The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Sowell, Thomas (1930-)

Thomas Sowell is an economist, a social theorist, and a writer. In an age in which many black leaders argue that racial identity determines political ideology, Thomas Sowell has challenged us to reexamine many widely accepted assumptions about identity and ideology. In so doing, his writings offer valuable insights into the divisions that polarize our political culture. In evaluating popular perceptions about the role of oppression and discrimination in limiting the success of certain groups, Sowell integrates history and economics to show how the best opportunities for all people—including blacks and women—come through hard work and applied effort in a free and open market. Although well known for his writings on race and culture, Sowell’s emphasis on free and open markets shows up consistently in his writings, which span economics, history, and social policy. In each, he characteristically transforms complex, emotional issues into readily understandable examinations within a global and historical perspective.

Born into poverty during the Great Depression and raised in Harlem, Sowell learned the nature of responsibility and self-effort firsthand. Although he initially left home before completing high school, Sowell eventually received his bachelor’s degree in economics (magna cum laude) from Harvard in 1958, his master’s degree in economics from Columbia University in 1959, and his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968. He is the author of several books on economics, including Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy. In this book, Sowell explains why people are hungry in countries where there are vast amounts of rich farmland, why homeless people abound in New York City amid abandoned apartment buildings, and why unemployment reached 25% during the Great Depression. In explaining these realities, Sowell illustrates how a gap between knowledge and decisions led to unintended and often tragic consequences. This same theme is developed in many of Sowell’s publications, perhaps most notably in Knowledge and Decisions. Crossing over between economic theory and social philosophy, this work parallels F. A. Hayek’s discussions about the role of knowledge in society. In it, he describes how knowledge is embodied in the judgments and perceptions of millions of people, and how that in turn affects decisions that impact our economic, political, legal, and other social institutions.

In addition to using economics to teach us how the world works, Sowell also seeks to understand how and why ideas polarize our culture. In the area of the history of ideas, he has written Marxism (1985) and Conflict of Vision (1987). In the latter work, Sowell presents an analysis of the conflicting visions of human nature and how they have shaped moral, legal, and economic institutions.

Race and culture are perhaps the most polarizing topics that Sowell has dealt with head on. His writings have contributed vastly to our understanding of issues relating to race, culture, discrimination, and civil rights. Sowell reminds us that many incendiary statements about race, culture, and even intelligence can, and should, be boiled down to empirical questions, rather than foregone conclusions. The facts that he unearths in his many publications have shown how public policies based on false assumptions have often proved detrimental to the very people they are intended to help. He demonstrates this notion with civil rights legislation, education policy, and other policies that undermine the value of individual responsibility and self-effort. More often than not, Sowell’s approach leads to findings that prove contrary to the conventional wisdom. But just as important, they illustrate how such views have become orthodox.

In addition to his many books, Sowell’s writings have appeared in economics, law, and other scholarly journals. He also is a popular political commentator, appearing in newspapers, magazines, and online articles, as well as in his nationally syndicated column, which appears in more than 150 newspapers across the country. Sowell, who received the American Enterprise Institute’s Francis Boyer Award, is currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California.


Further Readings

Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

———. A Personal Odyssey. New York: Free Press, 2002.

———. The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Originally published .