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Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell

American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author
Thomas Sowell
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American economist, social theorist, political philosopher and author
Is Economist Professor Educator Journalist
From United States of America
Type Academia Finance Journalism
Gender male
Birth 30 June 1930, Gastonia, Gaston County, North Carolina, USA
Age: 90 years
Star sign CancerCancer
Harvard University
Howard University
University of Chicago
Columbia University
National Humanities Medal 2002
Francis Boyer Award 1990
The details


Thomas Sowell (/sl/; born June 30, 1930) is an American economist and social theorist who is currently a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Sowell was born in North Carolina but grew up in Harlem, New York. He dropped out of Stuyvesant High School and served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He received a bachelor's degree, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1958 and a master's degree from Columbia University in 1959. In 1968, he earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.

Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked for think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He writes from a libertarian conservative perspective, advocating supply-side economics. Sowell has written more than thirty books (a number of which have been reprinted in revised editions), and his work has been widely anthologized. He is a National Humanities Medal recipient for innovative scholarship which incorporated history, economics and political science.

Early life and education

Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, near the border with South Carolina. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother, a housemaid, already had four children. A great-aunt and her two grown daughters adopted Sowell and raised him. In his autobiography, A Personal Odyssey, Sowell wrote that his childhood encounters with white people were so limited that he did not know that blond was a hair color. When Sowell was nine, his family moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Harlem, New York City, as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North for greater opportunities. He qualified for Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious academic high school in New York City; he was the first in his family to study beyond the sixth grade. However, he was forced to drop out at age 17 because of financial difficulties and problems in his home.

Sowell held a number of positions, including one at a machine shop and another as a delivery man for Western Union, and he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. He was drafted into the military in 1951, during the Korean War, and was assigned to the United States Marine Corps. Because of his experience in photography, Sowell became a Marine Corps photographer.

Education and career

After his discharge, Sowell worked a civil service job in Washington, DC, and attended night classes at Howard University, a historically black college. His high scores on the College Board exams and recommendations by two professors helped him gain admission to Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He earned a Master's degree from Columbia University the following year.

Sowell has said that he was a Marxist "during the decade of my 20s"; one of his earliest professional publications was a sympathetic examination of Marxist thought vs. Marxist–Leninist practice. His experience working as a federal government intern during the summer of 1960 caused him to reject Marxian economics in favor of free market economic theory. During his work, Sowell discovered an association between the rise of mandated minimum wages for workers in the sugar industry of Puerto Rico and the rise of unemployment in that industry. Studying the patterns led Sowell to theorize that the government employees who administered the minimum wage law cared more about their own jobs than the plight of the poor.

Sowell received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in economics from the University of Chicago in 1968. His dissertation was titled Say's Law and the General Glut Controversy. Sowell had initially chosen Columbia University to study under George Stigler (who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Economics). When he learned that Stigler had moved to the University of Chicago, he followed him there.

From 1965 to 1969, Sowell was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. Writing thirty years later about the 1969 "violent" takeover by black Cornell students of Willard Straight Hall, Sowell characterized the students as "hoodlums" with "serious academic problems [and] admitted under lower academic standards" and noted "it so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca."

Sowell has taught economics at Howard University, Rutgers, Cornell, Brandeis University, Amherst College, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1980, he has been a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he holds a fellowship named after Rose and Milton Friedman, his mentor. In addition, Sowell appeared several times on William F. Buckley Jr.'s show Firing Line, during which he discussed the economics of race and privatization.

In 1987, Sowell testified in favor of federal appeals court judge Robert Bork during the hearings for Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his testimony, Sowell said that Bork was "the most highly qualified nominee of this generation" and that what he viewed as judicial activism, a concept that Bork opposed as a self-described originalist and textualist, "has not been beneficial to minorities."

In a review of a 1987 book, Larry D. Nachman in Commentary magazine described Sowell as a leading representative of the Chicago school of economics.


Sowell is both a syndicated columnist whose column was distributed by Creators Syndicate. Themes of Sowell's writing range from social policy on race, ethnic groups, education and decision-making, to classical and Marxian economics, to the problems of children perceived as having disabilities.

