Thomas Sowell Is An Outstanding Thinker

Thomas Sowell is an African-American born in North Carolina and orphaned very young.  At age nine, he moved with a great-aunt and her two adult children, to Harlem. He eventually became a high school dropout. He worked as a messenger for Western Union, worked in a machine shop, tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and eventually ended up in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. What do you suppose became of him?

Hard lives make hard men, and he was one of those.

He became a prominent social thinker with a Harvard degree in economics, a masters from Columbia, and finally a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. Throughout it all he was a Marxist because it seemed to make sense in the context of his heritage.

How strange. A Marxist who survived Chicago’s School of Economic with a PhD. The thesis was on Say’s Law, a subject his advisor disputed and was an authority on the subject. He was his own person. Nobel winning economists, Milton Friedman, George Stigler and Ronald Coase didn’t change his mind on Marxism

What eventually changed his mind?

Sowell is straightforward about it. When asked what changed his mind? He said, “Facts.”

As simple as that. A job in the bureaucracy was enough to convince him the world did not need more government.

His career is varied and not without conflicts

From Chicago he became a professor of economics. He taught at Howard University, Rutgers, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and UCLA. University politics eventually made him rethink that role, and in 1980 he became a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford. For the freedom.

He was an advisor to President Reagan, a supporter of Robert Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and courted to become Secretary of Labour.

He has written more than thirty books and produced a well-received column for almost twenty years. He writes fewer columns recently. You can see the collection archived here.Thomas Sowell Archive. There are hundreds.

Seven books composed of those columns, summarized by theme, can be found on Amazon. The list is here. Column Collections.

An inadequate summary

He has been described as an economist, a social commentator, a Black advocate, and a libertarian-conservative.

He received a national Humanities Medal for his work and they referenced a confluence of history, economics, and political science as his strength.

His extensive and deep research has revealed things few have considered. He is able to communicate these finding well and while some prefer not to notice these facts, they would be wise to avoid arguing with him about them. He comes across as well-prepared with facts and capable of analyzing them.

He does not suffer the ill-prepared well.

What we find in Thomas Sowell at 91

Sowell is hard to put a label on, but pragmatist seems closest. He doesn’t hold opinions he cannot support with rational thought processes and facts. He doesn’t allow thinking biases to motivate his research.

There are few who find and analyze facts before they hold an opinion. He is one of them and he s quite able to communicate what he finds.  We should ourselves be more like that. The internet has taught us to find data that supports what we want to believe. Sowell seems to be the exact opposite. I suspect he would use the internet to find data that disproved what appeared first in his research.

Some thoughts that provide insight into the man

We all know things that are true but haven’t thought about them in simple ways. Thomas Sowell has.

Common sense.

  1. Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.
  2. It doesn’t matter how smart you are unless you stop and think.
  3. Systemic processes tend to reward people for making decisions that turn out to be right — creating great resentment among the anointed, who feel themselves entitled to rewards for being articulate, politically active, and morally fervent
  4. The fatal attraction of government is that it allows busybodies to impose decisions on others without paying any price themselves. That enables them to act as if there were no price, even when there are ruinous prices – paid by others.
  5. Bailing out people who made ill-advised mortgages makes no more sense that bailing out people who lost their life savings in Las Vegas casinos.
  6. Good things happen automatically but bad things are someone’s fault.
  7. If politicians stopped meddling with things they don’t understand, there would be a more drastic reduction in the size of government than anyone in either party advocates.
  8. People will forgive you for being wrong, but they will never forgive you for being right — especially if events prove you right while proving them wrong.
  9. Perhaps the most important thing about risk is its inescapability. Particular individuals, groups, or institutions may be sheltered from risk – but only at the cost of having someone else bear that risk. For a society as a whole, there is no someone else.
  10. Reality does not go away when it is ignored.
  11. 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?
  12. 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
  13. One of the common failings among honorable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonorable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them.
  14. There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs

On greed

  1. Among the many other questions raised by the nebulous concept of “greed” is why it is a term applied almost exclusively to those who want to earn more money or to keep what they have already earned—never to those wanting to take other people’s money in taxes or to those wishing to live on the largesse dispensed from such taxation. No amount of taxation is ever described as “greed” on the part of government or the clientele of government.
  2. While “greed” is one of the most popular—and most fallacious—explanations of the very high salaries of corporate executives, when your salary depends on what other people are willing to pay you, you can be the greediest person on earth and that will not raise your pay in the slightest. Any serious explanation of corporate executives’ salaries must be based on the reasons for those salaries being offered, not the reasons why the recipients desire them

