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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Is Thomas Sowell a Legendary “Maverick” Intellectual or a Pseudo-Scholarly Propagandist?

Economist Thomas Sowell portrays himself (and is portrayed by others) as a fearless defender of Cold Hard Fact against leftist idealogues. His work is a pseudoscholarly sham, and he peddles mindless, factually unreliable free market dogma.

Jason Riley’s biography, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, makes the case that economist Thomas Sowell is one of the most underappreciated intellectuals of our time. Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist, believes that Sowell has never gotten his due from the academic establishment because he questions sacrosanct liberal dogmas and inconveniently defies stereotypes. Sowell is presented as a brave academic dissident who had the courage to stand against the tide. 

Riley is not the only one who believes this. Thomas Sowell is widely respected among conservatives. He has released dozens of books that remain in print—on topics ranging from education to immigrant cultures to affirmative action—and may be the best-selling popular economics writer in the country. At age 93, he has just published his latest, Social Justice Fallacies. Videos of Sowell on YouTube rack up millions of views. Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich von Hayek called Sowell’s book Knowledge and Decisions “the best book on economics in many a year,” “essential to understanding current affairs,” and “an important philosophical work.” Steven Pinker has called Sowell “among the most brilliant thinkers in the world today—deep, original, creative, fearless, intimidatingly erudite.” Amy Chua of Yale Law school calls Sowell “one of the most important thinkers of our time.” Shelby Steele describes Sowell as a man of “extraordinary genius” and “one of the greatest American thinkers who has ever lived.” The Wall Street Journal has called him an “American sage.” Steve Forbes has said “it’s a scandal that economist Thomas Sowell has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. No one alive has turned out so many insightful, richly researched books.” (Sowell was also featured—as a self-made man who doesn’t believe in handouts—in the Heroes of Liberty conservative children’s book series, which our intrepid in-house economist and reactionary children’s book-reviewer Rob Larson wrote about last year.)

And yet: Sowell is not given much attention by mainstream scholars in the academy, and few of his books are reviewed by major liberal-leaning publications. Riley is correct that Sowell is mostly ignored by the intelligentsia. In fact, I’ve seen a firsthand example. Back when I was a freelancer, I pitched a magazine on the idea of writing a profile of Sowell and responding to his work. The editor in chief replied that he liked my writing, but “Who takes Sowell seriously enough to bother?” In fact, many people take Sowell seriously, as reading the thousands of Amazon customer reviews of his books can show. But certainly, nobody in the editor’s social circles did. 

I disagreed with the editor’s attitude at the time and still do. Failing to engage with Sowell’s arguments makes them appear more credible. Part of the story that Sowell tells is that Intellectuals ignore Sowell because they can’t handle his devastating truth bombs. He has been on the margins of American intellectual life, as he and others tell it, because he questions orthodoxy and prefers hard fact to liberal dogma. “You can’t win an argument with Thomas Sowell, so they just ignore what he’s written,” said conservative economist Walter Williams. Political scientist William Allen says “they dismiss Tom without consideration, in general, so one cannot make a great deal out of that other than the fact that they are unwilling to enter into the risks.” 

Is this true? Is it fear that Sowell might be right that drives the lack of mainstream scholarly interest in his work? Is Thomas Sowell a great overlooked thinker whose contributions go unappreciated because they make liberals uncomfortable? Or is his work not taken seriously because it is not very good, and simply puts an academic gloss on easily-disproven conservative talking points, without making any effort to engage with the serious scholarly literature on a given topic? To see which story is true, it is necessary to evaluate the Sowell canon. 

One thing that has to be said for Thomas Sowell: it’s clearly the content of the book that makes them sell, because it sure ain’t the exciting covers. 

Certain themes recur over and over across Sowell’s books. To Sowell, “intellectuals” are arrogant elitists whose beliefs contradict Common Sense. Policymakers are meddlesome “third parties” who unjustly seek to impose their personal moral preferences on people who do not share them. Well-intended liberal policies cause negative unintended consequences that Intellectuals prefer to ignore. Wooly concepts like “equality,” “rights,” and “social justice” are used to justify measures that do not help society but make certain classes of people feel morally superior. The Intellectuals, who anoint themselves morally superior, prefer to think of inequalities and disparities as the result of injustices, when in fact they are the results of free human choices and the tragic arbitrariness of the universe. Those who try to alter the state of things as they are will find that they simply do not know enough to solve the problems, because knowledge is dispersed across all of society, and are therefore likely to make the problems worse. 

The tone of Sowell’s writing is consistently cold and withering. He does not crack jokes. His prose is austere and direct. Even the covers of his books are spartan; each almost identical, with the title and his name printed in unadorned type. Sowell is not here to have fun. He is here to douse the do-gooders with cold water, to bitterly expose the folly of their favored schemes for bettering the human condition. His books overflow with contempt, bitterness, and pessimism. At times he makes Ayn Rand seem like a people person. (Sowell is an amateur photographer and even his pictures have a certain cheerlessness to them. They have the imaginativeness and emotional depth of stock photos.) 

