‘If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago, and a racist today.” Thomas Sowell, who combines a Mark Twain-level gift for apothegms with the rigor of a data scientist, said that back in 1998, but like many of his sparkling one-liners, it’s more strikingly true now than ever.
At 90, Sowell remains “one of the great minds of the past half century,” as host Jason L. Riley puts it in the one-hour PBS documentary Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World, which can be viewed here, but fair warning: This film is a gateway drug. You are bound to get hooked on Sowell, just like many others interviewed in the film. These include podcaster Dave Rubin, a Silicon Valley executive with Overstock.com; a Dallas rapper named Eric July from the band Backwordz; and Sowell’s friend Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor and linguist. Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author, makes a perfect guide because he is the Sowell whisperer: His new book Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, is about to hit shelves.
In a film written and produced by Tom Jennings, Riley takes us through how Sowell, who lost his dad before he was born and his mother when he was a small child, rose from poverty. His early years he spent in a house with no electricity in North Carolina, then an apartment in Harlem, where a family friend guided him to a love of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library when he was eight years old. At the University of Chicago, one of his professors was Milton Friedman, who proved unable to talk him out of being a Marxist. What did the trick was a government job. In the Department of Labor, Sowell found that increased minimum wages reduce employment, but this fact interested no one. “People in the government didn’t give a rip whether it worked or not. They were simply implementing the policy,” notes another black intellectual, columnist Larry Elder.
Sowell, a longtime economist at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, is, despite being a presence in the newspapers via his syndicated column for decades, tough to nail down for an interview, and there is no new footage of him in this film. But vintage clips showcase a talent for boiling down complex arguments that made him at least as effective a television communicator as WFB, who hosted him on Firing Line. As Sowell’s interests took him from economics to education to family structure to race, immigration, late-speaking children, and why civilizations flourish or fail — all of which subjects he discussed in detail in his many books — he fired off one diamond-tipped one-liner after another. “The first lesson of economics is scarcity,” he once wrote. “The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” He observed, “Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but many other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.” He said, “The vision of the Left — and I think many conservatives underestimate this — is really a more attractive vision. The only reason for not believing in it is that it doesn’t work.” Aaron Hunsaker, the Overstock.com executive who has sleeve tattoos on both arms and more tattoos on his hands and knuckles, marvels that it’s “punk rock to base things off of individual freedoms and thought.” Rubin recalls asking Sowell why he stopped being a Marxist: “Uh, facts,” was Sowell’s reply.
Pinker, a longtime admirer, conflates Sowell’s amateur interest in photography with his professional ethos. To be a photographer, he notes, paraphrasing Sowell, is to understand that everything is a trade-off. “If you close down the diaphragm you get lots and lots of stuff in focus,” Pinker says. “On the other hand, you’re cutting down the amount of light.” In matters of public policy, Sowell has said, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs. Just like photography.”
Pinker and other friends and admirers such as Elder and Walter Williams, the George Mason University professor who died in December, emphasize that Sowell would never tailor his positions to suit whatever the current intellectual fashion might be, or what might be expected of a black intellectual. This made him toxic in some circles: “He spent a career putting truth above popularity,” notes Riley. “He will not compromise any of his opinions for the sake of social politeness,” says Pinker. As time went on, his cultural and political antagonists decided their best bet was simply to pretend Sowell didn’t exist, and so he was increasingly relegated to conservative media. “You can’t argue with Tom, so you might as well hide what he’s doing,” is how Williams put it.
Today, though, thanks to the democratic power of the Internet, Sowell’s reach is wide. A Twitter account that passes along one Sowell-ism per day has more than 700,000 followers. YouTube clips of his various TV interviews have racked up far more than 10 million views combined. And this documentary has itself been viewed 3.7 million times. Thanks to his immense reserves of courage, wit, and plainspoken wisdom, Sowell is an intellectual superstar, whether the legacy media admit it or not.