On Rhetoric and governing

  1. Rhetoric is no substitute for reality
  2. Extrapolations are the last refuge of a groundless argument.
  3. The assumption that spending more of the taxpayers’ money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse.
  4. You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.
  5. Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but many other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly and repetition has been accepted as a substitute for evidence
  6. I think this man {Obama] really does think he can change the world, and people like that are infinitely more dangerous than mere crooked politicians.
  7. Envy was once considered to be one of the seven deadly sins before it became one of the most admired virtues under its new name, “social justice.”
  8. The fatal attraction of government is that it allows busybodies to impose decisions on others without paying any price themselves. That enables them to act as if there were no price, even when there are ruinous prices – paid by others.
  9. Among the greatest external costs imposed in a society can be those imposed politically by legislators and officials who pay no costs whatever, while imposing billions of dollars in costs on others, in order to respond to political pressures from advocates of particular interests or ideologies”
  10. We seem to be getting closer and closer to a situation where nobody is responsible for what they did but we are all responsible for what somebody else did.
  11. What is called “planning” in political rhetoric is the government’s suppression of other people’s plans by superimposing on them a collective plan, created by third parties, armed with the power of government and exempted from paying the costs that these collective plans impose on others
  12. Weighing benefits against costs is the way most people make decisions – and the way most businesses make decisions, if they want to stay in business. Only in government is any benefit, however small, considered to be worth any cost, however large

On Society

  1. One of the most pathetic — and dangerous — signs of our times is the growing number of individuals and groups who believe that no one can possibly disagree with them for any honest reason.
  2. There are few things more dishonourable than misleading the young.
  3. “Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same person is not equal to themselves on different days.
  4. If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else’s expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.
  5. The media are less a window on reality, than a stage on which officials and journalists perform self-scripted, self-serving fictions
  6. The most basic question is not what is best but who shall decide what is best
  7. The concept of “microaggression” is just one of many tactics used to stifle differences of opinion by declaring some opinions to be “hate speech,” instead of debating those differences in a marketplace of ideas. To accuse people of aggression for not marching in lockstep with political correctness is to set the stage for justifying real aggression against them.

On Life

  1. Life does not ask us what we want, it presents us with options.
  2. Where beliefs are not checked against facts, but instead facts must meet the test of consonance with the prevailing vision, we are in the process of sealing ourselves off from feedback from reality. Heedless of the past, we are flying blind into the future
  3. Suppose you are wrong? How would you know? How would you test for that possibility?
  4. You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large

On the elite and intellectuals

  1. Systemic processes tend to reward people for making decisions that turn out to be right — creating great resentment among the anointed, who feel themselves entitled to rewards for being articulate, politically active, and morally fervent
  2. There has never been a shortage of people eager to draw up blueprints for running other people’s lives.
  3. Many of what are called social problems are differences between the theories of intellectuals and the realities of the world — differences which many intellectuals interpret to mean that it is the real world that is wrong and needs changing
  4. A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests
  5. 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
  6. It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance
  7. 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
  8. Ours may become the first civilization destroyed, not by the power of our enemies, but by the ignorance of our teachers and the dangerous nonsense they are teaching our children. In an age of artificial intelligence, they are creating artificial stupidity.
  9. 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.
  10. The results show how unreliable peer consensus can be, even when it is a peer consensus of highly intellectual people, if those people share a very similar vision of the world and treat its conclusions as axioms, rather than as hypotheses that need to be checked against facts
  11. The welfare state is not really about the welfare of the masses. It is about the egos of the elites.
  12. To believe in personal responsibility would be to destroy the whole special role of the anointed, whose vision casts them in the role of rescuers of people treated unfairly by “society”
  13. The beauty of doing nothing is that you can do it perfectly. Only when you do something is it almost impossible to do it without mistakes. Therefore people who are contributing nothing to society, except their constant criticisms, can feel both intellectually and morally superior

On economics

  1. Although the basic principles of economics are not very complicated, the very ease with which they can be learned also makes them easy to dismissed as “simplistic” by those who do not want to accept analyses which contradict their cherished beliefs. Evasions of the obvious are often far more complicated than the facts. Nor is it automatically true that complex effects must have complex causes. The ramifications of something very simple can become enormously complex.
  2. Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it
  3. Many desirable things are advocated without regard to the most fundamental fact of economics, that resources are inherently limited and have alternative uses. Who could be against health, safety, or open space? But each of these things is open-ended, while resources are not only limited but have alternative uses which are also valuable.
  4. The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to ignore the first lesson of economics
  5. Minimum wage laws appear to give low-income workers something for nothing — and appearances are what count in politics. Realities can be left to others, so long as appearances get votes.
  6. The welfare state is the oldest con game in the world. First you take people’s money away quietly and then you give some of it back to them flamboyantly.
  7. There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs
  8. Voluntary economic transactions—whether between employer and employee, tenant and landlord, or international trade—would not continue to take place unless both parties were better off making these transactions than not making them.
  9. The government is indeed an institution, but “the market” is nothing more than an option for each individual to chose among numerous existing institutions, or to fashion new arrangements suited to his own situation and taste

The takeaway

Thomas Sowell is stubborn and brave. I doubt Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s thought on honesty would threaten him. “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud”

He seems a firm believer in the stubborn facts. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” —John Adams

“In life, there are those who will tell you what to think, and then there are those who will teach you how to think. The first type of individual wants power and your dependency; the second type wants to empower you to live independently.” – A motivational poster. No attribution.

I hope you found at least one thought that made you think.

You might enjoy this interview, too

Maverick: Jason Riley on the Life and Times of Thomas Sowell


I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email


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