Thomas Sowell. Photo: elcato.org
On June 30, 2020, Thomas Sowell turns 90. He is one of the most important economic and social thinkers of the last 50 years. I say that, recognizing that his career overlapped such luminaries as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Sowell also has been one of the most prolific social‐science writers of his era, as evidenced by the fact that his birthday also marks the publication of his latest book: Charter Schools and Their Enemies.
Sowell began his career as a conventional economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was a specialist in the history of economic thought and a Marx scholar. He was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University in 1969 when black students took over Willard Straight Hall. He was appalled by the violence he saw. In the language of the time, one might say he was radicalized by the experience. He left Cornell and, after a stint at Brandeis University, he ended up at UCLA. That is where I met him.
I audited his graduate course in the history of economic thought. (I’d completed my coursework and Ph.D. preliminary exams, including the one covering the history of thought. But I had not in fact had the opportunity to take a graduate course in that subject.) It was a fantastic intellectual experience. Although I was a course auditor, he required to me to write a paper. I guess I did a good enough job that he agreed to serve on my dissertation committee.
Sowell continued writing on purely economic topics. For instance, in 1974 Princeton University Press published his Classical Economics Reconsidered. It remains a wonderful short introduction to the thinking of classical political economists. (This book is missing from the Wikipedia entry on Sowell.) He began transitioning into issues of race and ethnicity with his 1975 book Race and Economics (David McKay). But Knowledge and Decisions (Basic Books 1980; reprinted 1996) is a straightforward economic text in the Hayekian tradition.
Nonetheless, more and more he focused on issues of race and ethnicity, here and around the world. That is true of his many books and articles and his long‐time syndicated column. In doing so, Sowell drew a distinction between race and culture, becoming one of the leading proponents of the concept of a “culture of poverty.” This was not an entirely new concept, of course. It was, for instance, one of the primary conclusions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. (Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, March 1965, Chapter 2): “There is considerable evidence that the Negro community is in fact dividing between a stable middle class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful, and an increasingly disorganized and disadvantaged lower class group.”
Sowell, like Moynihan, distinguished between culture or class, and race. A race comprises different classes or cultures. This is as true for whites as for blacks. Sowell in fact wrote about why the black and white underclasses exhibit similar pathologies: because they share a common culture. (Black Rednecks and White Liberals [Encounter Books, 2005]). In Sowell’s view many of the problems facing inner cities are not tied to race, but culture. The same, he points out, is true for poor, Appalachian whites, as writers such as J. D. Vance and Nancy Isenberg have explored more recently. These cultural issues were exacerbated by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which vastly expanded the modern welfare state as part of its War on Poverty. Sowell pointed out that welfare, untied from work or marriage, created incentives that undermined the black family. The welfare system established means‐tested payments to low‐income mothers with children that required the absence of a father and breadwinner. In 1950, female‐headed households were 18 percent of the black population. Today, according to Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution, 75 percent of black families have no father present. There is no social program imaginable, nor sum of money, that can make up for the disadvantages the children of single parents will suffer compared to children with two parents.
Senator Tim Scott (R‑SC) recently underscored this point. Citing Sowell, he said that “If you have two parents in the household, you reduce poverty in the African‐American community by 85%. That’s a stunning truth that needs more oxygen.” (Wall Street Journal, June 20–21, 2020).
Sowell has also long argued that minorities can achieve economic success even in the presence of severe discrimination. That has been true for blacks in America, as it has been for Jews, Chinese, and Lebanese around the world. African Americans made steady economic progress in the 20th century, both absolutely and relative to whites, even before the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Changing people’s hearts and minds is a very slow process, not certain to succeed, and is reversible. It is laudatory to end bigotry. But it is not necessary for economic progress.
Sowell is well known for his criticism of affirmative action. That topic could take up a post of its own. I can summarize his position, however. Affirmative action harms those whom it claims to help. For instance, minorities admitted to elite universities under affirmative action often are unable to perform to the standards of those schools. The minorities then assume they are victims of racism. (That is Sowell’s take on what happened at Cornell in 1969.) Those same students, if they had attended a less competitive college or university, might very well have succeeded at school and in life.
In 2015, Sowell wrote a very important book deserving of much attention: Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (Basic Books). It reprised familiar themes and introduced new ones. I wrote an extensive review of it in the Cato Journal (Winter 2016). I refer the reader to that review.
The catalyst for Thomas Sowell’s work on race may have been the racial discord of an earlier time, but work has continued relevance today. His new book focuses on charter schools and the importance of education as a road out of poverty for disadvantaged minorities. In an op‐ed previewing the book, “Charter Schools’ Enemies Block Black Success” (The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2020), Sowell zeroes in on New York City’s experience, and finds that most charter schools do “decisively better than the traditional public schools housed in the same buildings with them.” Most students in charter schools are black and Hispanic from poor neighborhoods. They already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any public school district in the state. He skewers the argument that charter schools “skim the cream” from public schools by admitting especially motivated students. Admission is by lottery, so the majority of motivated students remain in public schools, where they fail to meet their potential.
So why cannot we solve the civil rights issue of our time, the provision of a quality education for low income, black and Hispanic students? Because the vested interests of public school teachers unions and administrators oppose it. They say that what they are doing is “for the sake of the children.” As the title of the op‐ ed points out, they are in fact blocking success for minorities. Sowell concludes that “only the voters, who hold the ultimate power in a democracy,” can change the system.
Of course none of this eliminates the need to root out racism in our society, both individual and structural. But Sowell’s work provides insight into another aspect of this complex debate.
Only a full‐length intellectual biography of Thomas Sowell can give a complete appreciation of the magnificence of his intellectual contributions. I am happy to report that such a biography is in the works. Jason L. Riley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who writes the “Upward Mobility” column for The Wall Street Journal, is writing an intellectual biography of Sowell.
Happy birthday, Tom.
This piece was originally published at CATO Institute.