A Biography of Thomas Sowell

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I have … let me count here … fourteen books by Thomas Sowell on my shelves. I've been a fanboy for many years, going back to my first read of Knowledge and Decisions, sometime in the early 1980s. You can read my more recent book reports here, here, here, and here.

This relatively short book by WSJ writer Jason L. Riley is billed as a "biography" in the subtitle, but it would be more accurate to call it an intellectual biography: an examination of Sowell's work over decades. (Sowell published his own memoir, A Personal Odyssey, back in 2000.) Like me, Riley is a Sowell fan; if you're looking for criticism, you won't find it here. Fine by me; Riley's pushing on an unlocked door in my case.

It's maybe not widely known that Sowell kicked off his academic career as a Marxist. That could have been his ticket to becoming widely embraced in Academe, but (fortunately for us) he had an unswerving devotion to facts and data, following them wherever they led. It didn't hurt that he took up with Milton Friedman and George Stigler as a grad student at the University of Chicago. And he was heavily influenced by Hayek's essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (assigned by Friedman in his price theory class).

Riley follows a number of threads in Sowell's oeuvre: his epistemology, largely influenced by Hayek, led him to his analyses of the origins of intellectual debate, where in many cases involve two sides shouting loudly past each other; see A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. There's also his three-volume examination of worldwide history: Race and Culture, Migrations And Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures.

And then there is Sowell's take on current events, expressed over decades, where he brought to bear his views on economics, history, race, and culture in both books and his long-running syndicated column. He saw much foolishness, and took it to task in blunt "undiplomatic" language. He was in profound disagreement with many other black intellectuals on racial policies, properly scornful of paternalistic "preferential policies". He's been retired from active commentary for a few years, but my guess he'd be even harder on Critical Race theorists. While not denying the stubborn persistence of racism in whites, he thought it largely futile to point fingers at it. Blacks could be more productively engaged in fixing up their own culture, moving out from dependence on white largesse.

One surprising thing I learned about in Riley's book was Sowell's personal friendship with Steven Pinker. (I'm also a Pinker fanboy myself.) While Pinker is politically more liberal than Sowell, that didn't prevent them from renting a helicopter to take pictures over San Francisco. (They're both "camera bugs".)

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. It would also be a good read for someone looking for an overview of Sowell's work, maybe with an eye toward a deeper dive into his scholarship and thoughts.

Last Modified 2021-09-15 6:41 AM EDT