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.