Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Returns

One of America's top social scientists on what has changed since he sat down with Reason 38 years ago.


Thirty-eight years ago, Reason contributor Thomas Hazlett and Senior Editor Manny Klausner sat down with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) economist and social scientist Thomas Sowell for a sprawling interview about race, gender, poverty, economics, and what he viewed as the government's many failed and misguided attempts to lift up poor minorities. Sowell talked about his history as a Marxist, his frustrations with working in government, and why he rejects the label "libertarian," preferring instead to describe himself as "a person who dissents from the current liberal orthodoxy."

Joanna Andreasson

That interview occurred not long after the publication of one of Sowell's most influential and widely read books, Knowledge and Decisions, which resulted in The New York Times labeling him "America's most distinguished black social scientist."

In the years since, his fame and influence have only expanded. He has written dozens of books, including the much-lauded Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy; served as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and been presented with the Francis Boyer Award by the American Enterprise Institute, the Sidney Hook Award by the National Association of Scholars, and, in 2002, the National Humanities Award for his work in economics and political science. He remains one of America's most distinguished social scientists, period.

In July, Sowell once again sat down with Hazlett to discuss his life and career, the consequences of fame, the surprising similarities between Presidents Trump and Obama, how Reason helped inspire his work, and why—despite the generally positive trajectory of the world over the last four decades—he remains somewhat pessimistic about its current state.

Reason: In the December 1980 issue of Reason, Manny Klausner and I interviewed you. A few things have happened in between. For instance, you have had an astounding career as a scholar and thinker and writer. It is time to follow up.

In 1980, you were a professor of economics at UCLA, and you had become the most famous black social scientist in America, according to The New York Times. Also in 1980 you starred in multiple episodes of Free to Choose, the excellent public TV series by Milton Friedman. That was really a great year for you.

Sowell: It was in some ways.

You've achieved a level of fame and some would say notoriety within intellectual circles. Has it changed your life?

A lot. As of 1980, for example, I used to sit in my office at the Hoover Institution with the door open, and people, anyone who wanted to talk to me, they'd just drop by and stop in and we'd chew the fat. Sometimes with students and occasionally even with journalists. That all changed with the election of Ronald Reagan and this hysteria, in some quarters of the media, that I would be part of the Reagan administration and all my bad ideas would be tried out.

Thomas Sowell. Photo by Mikkel Aaland.

That of course was some of the earliest of the fake news that I'm aware of. I had no intention of going into politics. But the attention was so great that we had to close my office door. And then later, we had to take my name off the directories. And then, in still later years, I simply worked at home. It wasn't worth the bother.

You told me a while ago that Reason actually did have something to do with your career path.

It was specifically your columns in Reason that led me to think that you could write about serious economic subjects without using graphs and equations. Economists are just hooked on graphs and equations and jargon, and to see you discuss things that really are complicated and need some explanation, and do it without that, led me to think that it would be possible to write an introductory economics book like that. As I saw various economic issues being discussed on television and realized what fallacies were presented, I would write something about that. I accumulated these writings for 10 years. And by the end of the 10th year, I had enough to write a book about it, which I did…Basic Economics. But it was by no means foreordained that that would happen. I gave it a shot because you were the pioneer who goes ahead, and then there's the crowd that follows after him. Well, I was part of that crowd.

The late Nobel laureate James Buchanan said that Knowledge and Decisions was the best book he had read on economics since Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Some of us loved that book as a grand, eloquent discussion of how economic thinking is everywhere. Is that your proudest achievement?

It certainly was at the time, and it's certainly among the books that I'm proudest of now. I guess my own personal favorite is Conflict of Visions, which is perhaps a third of the size and more readable. Knowledge and Decisions was a tough book to write. It's not as readable as some of the other things I've done.

In 1980, the question of poverty and public policy arose, and you said the solution was to invite all the experts on poverty to a big conference on an island—and to keep them there for a few decades. When they were allowed to return home, they'd be very impressed with their work. Looking over the last almost four decades, that's kind of what happened to billions of poor people in China, India, South America, and Africa, not to mention the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Their eminent experts in Marxism-Leninism went on holiday, and things seem to be going well in their absence. Are you in a good mood about the changes these last decades?

Many of them have been for the better. Some have been for the worse. Everything depends on what base period you pick. If you pick 1960 as your base period, things have been going pretty badly in most of the Western world. Let's take just one thing: violence. There's a book [by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker] on violence internationally over the centuries, and you see the graphs all going down historically. In 1960, however, you see a sudden up-shift.

In 1960, the homicide rate in the United States was about half what it was in the mid-1930s. Then all the wonderful legal theories came in and reduced punishments, put restrictions on the police, and expanded rights for criminals. Over the next 20 years, the homicide rate doubles. Later on I discovered that very similar things had happened in Britain, and when Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature came out, it was happening throughout the Western world.

