Discovering Thomas Sowell: The Voice That Challenges Conventional Thinking
In his article The Day the Delusions Died,1 British comedian and podcaster Konstantin Kisin discusses how the brutal massacre of 1,400 innocent people by Hamas shattered the worldview of many, leading them to become conservatives overnight. He then explores Thomas Sowell’s straightforward and compelling explanation for political disagreements.
In 1987, Sowell published A Conflict of Visions,2 in which he argues that these disagreements stem from differing views on human nature. He presents two competing visions that provide contrasting narratives about human nature, influencing our perception of the world.
Supporters of the “unconstrained” or utopian vision believe in the potential for humans to change and the possibility of solving social problems through collective action and effective strategies. They view poverty, crime, inequality, and war as challenges that can be addressed through investments in resources. This perspective is commonly associated with a progressive mindset.
The “constrained” or tragic vision holds that human nature is a universal constant. Humans are driven by self-interest, and resources and empathy are limited. Social issues can be managed but not fully resolved. It opposes extensive social engineering as ineffective, instead placing faith in the rules and self-organizing dynamics of a free society. This perspective is associated with a conservative mindset.
There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.
Unfortunately, for over 50 years, most policies in Western democracies have been influenced by the unconstrained vision. The elites, experts, and intellectual class, referred to as “the Anointed” by Sowell, drive these policies. These include various political topics, such as open borders in immigration, prioritizing rehabilitation over punishment for crimes, establishing an extensive welfare state, and undermining a country’s self-reliance on energy, food, and security. The unconstrained vision is particularly evident in movements like Marxian identity politics (Wokeness) and zealous climate activism groups.
So, it came as a surprise to many people to see those groups align with the terrorist group Hamas and openly propose antisemitism on the streets. But it is only the logical conclusion of these ideologies.
Thomas Sowell is a visionary because he wrote about the issues 40 years ago, when they could first be observed in small corners of universities.
Thomas Sowell is arguably the most influential black intellectual in history, yet he remains relatively unknown to many. At the age of 93, he recently published his 54th book titled Social Justice Fallacies5 in September 2023. So, who exactly is Thomas Sowell, and why should you be familiar with him?
A Short Biography
I’ll keep the biography short to have more time for his works, but I highly recommend the excellent 1-hour-long free documentary about the life of Thomas Sowell.
Early Life and Education
Thomas Sowell, an African American born in 1930, faced the struggles of the Great Depression. Despite the challenges, he found a love for learning and was supported by his great-aunt and mentor, Eddie. His access to education and guidance from Eddie greatly impacted his life and led him to success.
Military & Photography
He enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and served in the Marine Corps Combat Camera Division, where he taught pistol shooting and captured photographs. His experiences in the Marines influenced his passion for photography, which became his artistic outlet. In both his photography and political writings, Sowell emphasizes the importance of trade-offs and prioritizes them over grand visions and solutions.
Higher Education in Economics
Sowell’s time at the Chicago School of Economics taught him the value of discipline and hard data. Despite being a Marxist, a course with Milton Friedman did not change his beliefs. However, during a summer internship at the U.S. Department of Labor, his study of economics made him realize the potential negative impact of raising minimum wages on job losses for the poor. This experience showed him the government’s lack of concern for policy effectiveness. As a result, he reevaluated his assumptions and gained a more profound understanding of previously elusive concepts. In 1968, he obtained his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago and taught at Cornell University during the turbulent 1960s. He disagreed with the school’s affirmative action policies, believing that lower standards for black students led to unintended consequences of racial divisions.
Thomas Sowell was a highly influential educator and economist, having taught at various prestigious universities such as Cornell, Howard, Rutgers, Brandeis, Amherst, and UCLA. Despite being offered the position of head of the economics department at Howard University, he chose to pursue other opportunities. Sowell’s extensive experience and insightful contributions have solidified his reputation as a prominent figure in the field of economics.
In 1980, Thomas Sowell left his teaching position to join the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Despite no longer teaching, he continued to reach millions of readers with his insightful work. Writing became his passion, and he found freedom and independence at Hoover, greatly increasing his productivity as a writer. Additionally, he appeared multiple times on William F. Buckley Jr.’s show, Firing Line, to discuss topics such as the economics of race and privatization.
