Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell
BY JASON L. RILEY
BASIC BOOKS, 248 PAGES, $19
Last Juneteenth Fortune Magazine published a list of “19 Black economists to know and celebrate.” Predictably, it fails to include Thomas Sowell, the Hoover Institution scholar and author of over 30 books, including the bestselling Basic Economics. Despite being frequently reckoned among the greatest economists alive today, Sowell continues to be ignored by mainstream media for espousing unwoke views on the merits of free markets and the demerits of liberal policies on poverty and race. But that hasn’t stopped him from educating millions of readers through the years with his dozens of books and innumerable essays and columns. Sowell is owed a great debt, and while his recent intellectual biography, written by the similarly contrarian Jason Riley, may not pay it in full, it’s a good start.
Riley makes clear that Maverick is foremost an intellectual biography, an exploration of Sowell’s ideas more so than his life story. Interesting details about his life may surface now and then – he once rented a helicopter with fellow photography buff Steven Pinker to take aerial pictures of the San Francisco Bay – but the focus is on those experiences which influenced his development as a thinker and scholar. Riley pays particular attention to Sowell’s time at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s, earning a Ph.D. under free market icons Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Stigler, and Gary Becker.
These were Chicago school, free market types, but at the time Sowell was a Marxist. Indeed, his master’s thesis was on Marx, we learn, and so was his first academic publication. It was an ideological bent he adopted as a young man living in Harlem, where he witnessed firsthand the inequality that existed between the tenements there and the affluent neighborhoods a short bus ride away. The contrast baffled him, and Marx offered an exhilarating explanation. But his Chicago professors expected he was ‘too smart to remain a socialist for long,’ and they were right. In 1960, after a single summer interning for the U.S. Department of Labor, Sowell rejected Marx’s enthusiasm for government influence over markets.
Even before his conversion to free market thinking, Sowell viewed his professors as great allies, more for their methodological rigor and overall intellectual values than their specific conclusions. Sowell already had the mental horsepower for meticulous scientific investigation, but it was at Chicago that he cultivated a devotion to testing economic theories, however hallowed or conventional, against the empirical data. His professors didn’t tolerate sloppy thinking. If a student in Milton Friedman’s class got stumped and wanted time to think, Friedman would persist, ‘Let’s think about it now.’ The standards were sky high, but in the long run it greatly benefitted Sowell and his peers. They were developing what Gary Becker called ‘human capital,’ the skills and habits needed to thrive beyond the classroom.
When Sowell became a professor himself, his main ambition was teaching. This may be hard to believe given his reputation as an immensely productive writer, but he wanted to give others the same chance to develop their capital as his professors had given him. And he was intent on teaching at a black school, declining offers from more prestigious institutions to accept a position at Howard University in 1963. While he celebrated the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, he worried that the fight to eradicate all traces of racism would overshadow the work of developing future generations of blacks. That was the work he deemed most urgent, and he wanted to labor on the front lines. When he looked at his Howard students, he imagined a “mother down on her knees scrubbing some white woman’s floor,” dreaming of a better life for her child, and he was driven to realize that dream.
Sadly, his Howard colleagues and administrators didn’t share his drive, preferring to fawn over students and expect little of them. Unable to endure the lax culture, he quit after a single year. But he encountered the same problem elsewhere. At his next job, this time at Cornell University, he was scorned for refusing to pass students who hadn’t learned anything, for not cancelling classes that conflicted with student protests, and for not administering a second exam to students who had missed the first without permission. He finally resigned in 1969 after failing to convince the chairman of his department to expel a certain troublemaker who was distracting other students. After a few more disappointing gigs throughout the 1970s, including a tenured job at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was eventually offered a senior fellow position at the Hoover Institution in 1980. The offer entailed no teaching duties or office hours, just research, and he jumped at it.
The rest of Maverick slides into more bibliography than biography, reviewing in detail the main themes of Sowell’s finest works, from Knowledge and Decisions to A Conflict of Visions to his many books on race and culture. Unfortunately, Riley doesn’t say much that the books themselves don’t already say. His prose is lucid and demonstrate a deep familiarity with Sowell’s corpus, but if he discusses a book you’ve already read and understood, your understanding won’t much improve. Thus, if you haven’t already read four or five of Sowell’s books, doing that would be more worth your while than reading Maverick.
But for committed Sowell fans, Maverick is certainly a rewarding read. It recounts a number of wonderful stories about Sowell’s career that never appear in his books but which nevertheless reveal the quality of his intellectual character. In one episode, the psychologist Arthur Jensen of the University of California, Berkeley published a paper in 1969 arguing that the average IQ of blacks was lower than that of whites, and that the cause of the disparity was a difference in genes between the two groups. Rather than challenge Jensen on intellectual grounds, his opponents almost universally denounced his arguments as racist. But Sowell wasn’t satisfied with that response. He researched the subject himself, and eventually, in 1978, he wrote a book expounding various datapoints that clearly contradicted Jensen’s thesis. Thereafter, Jensen personally informed Sowell that it was the most persuasive rebuttal he had encountered, and the two became friends.
After stories like that, it’s hard to deny that the world needs more people like Thomas Sowell, not so much because there is a dearth of economic literacy – though there probably is – but more because there is a dearth of spines. It’s routine now for invertebrate college students, with faculty support, to violently demonstrate when Charles Murray or some other controversial figure visits campus, rather than prepare themselves for a real intellectual exchange. Meanwhile, Riley explains that when Murray and his coauthor published The Bell Curve in 1994, Sowell wrote a 3,600-word review, diligently probing its key premises. Sowell understands that renouncing an argument as ‘problematic’ is no substitute for the hard work of proving it wrong. Our political culture would be infinitely improved if more people shared his courage.
Luke Tucker is an intern for the 1889 Institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.