Economist Thomas Sowell

Bringing the world into focus

The maverick genius of Thomas Sowell

Artillery Row

“You don’t have to look for a bogeyman to see why everyone is not making the same money, or having the same wealth,” argued the economist Thomas Sowell. To the celebrated scholar, it is not the existence of disparities that is puzzling, but the people who regard inequalities in income “as something that requires some great explanation”. 

Disparities are neither a mystery, nor a call for corrective government intervention, declared Sowell. “Virtually everything that goes into the production of income varies enormously between groups, between nations, between people on the flat lands and the people in the mountains.” To Sowell, the question is not, why do disparities exist, but “was there ever any realistic chance that the groups, nations, people, would have had similar prospects of economic development?”

Throughout his unparalleled six decades of scholarship, empiricist Sowell has been finding the real reasons for the difference in income and wealth. Using economics, in research spanning the entire course of human history, Sowell explained why some cultures have prospered whilst others have failed, why certain cultures gained dominance in trade whilst others lagged behind. 

Resting religiously on solid facts and evidence, he asked and answered questions such as why is Eastern Europe poorer than Western Europe? What “set of peculiar circumstances” created the present US and Western Europe affluence? Why was it Europe that conquered Africa and not vice versa?

When analysing immigration statistics, Sowell revealed why immigrants from certain cultures have consistently flourished whilst others have failed to compete — such as children of 1920s Jewish immigrants to America achieving better results at school than the children of Italian and Irish immigrants. Here, Sowell points to the families’ radically different cultures. Where Italian parents in their native land preferred their children to work, Jews in largely illiterate Czarist Russia had books in their homes. 

Rather than investigate the reasons for poverty, Sowell has looked for causes of wealth

Nowhere in nature does equality exist, maintained Sowell, bitterly disputing the invincible fallacy that any difference in outcome between races, sexes or cultural groups, must be the result of genetic deficiency or discrimination. 

Unlike other economists, Sowell has used a sharp economic lens to bring society, culture and history into focus. From the track record of affirmative action programs worldwide and the impact of minimum wage laws, to marriage, education or the legacy of slavery — every sphere of the human experience has been viewed through Sowell’s economics prism. 

His genius is the application of deep economic data onto historical questions, but he has not been afraid to get his hands dirty. Sowell’s research has seen him travel the globe, as he has analysed different groups’ ability to generate wealth. Rather than investigate the reasons for poverty, which he views as “just simply the absence of wealth”, Sowell has looked for “the things that cause wealth to occur”, revealing factors such as skill distribution, geography, culture, lifestyle choices and age.

Japanese Americans, explained Sowell in one example of many, have a median age of 50, where Hispanic Americans have a median of 26 — “there is no way they could be equally divided on either activities that require the strength and energy of youth such as playing major league baseball, or things that require long years of experience or education such as being a surgeon or a ceo”.

“Lifestyle choices have consequences too,” Sowell has argued. He has repeatedly shown marriage to be a crucial “lifestyle choice”. “The poverty rate of married blacks is not only lower than that of blacks as a whole,” he explained, “but in some years has also been lower than that of whites as a whole.” In 2016, for example, it was 22 per cent for blacks, 11 per cent for whites, and 7.5 per cent for black married couples.

Sowell’s vision brought to light the pivotal role that geography plays in determining an area’s prospects for growth. “Too often, the influence of geography on wealth is thought of narrowly in terms of natural resources,” he wrote, “but geography influences even more profound cultural differences amongst the peoples themselves.” 

Cultures isolated by jungles, mountains or any other geographical handicap, for example, have been mostly backward. Cultures sitting in areas that allow the movement of people and ideas, via highways, rivers and port cities, accumulate useful knowledge that makes them more prosperous. Aggregating innovations from other cultures, they become advanced and sophisticated. Prolonged isolation, noted Sowell, even has an effect on cognitive ability. Deprived of shared knowledge, “people who are isolated will keep doing things for centuries or thousands of years, so for example, when the British landed in Australia they found the Australian Aborigines living at a Stone Age level.”

The demise of the black family, concluded Sowell, is the legacy of the welfare state

For six decades, Sowell has addressed every sphere of the human experience — regularly commenting in print and on television, on the issues of the day, often stirring controversy by presenting hard to handle truths. One example of many is his data relating to welfare’s devastating impact on the black family. “There was a far more modest decline in the poverty rate amongst blacks after the Johnson administration’s massive ‘war on poverty’ programs began,” Sowell contends. By 1995, “only one-third of black children were living with both parents, and amongst black families in poverty, 85 per cent of the children had no father present”. The demise of the black family, concluded Sowell, is not so much the legacy of slavery as the welfare state. 

Thomas Sowell’s is a tale of adversity overcome. An orphan who grew up in segregated North Carolina, without electricity or running water, he left home at 17 to fend for himself. In a homeless shelter he kept a knife under his pillow for protection. When struggling to make ends meet, he lived on cheap, stale bread and jam. Marine service taught him discipline. Upon his discharge he worked days and studied nights, proceeding to earn advanced degrees from Harvard, Chicago and Stanford universities. 

The boy who grew up under Jim Crow’s laws went on to stand before then senator Joe Biden in Congress to argue that unequal treatment is wrong regardless of people’s intentions. It was wrong when intentions were bad, as in Jim Crow laws, and wrong when people’s intentions were good, as in positive discrimination granting people advantages regardless of their real achievements. Sowell’s turbulent upbringing instilled within him a deep respect for the common sense of ordinary people, and a life long resentment of intelligentsia — for repeatedly imposing failed policies and ignoring empirical evidence. 

In this author’s opinion, Thomas Sowell deserves the Nobel Prize which was bestowed upon his economist mentors Milton Friedman, George Stiegler and Friedrich Hayek. These intellectual giants would agree. Praising Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions, Hayek spoke of Sowell successfully “translating abstract and theoretical argument into a highly concrete and realistic discussion of the central problems of contemporary economic policy”, whilst fellow Nobel winner Milton Friedman commented on Sowell illuminating “how every society operates”, showing “how the performance of our own society can be improved”. 

It is time to acknowledge the man and his message: trust facts, not rhetoric and ideology.

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