First published in Forbes Magazine, 1987
THE MAN FROM THE White House was stunned. He had telephoned to offer Thomas Sowell nothing less than a Cabinet post in the new Reagan Administration. And Sowell, an economist and senior fellow of the California-based Hoover Institution, had hung up the phone while President Reagan's man was in midsentence.
Hoover Institution Director Glenn Campbell was unsurprised and unsympathetic. If the recruiter had checked with him, as had been suggested, he could have warned him not to start out telling Sowell that he was to be Reagan's first black Cabinet choice. "There was nothing better calculated to send Tom's hypertension up 50 points,' he says.
Sowell, now 57, declines to confirm the story. "I'm a much more courteous person than that,' he says with a crocodile smile. A long succession of foes, friends and mere passersby have bite marks and missing limbs that say otherwise. Tom Sowell notoriously does not suffer fools gladly—and his definition of foolishness is very wide.
"The word "genius' is thrown around so much that it's becoming meaningless,' says Milton Friedman, "but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.' Certainly Sowell's career—up from segregated grade school in North Carolina via Harlem and Marxism to Harvard, Columbia and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago—has been an exceptional accomplishment. Unlike many of today's black leaders, Sowell actually grew up in a ghetto, a fact he never hesitates to point out in his periodic bloodcurdling battles with self-appointed spokesmen for his community. He succeeded in entering New York's elite Stuyvesant High School, but dropped out, got into trouble with the police, worked at menial jobs and returned to full-time education only some ten years later, thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps and the GI Bill.
Sowell has more than made up for lost time. He has published book-length works at the killing pace of almost one a year since 1971, as well as a mass of scholarly articles in academic publications both well-known and unknown and a considerable amount of popular journalism, now including a weekly syndicated column where he can indulge his literary and satirical gifts.
Sowell's output has range as well as volume. He began as a historian of economic thought, and his 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, is a more sweeping return to intellectual history. It attempts to make an impartial case that many political and social disputes are the logical consequence of differing conceptions of how the world works.
But Sowell has also written extensively on education, on law and on the controversy about the relationship between race and intelligence. (Here, characteristically, he disagrees with both sides. He argues that an ethnic group's IQ scores are primarily determined by its environment, not heredity, and rise as conditions improve. But, nevertheless, he insists that IQ tests do usefully predict the likelihood of an individual's academic success).
Sowell's best-known work, however, is still probably in the field of race and economics. It has turned him into a pariah. In essence, he argues that in the years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act the courts and government bureaucracies have sent public policy in a new direction that is fundamentally misconceived.
The courts have done this by inverting the color-blind dispensations of the Civil Rights Act, and the federal bureaucracy by overinterpreting the vague provisions of Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order 11246 covering government hiring. The result has been to make the law not more color-blind but simply color-conscious in a different direction. Instead of discriminating against minorities, the law now discriminates against the majority. Government-mandated quotas have been imposed upon ever wider areas of U.S. life.
Sowell has attacked the logic-chopping involved as an example of the decay of the rule of law—the subversion of clearly established guidelines by arbitrary judicial fiat. In his 1980 book Knowledge and Decisions, regarded by Friedman and other economists as his single most important theoretical contribution to their discipline, Sowell argued that "civilization is an enormous device for economizing on knowledge,' but that such institutional factors as increased uncertainty about the law were interfering with the flow of knowledge needed to make decisions—and thus generally gumming up the works.
But Sowell's main criticism is more specific. He totally rejects the main premise of what he calls "the Civil Rights vision': that statistical disparities in society are necessarily caused by racial discrimination, and that government action is the only way to correct the situation.
Sowell's arguments against this proposition are ingenious and incisive. Human groups simply do not arrange themselves in proportionate ways, he points out. Sometimes the differences are attributable to additional factors lurking in wait for unwary researchers: When the median age of Jews is 46 and that of Puerto Ricans only 18—as was the case in the 1970 U.S. census—a higher proportion of the former than the latter will be doctors. Other differences are attributable to the astonishing tenacity of cultural traditions: Irish-descended Americans suffer from alcoholic psychosis 50 times more frequently than American Jews.
And some differences have no particular explanation at all. Black major league baseball players hit home runs more frequently than whites, and much more frequently than Hispanics. Where's the discrimination? Should government take action against it?
