Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

A Lion in High Summer

Thomas Sowell, charging ahead

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the February 21, 2011, issue of National Review. We are making it available to mark the retirement of Thomas Sowell from writing a weekly syndicated column. 

Stanford, Calif. – Thomas Sowell has been a force among us for a long time. He turned 80 last summer, and is more a force than ever. He has the largest audience of his entire career. His syndicated column is now in more newspapers than ever before — over 200. And this at a time when newspapers are cutting back on content, if not disappearing altogether. His latest book, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (Fourth Edition), is the biggest seller he has ever had. His books number about 40 (depending on how you count). He has taught in many universities: Howard, Cornell, and UCLA, to name only three. But, as a “public intellectual,” he has taught society at large. In 2008, David Mamet, the playwright, called him “our greatest contemporary philosopher.”

The coming of Barack Obama means that we are in a Sowell moment — a moment ripe for what he has to offer. He is a conservative who specializes in reminding people of the fundamental (as suggested by the title of that book, “Basic Economics”). What is a free economy, and what is an unfree one? What does the Constitution say, and why is this document important? In a recent conversation, Sowell said that we are seeing “the slow but systematic dismantling of the Constitution.” And “the idea that ‘We the People’ are self-governing is being eroded at every opportunity.” Society-changing bills are rushed and rammed through Congress, before the public knows what’s in them — before even those voting on the bills know what’s in them. “Czars” dot the executive branch, issuing edicts. These power-wielders are barely known to us, and barely accountable.

Since 1980, Sowell has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University. It’s here that I have that conversation with him. He has a reputation for irascibility and cussedness. And he is surely one of the bluntest men in America. But I have always found him affable and delightful, with a ready and hearty laugh. Indeed, it is one of the readiest and heartiest laughs I know. Though he has not lived in New York for many years, he has an accent that screams of that city. For example, the universities are overrun by “Mawxists.” Sowell shares an accent with another son of Harlem, a man with whom he has practically nothing else in common, certainly politically: Congressman Charlie Rangel.

Sowell’s books cover a range of subjects: economics, of course, for that is the field of his formal training. And civil rights, cultural patterns, race and ethnicity, “late-talking” children, etc. He has no further books planned. He has “sung his songs,” to borrow an old phrase. He says that he has long had the luxury of writing only when he has something to say. Otherwise, he keeps quiet. (But then, he is rarely without something important to say.) When he was a professor, he was loath to assign term papers to students, because “often there was nothing that they had to say that was worth a term paper.” As we talk over his books, he confides that he has a favorite: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, published in 1987.

Like many, but not all, writers, Sowell is a constant reader. Lately, he has been reading India Calling, a new book by Anand Giridharadas. Sowell is a veteran India-watcher. He classifies India as one of our “fictitious countries.” What does he mean by that? Well, “people in the West who discuss India, discuss an India that bears no resemblance to the country actually located in Asia.” We think of Indians as spiritual, peaceful, and gentle, unlike us crass and violent Americans. This is nonsense. “To think that India had the chutzpah to join the worldwide protest against apartheid in South Africa. If an untouchable in India had the choice to be a black under apartheid, he would take it in a New York minute.” That is the sort of thing that Sowell says — a rather obvious truth — that others do not.

#page#He writes when and what he likes, as we have heard. But there is an exception, at least to the “when” part: He has one recurring gig, that newspaper column. It is a weekly column, due on Monday. Sometimes he writes a two- or three-parter: two or three columns on the same subject, to be published on consecutive days (ideally). “But I only get paid for Part I,” he laughs. “The rest is just blowing off steam.” Among his most interesting and popular columns are those headed “Random Thoughts.” They offer quick, disparate observations or points. I tell him he was the original tweeter — that he was tweeting before it was cool. He has never heard of Twitter. “They call me ‘the last of the Luddites.’”

I have the impression that he writes his books and columns easily, without struggle or drafts. He knows what he wants to say, says it with dispatch, and moves on to the next activity. Is that true, or will he spoil my impression? “I have to spoil it.” He refers to his days of giving lectures in the classroom. “I’m sure there were students who thought that I sort of walked in off the street and started talking.” But that was far from true. Once, a student of his at Howard received a low grade. He told Professor Sowell how deflated he felt. “I studied so hard for that exam. I spent two hours studying for that exam.” The professor answered, “Do you realize that I spend more than two hours preparing a one-hour lecture on a subject I have taught before, and studied for years before that?” The student’s eyes widened.

And Sowell thinks back on a “crucial point” in his own student career. He was in his very first semester at Harvard. And his roommate said, “Tom, when are you going to stop goofing off and get some work done?” Sowell thought, Goofing off? But I’m going full-bore! When the midterm grades came out, he had two D’s and two F’s. Then he knuckled down. Today, he says the following about his roommate (who became a math professor): “His lighting a fire under me is probably the only reason I graduated” — which he did magna cum laude. He adds a comment about our present America: “How many white students are going to tell a black student, ‘Why don’t you stop goofing off and get some work done?’ Oh, heavens.” These students would be hauled up before deans, “at the very least.”