This does not, of course, invalidate his arguments. But I do think it is part of his appeal: Sowell presents himself as a dour realist, a man without illusions who has seen the error of revolutionary ideals (he was once a Marxist) and has come to tragic but, alas, empirically compelled conclusions about the limits on human beings’ abilities to better their societies through policy. He emphasizes over and over that while the intellectuals he disdains are operating from an ideology, he himself is concerned with empirical data and facts. “The one thing that saved me [from remaining on the left] was that I always thought facts mattered,” he has said. Nor is he promoting his specific values, for “a scholar’s moral duty is to faithfully promote the intellectual process among his students and his readers, not lead them to specific conclusions he sincerely believes to be best for society.” Riley writes:

Sowell’s adherence to empiricism—to using data-driven evidence to test theories and examine social phenomena—is another distinguishing feature of his scholarship that is never out of date. The intellectual fads that so often animate academics and the media carry little weight with Sowell, who’s far more interested in learning the facts and then determining whether they match popular beliefs. 

I have written many times before about how certain thinkers on the right persuasively present themselves as objective and empirical when they are nothing of the kind. We should be wary of the “theater of logic”—guys who spend too much time proclaiming how much more logical and fact-driven they are than the rest of us saps. 

In fact, it turns out that Thomas Sowell is not very interested in serious empirical evidence at all. His books rarely engage with the major academic literature on the subject he’s writing about, he cherry-picks the studies that are consistent with the ideological beliefs he already holds, he leaves out crucial pieces of data that would make his position look weaker (and make The Intellectuals looks less absurd), he argues with ludicrous straw men, and he makes totally unsupportable claims about work he has clearly not bothered to read.

Let’s take a few examples. First, an argument that recurs in Sowell’s work is that minimum wages will increase unemployment. He deploys it as a classic tale of do-gooders hurting the very people they’re trying to help by ignoring Facts and Logic. The social justice types think they can help the poor by interfering in the free market, substituting their personal judgments about what people ought to be paid for the market’s judgment. But these meddlers are only making things worse. In Social Justice Fallacies, Sowell writes: 

“Minimum wage laws are among the many government policies widely believed to benefit the poor, by preventing them from making decisions for themselves that surrogate decision-makers regard as being not as good as what the surrogates can impose through the power of government. Traditional basic economics, however, says that people tend to purchase less at a higher price. If so, then employers…tend to hire less labor at a higher price, imposed by minimum wage laws, than they would hire at a lower price, based on supply and demand. Here the unsaleable surplus is called unemployment.”

Here we can see why many of Sowell’s fellow economists don’t pay much attention to his work. “Traditional basic economics” may predict that minimum wages will produce unemployment, but a giant mountain of empirical evidence has shown that the simplistic view Sowell advances here is inconsistent with reality. In fact, the predicted negative effects of minimum wage increases have turned out to be minimal. As  economist Noah Smith writes, “many [studies] actually conclude that higher minimum wages create jobs.”

The simplistic Sowell view would be that if something costs more, people tend to buy less of it. But there are lots of reasons why raising the minimum wage might not cause employers to purchase less labor overall. Does Sowell consider those reasons? He does not. Does he grapple with any of the empirical literature in his own field that challenges his view? No, he deals with none of it. He simply acts as if none of it exists. And then he has the audacity to grouse about pointy-headed intellectuals ignoring inconvenient facts!

Does Sowell have any discussion of empirical observations on minimum wages and unemployment? Yes, actually. He has a paragraph of observations about the data from different countries: 

Anyone seriously interested in facts about the effects of minimum wage laws on employment can find such facts in innumerable examples from countries around the world, and in different periods of history. Most modern, industrial countries have minimum wage laws, but some do not, so their unemployment levels can be compared to the unemployment levels in other countries. It was news in 2003 when The Economist magazine reported that Switzerland’s unemployment rate ‘neared a five-year high of 3.9% in February.’ Switzerland had no minimum wage law. The city-state of Singapore has also been without a minimum wage law, and its unemployment rate has been as low as 2.1 percent in 2013. Back in 1991, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, it too had no minimum wage law, and its unemployment rate was under 2 percent. The last American administration without a national minimum wage law was the Coolidge administration in the 1920s. In President Coolidge’s last four years in office, the annual unemployment rate ranged from a high of 4.2 percent to a low of 1.8 percent. 