While often described as a black conservative, he prefers not to be labeled, having stated, "I prefer not to have labels, but I suspect that 'libertarian' would suit me better than many others, although I disagree with the libertarian movement on a number of things". He primarily writes on economic subjects, generally advocating a free market approach to capitalism. Sowell opposes the Federal Reserve, arguing that it has been unsuccessful in preventing economic depressions and limiting inflation.

Sowell also writes on racial topics and is a critic of affirmative action and race-based quotas. On the topic of affirmative action, Sowell has stated:

One of the few policies that can be said to harm virtually every group in a different way… Obviously, whites and Asians lose out when you have preferential admission for black students or Hispanic students—but blacks and Hispanics lose out because what typically happens is the students who have all the credentials to succeed in college are admitted to colleges where the standards are so much higher that they fail.

He takes strong issue with the notion of government as a helper or savior of minorities, arguing that the historical record shows quite the opposite.

Sowell occasionally writes on the subject of gun control, about which he has stated: "One can cherry-pick the factual studies, or cite some studies that have subsequently been discredited, but the great bulk of the studies show that gun control laws do not in fact control guns. On net balance, they do not save lives, but cost lives."

Books on economics

Sowell has also written a trilogy of books on ideologies and political positions, including A Conflict of Visions, where he speaks about the origins of political strife; The Vision of the Anointed, where he compares the conservative/libertarian and liberal/progressive worldviews; and The Quest for Cosmic Justice, where, as in many of his other writings, he outlines his thesis of the need for intellectuals, politicians and leaders to fix and perfect the world in utopian, and ultimately he posits, disastrous fashions. Separate from the trilogy, but also in discussion of the subject, he wrote Intellectuals and Society, in which, building on his earlier work, he discusses what he argues to be the blind hubris and follies of intellectuals in a variety of areas.

His book Knowledge and Decisions, a winner of the 1980 Law and Economics centre Prize, was heralded as a "landmark work" and selected for this prize "because of its cogent contribution to our understanding of the differences between the market process and the process of government." In announcing the award, the centre acclaimed Sowell, whose "contribution to our understanding of the process of regulation alone would make the book important, but in reemphasizing the diversity and efficiency that the market makes possible, [his] work goes deeper and becomes even more significant." Friedrich Hayek wrote: "In a wholly original manner [Sowell] succeeds in translating abstract and theoretical argument into highly concrete and realistic discussion of the central problems of contemporary economic policy."

Sowell challenges the notion that black progress is due to progressive government programs or policies, in The Economics and Politics of Race (1983), Ethnic America (1981), Affirmative Action Around the World (2004), and other books. He claims that many problems identified with blacks in modern society are not unique, either in terms of American ethnic groups, or in terms of a rural proletariat struggling with disruption as it became urbanized, as discussed in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005).

In Affirmative Action Around the World Sowell holds that affirmative action covers most of the American population, particularly women, and has long since ceased to favor blacks.

Sowell described his serious study of Karl Marx in his autobiography. He opposes Marxism, providing a critique in his book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985).

Sowell also favors decriminalization of all drugs.

Books on other subjects

In Intellectuals and Race (2013), Sowell argues that intelligence quotient (IQ) gaps are hardly startling or unusual between, or within, ethnic groups. He notes that the roughly 15-point gap in contemporary black–white IQ scores is similar to that between the national average and the scores of certain ethnic white groups in years past, in periods when the nation was absorbing new immigrants.

Sowell wrote The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, a follow-up to his Late-Talking Children, discussing a condition he termed Einstein syndrome. This book investigates the phenomenon of late-talking children, frequently misdiagnosed with autism or pervasive developmental disorder. He includes the research of Stephen Camarata and Steven Pinker, among others, in this overview of a poorly understood developmental trait. It is a trait which he says affected many historical figures. He discusses late-talkers who developed prominent careers, such as physicists Albert Einstein, Edward Teller and Richard Feynman; mathematician Julia Robinson; and musicians Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann. He makes the case for the theory that some children develop unevenly (asynchronous development) for a period in childhood due to rapid and extraordinary development in the analytical functions of the brain. This may temporarily "rob resources" from neighboring functions such as language development. Sowell disagrees with Simon Baron-Cohen's speculation that Einstein may have had Asperger syndrome.


