June 30, 2022
A Marxist in his youth, Sowell began to suspect demand curves sloped downward while working as an intern for the federal government. The rest is history. A quarter century later Sowell would publish his devastating critique of Marxism.
He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago where George Stigler—famous for being a stickler with graduate students—was his chair. You can read Sowell’s recollections of his great teacher here.
Sowell eschewed a traditional academic career, opting instead to write book after book. Who can doubt we are all the richer for that decision?
To the general public, he is rightfully known as a master communicator of basic economics and in particular the application of economics to race and discrimination. His books on those topics artfully straddle the divide between laymen and professional economist, and while all scholars can read them with tremendous profit, no intelligent reader will be left behind due to the piercing clarity of Sowell’s prose.
For his deepest economic contribution, see his Knowledge and Decisions. In it, he applies and extends Hayek’s classic 1945 paper—one of the most cited papers in the “American Economic Review”—on the use of knowledge in society.
Yet, no one reading Knowledge and Decisions can doubt that Sowell is far more than economist and is nothing short of a wide-ranging social theorist. For his two best examples, see his classic A Conflict of Visions and his more recent Intellectuals and Society. For a true taste of his range, I’ve heard his Late-Talking Children recommended, though I can’t speak to that one personally (nor would I have the expertise to evaluate it).
Amazingly, the books I mention here only scratch the surface of Sowell’s prodigious output. Here’s Wikipedia’s list of (just) his books (not papers). Note that that he published his most recent book at age 90:
1971. Economics: Analysis and Issues. Scott Foresman & Co.
1987. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles . William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-06912-6 .
2004. Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press . ISBN 978-0-300-10775-3 .
2010. Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. ISBN 978-0-465-02252-6.
2014. Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy (5th ed.). New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-06073-3.
Even when I disagree with Sowell, I’m forced to reexamine deeply held beliefs. The sheer clarity of Sowell’s mind jumps off every page, and though he is known for being repetitious, I see that as a feature, not a bug. Herbert Spencer (supposedly) said that “it takes varied iterations to force alien concepts on reluctant minds.”
When it comes to the power and beauty of economic reasoning, there are very few iterators better than Thomas Sowell.