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The enigma of Thomas Sowell

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The enigma of Thomas Sowell

June 03, 11:00 PM June 03, 11:00 PM

Until 1991, when Clarence Thomas was nominated and then confirmed to the Supreme Court, the most prominent black conservative in America was likely Thomas Sowell, the Chicago-trained economist and polymath. From his longtime perch at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Sowell has, through his books, newspaper columns, and television appearances, done as much to popularize free market economics — and to level biting critiques of liberal thinking on race, education, and civil rights — as any conservative intellectual of the past 40 years, black or white. Now, he is the subject of a new book, Maverick, by columnist and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley, who attempts to take the measure of one of the eminences of the modern Right.

Maverick is an “intellectual biography” of Sowell, meaning that its focus is more on its subject’s ideas, as revealed in his published writing, than on the facts of his life or psychology. We get only the briefest glimpse of Sowell’s childhood and young adulthood: Born in rural, segregated North Carolina in 1930 and orphaned at a young age, he was adopted by a great aunt who moved him first to Charlotte and then to Harlem. After dropping out of the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Sowell worked odd jobs and then spent time in the Marines before enrolling in college, first at night classes at Howard University and then at Harvard, from which he graduated with a degree in economics in 1958. After taking a master’s degree at Columbia, Sowell then followed his mentor, the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, to the University of Chicago to pursue his doctorate. There, Sowell, an undergraduate Marxist, was exposed to the ideas of two other libertarian-leaning Nobel Prize winners, Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Though Riley is at pains to stress that Sowell was no mere sock puppet for his white professors, it was this encounter with the hard-nosed, empirical, free market economics of the Chicago school that paved the way for Sowell’s shift, in the late 1960s, toward the political Right.

Maverick is structured as a loosely chronological account of Sowell’s career as a public intellectual, supplemented with personal details from Riley’s interviews with Sowell and some of Sowell’s own correspondence, published in 2006 under the title Man of Letters. Broadly speaking, we see Sowell moving from an early interest in classical political economy and the history of economic thought — his early scholarly publications included essays on Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx and a book, based on his dissertation, on the 19th-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say — toward the more general inquiries into subjects such as racial inequality and political theory for which he is best known today.

Sowell is an absurdly prolific author (he published 36 books between 1971, when he turned 41 years old, and 2018, when he turned 88) who has tried his hand at a vast array of subjects, meaning that Riley faces a difficult task in providing a concise survey of his thinking in less than 250 pages. But on the whole, he does an admirable job, introducing readers to not only Sowell’s better-known arguments — for instance, that unequal outcomes among minority racial and ethnic groups are better explained by cultural traits than by discrimination, or lack of discrimination, on the part of the majority — but also works such as Knowledge and Decisions (1980), in which Sowell both popularized Hayek’s theory about how market prices work as a decentralized means of communicating information and broadened the theory’s application beyond the field of economics. We also get an ugly glimpse of the way that Sowell has at times been treated by the black liberal establishment, which has accused him of being an Uncle Tom, an unthinking mouthpiece for white conservative interests, and much else that isn’t fit to print.

But if Maverick serves as a useful survey of Sowell’s ideas, it at times sacrifices depth for breadth. Riley emphasizes over and over again that Sowell is, as his title suggests, a “maverick” and a “contrarian” who likes to think for himself. But too often, these assertions of Sowell’s uniqueness serve as a substitute for any meaningful engagement with the broader social and intellectual currents that shaped his work. To cite one small but frustrating example, we are twice told that Stigler threatened to resign as Sowell’s doctoral adviser because he believed that Sowell had a mistaken interpretation of “Say’s Law,” the idea, in economics, that supply creates its own demand. The point of the anecdote is to illustrate Sowell’s independent-mindedness, but Riley never, at any point, explains the substance of Stigler’s and Sowell’s disagreement. Perhaps it was over some minor technical point that would bore the general reader, but this is, after all, an intellectual biography of an economist. Those who are easily bored won’t be reading it in the first place.

The greater missed opportunity, however, comes in Riley’s cursory treatment of what is surely the most obvious and unavoidable fact about Sowell: that he is a black conservative. Riley notes in passing that Sowell, like Clarence Thomas and Glenn Loury, came from a distinctly working-class background and so was always socially separated from the politically liberal black middle class. And Riley mentions the influence on Sowell’s thought of an earlier generation of black intellectuals such as E. Franklin Frazier, St. Clair Drake, John Hope Franklin, and Kenneth Clark. But it is only that — a mention. We are given little sense of how Sowell’s ideas fit within this tradition of black thought (indeed, only Frazier’s ideas are even briefly summarized); rather, we are made to understand Sowell’s departure from mainstream black thinking as a matter of his prioritizing “facts and evidence” over “emotion and political correctness.” Consider, by contrast, the following passage from Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, on how Sowell’s brand of free market conservatism fit within a certain strand of black thought that stressed the need for black people to achieve autonomy from a white-dominated political process:

In the black experience, argues Sowell, economics has always been more important than politics. Politics is the sphere of white domination and rule; economics, the medium of black transformation and progress. At the moment of African Americans’ greatest degradation and despair, at the moment of their most acute powerlessness, it was the laws of capitalism … that did the most to mitigate and constrain the despotism of white America. … With all his supremacist hauteur, the white man was not the master of his house. His posture of superiority, his sense of power, was pushed and pulled by forces beyond his control: by the laws of nature, as refracted through the imperatives of the capitalist market.

Whether one agrees with Robin’s analysis or not, such attempts to explain how Sowell’s black identity informs his conservatism and vice versa are especially welcome today, when racial politics threaten to swallow the whole of national politics and when, at the same time, some of the most perceptive and influential critics of the “anti-racist” establishment are black conservatives and classical liberals, including Loury, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and Kmele Foster, as well as, in a different register, Kanye West and Candace Owens. Some of these figures embrace a post-racial identity — Foster, for instance, refuses to identify as black — but others, such as Loury, West, and Owens, put their blackness, and their concern for the welfare of black people, front and center in their politics. I had hoped that an intellectual biography of Sowell, one of the earliest and most prominent figures in this minitradition, might help me understand the present by casting light on the past. Maverick is fluent and informative, and useful for anyone approaching Sowell’s work for the first time. But it leaves these larger questions not merely unanswered, but unasked.

Park MacDougald is Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine.

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