I don’t know if you realize quite how atrocious this paragraph is. Does Sowell give any criteria for why he chose these particular countries? Has he taken a random sample, or just a few anecdotes? How has he controlled for other factors that might affect unemployment rates? How does he know that unemployment was under 2 percent in Hong Kong in 1991 because of its lack of a minimum wage law, and not for other reasons? (Also, as far as I can tell, his statement about when America was last without a “national minimum wage law” is just flat wrong. Minimum wages were introduced under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. After Coolidge left office and Hoover took over, the Great Depression happened, and unemployment rose to about 25 percent, before minimum wages were introduced.1

Sowell does give one more example to substantiate his claims about minimum wages. He says that the increase in unemployment for Black teenagers between 1950 and 1970 was clearly the result of the introduction of minimum wage laws, and that we know this because we have eliminated other possible explanations: 

The usual explanations of high unemployment among black teenagers—inexperience, lack of skills, racism—cannot explain their rising unemployment, since all these things were worse during the earlier period when black teenage unemployment was much lower…It was only after a series of minimum wage escalations began that black male teenage unemployment not only skyrocketed, but became more than double the unemployment rates among white male  teenagers. (Basic Economics, 159) 

Now, I don’t know much about Black teenage unemployment between 1950 and 1970, but I know how to do basic research, and it didn’t take me long to discover that Sowell had, once again, simply excluded evidence and scholarship that didn’t fit with his conclusions. For instance, a 1991 National Bureau of Economic Research paper (uncited by Sowell) provides evidence that much of the decline in Black teenage labor force participation occurred because (1) agriculture in the South was becoming mechanized, eliminating jobs that Black teens would have had and (2) “each successive generation of Southern Black males was more likely to be in school between the ages of 16 and 19 than out of school and in the labor force.” “The minimum wage,” the authors say, “cannot possibly explain the pre-1930 decline in [labor force] participation because minimum wage legislation was enacted in 1938.” When we look beyond 1950 to 1970, we see other facts that call into question the simple narrative. I don’t cite this to resolve the question of what caused Black teenage labor force participation to decline during a certain historical period (like I said, I’m not an expert, and minimum wages could well have had an effect during the years Sowell cites), but rather to show that Sowell is simply choosing to ignore any evidence that contradicts his theory. 

Let us turn to other issues. This dishonesty, burying all the serious academic work that contradicts conclusions favored by free market fundamentalists, presenting only the evidence that supports those conclusions, and then accusing Intellectuals of ignoring the facts, is characteristic of Sowell’s writing.

This kind of dishonest presentation exists throughout Sowell’s recent Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Sowell’s story is that charter schools are obviously better than traditional public schools, that the “enemies” of charter schools have been hiding this fact, and that these “enemies” are self-interested and do not care about what is best for children. The empirical centerpiece of Sowell’s book is a series of comparisons he offers between performance by New York City charter schools versus New York City public schools. Sowell says that to achieve an accurate comparison, he chose charter schools that are housed within the same complex of buildings as their public school counterparts. He describes his method:

“Selecting which charter schools to examine in detail by some principle, as distinguished from arbitrary cherry-picking, can be done in a number of ways. The way chosen here is to examine those particular charter school networks with multiple schools having classes in the largest number of buildings in New York City where they are housed with one or more traditional public schools whose grade levels coincide. Here the sample chosen for detailed study in Chapter 2 are all charter school networks with students in five or more buildings in New York City that they share with traditional public schools having students at the same grade levels.”

 He then gives many charts that look like this: 

As you can see, he’s showing here that Achievement First charter schools sharing facilities with public schools tend to have superior results on English tests. I don’t doubt that the data he’s presenting here are accurate.

But think about how appalling this is as social science. When we see results like this, we have to ask ourselves a bunch of important questions about factors that could be driving the difference, so that we know we’re coming to accurate conclusions. For instance, are the two populations of students comparable? Sowell says that the racial demographics between the students in the charter schools and the students in the public schools are similar. But are the parents similar? Or do charter schools attract students whose parents are particularly invested in their success? Does the public school have more students with learning disabilities than the charter school? Charter schools are known for trying to attract top-performing students, and we know that “across the United States, charters aggressively screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship, sometimes in violation of state and federal law.” Could the effects Sowell observes be a product of selection bias? 

Astonishingly, Sowell does not take these problems seriously, even though they are known to make it difficult to study the effectiveness of charter schools.2 Instead, having shown only that test results are different, he moves on to the question of why there is so much hostility to charter schools. (You will not be surprised that the self-interest of teachers’ unions is a big part of his story, though he’s uninterested in how the self-interest of charter operators might be a corrupting influence. An economist who is heavily concerned with the self-serving incentives of teachers should also pay equal attention to the bad incentives of those pushing to privatize schools.) 

If you’re going to claim that charter schools are better than public schools, there is evidence you can use to make that claim. (Here, for instance, is a 2016 meta-analysis of existing studies, finding that charter schools appear to slightly outperform public schools in math, though not in reading. The reasons for this are contested.) What you cannot do, if you’re going to claim to be doing social science, is ignore basic questions about research design like “How do you know the students in both groups are comparable?” That’s what you do when you’re an idealogue rather than a serious scholar. 

The best way to notice someone’s dishonesty is to see what they say on a subject you happen to know something about. I’m quite familiar with the foreign policy analysis of Noam Chomsky, for instance, so my “unsupported claim” alarm went off when reading Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, in which he cites Chomsky as an example of “someone who attracted public attention only by going outside [their] specialities to make sweeping and attention-getting statements about things beyond their competence. … They need not be outright charlatans, just people whose vast knowledge and understanding of one subject conceals from themselves and from others their fundamental ignorance of the things that bring them to public attention.” (Physician, heal thyself!) 