Sowell started out in North Carolina, the product of what we might now call a “broken home.” It is spelled out in his 2000 memoir, A Personal Odyssey. He writes, “Here and there I encountered white people — usually grocers, peddlers, or occasionally policemen. But white people were almost hypothetical to me as a small child. They were one of the things that grown-ups talked about . . .” When he was eight, he and his mother moved to New York, where he encountered a very wide world. His first great ambition was to be a fighter pilot — this was during World War II. But he needed glasses, and that was the end of that. He next wanted to play center field at Yankee Stadium. “I used to play a lot of sandlot ball. I took a lot of pride in my hitting, but I was absolutely vain about my fielding.”

#page#In the spring of 1948, when he was 17, he had a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was really a center fielder, but he had not had time to prepare as he thought he should. So, he took a shot at first base. “They hit to me what they called ‘grass-cutters.’ I was not very good at that.” He did not know, but would soon learn, that if you didn’t pass the fielding part, they wouldn’t let you hit. “There was an old abandoned factory behind right field, and I could just see hitting the ball through some of those windows.” He never got the chance. “I consoled myself by saying, ‘You know, they lost Johnny Mize that same way.’ They tried out Johnny Mize, but his fielding didn’t impress them, so he never got to hit.” Mize was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.

The young man from Harlem earned degrees at three elite institutions: Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. It was at the third of these that he got his Ph.D. in economics. “I was a Marxist when I went to the University of Chicago, and I was still a Marxist after I took Milton Friedman’s course.” Incidentally, he holds the Rose and Milton Friedman chair at the Hoover Institution. “But just one summer as an economics intern in Washington got rid of all of that.” Sowell worked in the Labor Department, in the Wage and Hour Division. He was interested in whether minimum wages helped the poor by raising their pay or hurt them by denying them jobs. He found that the personnel around him were interested in other things: namely, the preservation of their own jobs, and the perpetuation of government programs. “Government has its own incentives,” he says. He was on his way as a conservative and free-marketeer.

For the first decade of his career, he wrote almost exclusively about the history of economic thought. British and Canadian journals were more interested in this subject than American journals were, so he tended to publish there. Editors at these places had no idea of his race. They had no idea that Howard, where he worked in the 1963–64 academic year, was a black institution. They were just receiving submissions from an American economist. Sowell says that he was spared some of the travails that other black writers and academics went through. “They would always wonder, ‘Was I given this because I’m black or because I did the work?’ It’s really a poisonous thing.”

When he started writing about race, in the early 1970s, he had a great deal of support from other blacks — but it was usually “quiet support,” or “private support.” They would cheer him on from the shadows. They would not stick their necks out, as he himself did. For a time, Sowell and another economist, Walter Williams, seemed to be the only black conservatives around. “This was not because Walter and I knew something that nobody else knew; it was because we were the kind of people who would say things that others wouldn’t.” Sowell likes to point out that both he and Williams faced courts-martial: Williams in the Army, Sowell in the Marine Corps. “We both beat the rap, but I think it shows that we were not the kind of people who, you know — fell in line very easily, even in a military organization.”

#page#Did Sowell take any pride or satisfaction at all in the election of Obama in 2008? “No.” He never doubted that a black man could be elected president. “But there are many people with a vested interest in believing that racism permeates everything.” He thinks that Colin Powell should have run, and would have won. “He had a chance to make a major impact on this country.” What if Obama loses in 2012? Will that have an adverse effect on American race relations? Oh, yes. “I would go out on a limb and predict race riots. I can’t imagine that the Al Sharptons, Jesse Jacksons, and the whole group of their imitators would sit idly by. It could be the cleanest election ever held on American soil, and they will say he was cheated out of it.”

Sowell has little patience for the relatively recent term “African American.” In fact, he has almost a spitting contempt for it. He believes the term increases separatism, a racial apartness. Moreover, “the average black family has been in this country longer than the average white family,” in all probability. “I never heard Eisenhower referred to as a ‘German American.’ I never heard FDR referred to as a ‘Dutch American.’ Even in colonial times, most blacks in the United States had been born in the United States.” He remembers something that Edward Brooke once said. Brooke is the ex-senator from Massachusetts (Republican) who grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to the famed black high school, Dunbar. There was no emphasis on Africa in those classrooms. “We studied Africa like we studied Finland.” The students themselves were Americans, and there was no distant, continental motherland.