How I Became a Fan of Thomas Sowell
I discovered Thomas Sowell in 2020 through a short video by an Australian YouTuber.6 The video showcased a segment from Sowell’s 1981 interview on Firing Line with William F. Buckley.7 In that interview, Sowell adeptly debunked arguments about the wage gap and racial discrimination that continue to be raised today. Since then, I have consumed every Sowell video I could find and have begun reading his books. I am currently on my sixth book by Thomas Sowell, and I intend to read more in the future.
What makes Thomas Sowell appealing? He is a unique and sincere intellectual, and his writings are accessible to non-academics. He follows the facts, regardless of their direction, and values truth over popularity. Not only that, but he does not compromise for social politeness and strongly defends his opinions. Reading Sowell’s books will challenge your beliefs about race, crime, immigration, culture, history, economics, and politics. His books are thoroughly researched and contain clear, real-world examples.
The media recognized that it is extremely hard to refute Thomas Sowell’s arguments, so they chose instead to ignore them, which is the only reason you probably never heard about him.
Diving Into Thomas Sowell’s Works
Even though most of Thomas Sowell’s books are easy to read and understand, I know that not many people enjoy reading these days. It is still possible to learn more about Sowell through other media formats.
Thomas Sowell, despite having much of his work made public, is a very private person. He is reluctant to give interviews and has made journalists wait for years before discussing his life and work. Nevertheless, here are some of the interesting videos with Thomas Sowell:
Dave Rubin, the host of The Rubin Report, managed to convince him to appear on his show and discuss his 2018 book.11
The Hoover Institution has a playlist containing 17 interviews with Thomas Sowell. These interviews took place between 2008 and 2023 and focused on his books. They are all fascinating. You can find the playlist here.
After Skool created an animated video of a book discussion with Thomas Sowell on his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice in 1999.12
You can also find numerous other videos featuring interviews and talks by Thomas Sowell. There is an unofficial YouTube channel that collects videos of Thomas Sowell.
Many people prefer audio formats because they are more accessible than books or articles. They can be listened to while walking, doing laundry, or engaging in sports. Several of Thomas Sowell’s books are available as audiobooks, and there is a fantastic podcast solely dedicated to Sowell called The Genius of Thomas Sowell™. It was created by Alan Wolan (Twitter) in 2021 and is really fantastic.
Wolan presents the works and ideas of Thomas Sowell by discussing current and controversial topics. The content includes interviews with interesting guests, quotes from Sowell, opinions, and music. Wolan has created an easily shareable presentation about Thomas Sowell, which can be accessed here. Additionally, there is a collection of Sowell’s best quotes that can be found here. Physical stickers featuring Sowell’s quotes are also available for purchase on Etsy. I highly recommend listening to all episodes.
Thomas Sowell’s essays and weekly columns have been published in more than 300 newspapers and periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune magazines. Although Sowell’s empirically grounded arguments were often regarded as insightful, they frequently faced criticism, particularly from academics. Some of his best essays are available as books.
There are numerous essays and archives of his work available on the internet, making it impossible to provide a comprehensive list. RealClear Politics has a collection of essays from 2005 to 2006, and there is an archive of his essays for Creators Syndicate spanning 1998–2006. Creators itself features essays from 2006 to 2016. National Review offers articles from 2006 to 2016, while Townhall has a collection from 2003 to 2022.
Sowell wrote on every social, economic, or political issue imaginable, including essays on the conflict in the Middle East: Thomas Sowell: There is no Middle East ‘peace process’ or Thomas Sowell: Cease the cease-fires.
Many individuals have written about Thomas Sowell, including Gad Saad in his article Ten Reasons Why You Should Love Thomas Sowell,13 Rob Henderson in his piece Lessons I Learned From Thomas Sowell’s Memoir,14 and Maddox Locher for FFE in the article 30 Priceless Quotes from the Great Thomas Sowell.15 I recently read these works.
Thomas Sowell’s quotes are fantastic. There is an unofficial Twitter account dedicated to them. I have highlighted over 1,000 quote blocks in the six books I’ve read so far.