Sowell backs this judgment up with exactly nothing. No examples of the “fundamental ignorance” or the statements “beyond [Chomsky’s] competence.” He does not even attempt to engage with Chomsky’s work. He just smears it. The dismissal is particularly galling because elsewhere in Intellectuals and Society, Sowell has an entire section on how “intellectuals” were responsible for the U.S. “defeat” in Vietnam: 

“More than 50,000 Americans died winning military victories in Vietnam that ended in political defeat because the climate of opinion created by the intelligentsia in the United States made it politically impossible not only to continue the involvement of American troops in the fighting there, but impossible even to continue to supply the resources needed by the South Vietnam government to defend itself after American troops were withdrawn.” 

In fact, as Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins meticulously documents, liberal intellectuals were responsible for justifying the disastrous invasion of Vietnam. Sowell’s theory is that “intellectuals” presented the 1968 Tet Offensive as a victory for North Vietnam when it was, in fact, a military defeat, and thus sapped the American public of the will to win the war. The Tet Offensive indeed contributed to the change in public opinion, but it was because it became clear that remaining in Vietnam would cost a huge amount and achieve little. The years 1968 and 1969 were the deadliest years of the conflict for American troops. Americans soured on the war because soldiers were being killed in large numbers and it wasn’t clear that anything was being achieved.

I don’t have space here to run through the entire history of the U.S. war on Vietnam. But the further Sowell dives into the subject, the more clear it is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about: 

“Collateral damage to Vietnamese civilians during American military operations, or even allegations of individual misconduct by American troops, led to sweeping moral condemnations of the U.S. military as a whole, often without any examination of the question of whether such collateral damage was unusual in warfare or unusually extensive, or whether atrocities were authorized or condoned by authorities. … [The My Lai massacre] was stopped by other American troops when they arrived on the scene, and the officer in charge was court-martialed for things that Communist guerrillas did routinely and on a much larger scale.” 

Here, he suggests that the My Lai massacre was an aberration by rogue soldiers, stopped when it was discovered. In fact, the man who ordered the massacre stopped was treated by many as a traitor, and Lt. William Calley, one of the lead perpetrators, was given a slap on the wrist, serving three years under house arrest and sparking pro-Calley sympathy marches. (Only 11 percent of the country thought his verdict was fair, and a song honoring him called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calleysold a million copies.) 

As for whether the destruction in Vietnam was “unusual in warfare,” you won’t learn from Sowell that “American aircraft dropped over 5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam—the largest bombardment of any country in history—and more than twice as much tonnage as the U.S. Air Force dropped in all of World War II.” Up to 2 million civilians died in the war. To the extent that the My Lai massacre was an aberration, it was only so because it was carried out on the ground rather than from the air. Furthermore, the “moral condemnations” were not just based on a belief that “such collateral damage was unusual,” but on the belief that the war itself was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” (For more on the truth about the Vietnam war, see our interview with veteran W.D. Ehrhart and my own long essay about it. There is plenty of evidence that the “collateral damage” to civilians was driven in part by Americans’ low estimation of the value of Vietnamese lives.) 

I should say here that on the subject of Vietnam, Sowell’s view is certainly not uniquely ignorant, as is widely shared in the United States. But here again, we have to ask: if this man is so committed to Facts and rigorous thinking, why would he not so much as investigate the perspectives of the war’s critics? Why does he pretend contrary evidence does not exist? 

So much for his commitment to facts. What about that piercing logic Sowell is known for? Well, let us examine a passage of this Cold Hard Logic to see if it holds up. Here, Sowell argues against reparations, on the grounds that they are predicated on an unsound moral argument:

The biological continuity of the generations lends plausibility to the notion of group compensation—but only if guilt can be inherited. Otherwise there are simply windfall gains and windfall losses among contemporaries, according to the accident of their antecedents. Moreover, few people would accept this as a general principle to be applied consistently, however much they may advocate it out of compassion (or guilt) over the fate of particular unfortunates. No one would advocate that today’s Jews are morally entitled to put today’s Germans in concentration camps, in compensation for the Nazi Holocaust. Most people would not only be horrified at any such suggestion but would also regard it as a second act of gross immorality, in no way compensating for the first, but simply adding to the sum total of human sins. 

This is the sort of reasoning that can be superficially persuasive. But let’s think about it. Sowell says that the fact that members of different racial groups today are descended from members of those groups in previous generations (“biological continuity”) gives “plausibility” to the claim that a wrong like slavery should be compensated through reparations today, but only if we assume “guilt can be inherited.” But this is not the case. We don’t need to assume that moral guilt can be inherited, only that property claims can be inherited. For instance: if I owe a debt to someone—say, for not having paid them yet for work they did for me—and I die, a claim for the payment of that debt can be made against my estate. That is, before my heirs can touch the wealth, my outstanding creditors must be paid. The same concept can be applied to group claims against groups: if the shareholders of corporation X hold a claim against the shareholders of corporation Y, then even if both corporation’s shareholders die, and their shares have passed to their descendents, the legal claim will be unaffected. 