Sowell had a nationally syndicated column distributed by Creators Syndicate that was published in Forbes magazine, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The New York Post and other major newspapers, as well as online on websites such as RealClearPolitics, Townhall, WorldNetDaily, and the Jewish World Review.

Sowell comments on current issues, which include liberal media bias; judicial activism (while defending originalism); intact dilation and extraction (commonly known as, and described in U.S. federal law as, partial-birth abortion); the minimum wage; universal health care; the tension between government policies, programs, and protections and familial autonomy; affirmative action; government bureaucracy; gun control; militancy in U.S. foreign policy; the U.S. war on drugs, and multiculturalism.

In a Townhall editorial, "The Bush Legacy", Sowell assessed President George W. Bush as "a mixed bag", but "an honorable man."

Sowell was strongly critical of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and officially endorsed Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries in a February article. However, he indicated that he would vote against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the general election, due to fears about the appointments Clinton would possibly make to the Supreme Court.

Sowell announced the end of his syndicated column on December 27, 2016. He wrote that, at age 86, "the question is not why I am quitting, but why I kept at it so long", and cited a desire to focus on his photography hobby.



Classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives of different disciplines have received Sowell's work positively. Among these, he has been noted for originality, great depth and breadth, clarity of expression, and thoroughness of research.

Sowell's publications have been received positively by economists Steven Plaut and Abigail Thernstrom; political scientist Charles Murray; psychologists Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt; Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit; Jay Nordlinger, Senior Editor of National Review; theater critic and political commentator Kevin D. Williamson; Walter E. Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University; publishing executive Steve Forbes; and R. Bastiat, Economics Editor of the now-defunct web publication, Iconoclast.ca.


Critics such as Hampton University economist Bernadette Chachere, Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson, social scientist Richard Coughlin, Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford, and Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Pearlstein have been critical of his work. Criticisms include lack of citations in some works, failure to explain a 70% difference between the earnings of whites and non-whites in an article, failure to take into account discrimination against women at work, poor methodology, and downplaying racism while caricaturing and then attacking liberal theories.

Legacy and honors

In 1982, Sowell won the Mencken Award for Best Book for Ethnic America: A History from the Free Press Association. In 1990, Sowell won the Francis Boyer Award, presented by the American Enterprise Institute. In 1998, he received the Sydney Hook Award from the National Association of Scholars. In 2002, Sowell was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush for prolific scholarship melding history, economics, and political science. In 2003, he was awarded the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement. In 2004, he was given Laissez Faire Books' Lysander Spooner Award for his book Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One. In 2008, getAbstract awarded his book Economic Facts and Fallacies its International Book Award.

Political views

Two weeks before the 2016 election, Sowell urged voters to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. In 2018, when asked on his thoughts of Trump's presidency, Sowell replied "I think he's better than the previous president."

In March 2019, Sowell commented on the public's response to mainstream media's allegations that Trump was a "racist": "What's tragic is that there's so many people out there who simply respond to words rather than ask themselves "Is what this person says true? How can I check it?" And so on." One month later, Sowell again defended Trump against media charges of "racism", stating: "I've seen no hard evidence. And, unfortunately, we’re living in a time where no one expects hard evidence. You just repeat some familiar words and people will react pretty much the way Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to react to certain sounds."

Personal life

Previously married to Alma Jean Parr from 1964 to 1975, Sowell married Mary Ash in 1981. He has two children, John and Lorraine.

In 2007, Sowell commented that modern television talk shows did not match the quality of David Susskind's Open End or The University of Chicago Roundtable and that Meet the Press moderated by Tim Russert was unlike the shows moderated by Lawrence Spivak or Bill Monroe. Sowell is also known for his disdain of self-promotion.