Wasn't that a violence bubble? Isn't that Pinker's point—that the incidence of violent acts has fallen sharply over the past 30 years?

It has never come down to the level in 1960, which it reached over a period of centuries coming down.

In your book Ethnic America you tell the story of German Americans in the 19th century doing something that was considered radical by the Anglo establishment, which was to go to the public park on a Sunday for a huge family picnic, complete with beer and an oompah band. The party atmosphere was considered blasphemous, but it caught on, and you conclude that the German immigrants introduced good clean family fun into America. Today, that's called "cultural appropriation."

Thomas Sowell. Photo by Mikkel Aaland.

One of the legacies of the '60s is what I call "grievance politics," where people do not wish to learn from others. They wish to feel themselves victims and to find someone to blame. But the whole idea that if things aren't going the same for everybody there's somebody to blame is one of the fatal ideas of our time. There are so many reasons for people to be different that have nothing to do with blame.

In my most recent book, Discrimination and Disparities, I mention birth order. Data from around the world show that the firstborn does better than those who come after, and the only child does better than the firstborn. The first time I became aware of this was a study which showed that, among young people who made the finals for a National Merit Scholarship and were from five-children families, the firstborn was the finalist more than the other four put together.

Among the Apollo astronauts, 22 out of the 29 were either firstborn or an only child.

If I may make it autobiographical for a moment, I was adopted, but I was not told that I was adopted until I was almost grown. And then I was not told that I had siblings hundreds of miles away. When I met them in adulthood, it became instantly clear that I was much more like them than like any of the people in the family in which I was raised. So although I've written much that's critical of genetic explanations of behavior, I'm not one who dismisses it out of hand.

From reading your work, I'd have to conclude that there is "cultural appropriation" all over the place.

Much of the progress of the human species has been the transfer of things that worked from one culture to another. I don't know of any society where people used bows and arrows, and later on had the opportunity to use firearms, that did not give up the bows and arrows and start using the firearms. Of course, the gunpowder originated in China. In fact, I've argued that isolation is one of the most deadly fates of a people because people who are isolated, whoever they are, whatever race or part of the world they're in, seldom produce anything that advances the human condition.

"The successful charter schools…have done marvelous things educationally, none of which was done by Brown v. Board or busing or the other wonderful-sounding ideas that the reformers tried."

You note that mountain people in almost any culture are thought to be backwards because they are remote. They don't get the advantage others enjoy from mixing it up, what the writer Matt Ridley calls the great progress that follows when ideas have sex.

People who are isolated by geography or by politics or whatever, they're almost always hurt by it.

What about the transference of bad ideas? You argue that the gangster rapper in contemporary America has inherited, through migrations passing through the American South, many of the antisocial attitudes of male Welsh peasants from 300 years ago—living in dysfunctional families, disdaining education, and proving their manhood by fits of rage.

Unfortunately, that has been encouraged since the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic. I'm struck by how Britain has followed the same pattern as the United States, even though the British underclass is white and much of the underclass in America is nonwhite. Really, it's what people do when they go against civilization.

Let's talk about growing up in segregated North Carolina. You wrote in your autobiography that you thought that all white people were traveling salesmen, because you only saw such people in your neighborhood with pots and pans and brooms.

It came as a great shock to me when I was 9 years old and living in New York to learn that most of the people living in the country were white. I thought, "Who knew?"

Did the 1964 Civil Rights Act turn out to do what people hoped?

In some respects, yes. In a deeper respect, no.

That act and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision were welcomed, as they should have been, but they set off expectations that were wholly unrealistic. I was going to school and the professor came in in a state of agitation, and he said, "The most amazing thing has happened today. I think we should talk about that rather than what I planned to cover," and everyone was elated that the end of segregation was going to bring all these wonderful things. When I was asked my opinion, I said, "It's been more than half a century since Plessy v. Ferguson and we still don't have separate but equal. What makes you think this is going to go faster?"

We had separate but not equal.

Yes. It did not endear me to anyone, but I thought early on that they had misdiagnosed the problem. Today, the charter school movement has convinced me more. The successful charter schools, like the KIPP schools and Success Academy, have done marvelous things educationally, none of which was done by Brown v. Board or busing or the [other] wonderful-sounding ideas that the reformers tried.

When I asked about the Civil Rights Act, you immediately thought in terms of education and Brown.

