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A Lifetime of Sowell-Full Thought

Buy yourself and everyone you know an early Christmas present.

By 11.2.11

The Thomas Sowell Reader
By Thomas Sowell
(Basic Books
, 449 pages, $29.99)

As Thomas Sowell says in the preface to Reader, it's a challenge to summarize the work of a lifetime.

True enough. Especially so when the work summarized is such a broad, intellectual triumph as that of Professor Sowell. But in a little more than 400 pages, this collection from decades of Sowell's columns, essays, and books captures some of the best diagnoses and critiques of our post-everything time from one of our time's clearest thinkers. Considering the season soon to be upon us, Reader would be an excellent stocking-stuffer for the conservative readers on your list.

Sowell, 81, earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968 and has contributed some important work in this discipline. The dismal science is clearer and distinctly less dismal when Sowell writes about it. He's one of the great explicators and defenders of free-markets as the source of wealth and freedom, as against command and control economies as the sources of tyranny and poverty.

But Sowell has not limited himself to economics. After years as a professor, during some of academe's most disruptive and downright daffy years, Sowell moved to the more contemplative atmosphere of think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980 he's hung his hat at the Hoover Institution in California. In his writings and in his speaking engagements, Professor Sowell focuses the light of reason on controversial subjects that are almost exclusively discussed, ranted about more like, in the most irrational way -- race, class, sex, crime, education, welfare, the family, et al. He's even taken on subjects as important as baseball (like many of our most acute thinkers, Sowell knows a good deal about The Grand Old Game).

In addition to a widely read syndicated column, Sowell has written 30 books, all of them readable, some of them truly important. My favorites include A Conflict of Visions (1987), perhaps the best analysis of the differences between the liberal and conservative mind, and The Vision of the Anointed (1995), a clear but scathing indictment of the self-appointed political and culture humbugs who presume, because of their pretentions to great intellect and moral superiority, to micro-manage all our lives. Other signal titles include Intellectuals and Society (2009), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), and The Quest for Cosmic Justice (2002).

In addition to being a clear thinker and pitiless analyzer, Sowell is an eloquent but accessible writer who lasers in on the relevant and is unafraid of saying things contrary to received wisdom by the "anointed," a term we have Professor Sowell to thank for. His expression is also economical, sometimes tending to the aphoristic. A few examples:

On minimum wage laws: "Making it illegal to pay less than a given amount does not make a worker's productivity worth that amount -- and, if it is not, that worker is unlikely to be employed."

On environmentalists who shout NO! at everything: "The essence of bigotry is denying others the same rights you claim for yourself. Green bigots are a classic example."

On affirmative action and other race hustles: "At the heart of the affirmative action approach is the notion that statistical disparities show discrimination. No dogma has taken a deeper hold with less evidence -- or in the face of more massive evidence to the contrary."

On objective tests that leftists and race-hustlers claim are unfair: "The tests are not unfair. Life is unfair -- and the tests just measure the results. The same could be said of the charge that the tests are 'culturally biased.' Life is culturally biased."

On professional whiners, indignatos, chronic demonstrators, and those who file ideological law suits: "This is the age of the complaining classes, whether they are lawyers, community activists, radical feminists, race hustlers, or other squeaking wheels looking for oil."

On the over-educated non-contributors: "No small part of our social problems today come from miseducated degree-holders who have nothing to contribute to the wealth of the society but who are full of demands and indignation -- and resentment of those who are producing."

On the various controversies surrounding what intelligence means: "Few things are discussed as unintelligently as intelligence."

On the laughing stock so much of academe has become and the limited life usefulness of much "advanced" education: "Too often what are called 'educated' people are simply people who have been sheltered from reality for years in ivy-covered buildings. Those whose whole careers have been spent in ivy-covered buildings, insulated by tenure, can remain adolescents into their golden retirement years." 

On the liberal/progressive sense of entitlement: "It is amazing how many people seem to think that the government exists to turn their prejudices into law."

A warning that needs no explanatory note: "If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win."

On the left: "A careful definition of words would destroy half the agenda of the political left, and scrutinizing evidence would destroy the other half."

Just so. And Professor Sowell has brought his considerable intellectual power to scrutinizing the evidence for a half-century now. The results of his thought, well-treated in this distillation, deserve the attention of anyone seeking to understand today's world.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.