You can, of course, argue that in practice, designating Black Americans as a group with a collective property rights claim against white Americans is impractical, or that the claim should lapse after a certain amount of time. But the point is that Sowell is wrong to say that a program of reparations necessarily depends on an idea of “biologically inherited guilt.” In fact, the entire discussion can be had using the language of property rights without ever bringing in concepts of guilt or innocence. 

Sowell’s view that applying the principle of compensation for historic wrongs “consistently” would make Jews entitled to put Germans in concentration camps is almost too silly to be worth refuting. It would require no such thing. When someone sets fire to my house, if I sue them, the principle of compensating harms does not imply that I am entitled to set fire to their house. “Eye for an eye” justice is in no way logically entailed by a belief in compensation for historic wrongs. In fact, Germany paid monetary reparations over the Holocaust, because monetary compensation is how we avoid such perverse ideas of justice as “giving the oppressed group a turn at running an extermination camp.”

I would like, briefly, to dwell on Sowell’s notion of “third party intervention,” because it’s at the core of his analysis of what’s wrong with the world. Sowell makes many variations on a common argument, which is that regulations are a form of ignorant meddling in freely-made market transactions. Politicians and intellectuals, he says, think they know better than the people what’s good for them, and so they foolishly impose what they think justice requires, even if it differs from what the two parties to the transaction would have chosen in the absence of this intrusion. In the following passages, he mentions minimum wages, rent control, auto safety regulations, and age discrimination laws as examples of “third party” busybodies presumptuously imposing themselves where they are not wanted: 

  • “Intervention by politicians, judges, or others, in order to impose terms more favorable to one side—minimum wage laws or rent control, for example—reduces the overlapping set of mutually agreeable terms and, almost invariably, reduces the number of mutually acceptable transactions, as the party disfavored by the intervention makes fewer transactions subsequently.” (Intellectuals and Society) 
  • “What the [Ralph] Nader approach boils down to is that third parties should preempt the consumer’s choice as to whether he wants to sacrifice a comfortable ride in order to make a remote danger slightly more remote. (The Vision of the Anointed)
  • “Many company policies of establishing retirement ages for their employees have been made illegal as ‘age discrimination’ because those policies are said to be based on stereotypes about the elderly, who can be productive beyond the age of ‘mandatory retirement.’ In other words, third parties with no stake in the outcome, no direct experience in the particular companies or industries, and no knowledge of the particular individual employees involved, are assumed to have superior understanding of the effects of age than those who do have such experience, such a stake, and such direct knowledge, mundane though that knowledge may be.” (Intellectuals and Society) 

Because this is a trick he uses a lot, and it clearly persuades some of his readers, it’s worth highlighting what this story leaves out, namely democracy. In the Sowell story of the minimum wage, the worker would agree to work for $3 an hour, and the employer would like to pay $3 an hour, but The Government swoops in and says that according to their “third party” assessment, this mutually agreeable transaction must not take place, and the laborer must be paid $7.25 an hour. Free choices are being overridden. 

But The Government is only a pure “third party” in an autocracy. In a democracy, it is supposed to put into place the laws that the people, who are ultimately sovereign, have decided we need. If the government is a “third party,” it is one that we are all part of, not something alien to us. Now, of course, this is highly imperfect in practice, because our democratic institutions are not terribly responsible to the popular will. But take Florida Amendment 2. The majority of Florida voters raised the minimum wage of the state to $15 an hour. It wasn’t “intellectuals” with their meddlesome theories. It was a public referendum. 

Sowell does not appear to see the democratic process as any kind of valid expression of the public’s desires. He says that “those with the vision of the anointed” try to “discredit” “the social process through which the public’s desires are expressed, individually or collectively, such as a market economy or social traditions.” In other words, the decision of an automarker to sell an unsafe car to a consumer, and the consumer’s decision to buy that car, represent “the public’s desire” being expressed, but a public campaign for consumer safety regulation, and the election of public officials who put such regulations in place, is a subversion of the legitimate social processes (the market and “traditions”).

this book contains more debunking of Sowell’s errors!

Sowell treats the government like it is some Council of Elders, the “anointed” who impose themselves on the rest of us. There are governments like that. But in ours, elections and public opinion do matter somewhat. So what happens to the theory of “third parties” if it turns out that low-wage workers themselves would like to be paid more but are powerless to get their employer to pay more? Is the state still sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong if it forces the employer to give the workers what they want? Probably yes, from the employer’s perspective. But the state isn’t imposing some idiosyncratic elite morality when it responds to the overwhelming majority of the people who want their government to act to make sure people can afford to pay their rent. Perhaps, on Sowell’s reasoning, the only people whose opinions should be considered are those who will be affected (the others are “third parties”). I’m fine with that standard. But let’s apply it. We’ll decide whether to raise the minimum wage by surveying minimum wage workers as to whether they’d like a raised minimum wage. The problem of “anointed elite intellectuals” would therefore disappear. We’ll genuinely apply the principle that the people affected by something should be the ones to decide about it. I suspect, however, that Sowell wouldn’t like the results. 