Sowell never denies that racism exists. But he questions how damaging racism can be, particularly when not government-enforced. Although long subject to legal disabilities and to prejudice, Chinese-Americans now out-earn white Americans, exactly as Chinese communities in other countries outperform the natives, despite discrimination that is often still government-backed, as in Malaysia. Even more telling, West Indian immigrants to the U.S. and their descendants consistently earn as much as or more than the national average, although they are physically indistinguishable from other American blacks.
In short, racism has not really held these people back. Far more important than discrimination in determining an ethnic group's socioeconomic status, Sowell concludes, are its own characteristics.
These characteristics constitute a group's social capital. They are built slowly and painfully over time. In the 19th century, for example, Irish ghettos displayed much of the social pathology of today's black ghettos. This problem dissipated, partly because of what Sowell has described as the unrelenting struggle of the Catholic Church to improve the values and behavior of the Irish.
Sowell argues passionately that blacks have already made remarkable progress, coming from a position of even more complete degradation. As late as the turn of the century, more than half were illiterate. But their progress, he believes, was faster in the past than in the last 20 years, despite (and perhaps because of) the government's recent aid. By intervening, the courts and Congress may have actually slowed the process—just as Irish-Americans underperformed other 19th-century immigrant groups economically despite greater access to political patronage.
On an individual level, personal experience leads Sowell to think that attempts by elite colleges to meet racial quotas lead to a "mismatching,' whereby black students are plunged into high-pressure academic environments for which they lack the necessary years of specialized training. In the current academic climate, they are not flunked out but eased into some "soft' area like black studies. At a slower-paced institution they could have made the adjustment gradually and acquired a harder (and ultimately more valuable) skill, such as engineering.
On a general level, Sowell is more interested in the improvement by degrees of the black masses than in the government's efforts to shoehorn a few fortunate blacks into symbolic positions, which he argues is counter-productive anyway. For Sowell the salient events of the post-civil-rights era are not the greatly increased government programs but the collapsing black family structure, the rising teenage unemployment and pregnancy rates, and the declining school standards that he says have deprived his relatives still in the ghetto of even the slim chance he had.
This deterioration goes on even while vast sums are poured into poverty programs. "The amount necessary to lift every man, woman and child above the poverty line,' Sowell observes, "is one-third of what is in fact spent on poverty programs.' The money merely finances a lot of civil servants and increases the ghetto's culture of dependency.
Question: Is there any evidence that black political leaders in this country are beginning to accept more of your thinking?
Things haven't changed. As an economist, Sowell is not surprised that institutional self-interest prevents politicians and bureaucrats from considering his ideas. Others have cited the extreme intolerance, amounting almost to a McCarthyism of the left, that exists in most universities toward ideas that dissent from standard liberal doctrine. When not accused of being a "quisling' (by black columnist Carl T. Rowan), Sowell is simply ignored.
But other factors may limit Sowell's influence. He is a handsome man with podium charm, who gracefully offers to pay for his own lunch. But conversation rapidly reveals that he is intensely secretive and defensive. His incoming phone calls are screened by an answering machine. He goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal the location of his Hoover office, which has a false name on the door, although he is rarely there. He refuses to discuss anything remotely related to his personal life. But neither will he confirm his colleagues' belief that he has received death threats. He says he just likes privacy.
Beneath this crusty exterior, there appears to be a crusty interior. A whole Sowell apocrypha has developed about unreturned phone calls, broken appointments, snubbed students and browbeaten editors. Sowell once aborted a Time magazine story on one of his books by deciding the reporter had not read it and walking out of the interview. He reminisces about his Marine boot camp experiences at Parris Island with a relish that would have been a useful warning to the swathes of students he ruthlessly flunked while teaching at UCLA, Cornell and elsewhere.
Sowell supporters shrug this off. "Tom Sowell has every major prejudice in America going against him,' says Thomas Hazlett, an economist at UC-Davis and senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, which has sponsored several of Sowell's books. Not the least of these prejudices is that of the economics profession itself, now almost completely dominated by mathematicians who think Sowell's work is insufficiently "formal.' Translated, this means that although his work is closely reasoned and carefully footnoted, it is unmistakably written in English, not algebra.
Milton Friedman denounces this criticism of Sowell, saying that much modern economics is fixated on "methodology.' But Sowell once again is in the middle of a war.
Yet in the end, Sowell may know precisely what he's doing. In another connection he once wrote that "possibly cranks are necessary to lead the first suicide attacks on orthodoxy that enable those who come after to establish a bridgehead and win the victory.' Perhaps the bridgehead of reason he has established will ultimately help reopen debate on matters that are too important to be left to any orthodoxy, whether of the right or the left.
September 16, 2001