A clear thinker and courageous voice leaves the stage. (Not completely we can hope.)
I knew Thomas Sowell was getting on in years — so far on in fact as to be 86. But it was still a jolt to read in Tuesday’s TAS that he is retiring from his long-running syndicated column. With 50+ books to his credit and nearly 2,000 columns on matters of importance to us all, his intellectual contribution has been enormous. He’s certainly earned his retirement. But to say that his periodic wisdom on the affairs of the day will be missed is a Major League understatement.
Sowell is one of the clearest thinkers around, and has been an important conservative voice for decades. It’s not that he’s an ideologue, someone who whoops up a particular political philosophy. But he parses public issues rationally, on the basis of evidence, which makes him come down on the conservative side more often than not. Reality favors the conservative view of most things, and Sowell is all reality all of the time. In the baseball phrase, he pounds the strike zone.
Sowell earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968, about the time academe started its slide into dopiness, both students and faculty, from which it appears it will never recover. He taught just a few years at places like Cornell and UCLA. He then made the move to the more contemplative atmosphere of think tanks. Since 1980 he has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
In both his books and his columns, and in his personal appearances, Sowell is not only clear thinking but fearless. He has never subscribed to political correctness (another expression for political and cultural bullying by the left), and doesn’t at all mind stepping on the udders of sacred cows. He deals with controversial subjects such as race, class, sex, crime, education, welfare, and the family without fear or favor. He’s been a one-man wrecking ball on the foundation of some of the left’s favorite programs and phantasms such as affirmative action and the fictitious pay-gap between men and women doing the same work. And he does his fact-based deconstruction in a clear, economical, and always accessible prose. No technical gibberish or professorial gobbledygook. Just clarity and good sense.
In his farewell column Sowell said he has wearied of keeping up with politics, and we can certainly forgive anyone for that. And relieved of the burden of staying on the trail of the daily struggles of Vanity Fair, Sowell says he would like to spend more time with his hobby photography. (He’s very good at this too, as you can see at tsowell.com.) But it’s hard to imagine that the keen and energetic mind of Thomas Sowell will be content just to take pictures for any extended period. So those who have benefited from reading him for years can hope there will be more books and the occasional column.
Here’s a good place to share just a few of Sowell’s aphoristic insights from his column and books. Most of these come from Sowell’s 2011 collection, The Thomas Sowell Reader.
On affirmative action: “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 complain are unfair to minorities: “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 the silly public conversation on intelligence and its measurement, this observation: “Few things are discussed as unintelligently as intelligence.”
On the dopiness of academics and those with multiple degrees in the soft and politicized “disciplines,” he offers: “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 professional whiners, indignatos, demonstrators, and those who file ideologically motived law suits: “This is the age of the complaining classes, whether they’re lawyers, community activists, radical feminists, race hustlers, or other squeaking wheels looking for oil.”
Of the current elephantine sense of entitlement on the part of what Sowell refers to as the “gratingest generation,” he says: “It is amazing how many people seem to think that the government exists to turn their prejudices into law.”
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’s not, that worker is likely to be unemployed.”
There’s plenty more where this comes from. Readers can find these in Sowell’s books, most of which are still in print, and in his columns, which can be found online. I wish Professor Sowell a long and satisfying retirement. But I can’t help hoping that he will put his camera down from time to time and share with us more insights from his acute and well-stocked mind. Thoughtful conservatives will always welcome him back to the fray.