Another recurring theme in Sowell’s work is that race and gender disparities that are often attributed to discrimination may simply be the results of economically rational choices. In Discrimination and Disparities, Sowell says that we have to distinguish between economically rational, fact-based discrimination and discrimination based on animus. He argues that in many cases, those who are treated as “racist” or “sexist” for such behaviors as “charging higher interest rates to Black customers” or “refusing to hire women” are wrongly assumed to have racial animus when in fact they are simply rationally stereotyping based on data. For instance, Sowell argues that Black customers who are treated with extra suspicion should ask themselves whether they are in fact the victims of “arbitrary racism” or just being stereotyped based on “experience”:

“Recently a black, middle class professional wrote of his resentment when he was asked to pay for his meal in advance in an Asian-owned restaurant—especially after he noted that a white couple that came in was not asked to do the same. Was this arbitrary racism or self-protection based on experience in this neighborhood? That was the key question he did not ask—nor do most journalistic stories or even scholarly studies.”

Sowell gives many examples of explicit race and gender discrimination that he believes constitute perfectly rational behavior. For instance, women in the workplace may simply be a “distraction” that creates a “less efficient workforce”: 

“[W]here lumberjacks are overwhelmingly male, the employer may be reluctant to hire a female lumberjack, even if she is demonstrably as fully qualified as the men. Observers who point out that particular individuals are equally qualified, regardless of sex, miss the point. An equally qualified individual may do the work just as well as others, but if some of the others are distracted from their work, the net effect can be a less efficient workforce. That is the empirical basis that can lead employers to practice [discrimination] in such situations, even if the employers have no bias or aversion to those less likely to be hired.”

Similarly, he says that we should empathize with employers who put up “No Irish need apply” signs. Sure, they may have unfairly excluded the “sober, hard-working and productive Irishmen,” but this was not because the employer had an anti-Irish bias, it was because “the race as a whole” created the stigma through “their own behavior”: 

Race … can be used as a sorting device, even by people who have no hostility to a particular race, including members of that same race. If, in fact, there are differences among the races in the proportion of people who are desirable as employees, tenants, homeowners, or borrowers, then the use of race as a sorting device may disqualify many individually desirable people, without imposing costs on the race as a whole, beyond the costs created by their own behavior. No doubt there were many sober, hard-working, and productive Irishmen who were hurt, due to no fault of their own, during the era when many employers had signs that said, “No Irish need apply.” But that is wholly different from saying that employment and income differences between the Irish as a whole and other Americans during that era represented discrimination rather than behavioral differences whose costs were reflected in employment differences. … However much discrimination against individuals may be condemned, it cannot automatically explain income and employment differences … a sharp distinction must be made between those who create certain costs and those who react to those costs by passing the costs on to be paid by others. … [T]he costs created by less productive or more troublesome workers from a given racial or ethnic group get passed on to be paid by other workers from the same groups in the form of reduced job opportunities. Whether either of these actions is just is a moral question; whether these are the consequences that such circumstances lead to is an economic question. 

These examples go on and on. Sowell defends the practice of charging poor people higher prices than rich people, for instance:

 “As a purely factual matter, prices do tend to be higher— and the quality of service and products lower—in stores in low-income neighborhoods. But the knee-jerk assumption that this represents ‘exploitation’ or ‘racism’ ignores the economics of the situation. Many of the ghetto stores charging high prices are struggling to survive, while supermarkets in other neighborhoods are very profitable charging lower prices.”

Sowell argues against “mistakenly blaming those who charged those prices” rather than “understanding the source of those higher prices.” But here we can see how, despite claiming that he’s only explaining the economics of the situation, not making moral judgments, Sowell is exonerating employers and businesses (“mistakenly blaming”) for discrimination and price gouging. Sowell says that the actual cause of the increased prices, or the discrimination, lies elsewhere. The businesses are simply acting in accordance with economic rationality, and one should not be “blamed” for doing so.  

But it’s not clear to me why someone shouldn’t be blamed for treating people unjustly, even if one does so for reasons of profit-maximization rather than out of deep-seated bigotry. A Black customer has a moral right not to be suspected of being a criminal because they are Black. This is the case even if a shop has twice been broken into by burglars who were also Black. If male lumberjacks are all “distracted” by the presence of a female lumberjack, the employer has an obligation to make the workplace a safe and comfortable environment for prospective female employees. It doesn’t matter whether the employer is discriminating out of pure misogyny or because they want to avoid a hassle. A woman has the right not to be denied a job because she is a woman. Sowell treats anti-discrimination laws as if they assume the underlying motivation for discrimination is animus, and then shows how the discriminator might simply be pursuing financial gain. But for the purpose of justifying anti-discrimination laws, it doesn’t matter whether an employer “correctly” thinks more Irish people tend to be unruly at work or believes this out of an “irrational” hatred. What matters is that each Irish person is entitled not to be excluded from work solely for their Irishness. (If you’re wondering, no, Sowell does not prove that stereotypes about Irish people are true, he just assumes it.) 

