completely wrong. The reason for this lies not in their inferior intellects, but rather in the incentives and constraints which shape the boundaries of what it means to be a professional intellectual. Intellectuals, according to Sowell, are judged not by how their ideas work out in the real world, they are judged instead by what other intellectuals think of those ideas. And if other intellectuals approve of those ideas, their careers will be successful, even if those ideas lead to disaster for society as a whole
I can think of no other thinker who has had as large an impact on my way of thinking about issues than Thomas Sowell. When discussing current affairs with friends and family, I find myself inevitably quoting Sowell on one issue or another. Those same friends and family are probably sick of hearing the name “Thomas Sowell” uttered by me, but they’re going to just have to get used to it, because I have no intention of letting go of the ideas and insights of the world’s greatest living intellectual.