It’s the story of a man who experienced and learned much, one who wrote of his “lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people.” He came from a broken family, raised in the South and then Harlem. Rough stretches of life followed and he turned socialist. But this Marxist, against the odds, later parachuted into a movement that other African-American critics could not fathom and never approve. He became a conservative.
Socialism had seduced him, but big government charms could not hold him. And countless Americans have since benefited much from the economic wisdom of Thomas Sowell.
Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey (2000) is a fascinating autobiography. Sowell was born in 1930 in North Carolina. His father was dead before he was born. Having four other children, his mother was unable to care for the new baby. Aunt Molly “Mama” raised Thomas, who only learned much later that he had brothers and sisters.
There were many years of living in poverty. One of “the most amazing things” in his childhood was learning of hot water coming from an indoor faucet. Denied electricity that other kids had, he was curious about a new radio program called “The Lone Ranger.”
Mama and Thomas moved to New York City before he turned nine. Harlem was an education for the young Sowell and the white kids who encountered him. One day, a white kid asked him why did he not act “like the colored people” in the movies. Sowell answered: “Well, they get paid to act that way – and I don’t.”
How did Sowell act? Apparently not foolishly, except for the school pranks. Teachers discovered his high intelligence. Pity the teacher who received Sowell’s answer to a question – in Latin. And there was the teacher who gave him 93 for a term report, even though he never scored less than 95 on any test. Confronted by a stubborn Sowell, the “long-suffering man” changed the mark to 96.
But stubbornness works for good and bad. At age 16, Sowell quit school. His first full-time job was as a Western Union messenger. Still a teenager he left home and lived alone, experiencing periods of unemployment and often down to his last dollar. When he had a job, juggling night school was difficult.
He read a lot. He bought an old set of encyclopedias for $1.17 and under the entry on Karl Marx were “ideas I was to be attracted to for the next decade.” After serving two years in the Marine Corps, Sowell entered Howard University followed by Harvard University. Sowell writes of one Howard professor warning him not to “let myself become overly impressed with Harvard or my achievement there.”
But it’s difficult not to be impressed with Sowell’s Harvard experience. He graduated magna cum laude, writing an impressive honors thesis on Karl Marx. Next he earned his Master’s degree in economics at Columbia University – in nine months the minimum time allowed – writing his thesis on Marx’s business cycle theory. These were the days when there were no affirmative action policies, days Sowell later sees as “fortuitous” timing.
The Marxist Sowell was on his way to a respectable career as a left-wing academic. Not so. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he took classes from brilliant conservative professors such as Milton Friedman (later recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics). In Friedman’s course Sowell got a B, not a bad mark because it turned out to be the highest mark.
Working as an intern at the U.S. Department of Labor was another wakeup call, not the last. Statistics he collected told him that a rise of minimum wage caused unemployment. Such facts tend to be rather inconvenient for any dogmatic, self-righteous left-winger. Certainly, it is not something today’s liberal politicians want to hear or believe.
Various college teaching stints before Sowell got his doctorate drove home the point that there was a lot of poor scholarship written and peddled by socialists. Robert Heilbroner was one he targeted in his autobiography. Basically, Sowell thought it a good idea for a book to be worth more than “the paper it’s written on.”
By 1964, he even agreed with some of Barry Goldwater’s small government views. This position is nothing surprising for a Ronald Reagan, but hardly the norm for a black intellectual. In college showdowns in the late 1960s between aggressive student activists and timid administrators, Professor Sowell “became the villain – the representative, if not the tool, of the evil establishment.” Gone was his patience for the “incredible rhetoric,” “bizarre notions,” and “racial hype” coming from liberal circles. As Sowell explains, “I don’t mind debating smart people…. It’s debating stupid people that’s hard.”
With the hard knocks of life, mountains of economic data, and integrity to go where the facts took him Sowell became immune to, and in the end dismissed, any vestige of victimhood thinking that mostly blames someone or something else for one’s failures. Such was Sowell’s choice.
Today, good economics is in short supply in the White House; it’s scarce on mainstream television. Common-sense people seeking smarter economics must look elsewhere. One rewarding stop is a Thomas Sowell book – and fortunately there is no shortage of them.