Sowell claims to be relatively neutral on the question of whether racial discrimination is actually wrong and should be prohibited: 

How far should presorting [i.e. stereotyping by race] go before judging individuals? There is no categorical answer. … Whether race or ethnicity is a valid presorting category is a many-sided question. From the standpoint of Pareto optimality for the economy, this presorting category cannot be categorically eliminated for the benefit of ethnic minority individuals without increasing knowledge costs, thereby reducing efficiency and therefore imposing losses on other people, who are no less real or important because they may not be part of some readily recognizable group. On the other hand, the very existence of a society implies some sense of justice, and choosing cost-bearers on the basis of race or ethnicity goes counter to general conceptions of justice….

In other words, if we ban employers from prohibiting Irish people from applying, they will be forced to undergo the inconvenience of judging applicants as individuals, rather than simply assuming that because they are Irish they are likely to become unruly and disrupt the assembly line. We will have had “justice” at the cost of “efficiency.”” It is clear from Sowell’s writings that he is deeply skeptical of ideas of justice (after all, they’re the subjective assessments of “third parties”) and thinks efficiency probably ought to win out. There is, of course, no way to “refute” Sowell’s greater interest in the profits of business owners than the equal rights of workers. But we can see that if he were in charge of drafting employment laws, “we can’t have women around here, they’d be too distracting for the men” would be seen as a blameless, sensible justification for categorical gender-based exclusions. Personally, I don’t want to live in such a world. 

Sowell has written dozens of books, and I could spend a very long time going through examples of areas where his logic is atrocious, his facts are cherry-picked, and his conclusions are clearly based on ideology rather than dispassionate, careful analysis. (You can pick up my book Responding to the Right for additional explanations of Sowell’s errors.) He is completely untrustworthy, insisting he is doing cool-headed reasoning while distorting his readers’ understanding of the present state of scholarly knowledge in order to favor conservative conclusions. His logic is often unsound and he is so convinced liberals are a self-righteous group of dunces that he doesn’t care to examine their work closely—which may explain why they are reluctant to examine his.

But one thing Thomas Sowell can offer us is a helpful explanation as to where his work goes wrong. In his books A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Sowell lays out a theory of politics that is useful in understanding what he is doing. 

In these works, Sowell tells a story that goes something like this: There are two kinds of political visions. One sees social problems as solvable, the other sees the human condition as fundamentally tragic. In the “tragic” or “constrained” vision, we can never solve many of our big problems, we just face trade-offs. In the “unconstrained” vision, human potential is boundless, and solving our problems just requires experts to apply their knowledge. Those with the “tragic” vision believe, for example, that inequality is inescapable and attempts to fix it (or to impose “cosmic justice”) will fail and produce catastrophic unintended consequences (guillotines, gulags, etc.) Those with the “unconstrained” vision cling to the hope of a world where all is fair and the state can create justice between people (say by redistributing wealth more fairly). He writes: 

The writings of those with the constrained vision abound with examples of counterproductive consequences of well-intentioned policies. But to those with the unconstrained vision, this is simply seizing upon isolated mistakes that are correctable, in order to resist tendencies that are socially beneficial on the whole. However, to those with the constrained vision, these mistakes are not happenstances, but symptoms of what to expect when the inherent limitations of individuals are ignored and systemic processes for coping with these limitations are deranged by specific tinkering. 

Sowell’s work is essentially one long argument that those with the “unconstrained” vision are arrogantly screwing up the world by letting their vision (which he describes as a “pre-analytic cognitive act”) be a substitute for empirical investigation. A vision, he says, is “our sense of how the world works” and is “dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse [it] with reality itself.” “Powerful visions may not only dispense with facts, they can defy the most blatant facts for years on end,” he says. For dogmatists, it is so“necessary to believe in a particular vision that evidence of its incorrectness is ignored, suppressed, or discredited.” “What a vision may offer,” he writes, “is a special state of grace for those who believe in it.”

One of my main criticisms of right-wing thinkers is that they are guilty of all the sins they (often justly) accuse the left of: smugness, self-righteousness, ignoring inconvenient evidence, poor logic, and a lack of interest in representing opponents fairly. Sowell’s diagnosis of what’s wrong with fixed visions is a diagnosis of what’s wrong with his own work. For while he clearly thinks the “tragic” vision superior to the “unconstrained” vision, both are “visions,” and both tend to “dispense with facts.” The conservative vision, in which regulation invariably produces disaster and reformers always Hurt The People They’re Trying To Help, is just as dogmatic as the view that government can easily solve all of our social problems. Sowell’s warnings about visions are useful in understanding what he himself is doing wrong. He isn’t interested in examples of regulations that work, and he won’t pay attention to studies on the minimum wage or charter schools that contradict his favored conclusions. If there is proof that a social problem is not a tragic inevitability, but can easily be ameliorated (see, for example, how the government substantially reduced child poverty before bringing it back), that proof will be resisted by those committed to a cynical view on the power of the state. 