If you don't get a good education, whatever else you get is not going to make a major difference, economically or socially. That's why I'm so much in favor of the successful charter schools. This happens too often in the history of ideas. Segregation was made the reason the black kids weren't doing well, so people attack that factor. But now you have black kids doing well in predominantly black schools, and people are against them because they haven't been integrated. Integration was a means to an end, and when you achieve the end, you don't condemn the end because you didn't get there by the means you thought you were going to get there by.

You have said you were a Marxist as a young man.

The first thing I ever published was an article in the American Economic Review in March 1960 on Marxian economics.

You worked at the United States Department of Labor. What turned you away from Marxism?

I realized what I would have been taught had I studied under [public choice economist] James Buchanan. Institutions, including government agencies, have their own agendas, and to think that they're going to carry out the agenda they've been given is very naive. Once I started thinking that way, the whole left-wing vision began to unravel. But, it was nothing I was taught at the University of Chicago, because I was a Marxist both before and after I took Milton Friedman's course.

Your Intellectuals and Society is a very hard-hitting book, to put it mildly. It's an experience to read, and after reading that book some might say you're a bit cynical about social science.

I don't even call it social science.

You end with this: "While virtually anyone could name a list of medical, scientific or technological things that have made the lives of today's generation better than that of people in the past, including people just one generation ago, it would be a challenge for even a highly informed person to name three ways in which our lives today are better as a result of the ideas of sociologists or deconstructionists." I guess you are not asked to serve on many committees at Stanford. You express deep doubt in the faith that academic research inevitably produces public goods and helps the world.

Thomas Sowell. Photo by Mikkel Aaland.

I really don't consider myself part of the academic world even though I've been on a campus, or at least my paycheck originates on a campus.

You define an intellectual as a job category that's markedly different from other highly educated professions, which may include doctors or rocket scientists. What's the difference?

An intellectual is someone whose product begins and ends with ideas. A doctor's product does not begin and end with ideas. It ends with the treatment of a patient. A pilot's product includes the service of flying a plane. There are objective things that people do that we can know. With ideas, it's only a question of whether you happen to like or not like the ideas.

So the difference is in the feedback loop?

If what you write as a deconstructionist pleases other deconstructionists, that's all there is. There is no other criteria.

It's fair to say you were a sharp critic of President Barack Obama and his expressed view, "You didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Therefore what? You're putting a burden of proof on those who own something that you do not put on those who want to seize control of it for their own purposes. Even if you take someone who, for example, never contributed to a business that he simply inherited, the question becomes, "On what grounds are we to assume that better outcomes will result if this property that was bequeathed to him is instead used by politicians, bureaucrats, and judges for what they want to do?" They didn't build it, either, and what is there either in their prospect or in their history that would lead you to expect that it would be better off for anybody other than themselves when it's turned over to them?

We have a seemingly quite different president now, Donald Trump. Yet in this regard there is a striking similarity in his dismissal of personal achievement. He says to Jeff Bezos, "You didn't create Amazon. Subsidies from the Post Office did." He takes that as a premise for threatening firms and even whole sectors of the economy with a variety of ad hoc regulatory attacks.

That's true. The fact that we don't have people who are educated to be able to analyze arguments but who are swept along by rhetoric is one of the reasons that allows people to get away with these kinds of things.

Who are the American presidents you like?

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge.

"When you set off a trade war, like any other war, you have no idea how that's going to end.…You do not make America great again by raising the price to Americans, which is what a tariff does."

Your list brings to mind Daniel Yergin's book The Commanding Heights. He traces out the 20th century, and the shift from the post–World War II intellectual consensus, which had socialism and the welfare state ascendant, to a remarkable transformation at the dawn of the 21st century. By then, Soviet Communism had collapsed and far more liberal, pro-capitalist policies were popular. Your worldview—associated with thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, Doug North, Deirdre McCloskey, Eric Hoffer—was part of the counterrevolution that helped reverse the trend.

I'm not sure I would call it a trend. Reagan and people like Milton Friedman in the intellectual sphere turned things around to some extent, and at the very least slowed the leftward movement. But I regard both Bush presidencies as retrogression. I think of the No Child Left Behind philosophy [in George W. Bush's administration] as utter utopian naiveté. There are children, whether in the United States or in England, who have no interest in education, who make it impossible for other children to get an education, and if they're not separated out, the other children simply will not get an education.

There is great concern in Western societies about the increase in income inequality. Yet in fact, if you look at world per-capita income, there is rapid progress toward equality. With India, China, Bangladesh, and many African countries developing stronger middle-class populations thanks to globalization, global inequality is being reduced.

Living standards continue to improve almost everywhere in the affluent countries, and they're improving radically in the nonaffluent countries overall. Examples abound, from postwar Japan to the Asian Tigers to follow and the successes of countries like Chile. The contrast of West Germany vs. East Germany. Those stark examples can be denied by intellectuals for decades, but they finally collapse at the street level, and they have.