Career highlights

  • Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, September 1980–present
  • Professor of Economics, UCLA, July 1974 – June 1980
  • Visiting Professor of Economics, Amherst College, September–December 1977
  • Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, April–August 1977
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, July 1976 – March 1977
  • Project Director, The Urban Institute, August 1972 – July 1974
  • Associate Professor of Economics, UCLA, September 1970 – June 1972
  • Associate Professor of Economics, Brandeis University, September 1969 – June 1970
  • Assistant Professor of Economics, Cornell University, September 1965 – August 1969
  • Economic Analyst, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., June 1964 – August 1965
  • Lecturer in Economics, Howard University, September 1963 – June 1964
  • Instructor in Economics, Douglass College, Rutgers University, September 1962 – June 1963
  • Labor Economist, U.S. Department of Labor, June 1961 – August 1962


  • Sowell, Thomas (1971), Economics: Analysis and Issues, Scott, Foresman & Co.
  • ——— (1972), Say's Law: A Historical Analysis, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-04166-7.
  • ——— (1975), Race and Economics, David McKay Co, ISBN 978-0-679-30262-9.
  • 1980. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-03736-0
  • 1981. Pink and Brown People and Other Controversial Essays. Hoover Press, ISBN 0-817-97532-2
  • 1981. Markets and Minorities. Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-04399-2
  • 1981. Ethnic America: A History. Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02074-7
  • 1983. The Economics and Politics of Race. William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-01891-2
  • 1984. Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-03113-7
  • 1985. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. Quill, ISBN 0-688-06426-4
  • 1986. Education: Assumptions Versus History. Hoover Press, ISBN 0-8179-8112-8
  • 1987. Compassion Versus Guilt and Other Essays. William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-07114-7
  • 1987. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. William Morrow, ISBN 0-688-06912-6
  • 1990. Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, ISBN 0-688-08599-7
  • 1993. Inside American Education, ISBN 0-7432-5408-2
  • 1993. Is Reality Optional?, Hoover, ISBN 978-0-8179-9262-0
  • 1995. Race and Culture: A World View. Description & chapter previews. ISBN 0-465-06796-4
  • 1995. The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy. Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-08995-X
  • 1996. Migrations and Cultures: A World View, ISBN 0-465-04589-8 OCLC 41748039
  • 1998. Conquests and Cultures: An International History, ISBN 0-465-01400-3
  • 1998. Late-Talking Children, ISBN 0465038352
  • 1999. Barbarians Inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays, ISBN 0-8179-9582-X
  • 1999. The Quest for Cosmic Justice, ISBN 0-684-86463-0
  • 2000. A Personal Odyssey, ISBN 0-684-86465-7
  • 2002. Controversial Essays, Hoover, ISBN 0-8179-2992-4
  • 2002. The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, ISBN 0-465-08141-X
  • 2003. Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, ISBN 0-465-08143-6
  • 2004. Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, revised and expanded ed. Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-08145-2 (1st ed. 2000)
  • Sowell, Thomas (2004). Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10775-3.
  • ——— (2005). Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books. ISBN 978-1-59403-086-4.
  • ——— (2006). On Classical Economics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12606-8.
  • ——— (2006). Ever Wonder Why? And Other Controversial Essays. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press. ISBN 978-0-8179-4752-1.
  • ——— (2007). A Man of Letters. San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books. ISBN 978-1-59403-196-0.
  • ——— (2007). Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00260-3. OCLC 76897806.
  • ——— (2007). Economic Facts and Fallacies. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00349-5.
  • ——— (2008). Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One (2nd ed.). Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00345-7. OCLC 260206351.
  • ——— (2009). The Housing Boom and Bust. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01880-2.
  • ——— (2010). Intellectuals and Society. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01948-9.
  • ——— (2010). Dismantling America. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02251-9.
  • ——— (2010). Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02252-6.
  • ——— (2011). The Thomas Sowell Reader. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02250-2.
  • ——— (2013). Intellectuals and Race. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-05872-3.
  • ——— (2014). Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (5th ed.). New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-06073-3. OCLC 2013.
  • ——— (2015). Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective.
  • ——— (2016). Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective (2nd ed.). ISBN 978-0-465-09676-3.
  • ——— (2018). Discrimination and Disparities. ISBN 978-1-541-64560-8.
  • ——— (2019). Discrimination and Disparities: Revised, Enlarged ed. ISBN 978-1-541-64563-9.
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 25 Apr 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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