The second book I read in 2022 was A Conflict of Visions,2 which was mentioned in the introduction. If you’re ambitious, I recommend starting with this book. The next book, The Vision of the Anointed,3 was the most enjoyable to read. For casual readers, this is probably the best book to begin with. While Sowell provides a more balanced analysis of the two visions in A Conflict of Visions, in the second book, he thoroughly criticizes the elite class and experts, aligning himself with the constrained vision.
In 2023, I read the book Knowledge And Decisions by Thomas Sowell.18 It builds upon F.A. Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society and explores decision-making in various contexts, including economics. The book emphasizes the significance of trade-offs in calculations and discusses how decision-makers in academia or the civil service often lack proper feedback loops. The book is a foundational work that informs many of Sowell’s later conclusions.
The last book I read was Sowell’s newest book, Social Justice Fallacies.5 It became an instant New York Times bestseller. Sowell challenges the myths behind the social justice movement. He presents documented facts that debunk commonly held beliefs and highlight the historical consequences of pursuing a social justice agenda. Sowell acknowledges the fallibility of all humans, including social justice advocates, but raises concerns about their unwavering certainty and the dangers of ignoring evidence and obstacles. Ultimately, he prompts readers to reflect on the consequences of continuing on this path without consideration.
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.
Next on my list is The Quest for Cosmic Justice4 to complete the trilogy, along with Thomas Sowell’s books on political theory. I also intend to explore his economics books, such as Basic Economics,19 which provides an excellent introduction to understanding economics. Additionally, Applied Economics20 and Economic Facts and Fallacies21 are included in my reading list.
I plan to read some of his books, in which he explores cultures worldwide. However, I need to do further research to determine which ones to read next on this topic.
Dr. Neema Parvini has created a fascinating video discussing Thomas Sowell’s books. In the video, he categorizes, summarizes, and recommends Sowell’s top 10 books.22
He categorizes Sowell’s books into six categories:
- Academic Economic Theory (not recommended for casual readers)
- Economic Introduction
- Political Theory
- Race and Ethnicity in Economics
- Sowell’s Theory on Ethnic Disparities Throughout History
- Occasional studies, and Hot Button Topics.
I highly recommend everyone engage with Thomas Sowell’s content through reading, listening, or watching. In the Western world, there is a prevalent bias towards the utopian vision, which is promoted by media organizations, think tanks, NGOs, and the political and intellectual elite. This vision has resulted in considerable suffering, harm, missed opportunities, and loss of life. In its most extreme form, it fueled the ideologies that led to the atrocities of the 20th century. Thomas Sowell will change your thinking permanently for a better life.
Konstantin Kisin (2023): The Day the Delusions Died, https://www.thefp.com/p/the-day-the-delusions-died-konstantin-kisin. ↩
William F. Buckley, Thomas Sowell, and Harriet F. Pipel (1981): The Economic Lot of Minorities, https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/6660. ↩ ↩2
William F. Buckley and Thomas Sowell (1983): The Economics and Politics of Race, https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/6749. ↩
William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Paul Starr, Thomas Sowell, Bill Honig, and Albert Shanker (1986): Resolved: That We Should Move towards Privatization, Including the Schools-Part I, https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/6867. ↩
William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Paul Starr, Thomas Sowell, Bill Honig, and Albert Shanker (1986): Resolved: That We Should Move towards Privatization, Including the Schools-Part II, https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/6868. ↩
Gad Saad (2021): Ten Reasons Why You Should Love Thomas Sowell, https://www.gadsaad.com/post/ten-reasons-why-you-should-love-thomas-sowell. ↩
Rob Henderson (2023): Lessons I Learned From Thomas Sowell’s Memoir, https://www.robkhenderson.com/p/31-lessons-i-learned-from-thomas. ↩
Maddox Locher (2023): 30 Priceless Quotes from the Great Thomas Sowell, https://fee.org/articles/30-priceless-quotes-from-the-great-thomas-sowell/. ↩
Thomas Sowell (2013): Intellectuals and Race, Basic Books. ↩
Thomas Sowell (2009): Intellectuals and Society, Basic Books. ↩
Thomas Sowell (1979): Knowledge And Decisions, Basic Books. ↩
Thomas Sowell (2000): Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy, Basic Books. ↩
Thomas Sowell (2003): Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Basic Books. ↩
Thomas Sowell (2007): Economic Facts and Fallacies, Basic Books. ↩