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Thomas Sowell in One Volume

Thomas Sowell in a Hoover Institution interview in 2018. (Hoover Institution/via YouTube)

Reviews are starting to come in for the intellectual life of Thomas Sowell, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell by Jason L. Riley, the longtime Wall Street Journal writer and Manhattan Institute senior fellow. In the Washington Free Beacon, Tim Rice marvels at how Sowell, as a young Marxist delivering telegrams to rich people in Manhattan, became a disciple of market-based thinking after working for the Department of Labor. “It’s ultimately experience, not theory, that informed all of Sowell’s major intellectual turns and contributions,” Rice writes. Moreover, Sowell’s experience with campus radicalism in the 1970s made him want to leave academia for the relative distance of the think tank, the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

Being a father made Sowell want to conduct innovative research into late-talking children, and his dislike of how affirmative action works interested him in turning from economics to social theory. Riley clears the brush of notoriety in order to stoke interest in one of the 20th century’s great thinkers,” Rice says, noting that though Sowell’s work is “indispensable,” there is so much of it that it may intimidate curious readers. Maverick “is an excellent place to start” for an overview on Sowell’s thinking.

A longer review in The New Criterion by John Steele Gordon goes into more detail, quoting Milton Friedman in describing Sowell as a genius and observing that while Sowell worked for the government he noticed that “government agencies have their own self-interest to look after, regardless of those for whom a program has been set up.” Friedrich von Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” gave Sowell the inspiration to write one of his most important books, Knowledge and Decisions (1980), about the decentralization of decision-making in a market economy. Sowell is devastating on the destruction wrought by affirmative action, as Gordon notes, recalling that Clarence Thomas was surprised to learn how little weight his degree from Yale Law School carried with potential employers. It turned out that employers understand how affirmative action works and discount prospective black employees as a group who appear to be its beneficiaries. This is Sowell way back in 1970:

The double standard of grades and degrees is an open secret on many college campuses, and it is only a matter of time before it is an open secret among employers as well..The market can be ruthless in devaluing degrees that do not mean what they say. It should be apparent to anyone not blinded by his own nobility that it also devalues the student in his own eyes.

Gordon says the book is short, readable, and amounts to “an enlightening tour of the thought and experiences of one of the most luminous minds this country has produced.”

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