Economist Thomas Sowell

Taking on the right-on with cold, hard facts

A practical manual for anyone who has no choice but to sit on committees with idealistic intellectuals


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Thomas Sowell, Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, must be the most distinguished anti-intellectual intellectual alive today. His best-known British opponent might be Aidan Byrne, a senior lecturer in English and Media Studies at Wolverhampton University.

On 26 May 2012, Byrne criticised Sowell’s 2010 study Intellectuals and Society on the London School of Economics Review of Books blog, dismissing it as “a diatribe against sophistication, deliberation and complexity”, repeatedly alluding to the author’s “Tea Party” attitudes. He was not calling Sowell genteel: the “Tea Party Movement” was made up of people who now want to “Make America Great Again”.

In Byrne’s eyes, Sowell seemed an angry, vulgar populist — and worse. According to the best-known passage in the review:

Sowell’s racial references are disordered and disturbing ‘dog whistles’ … To him, slavery’s cultural legacy means that it shouldn’t be considered a moral problem, nor should amelioration be attempted: easy for a rich white man to say.

In 2020, the review was removed from the blog: administrators realised that Sowell isn’t white.

Sowell was born in 1930 in a racially-segregated city in North Carolina. He was the first member of his family to be educated past the sixth grade. Through sheer hard work he made it to Harvard, where he completed his undergraduate dissertation on Karl Marx. He became an economist, and he happened to be teaching at Cornell University in 1969 when armed members of the campus Afro-American Society took over the student union building to demand the creation of a Black Studies program.

At the time, Sowell was one of very few African-American academics at Cornell (he didn’t see any others when he arrived in 1965). He had already made up his mind to leave the institution when the crisis erupted; it only confirmed his perception that the university’s administrators were deluded, incompetent and utterly cowardly. They weren’t necessarily corrupt; but their guiding principles were so self-evidently unrealistic that even if individual administrators seemed intelligent, they were trapped in a culture that rendered them irredeemably stupid.

Social Justice Fallacies, Thomas Sowell (Basic, £25)

In 1980, Sowell turned down an opportunity to be considered for United States Secretary of Education in the first administration of President Ronald Reagan. He has remained faithful to the economist Milton Friedman’s principle that “some individuals can contribute more by staying out of government”. At 93 he continues to provoke and offend academic colleagues. His latest book, Social Justice Fallacies, provides a bite-sized introduction to his ideas: he has said all of this before, but never quite so pithily.

The book seems intended as a practical manual for administrators and anyone else who has no choice but to sit on committees with idealistic intellectuals (or those susceptible to their influence). Sowell provides ammunition for arguing with them in the form of facts, data and evidence. These days, “idealism” means never having to say you’re sorry, and Sowell is disgusted by the mechanisms whereby intellectuals are protected from the consequences of their decisions, particularly when their ideas end in failure and cause people to suffer.

Sowell thinks the most dangerous intellectuals are the clever ones who don’t realise they have a faulty grasp of information that could change their ideas. Most of us would agree that decisions ought to be made by those with the most relevant knowledge. The problem is that intellectuals often disagree, not just on what constitutes “relevant knowledge”, but on bigger questions involving what knowledge itself really is.

To a normal person, this all looks like hair-splitting. Yet arguments about the definition of knowledge can have life-and-death consequences. Intellectuals have the job of trying to settle these questions for everyone ’s benefit. Alas, too many of them forget about benefiting others. Many develop a taste for using other people as lab rats. Sowell reminds us:

Intellectual élites crusading for their intellectual goals have, for centuries, seen children as a special target for their messages. As far back as the eighteenth century, William Godwin said that children — other people’s children — “are a sort of raw material put into our hands”. Their minds “are like a sheet of white paper”.

Sowell has a special contempt for Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton University before he became US president. Wilson epitomises the smugness, self-righteousness and passive-aggressive authoritarianism of those who believe in a dictatorship of professors and seem to regard freedom as conditional on your race and whether you have the right academic qualifications to make decisions for yourself.

Wilson is one of the central figures in the “Progressive Movement” of the early 20th century, who were obsessed with breeding and eugenics; Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) helped shape much of their thinking. Grant deplored “a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life”, especially when it was used “both to prevent the elimination of defective infants and the sterilisation of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community”. Idealism provides no protection against dark ideas, it seems.

The term “social justice” was coined in 1906 by Roscoe Pound, the staunchly Progressive dean of Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1936. It is no surprise to learn of his advocacy for “social engineering”. In Social Justice Fallacies, Sowell emphasises the continuities between these early-20th century Progressive intellectuals and their modern descendants.

They might differ on what constitutes “progress” and “social justice”, but their essential faults remain the same. Not only are they committed to principles with no demonstrable relation to reality, they are hell-bent on committing the rest of us, whether we like it or not.

Sowell goes into detail laying out what is wrong with the “social justice”-based vision of the world. He does so from a broadly libertarian point of view, having abandoned Marx long ago in favour of Friedrich Hayek.

Sowell, like Hayek, isn’t quite a “conservative”; he is better described as a right-leaning classical liberal with a distaste for authority figures. He regards freedom as a sacred good, never to be compromised or sacrificed.

Social Justice Fallacies is lucidly written; the candour and common sense are refreshing. Sowell convincingly demonstrates the flaws in his opponents’ vision, and provides a basis for constructive disagreements. He respects old-fashioned rules of engagement. After all, Hayek didn’t think social justice advocates were “evil people, plotting to create totalitarian dictatorships”. Sowell plainly agrees.

Yet today we find ourselves confronted with adversaries who are indeed openly plotting to create totalitarian dictatorships and can fairly be described, in objective terms, as evil. Might it be late in the day for this approach?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover