Adrian Lee: Happy birthday Thomas Sowell – the last great conservative thinker of the 20th century

30 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

The sad passing last year of Sir Roger Scruton highlighted the apparent lack of conservative thinkers waiting to inherit his mantle. For many, this is a direct result of the academic establishment promoting only those of uniform socialist opinions and one could be forgiven for believing that conservative intellectuals had become an extinct species.

Thankfully, there are still some bearers of the flame, notably Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. However, if one were to ask members of the politically-informed public the question “who is the greatest living conservative thinker today?”, many would be surprised to learn that one of the main claimants of that distinction was one Thomas Sowell, a black American born into poverty 91 years ago today.

The breadth of Sowell’s work is formidable. The author of over 50 books, he has examined subjects as diverse as economics, racial inequality, cultural history, intellectualism, Marxism, housing, school provision and late-developing children. For the past 40 years, Sowell has been one of principle critics of so-called “affirmative action” policies, believing that such as an approach hinders the advancement of minorities.

Thomas Sowell was born on June 30 1930 in rural North Carolina, in a home with no electricity or running water. Sowell’s father died before he was born and his mother, who worked as a maid and later remarried, died in childbirth when Thomas was still an infant. The orphaned Sowell was adopted by a great aunt living in Charlotte, North Carolina, who raised him as her own son.

The world that Thomas was born into was both poor and harsh for black people, with the institutionalised “Jim Crow” segregation system restricting the ambitions of those wishing to advance themselves. Nobody in his family had gone beyond seventh grade at school. Thomas’s adopted parents realised this and moved the family to New York City when he was eight years old.

Henceforth, Sowell lived in Harlem. Like many of his contemporaries, he dropped out of school at the age of 16 without any academic qualifications, was described by a local magistrate as “a wayward minor” and eventually became the resident of a Bronx shelter for homeless boys, where he slept with a knife under his pillow for protection.

Sowell moved from job to job. For a time, he was a Western Union Messenger, then a labourer in a machine shop, where Sowell recalls that the foreman lent him money to buy food. A friend took him to a public library for the first time, which Sowell would later describe as “…a turning point in my life, for then I developed the habit of reading books.” He went on to purchase a set of encyclopaedias for the princely sum of $1.17 and discovered Karl Marx. For most of his twenties, Sowell remained a convinced Marxist. He later explained “The ideas seemed to explain so much and explain it in a way to which my grim experience made me very receptive.”

Reflecting on his hard origins, Sowell was to comment many decades later: “It gave me a lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people, a factor routinely ignored by the intellectuals among whom I would later make my career. This was a blind spot in much of their social analysis which I did not have to contend with.”

It seems that another great turning point in Sowell’s life came with the Korean War, where he was to serve in the U.S. Marines. After demobilisation, he was determined not to return to his previous life. While working in a civil service job in Washington D.C., Sowell attended night classes at a traditionally black college, Howard University.

From Howard, he was destined to win a scholarship to Harvard University, where he was awarded a BA in economics. The following year Sowell attained his MA from Columbia University and in 1968 received a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. At Chicago, Sowell studied under such classical liberal luminaries as George Stigler, Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. It is tempting to attribute his conversion from Marxism to these intellectually formidable influences, but Sowell has always maintained that his rejection of socialism came from practical experience.

During one university summer holiday, he took a job in the Department of Labour researching minimum wage laws. Sowell states that he came to realise that the decisions taken by those charged with serving the public were often guided by their own set of incentives and interests. He lost his faith in the ability of the state to effect change and gradually turned to believing in the power of the individual as the most potent facilitator of progress and reform in society.

Sowell supported the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s, but soon became suspicious of the motives of certain black leaders and the direction that the movement was taking. He disagreed with what he perceived as “…an obsessive fixation with racism at the expense of more practical, developmental concerns.” He rejected the concept of reverse discrimination in support of black students and believed that such moves were counter-productive to black achievement.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sowell held several academically prestigious positions at Brandeis University, Amherst College, Cornell University (Assistant Professor) and U.C.L.A (Professor). However, by 1980, he was ready to set aside teaching and devote the rest of his life to research. Since that time, Sowell has been Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Thomas Sowell has always possessed a genuine curiosity about human society and argues that we should see people as they are and not as utopians think that they ought to be. In his study Knowledge and Decisions (1980), Sowell built on Hayek’s work on the uses and dissemination of human knowledge. He argued that all humans are members of overlapping institutions, such as families, churches, schools and work-places, and it is these units that coordinate the knowledge and experience of previous generations. Therefore, the knowledge required to make decisions for an entire society cannot be harnessed by any solitary individual or government department.

In A Conflict of Visions (1987), Sowell assessed the reasons why most people in western societies fall into one of two distinct political camps. He argues that this separation comes down to different human visions: the constrained and the unconstrained. The constrained vision accepts tragedy as an unavoidable part of society and seeks to make the best of things, while the unconstrained vision sees human tragedy as evidence that someone is to blame and society is capable of being fixed in order to return humans to their “natural state of goodness”.

Arguably, Sowell’s greatest achievement is the trilogy Race and Culture (1995), Migrations and Cultures (1996) and Conquests and Cultures (1998). He spent over a decade travelling the world to discover why there existed huge disparities in wealth between different nations and civilisations. He found that there were many examples of persecuted minority groups around the world who start in poverty and go onto achieve great success. Sowell found that the determining factors in a group’s advancement are skills, work habits, attitudes, norms and values inherited from a cultural past. These he calls the group’s “human capital”.

Sowell’s work started with economics but has since moved into the realms of philosophy and history. Throughout his career he has stayed faithful to a belief that all political propositions should be based upon meticulous research and firm empirical evidence. At the remarkable age of 91, he is still writing and examining new areas of human experience. Happy birthday Professor Sowell, the last great conservative thinker of the 20th century.

James Frayne: Churchill – and why the conservative movement would win a culture war. But it would be unpleasant and divisive.

21 Jul

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The battle over the legacy of Winston Churchill shows in miniature what a big chunk of a future British culture war will look like. It will be one which the conservative movement wins decisively because of mass public support.  But the fighting and winning of the battle will be unpleasant and divisive. So we should hope a serious culture war never comes to pass.

Left-wing activists could spend hundreds of millions on campaigns to attack Churchill over many years, but would make no dent in public support for him. Without doubt, his resolute opposition to Nazism and his brilliant war leadership saved Britain from a successful invasion and shaped the global effort to defeat Hitler. The respect that the British public have had for Churchill since at least mid-way through the war is completely ingrained.

Footage of his funeral, at which working class dock workers lined the Thames to pay their respects is extraordinary to watch. What’s true then is true now. All these years on from his death, serious and sympathetic Churchill books are published; he’s depicted heroically in film; queues still form to see where he lived and worked.

There are many things to dislike about Churchill; his record as a politician pre-war was patchy at best, with some catastrophic errors of governance. More relevant to this debate, as Andrew Roberts has pointed out, his views on other countries and races were unpleasant for the time and therefore breathtakingly unpleasant now. And he wasn’t universally loved by the British public, either during the war or after it. On the contrary, many post-war Northern families (some of mine, included) were brought up with terrible stories about Churchill’s failures.

But the mass of the public sees Churchill overwhelmingly through the prism of the Second World War and the moral, political and military leadership he provided in the country’s darkest hour. It’s not that they share the same cultural views as Churchill – indeed, most would be horrified by them – but that they have chosen to honour him for his massive achievement in war time. Trying to make the public revile Churchill is like trying to make them feel bad for Britain fighting the Second World War at all; it has no point.

And this is the issue: it’s a pointless battle which the conservative movement (I can’t think of a better term) will win decisively, but in doing so risk opening up old and new wounds between different groups. Because, in doing so, Churchill’s record and views must inevitably be put into context – how could they not be? – and ultimately deemed to matter less on balance than his role as war leader and national saviour.

In turn, those that revile Churchill will be able to claim that most people don’t care about his views, and therefore that Britain is an unenlightened, intolerant country. On this narrow point, this will not be true – people will simply not be able to view him as anything other than a war leader – but there’s a logic to this position.

What’s true of the battle over Churchill will be true too of many other cultural battles too. The public will likely come to support the removal of those historical figures linked with atrocities abroad, but it’s hard to see how they could come to see Sur Francis Drake as anything other than the man who saved England from the Armada. The public will strongly support further efforts to make sure the police better reflects and better serves minority groups, but they will not support anything that looks like “defunding” the police, or which sees them pull back from making streets safer.

Voters will support a balanced narrative about Britain’s past in our schools, but they will want children to mostly feel pride in our past. (Such is public reverence for Churchill that a problem for those campaigning for social and cultural change, is that more palatable changes that the public understand and are happy to get behind, end up being obscured by a debate around Churchill, which they most certainly will not get behind.)

The mass of the public will demand that politicians stand firm on these issues – and will give these politicians strong support as they do so. And as these debates are played out, left-wing campaigns will accuse politicians of fostering intolerance and many in the public of “falling for it” – because, as with Churchill, people will expect politicians to put things in a wider context.

In the public mind: yes, Drake was one of those responsible for the aggressive expansion of England, but he saved England from a successful invasion; yes, the police should be more diverse, but they do a good job in difficult circumstances and limited cash; yes, Britain has done things for which it should be ashamed, but it has also been a force for good.

As all this is played out, as with Churchill, the conservative movement will win these battles, but division will emerge.

Emphatically, this is not to say that campaigns shouldn’t demand social or cultural change. Nor is to say that the public are hostile to such change. As we’ve seen consistently in the last few decades, campaigns have fostered and secured public support behind a range of morally just causes. Rather, it is to say that some harder-left campaigns are seeking battle with the mass of the public on areas where they won’t ever shift, and where the only outcome is victory for the conservative movement, but with division following in its wake. What would ultimately deliver electoral advantage to the Conservative Party would be damaging to the country.

Jeremy Corbyn went full throttle for culture war and it blew up in his face. Those that care about building a more united country, regardless of their party allegiance, should hope that Jeir Starmer steers the Labour Party back to mainstream values – with a focus on practically solving cultural and social problems (as well as economic ones). It’ll make for a more competitive electoral environment, but surely a happier place.