Sowell was born in North Carolina and grew up in Harlem. As with many others in his neighborhood, he left home early and did not finish high school. The next few years were difficult ones, but eventually he joined the Marine Corps and became a photographer in the Korean War. After leaving the service, Sowell entered Harvard University, worked a part-time job as a photographer and studied the science that would become his passion and profession: economics.
After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University (1958), he went on to receive his master’s in economics from Columbia University (1959) and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago (1968).
In the early ’60s, Sowell held jobs as an economist with the Department of Labor and AT&T, but his real interest was in teaching and scholarship. In 1965, at Cornell University, he began the first of many professorships. His other teaching assignments included Rutgers University, Amherst College, Brandeis University and the University of California at Los Angeles, where he taught in the early ’70s and also from 1984 to 1989.
Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His many books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Moreover, much of his writing is considered ground-breaking work that will outlive the great majority of scholarship done today.
Though Sowell had been a regular contributor to newspapers in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he says did not begin his career as a newspaper columnist until 1984. George F. Will’s writing, said Sowell, proved to him that someone could say something of substance in so short a space. Sowell said he enjoys writing for the general public because it enables him to address the heart of issues without the smoke and mirrors that so often accompany academic writing.
In 1990, he won the prestigious Francis Boyer Award, presented by The American Enterprise Institute. Currently Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, CA.
His writing is always strongly in favor of free-market economic policy and a libertarian social policy.
Books by Thomas Sowell include:
Choosing A College
Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?
Classical Economics Reconsidered
Compassion Versus Guilt
A Conflict of Visions
Education: Assumptions Versus History
The Economics and Politics of Race
Inside American Education
Is Reality Optional?
Knowledge and Decisions
Migrations and Culture: A World View
Race and Culture: A World View
Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis
The Vision of the Anointed
“Freedom…refer[s] to a social relationship among people — namely, the absence of force as a prospective instrument of decision making. Freedom is reduced whenever a decision is made under threat of force, whether or not force actually materializes or is evident in retrospect.”
“Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days.”
“No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: ‘But what would you replace it with?’ When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?”
“What is history but the story of how politicians have squandered the blood and treasure of the human race.”
“Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what has worked with what sounded good. In area after area — crime, education, housing, race relations — the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.”
“Implicit in the activist conception of government is the assumption that you can take the good things in a complex system for granted, and just improve the things that are not so good. What is lacking in this conception is any sense that a society, an institution or even a single human being, is an intricate system of fragile inter-relationships, whose complexities are little understood and easily destabilized.
“What is ominous is the ease with which some people go from saying that they don’t like something to saying that the government should forbid it. When you go down that road, don’t expect freedom to survive very long.”
“The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer’s money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family — which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions — began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’”
“It is precisely those things which belong to ‘the people’ which have historically been despoiled — wild creatures, the air and waterways being notable examples. This goes to the heart of why property rights are socially important in the first place. Property rights mean self-interested monitors. No owned creatures are in danger of extinction. No owned forests are in danger of being leveled. No one kills the goose that lays the golden egg when it is his goose.”
“What is politically defined as economic ‘planning’ is the forcible superseding of other people’s plans by government officials.”
“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”