Politics & Policy

A Picture of Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World (Free to Choose Network/Trailer image via YouTube)
Jason Riley narrates an excellent new documentary about one of the greatest thinkers of the past 50 years.

For Thomas Sowell, economics, politics, and life are all questions of trade-offs. So too is photography, the lifelong hobby he developed while serving in a U.S. Marine Corps Combat Camera Division. In a new documentary about Sowell from the Free to Choose Network, Common Sense in a Senseless World, Harvard linguist and best-selling author Steven Pinker notes:

Photography did have connections to his vision of reality. Tom once commented to me, “To be a photographer, you have to master trade-offs. All of the little adjustments that you fiddle with in the camera never involve making everything better or everything worse. It’s a matter of trading one thing off for another.”

The documentary, narrated by the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley, favors describing the broad strokes of Sowell’s philosophy over the minutiae of his preferred policy solutions, and it uses Sowell’s biography to emphasize certain themes, rather than to sketch out a detailed portrait of his life. It’s a large-brushstroke picture of Sowell, a compelling introduction to one of the most brilliant conservatives of the past 50 years or so. (Riley’s new book, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, comes out this May.)

Sowell was born in North Carolina in 1930 to a single mother — his father had died shortly before his birth — but raised in Harlem after his mother passed away. His aunt and uncle took responsibility for the young man, and despite having been orphaned and having grown up very poor, he sees himself as lucky to have had the childhood he did. “My great fear is that a black child growing up in Harlem today will not have as good a chance to rise as people of my generation did, simply because they will not receive as solid an education,” Sowell says. His own educational journey took off at a lightning pace when a family friend introduced him to the library at age eight. Later, he transferred out of his local junior-high school because it was inferior to options farther away from where he lived. For Sowell, these early experiences impressed upon him the importance of school choice and the role of culture in promoting education.

His education continued at Harvard (bachelor’s), Columbia (master’s), and finally at the University of Chicago (Ph.D. in economics), where he began as a Marxist. Oddly enough, it was not the tutelage of University of Chicago giants such as Milton Friedman and George Stigler that led Sowell to shed his leftism. Instead, it was his experience as an intern at the United States Department of Labor, where his reporting on the adverse effects of raising the minimum wage fell on the deaf ears of bureaucrats. In his words, it was their view that he had “stumbled upon something that would ruin us all.” Technocratic theories, and the institutions that implemented them, it seemed, were not the panacea for poverty that he had believed them to be.

The documentary also recounts Sowell’s experience as a lecturer and professor, which Jason Riley described as Sowell’s “first love.” Sadly, that love came to an end in 1969, when a group of armed African-American students took over an on-campus student center at Cornell University, where Sowell was working at the time. The takeover was a “pivotal moment in Tom’s career,” Riley told me in an interview. “What he witnessed there essentially ended his interest in teaching.” Sowell was appalled by not only by the behavior of the students but also that of the “supposed adults” in the administration who he believed had capitulated to the demands of an angry mob. While he went on to teach elsewhere — including at UCLA, where he mentored another conservative African-American economist, the late Walter Williams — he never rekindled his love of the profession. When he was offered an opportunity at the Hoover Institution where he could research and write without the added stress of campus politics, he jumped at the chance.

The documentary also explores Sowell’s work on late-talking children and the research he did on geography’s effects on societal development.

While the film gives viewers an accurate understanding of Sowell’s worldview and core principles, it may seem a superficial treatment to those who are familiar with his work. For example, in a clip of an interview with Dave Rubin, Rubin asks why Sowell turned away from Marxism, and Sowell responds with a laugh and a one-word answer: “Facts.” The documentary treats this as a revelation, and it makes a fine soundbite, but it doesn’t really do justice to Sowell’s core belief in rigorous empiricism. The documentary also suffers from a few moments of repetition, when an anecdote told by one person, for instance, is retold by another voice.

But these problems are far outweighed by its virtues, the first of which is its narrator, whose knowledge of Sowell’s work and admiration for the man jump through the screen. Clearly, Riley takes an interest in the subject, and his enthusiasm invites the same out of viewers. Another is the array of charming anecdotes about Sowell that showcase his wit, crankiness, and kindness — I won’t spoil any of them here. In sum, the documentary really does a wonderful job of ensuring that its viewers grasp the essence of Sowell — the most important parts of his personality, career, and philosophy. Riley hopes that the film will “whet the appetite” of those who might then delve deeper into Sowell’s work.

It is well-suited to that end — and a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in an introduction to the extraordinary life and exemplary work of Thomas Sowell.

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