This June 30 marks the 93rd birthday of an intellectual giant — a thinker who took on liberal elitism his entire life by writing more than 45 books and thousands of weekly columns. This person, known well by many but nowhere near enough, is Thomas Sowell.
Thomas Sowell’s impact on contemporary political and social thought cannot be understated. His scholarship, along with other liberty giants such as Milton Friedman, were pivotal factors in the formation of a coherent conservative ideology leading up to the Reagan Revolution and persisting to this day.
His collection of publications encompasses a wide array of topics, such as sociology, economics, and political science. Sowell’s work in free-market economics, welfare reform, and education policy research has reaped legislative fruits in recent decades. While his variety of expertise is among the most impressive among modern-day thinkers, what is most powerful about Sowell is his way of thinking. I refer to it as the “Sowellian way of thinking.”
This form of thought challenges the prevailing narrative of liberal academic orthodox. It is to see the world as it is, not how we wish it were. By empirically researching decades of the liberal quest for utopian solutions that frequently end in utter failure, Sowell famously stated, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” No “solution” will ever erase all of the ills we face, but rather one must consider the trade-offs that occur as a result of government action. To govern properly, in Sowellian thought, is to look candidly at policy outcomes, not policy intentions.
Take the COVID school closures, for example. In the pursuit of “slowing the spread” of the virus, teachers’ unions flexed their bureaucratic muscles to keep children out of the classroom. Did this solve the spread of COVID? No, but what we did receive due to school closures was immense learning loss and an increase in childhood anxiety and depression. The era of school closures, as Sowell would say, was not only a failed “solution” but a disastrous trade-off.
My introduction to Sowell came in high school when my grandfather gifted me Sowell’s classic, The Vision of the Anointed, a book that utterly dismantles the expansive and pervasive forms of social policy in the 1960s and 70s. The anointed, as Sowell defines, are a class of elitist academics, activists, or policymakers that believe they have a quasi-divine ability to solve persistent problems through social engineering.
Sowell asserts, “What is seldom part of the vision of the anointed is a concept of ordinary people as autonomous decision-makers free to reject any vision and to seek their own well-being through whatever social processes they choose…[the anointed] tend to conceive of the family as a recipient institution for government largess or guidance, rather than as a decision-making institution determining for itself how children shall be raised and with what values.” When another institution takes the place of “anointed,” whether that is families, markets, or religious groups, “the anointed” become irritated and seek measures to reassert their authority.
Sowell, once a high school dropout, was an early and ardent advocate for school choice to rescue young students from a failing public school system. Appearing on an episode of William F. Buckley’s famous television program The Firing Line in November of 1981, Sowell, when asked about solutions to failing public schools, said to “allow their parents to have a choice of where to send their child to school.” Sowell viewed the education system through an economic lens of monopolization by the government. Then and now, many public schools are not responsible for poor academic outcomes because there is no competing alternative for families.
His 2020 book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, expounded on his advocacy for school choice by comparing test scores of inner-city New York students attending charter schools and those in traditional public schools. The results were astounding, but for long-time supporters of school choice, not surprising. Charter school students not only outscored the public school students but, in some cases, outscored public school students in the richest area in New York suburbs. School choice puts the decision-making process in the hands of parents and away from “the anointed,” causing almost certain uproar.
To think like Sowell is to reject good intentions as a justification for government action and judge policy based on trade-offs, to believe that personal responsibility and individual ambition can produce better outcomes than a far-off bureaucrat, and to possess a devotion to facts and empirical findings no matter what partisan route they take. Finally, to think like Sowell is to first look inward to understand the complexities of our world.
“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” — Thomas Sowell