In the course of our conversation, Sowell and I talk about one of his pet peeves: the notion that people ought to be evenly distributed across institutions and occupations. Evenly distributed by race and ethnicity, that is. And if they are not, someone has been done wrong, somehow. Sowell says that, if you take a look around the world, “people aren’t evenly distributed anywhere, in anything. Gross disproportions are the norm, whether or not there is any discrimination going on.” He talks about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and Chinese in Malaysia. He also cites an example closer to home: “I watch a lot of football. Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of blacks score a touchdown. I have never seen a black player kick an extra point.” And he has a coda: “Imagine if there were different organizations supplying running backs and extra-point kickers. The ones supplying the extra-point kickers would have the EEOC all over them.”

Later, he recounts a story told about Ronald Reagan, stemming from Sacramento days. Someone said to Reagan, “Governor, if Berkeley admitted students strictly on their academic qualifications, you could end up with an all-Asian university.” Reagan said, “So what?” And Sowell makes a point that has been made before, and should be made again, and again: These students “are inheriting the Jewish quotas of the early 20th century.”

Asked to comment on abortion, Sowell says, first, that the courts should have stayed out of the matter. “They were solving what was basically a non-problem. There was no serious controversy over abortion prior to Roe v. Wade.” States were addressing the issue in their various ways. Second, it is almost impossible to get “an honest discussion” about abortion. No one will say what an abortion actually is. We resort to euphemism and other methods of avoidance. Sowell says that, like many people, he had always thought of abortion in a particular way: An “unformed mass of cells” existed “somewhere in the body”; a doctor removed it, and that was that. But “once I began to learn about these ultrasounds,” it was plain that “there’s a little person in there,” which is a “different ballgame.” Sowell notes that people like to say, “A woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body.” But it should be obvious that there’s another body in question.

#page#Now to another “hot-button issue,” namely gay marriage. Many conservatives, even those opposed, believe that it is inevitable. Does Sowell? “Nothing is inevitable until it happens. But I am enormously pessimistic.” As indicated by those words, he believes that gay marriage would be a harmful development. “There is no gay marriage. There is marriage and then there’s the redefinition of marriage. And if you’re going to redefine marriage for the gays, why in the world not for polygamists?” Why not for others as well? The debate about gays in the military, Sowell says, has been “very depressing.” “We talk about the right of gays to be in the military. Nobody has a right to be in the military. The military doesn’t exist as a jobs program. I mean, their job is to stop other people from killing us, and at the risk of their own lives.”

Ranging over the world, we light on Europe. Some people think that radical, political Islam will soon alter it forever. Sowell tends to agree. “It reminds me to some extent of what happened in academia in the Sixties, when the people in charge developed a tactic of preemptive surrender. I remember in the Seventies the congratulations that the violence of the Sixties was no longer on campus. Yes, you can always end violence by surrendering.” What about the rise of China? Sowell says that, from a “humanitarian” point of view, it’s a wonderful thing. In the past, millions of Chinese starved to death. “I grew up in an era when, if you didn’t eat your food, your mother would say, ‘There are children starving in China.’” Now it has been determined that “something like a fourth of Chinese adults are overweight, which was utterly unthinkable at one time. So, that’s really a great humanitarian story.” The rise of China militarily is something else. “I think it’s just criminal — criminal negligence at a minimum — that the Obama administration is cutting back the American military while the Chinese are going full blast ahead,” while the North Koreans are playing games with nukes, and while the Iranians are on the verge of acquiring them.

I ask whether Sowell is confident of Israel’s survival. Almost before I can get the words out of my mouth, he answers, “No. I am not.” He continues, “For that matter, I’m not confident of American survival.” Why? “Nuclear weapons are something else again. They’re not just another variable in the equation.” That is a mind-concentrating point, typical of Sowell. So is this: “I don’t find it inconceivable that an American government will surrender. The Japanese surrendered after two nuclear bombs. The Japanese were a hell of a lot tougher than Americans are today,” on average.

Here is something maybe a little less apocalyptic: Sowell is a great lover of nature. He spends a lot of time out of doors, in parks, snapping pictures, taking it all in. But he is no environmentalist (as the term is currently understood). He frequently points out the follies and abuses of the greens. “I’m fascinated when they talk about these ‘delicate environments.’ What gets me is how people can get away with undefined terms. What do they mean by ‘fragile environment’?” I suggest that they mean they don’t want you to go there. This earns a long, hearty Sowell laugh. He says, “‘The fragile environment’! I should be so fragile! I’ll be out somewhere, looking around me, thinking, ‘This environment has survived thousands of years of earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, and so forth’” — and yet it persists.

As does Sowell. There is no one else like him, although he is far less lonely, politically and philosophically, than he once was. He is looked up to by many, many people as a guru — or if that is too 1960s, an all-purpose teacher. He will leave behind a stack of books, for future generations to learn from. He shows no signs of slowing down, at least that I can detect. And, while it may be true that no one is indispensable, Sowell is needed.

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