Consider what conservative writer George Gilder said about why he appreciated Sowell: 

 “It’s respect for the data and it is respect for historical facts, but of course, the concept precedes the data… You never get the sense that Sowell is inundated by empirical data collection. He has a conceptual mastery that allows him to see the relevant numbers. That’s why he’s so effective. It’s not that he’s inductive. The idea comes before the data. For him, it just does.”

Gilder intends this as praise for Sowell: the idea comes before the data. And it’s absolutely correct: Sowell gathers the data he needs to show that his ideas are correct. This is not, however, a scientific approach. Ultimately, the data are gathered that fit Sowell’s “vision.” It makes him able to tell a powerful and compelling story (just like Marxism is able to tell a powerful and compelling story). But it explains why he is seen more as a pundit than a scholar by those in his field. (Of course, to Sowell and his supporters, this dismissal is just confirmation that these people are part of The Anointed who cannot handle dissent.)

Here’s what I’ll say for Sowell: I can very easily see how someone could believe the story about him being overlooked and ignored by Intellectuals because he brilliantly demolishes their pieties. He packages his beliefs this way, and it is a very compelling narrative. But like many other stories the right tells (e.g. the great Invisible Hand that guides prices to their objectively proper place), it crumbles upon scrutiny. Sowell is a very good writer and a clear thinker who is nevertheless deeply wrong—wrong for reasons that his own theories shed some light on. His career does not show us what a maverick intellectual who dares to tell the truth looks like. It shows what happens when you become too confident that everyone who rejects your beliefs is an ignoramus, and when you start to assume that because your opponents are idealogues, your own beliefs are objective facts. The success of Sowell’s writing is not a testament to its superior use of fact and reason, but to the power that the rhetoric of reason carries. Sowell tells a captivating tale about how society works. It has been ignored, however, for good reason. The reason Sowell is not respected by academics is that despite professing to be concerned with Facts and Logic, he is an idealogue uninterested in truths that do not support free-market libertarian conclusions. He has so fully swallowed free market libertarianism that no pile of evidence could be gigantic enough to shake him from it. 

And yet Sowell and his defenders are right about something. Riley says that Sowell’s “adversaries frequently resort to gross distortions of his arguments or ugly character assassination” and “his motives tend to be questioned more often than the strength of his logic and reasoning.” It’s true that few critics have responded to Sowell’s factual claims carefully. (I was disappointed, for instance, by the portion of Cornel West’s Race Matters that deals with Sowell, which does deal more with his motivations than his arguments.) I think it’s been a serious mistake for critics not to take Sowell’s work seriously and respond to it carefully. It allows those like Riley to maintain the illusion that Sowell’s work holds up under scrutiny. I would encourage economists, sociologists, historians, legal scholars, and policy analysts to go through his work carefully and if it’s wrong, explain why it’s wrong. It is easy to question “the strength of his logic and reasoning,” and when we don’t do it, we make it seem like that reasoning is stronger than it actually is. I have always believed that conservative books should be responded to, not ignored. Ignoring them, rather than debunking them, helps them convince more people that they are maverick dissidents ignored by Elites, rather than pseudo-scholars who pick the studies that support their conclusions and throw away the rest of the scholarly literature. 

Let me say finally about Sowell: he does put the conservative case more compellingly than anyone else ever has before him. He is indeed one of American conservatism’s sharpest thinkers and clearest writers. The fact that his version of reality—even when presented with such skill—is still an obvious fraud should tell us conclusively that the right’s worldview cannot be defended. 

  1. Update: A reader says Sowell is likely construing the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which required federal contractors to pay prevailing wages, as the “national minimum wage law.” If so, I think it’s a deeply dishonest framing, for the obvious reason that that law did not establish a national minimum wage, and so calling it a “national minimum wage law” is highly misleading. But even if we succeed in answering the question of what Sowell could possibly be talking about, we are still left with the question of how it could possibly support his point about unemployment, given that unemployment skyrocketed between the end of the Coolidge administration and the passage of the federal contracting requirement. 

  2. In fact, as math teacher Gary Rubenstein notes in his fairly devastating review of Sowell’s book, at one point Sowell concedes that students in charter schools might have more motivated parents. (“There is no need to overlook the possibility that highly motivated parents may be more common among the parents of children in charter schools.”) Rubenstein notes that the admission blows apart Sowell’s earlier contention that his comparisons are of like groups of students and calls into question the validity of any conclusions Sowell draws from his data about how good charter schools are at educating students. 

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