That the Soviet Union literally ceased to exist without, in essence, a shot being fired—that experimental result has led to huge gains. I'm not convinced that your ideas are not winning.

At the policy level in the real world, there is that progress which I do not deny. But in intellectual circles, and particularly at universities, the thinking is not in tune with these things. People want to stop emphasizing growth and prosperity and start focusing on closing gaps [via] income redistribution. Take the 1920s, which was a great period of great progress in the world—but not in the intellectual sphere. You would never gather from reading most histories that the 1920s was a pivotal decade in the economic rise of most Americans, when families got electric lights, radios, automobiles—all of that and much more. Most histories of the United States, however, feature the 1920s as a regrettable decade.

You have long been critical of the idea of "racial IQs" as ill-defined and, in any event, ever-changing. Twenty years ago, the controversial book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve, poked this hornet's nest. They talked about a mix of factors influencing IQ but considered estimates of racial IQs as part of their argument. Did they go down the wrong path?

Thomas Sowell. Photo by Mikkel Aaland.

I know that there is a genetic component in intelligence. But that does not itself get into race, because all races—at least all that I've ever known about—have a wide variety of IQs. So even a race with a low average IQ has millions of people with IQs higher than that of millions of people in a race with a higher average IQ. I think the spectacular success of some of these charter schools, where you've got kids in the middle of Harlem and the South Bronx and Bedford Stuyvesant scoring higher on statewide math and English tests than kids in the most affluent school districts in the state of New York—that ought to be a setback to those who are into genetic explanations.

Thoughts on the Trump trade war?

Oh my gosh, an utter disaster. I happen to believe that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs had more to do with setting off the great depression of the '30s than the stock market crash. Unemployment never reached double digits in any of the 12 months that followed the crash of October 1929, but it hit double digits within six months of passage of Smoot-Hawley, and stayed there for a decade.

What about the view by President Trump that other countries are ripping us off by running trade surpluses?

It's pathetic. The very phrase "trade surpluses" gives half a story. There are countries that supply mainly goods, physical goods, and there are other things like services that other countries provide, and the United States gets a lot of money from providing services. To talk about one part of the trading and ignore the other part fails to understand that money is money no matter whether it's from goods or services.

When you set off a trade war, like any other war, you have no idea how that's going to end. You're going to be blindsided by all kinds of consequences. You do not make America great again by raising the price to Americans, which is what a tariff does.

You wrote a long time ago that from the employer's perspective, those workers who had strong legal protections were relatively expensive to hire. On the other hand, people who were vulnerable were bargains. To wit, those in the United States without documentation lacked any enforcement mechanism in disputes, so they could not impose costs on the employer. Fast-forward 30 or 40 years to today and it looks like there was something to that theory.

That was in Knowledge and Decisions. One of the more recent policies that's brought this home is the controversy over whether or not employers should be allowed to do criminal background checks on job applicants. The civil rights movements will say, "No, because a higher percentage of blacks have criminal background records. Therefore, it's racial discrimination." What they don't understand is that the companies who find it worth their while to do criminal background checks on everybody hire young black males more than the companies that don't. So the policy to prohibit the background check is saying that young black males, most of whom do not have a criminal record, should be made to pay for those who do. It makes it more difficult for those [record-free] workers to separate themselves out in a job application.

In 1980, you ended your Reason interview on a pessimistic note. You thought we were heading in the wrong direction. Here we sit: The Soviet Union's gone bye-bye; the poorest of the poor around the world are getting far richer; technological revolutions are exploding in Silicon Valley. You've lived through the civil rights era; you were born in Jim Crow. You started in North Carolina; you now live the Golden State. Give us the next 88 years. What's the good news?

I really should be very upbeat, but I must confess I am certainly no less pessimistic today than I was in 1980. In 1980 we did not have any country that would dare to publicly announce that they would consider bombing the United States of America and who apparently have the technology to do it. We did not have a school system that was turning out people who have no conception of thought, but only of repeating slogans and images.

I'm glad things have gotten better since 1980, but when the big nuclear powers were the United States and the Soviet Union only, the Russians knew that if they dropped the bomb on New York, Moscow would be radioactive dust before the day was out, and they didn't particularly care for that.

The people who run Iran, I don't think they would regard it as any such tragedy if they were able to knock out half of the United States and the United States knocked out all of Iran while they were safely in some other country. You cannot deter suicide bombers, and you cannot deter the ruler of North Korea by the fact that we would kill 99 percent of the Korean people if we retaliated [so long as] he was in the 1 percent that we didn't get.

Do you consider yourself a libertarian?

I leave it to others to put the labels on.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style.