Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World

“There are only two ways of telling the complete truth--anonymously and posthumously.”

Film follows Thomas Sowell's journey from humble beginnings to the Hoover Institution, becoming one of our era's most controversial economists, political philosophers, and prolific authors.

Thomas Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, on June 30, 1930. His father died before he was born, and his mother died in childbirth while Sowell was a young boy. He was raised by his great aunt and her two adult daughters without electricity, central heat, or hot water. At the age of nine, they moved to Harlem.

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”

Although his relatives lacked formal education, they invested in the development of his prodigious intellect. “Nobody in that family had graduated from high school, and most had not graduated from grade school,” he said. “But they were interested in education, and they were interested in me.”

They and a family friend taught him the importance of education. His friend took Sowell as a young child to the Harlem Public Library and taught him the joy of reading. “At some point, I would have learned what a public library was, but by then it would have been too late,” Sowell said.

His education continued at Harvard (bachelor’s), Columbia (master’s), and finally at the University of Chicago (Ph.D. in economics), where he began as a Marxist. Oddly enough, it was not the tutelage of University of Chicago giants such as Milton Friedman and George Stigler that led Sowell to shed his leftism. Instead, it was his experience as an intern at the United States Department of Labor.

“There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
Sowell clashed with black militants during this career as an academic in the 1960s, confounding them when they learned he shared neither their grievances nor their demands for greater government intervention in their lives. Their admission to elite universities where they could not thrive, rather than second-tier schools for which they would have been well suited, showed Sowell the unintended consequences of affirmative action. Sowell discovered that the welfare state had decimated the black family, public schools had favored teachers’ unions over black students, quotas had mismatched black scholars with the best secondary educational opportunities, and minimum wage hikes dried up potential sources of employment for young black people. The resultant lack of human capital created a panoply of social pathologies. Economic freedom and opportunity, he concluded, provided the best tools for the black community – or any community – to rise out of poverty.
“It’s amazing how much panic one honest man can spread among a multitude of hypocrites. ”
Sowell left the classroom, but he never stopped teaching. He has authored more than 30 books, written a nationally syndicated newspaper column (until December 2016), and appeared in countless TV and radio interviews. He’s written on topics as diverse as education, wages, federal policy, and the phenomenon of children who begin to speak later in life.

Sowell has produced more, and more substantive, books since turning 80 than many academics produce in a lifetime.

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”
Disproving the notion that all racial disparities derive from racism – the central thesis of critical race theory – has been perhaps Sowell’s most explosive, and most valuable, undertaking.
Sowell “can be a contrarian,” says his fellow Hoover Institution intellectual Victor Davis Hanson. He “gravitates” toward “areas that are unpopular, or they’re plagued by false knowledge or misconceptions.” When Sowell’s insights puncture popular opinion, “the results tend to bother people,” Hanson says, yet Sowell remains “dispassionate.”

“Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and highly educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important. Some confuse that feeling with idealism.”

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