“I was still a Marxist after taking Milton Friedman’s course [at the University of Chicago],” says free market economist and social critic Thomas Sowell. “One summer in the government was enough to let me say government is really not the answer.”
Known for provocative and best-selling books such as Knowledge and Decisions, A Conflict of Visions, and last year’s Charter Schools and Their Enemies, the internationally renowned scholar is the subject of a new documentary and biography, both authored by Jason L. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist. Beyond the breadth and depth of his interests, what sets Sowell apart is that he “puts truth above popularity and doesn’t concern himself with being politically correct,” Riley tells Reason‘s Nick Gillespie. “It’s an adherence to empiricism, to facts and logic and putting that ahead of theory. [Sowell] is much more interested in how an idea has panned out…rather than simply what the intent is.”
Among Sowell’s chief insights are the realizations that there are no perfect solutions, only tradeoffs, and that information, knowledge, and wisdom are dispersed throughout society, often in unarticulated ways that experts and elitists ignore. As Sowell wrote in his memoir, growing up poor and segregated during the Depression, he had “daily contact with people who were neither well-educated nor particularly genteel, but who had practical wisdom far beyond what I had,” which gave him “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.”
At age 90, Sowell is still writing and publishing. His greatest scholarship may be behind him, but his body of work will continue to have a profound impact on our understanding of the world long after he’s gone.
Note the mention of Friedman, who tried to get on the faculty of UW–Madison, but ran into the anti-Semitism of the progressives of the economics faculty.